The ONS is in need of a shake-up
When I became a CEO some 13 years ago, I was taught one rule very quickly; hit your forecasts. Boards and bosses can be quite forgiving on many fronts, but if you don’t deliver the numbers without a really good reason, it quickly becomes a career terminating event.
So who is going to carry the can for the biggest miss in British economic history? The fact that the Office for National Statistics somehow lost £50bn down the back of the sofa and under-estimated the size of the British economy in 2021 by 1.7 per cent. The answer, I suspect is sadly no-one.
Two weeks on, everyone I speak to in the City is still marvelling at the scale of incompetence involved in getting these numbers so wrong. This has had real world consequences. The Bank of England relies on these figures when the MPC sets interest rates. As a result, the MPC was too slow to increase rates and lost control of inflation – with the result that people are now paying more. Meanwhile the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt relies on these figures when deciding how heavily to tax us, with the result we are all now paying more tax than we should be doing.
Finally the ONS’s previous, fictional, gloomy statistics were used as a stick to beat the Government with on a regular basis, once again on a completely false premise.
The biggest issue though is that it is increasingly difficult to trust any number that the ONS provides us with. Is our economy growing or shrinking? Don’t ask the ONS because they will provide one number… and then a completely different one in two years’ time when it no longer matters, sensibly published on a Friday afternoon when they hope no-one will notice.
So far, the excuses have been paper thin. We are told that it was very difficult to forecast during Covid. But other major economies seemed to manage considerably better.
During his year in office, Jeremy Hunt seems to have been doing all he can to appease the civil servants in the Treasury and his wide domain. But enough is surely enough. He should demand significant changes in the team, starting at the head. Instead of that I see that Sir Ian Diamond, the head of the ONS, was actually reappointed in the role only last March, so he is sitting pretty.
It must be time for the Treasury Select Committee to do something and roast him – it could be the making of its chair Harriet Baldwin since she has been largely anonymous since she took the post.
CBI renewal looks less and less likely
I wrote some months ago that the CBI would probably survive, due largely to establishment inertia rather than merit. No though I am not so sure, due to two factors. First, the story that they are having an emergency £3m fund-raising. Second, and more significantly, the progress that the British Chambers of Commerce is making in becoming the real UK voice of business.
Last week without much fanfare the BCC had the first meeting of its Business Council, attended by businesses such as Aviva, BP and IAG. It was significant enough that both Rachel Reeves and Michael Gove felt they needed to attend.
A few businesses left the CBI earlier this year because they were appalled by its apparently toxic culture. But many more will leave if they realise the BCC is more effective and energetic as a business lobby group – and also a great deal cheaper. If the BCC can deliver some real tangible wins from the Government and from Labour in the coming months, the CBI might find its next renewal season is even thinner than the last.
Bill Clinton’s Chief Strategist once said he wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market because that’s where the power lies. I have a more modest ambition after an extraordinary exchange this summer – I want to be reincarnated as a celebrity speaker so I can be rich.
I was booking a speaker for a client, someone fairly anonymous and barely in their thirties who may or may not have a book out next year. We agreed a reasonable fee (£5,000 plus expenses since you ask, not bad for a day’s work) and all was going well until their ‘agency’ intervened.
The fee then tripled and first class travel and a five star hotel insisted on. Then they produced more riders to the contract than Madonna – no publicity, no recordings, no Q&A, and my team was expected to do all the research – and essentially write the speech.
Needless to say we called it all off. But the agency’s behaviour suggests there are plenty of soft-headed organisations who agree to such ridiculous terms. What we need is the creation of EasySpeakers, an agency whose speakers don’t know very much and can’t speak, but are all jolly cheap.
Right on time
Once or twice in this life you need to get lucky. And my friend Jane Martinson has had her stroke of luck by writing a comprehensive history of the Barclay Brothers and having it ready for publication just as their business empire enters its death throes. It’s not out until next month (and some chapters may have needed a hasty rewrite) but I am thoroughly looking forward to it.
‘You May Never See Us Again’ – the story of the Barclay Brothers, by Jane Martinson. Published 19 October by Penguin