New statistics watchdog to 'name and shame' ministers who mislead

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The Independent Online

Ministers who misuse official statistics will in future be "named and shamed" by a new official statistics "watchdog".

Sir Michael Scholar, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), which is established today, told The Independent: "If a minister makes an announcement in relation to a department where the effect is to undermine official statistics, then we will publicly counter that. If we have to name and shame ministers, we will". He has pledged to restore faith in public data.

While the majority of official figures will still lie outside the direct control of the UKSA and, under it, the Office for National Statistics, the UKSA will have the right to "kitemark" the numbers that are collected and published by various Government departments. The withdrawal of a "kitemark" is designed to be a powerful signal about the untrustworthiness of such data.

Sir Michael says the UKSA will be examining areas such as migration, health and crime statistics first, as they have been identified as being of particular concern to the public. He also suggested that, given the scepticism surrounding official measures of price increases, there could be "a review of how inflation is measured. It might be desirable to introduce new measures of inflation or make clearer the purview of existing datasets", though this was a personal view.

The UKSA was set up with cross-party support under legislation passed last year, and Sir Michael was appointed its first chair last September. It describes itself as "an independent body, with powers and the obligation to promote, improve, and safeguard official statistics across the UK. Its aim is to rebuild public trust in Government statistics."

Such trust is at low levels. A recent survey showed just 36 per cent of people agreed that official figures were generally accurate and only one fifth felt that figures were compiled without political interference.

A European Union survey last year found that the UK had a lower percentage of the population trusting official statistics than any other EU country. Years, even decades, where statistics were officially "massaged" or "spun" have left a dire legacy. The frequent alterations to the unemployment figures during the 1980s, which almost always resulted in a downward adjustment, were an early example of the trend that has led to the creation of the UKSA.

Sir Michael believes the loss of confidence is "a long story" and admits that during his long career in Government as a civil servant (including stints at No 10, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Treasury), he had heard of ministers intervening, though he had "never personally" experienced it with the personalities he had worked closely with, including Margaret Thatcher and Peter Mandelson.

Sir Michael shrugs off claims that his independent position is compromised by his son Tom, a former chief of staff to the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and now at the Treasury and a director of the nationalised Northern Rock bank. "We're more likely to discuss the Test match score" than official numbers, he said.

However, the Royal Statistical Society has expressed some more fundamental concerns and has called on ministers "to give up or at least drastically cut the early access to official statistics that they grant themselves", which was reduced to 24 hours last year. Sir Michael has indicated he would like to see that privilege diminished further.

With his long-established connections in Whitehall and his continuing tenure as president of St John's College, Oxford, Sir Michael has been described as "The insider's insider" – which may even help him fight his corner. But his public commitment to his task is clear: "If you can't trust official statistics, you are in the dark, not knowing where you are or where you are going. We need to have good numbers – accurate and accessible, comprehensive and clear, and we need to be able to trust them."