Labour pledges facts and figures clean-up

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Labour would set up an independent arm's-length National Statistical Service to restore public faith in official statistics, Jack Straw, the party's home affairs spokesman, said yesterday.

The new body would operate on a similar basis to the National Audit Office, reporting, as the NAO does, principally to a committee of the House of Commons. Its head would be appointed jointly by the Prime Minister and the chairman of the committee, Mr Straw said.

"We have to have facts which the public can trust," he told a London conference organised by the think-tank Demos. "Democratic debate is disabled without them."

Despite the recent creation of the new Office for National Statistics and a new code of practice governing ministers' relations with it, "this does not go far enough", Mr Straw said.

The Government's endless redefinition of the unemployment count, disputes over the validity of National Health Service statistics and lack of data in other areas show there are insufficient safeguards against the temptation of politicians to manipulate public information to best effect, he said.

"The core of the problem goes back to the 1980 Rayner scrutiny of government which established the doctrine that the needs of government alone should determine the work of the government statistical service ... Instead, the purpose should be of public interest."

Mr Straw's announcement came as a leading academic warned that the Civil Service had "lost its policy skills" in its recent managerial revolution.

"We now seem to experience more public policy disasters than ever before," Sue Richards, Professor of Public Management at the University of Birmingham, told a conference in London on the future of the Civil Service.

The beef crisis, the poll tax, the arms-to-Iraq affair and the creation of the Child Support Agency were just some of the recent examples, she said.

The new "can do" approach had brought improvements in delivery and management, she said. But it had lost the policy skills, "including the skill of saying `no can do'". In the Home Office, experience of past failures and successes seemed no longer valued as policies were changed for political reasons. And "the Civil Service seems less able to say to a minister `Should we be doing this at all?'. Instead, it is all about delivery".

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