Tony Blair received a severe rebuke from the National Statistician yesterday for breaching the statistics code of practice by revealing a sudden fall in unemployment a day before the government figures were released.
Karen Dunnell, the statistician, wrote to Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary: "The reported comments clearly contravened the National Statistics Code of Practice. It is essential for the maintenance of the integrity of official statistics, and of public confidence in them, that the provisions of the code are complied with fully."
Sir Gus responded by writing: "I regret what has happened." He said he had discussed the issue with colleagues in the Prime Minister's Office who "are fully seized of the importance of complying with the National Statistics Code of Practice and have already put in place steps to tighten the procedures for handling statistics subject to the pre-release arrangements."
Ministers and Bank of England policymakers receive key statistics days before they are published, but are forbidden from revealing their contents as the data is market sensitive.
Professor David Rhind, the chairman of the Statistics Commission, the independent watchdog, welcomed both letters. Richard Aldritt, the Statistics Commissioner, said: "This is the first time the National Statistician has written publicly saying categorically a minister has contravened the code." He said new laws governing official statistics would soon be introduced.
Mr Blair's slip of the tongue at the Trades Union Congress also caused controversy because only the number of people claiming unemployment benefits was down - it fell by 3,900 in August from the previous month, the sharpest decline since January 2005, and July's rise was revised to a drop of 1,000. However, unemployment measured by the internationally recognised ILO measure climbed by 93,000 in the three months to July to touch 1.7 million, the highest level since January 2000, taking the unemployment rate to 5.5 per cent.
The difference between the two measures is caused in part by immigration, and because thousands of people on incapacity benefits who were previously classified as "economically inactive" are now being included in the ILO measure, while the "claimant count" includes only those claiming jobseekers' allowance.
The number of people employed in the public sector fell for the first time since mid-1998, dropping by 9,000 in the year to June to 5.84 million. That was mainly because of the flotation of the defence company QinetiQ and because Southeastern Trains was taken over from a government-backed operator by Go Ahead. But the number of civil servants has also fallen, by 12,000, with NHS employment rising at a slower rate than before. Meanwhile, private health operators and private schools continue to recruit more people.
Earnings growth including bonuses rose to 4.4 per cent in July, the highest rate since April 2005 but the figure was weaker than expected.