Britain's Economic Numbers Aren't Telling the Full Story

  • Former BOE official Charlie Bean leading data review
  • Says service-sector, digital data are areas for improvement

Charlie Bean, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, wants to know what’s going on in the biggest part of the British economy.

Tasked with reviewing the standard of U.K. economic statistics, he said that improving data on services will be a focus of his work, as will examining the impact of globalization and technological advances. He’ll also try to get better insight into U.K. regions. Bean will release an interim report next month to coincide with the government’s Autumn statement.

Getting better information on services sectors, which make up about three quarters of GDP, is an ongoing issue, Bean told delegates at the Office for National Statistics’ Economic Forum in London. He pointed out that more detailed data is available on other parts of the economy that have shrunk in importance. Encapsulating and using digital data is also important, Bean said.

“You’ve continually got a moving target,” he said. “The granularity of the structure is always going to lag behind reality.”

Bean also said that Newport, a town in Wales with 3 percent of the population of London and the site of the headquarters of the ONS, has the opportunity to become a hub of economic expertise.

Newport Move

The location of the statistics office has come back in to focus after Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne asked Bean to undertake the wide-ranging review. In 2007, after Chancellor Gordon Brown ordered the statistics office to move out of London, the BOE expressed concern that the shift to Newport would prompt an exit of key staff and impinge on data quality.

Bean said while he was still thinking about the location of the institution and how that affected its ability to engage with users, it wasn’t necessarily the case that a move back to London would be his recommendation.

Instead, the former BOE official said there’s scope for Newport to become a “hot spot” for economics knowledge, in the same way that Exeter in the southwest is a meteorological center because it’s the home of the U.K. Met Office.

“Over time Newport will become a hub of concentration of expertise in statistical analysis,” Bean said. “It would be an analytic error to say that just because there was a cost involved in moving to Newport that the answer is to move back.”

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