Leading Article: A Government that audits itself cannot expect credibility

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ON THE face of it, it seems a fine idea to publish a report that audits the Government's performance. One typical problem in the past has been that the trading of accusations between Opposition and Government has too often amounted to just that: an exchange of insults that leaves voters none the wiser as to where the truth lies.

In that respect, we should welcome any attempt to sum up the problems honestly. The end-of-term report published by the Government yesterday - and available at a Tesco supermarket near you, price pounds 2.99 - shows that, of 177 commitments made in the Labour Party manifesto, 90 have been met, 85 are under way, and two are yet to be timetabled. It all sounds very neutral, and all the more refreshing for that.

This would-be openness comes perilously close, however, to spinning on a grand scale. Every company report includes the official blessing of independent auditors. Without the key sentences from the auditors, any company report would be entirely worthless. Similarly, for a report by the Government to enjoy any credibility, it would need comments from independent experts who could be trusted to give a warts-and-all assessment of what the Government has done.

That is, however, just what the Government is too terrified to do. It is understandable. After all, no government will willingly put its head on the block if it believes that it may be slaughtered. The possibility that an independent expert could make scathing comments about some aspect of British policy is, from Downing Street's point of view, a risk too far.

None the less, if the Government spinners are not ready to go the whole self-critical hog, they make the whole project meaningless. Why produce a stylish brochure that is designed to show the unique honesty and straightforwardness of this Government, if the multicoloured gloss that is foisted upon us is itself unbelievable?

This report contains only selectively spun truths. The "key figures" section of the report quotes figures that demonstrate the Government's performance to be admirable in every regard: production up, government spending down, unemployment down, inflation down, and so on. So far, so admirable. Are we to believe, however, that the same figures will be selected in 12 months' time, even if the message is less comforting? The tone of the 88-page report is closer to that of an election leaflet than to an objective summary of achievements and difficulties. In those circumstances, would it not be more civil to offer the report to voters free, rather than asking them to shell out pounds 2.99 for the dubious privilege?

In itself, the measurement of performance is to be welcomed. For all the flaws of the health and education tables that have been introduced in recent years, they at least provide some help in negotiating a path through the statistical minefields. Methods of measurement remains constant so that annual changes can be recognised. Regional variations are demonstrated. Patterns and potential shortcomings can be established.

No voter can expect to learn from this report, however, where the Government's worst shortcomings lie. For that, we must still look to the media whom the Labour spinmeisters increasingly love to hate. The faults of the British press and broadcasters are many. But even the shakiest external analysis will have more credibility than a self-serving report whose main or only purpose is to show that all is well in Blairland.

One day, our political leaders must realise that those who live by the spin shall die by the spin. To dole out information straight is an admirable aim. To spin information, while pretending that it is being doled out straight, is worse than useless.