The Government was accused last night of delaying the publication of potentially embarrassing crime figures until after the general election, in contravention of its own rules.
The Youth Justice Board (YJB) told The Independent that statistics showing the number of crimes committed by under-18s would not be published until the autumn, nearly six months later than the normal publication date.
An official for the government agency said that the data was being delayed because of the looming election and the official "purdah" period, which prevents civil servants from releasing overtly party political information.
But official civil service rules state that "purdah" only begins when an election is called. Senior youth justice sources expressed surprise at the decision of the Government to use "purdah" as an excuse for a delay. They said the publication of crime statistics was not a political act and should not be covered by the "purdah" protocol. The Conservatives said that unless the information was published before the election, the public would be entitled to think that the Government had "something to hide".
The Independent understands that the youth crime figures are not the only document which has had publication delayed by the Government in the run-up to the election. A prominent academic, who asked not to be named, said he had submitted a report about crime figures to a Whitehall department but was told that it would not be published because of the proximity of the election.
Another report concerning the future of the YJB, by Dame Sue Street, had also been widely expected to be produced this week, but it too is yet to be published. Conservative sources claimed that the Home Office had been urging other agencies not to release controversial publications ahead of the election.
The issue of youth justice is a particularly contentious election topic. The Youth Justice Board report will reveal the number of crimes and types of offences committed by children in 2008-09. If it has risen significantly from the 278,000 committed in 2007-08 it will lead to claims that Labour has lost control of youth crime. The shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: "The general election has not been called yet. So it should be business as usual for government agencies. And if they refuse to publish key information like this then people are bound to think there's something to hide."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "The criminalisation of a generation of young people should be a source of shame to Labour.
"The Prime Minister may still have the unfair advantage of being able to pick the election date but the Government does not have the right to opt in and out of statistical publications. Things should be published, whether they are embarrassing or not, and people can make up their own mind at the ballot box."
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "This is bizarre. There is an election happening soon, but it hasn't been called yet and as far as I know no one has gone into purdah. The more informed we are, the more we can make good decisions. Crime and young people is always going to be a hot political issue, but politicians should not be afraid of the facts."
Another criminal justice academic added: "I find it hard to see why official statistics which come out annually shouldn't be published as normal. It should be straightforward reportage of government business.
"What would worry me is if there was any sense they had been leaned on because the statistics contained material that could be pounced on by opposition politicians."
The Conservatives are keen to put Labour's record on crime at the heart of their general election campaign. Youth offending will be a particular battle ground, not least because of the recent controversy surrounding Jon Venables, who, along with Robert Thompson, killed James Bulger when they were just 10 years old.
Venables's arrest last month has thrust the issue of child crime into the headlines. Some commentators have suggested that the allegations that he has committed other offences proves that rehabilitation for child criminals is not working, while others have suggested that he should never have been put on trial. The Children's Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, said the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales should be raised from 10 to 12, a move which, in retrospect, would have meant Venables and Thompson would never have been tried.
The latest YJB figures are from the 2007-08 financial year. They were released in March 2009. The YJB says that it has never had a provisional date for publishing the data, but only once in the past four years has the data been delayed beyond March. A spokeswoman said: "We do not publish the data on a specific month. The Workload data comes from 157 Youth Offending Teams from across England and Wales. The data is then collected by the YJB into different tables. We do not publish until we are certain the data is accurate and that there are no discrepancies."