Statistics Board head aims to 'rebuild confidence'

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The Independent Online

The chair of the new independent Statistics Board, Sir Michael Scholar, has promised a "new start" to "rebuild public confidence" in official statistics.

The board will become operational next April. In the most far-reaching reform in decades, Sir Michael pledged all of the figures produced by the state – from hospital waiting lists and school league tables to crime and economic data – would be subject to an independent assessment of whether they offer an "accurate, comprehensive, and coherent picture", building on "established quality and integrity". It is essential, he added, that such a review be completely open and that he and his board should directly report to Parliament. "Without transparency, we'll have diminished strength."

The review will examine the 1,300 series of numbers produced by the state, some 1,000 of which are directly controlled by Government departments, rather than the Office for National Statistics. One remarkable change is that all figures will be announced via a "hub" controlled by the ONS, separating them from any "spin" from departmental press officers answering to their political masters.

Even more radically, Sir Michael seems keen for his Statistics Board to become the effective independent arbiter of whether departments have met their performance targets, treacherous terrain that has hitherto been avoided by official statisticians.

"One of the strengths [of the new arrangements] is that it will allow people to check objectively whether departments are meeting their promises and hitting their targets or not ... Government sets targets for its performance and there needs to be an independent audit of that. I believe it will be part of the board's work to enable Parliament and public to make judgements about these things". However he clearly regrets that the existing system of "pre-releasing" official statistics to ministers ahead of their opposition counterparts and other MPs has not yet been reformed, a matter of "intense controversy" to which he may return.

Sir Michael's well-honed Whitehall skills should be well suited to his new role. He has an impeccable establishment CV, including stints in Margaret Thatcher's private office, as permanent secretary at the DTI (during Peter Mandelson's troubled time there) and deputy secretary at the Treasury. Inevitably for such an establishment man, he is now president of St John's College, Oxford. He will spend three days a week on Statistics Board business for a salary of £150,000 per annum.

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