Health

Cuts proposal sparks row over General Lifestyle Survey

Drinking lager
Image caption The General Lifestyle Survey looks at drinking habits, along with a wealth of other indicators

Health experts have hit out after learning that a funding cut could mean the end of a key annual health survey.

The General Lifestyle Survey is carried out every year by the Office for National Statistics on behalf of a number of government departments.

It provides information on a wide variety of topics, including smoking and drinking habits across the UK.

But it has been proposed that NHS funding for the survey should be cut, which means it would end.

Each year, around 15,000 households are contacted and face-to-face interviews are carried out, questioning respondents on their smoking and drinking habits and their use of health services, as well as looking at the issues of housing, employment, education and income.

Once collated, the survey's results provide government departments with a valuable insight into the lives of UK residents.

The survey has been running almost continuously since 1971, enabling experts to spot emerging trends and cyclical patterns.

But now the NHS Information Centre has decided to axe its contribution of £300,000 that funds part of the work of the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

That would mean the end of the survey, according to the head of the UK Statistics Authority Sir Michael Scholar, who has written to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, urging him to reject the planned funding cut.

"Hypocrisy"

The threat to the future of the survey provoked an angry response from Professor Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said he was amazed such a valuable resource could be lost.

"This decision exposes the hypocrisy of a government that claims to promote public health yet enters into agreements with the food and alcohol industry that ignore the evidence on what really works - and now makes it impossible to know what the results of its misguided policies actually are."

Other public health experts say the data in the survey is critical to developing effective health policies and holding the government to account for its actions.

The final decision rests with the health secretary, who must decide whether to approve the NHS Information Centre's proposal.

Sir Michael Scholar said: "The ONS, who, following extensive consultation with the users of their statistics, have just completed their post-budget cuts business plan, have no funds available to make up this shortfall, without damaging their own vital economic and social statistics.

"The decision by the NHS Information Centre will, therefore, result in the immediate discontinuation of long-established National Statistics on smoking, drinking, health conditions and use of heath services."

Sir Michael also warns the decision breaks the government's own rules on consultation before such a cut is carried out.

And he says if the survey is lost, the ability of policy-makers to make informed decisions will be hit.

"The Statistics Authority is concerned that the abrupt discontinuation of a time series on topics as central to public policy as smoking prevalence and alcohol consumption will seriously undermine the UK's ability to monitor key trends affecting public health."

A statement from the Department of Health said no decisions have yet been taken and that discussions are still ongoing with the NHS Information Centre.

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