Chris Grayling, the man lined up by David Cameron to be the next home secretary, has received a stinging rebuke for manipulating official statistics. Sir Michael Scholar, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, has warned him that the way he used figures for violent crime were "likely to mislead the public".
The humiliating slapdown adds to doubts about how credible the Conservatives are as a potential government, when they appear to be only three months away from taking office.
Earlier this week Mr Cameron was forced to "clarify" the extent to which an incoming Tory government would immediately cut public spending, admitting that there would not be "swingeing cuts".
Last month Mr Cameron admitted he had "messed up" as he tried to explain how a Tory government would reward marriage through the tax system. Now the Conservatives have handed Labour a major propaganda weapon, as it is officially confirmed that, at Mr Grayling's instigation, they have been giving an exaggerated picture of the spread of violent crime up and down the country.
The shadow Home Secretary ran into a similar storm of criticism last summer when he compared life in British inner cities to the popular American TV series The Wire, set in Baltimore, where the crime rate is far higher than anywhere in Britain. The latest gaffe has fuelled speculation among Tory MPs that Mr Cameron will appoint someone else to the job of home secretary if the party takes power this year.
Mr Grayling's office arranged for a press release to go out in every constituency in England and Wales, purporting to show that violent crime had risen sharply under Labour, as part of a campaign spearheaded by Mr Cameron about "broken Britain". But Mr Grayling had failed to take into account a more rigorous system for recording crime figures introduced by the Home Office in 2002. Instead of leaving it to the discretion of desk sergeants whether an incident should be recorded as a violent crime, police have been told they must always make a record of every complaint. As a result, official figures for violent crime leapt by more than a third in one year.
Mr Grayling has used comparison between the figures before and after the rule change to suggest that the Labour government has presided over a runaway rise in violent crime.
"I do not wish to become involved in political controversy but I must take issue with what you said about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics," Sir Michael wrote in a letter to Mr Grayling yesterday.
He enclosed a note setting the view of the UK Statistics Authority, which said: "It would not be appropriate for the Authority to seek to intervene in political debate directly. However, where we see that official statistics have been presented or quoted in a way that seems likely to mislead the public, we will publicly draw this to the attention of those involved."
Mr Grayling replied by promising to "take account of the request by the Statistics Authority, particularly with regard to the changes to recording practices made in 2002-03".
But he insisted that he would "continue to use recorded crime statistics, because they reflect an important reality; that the number of violent crimes reported to police stations, and particularly serious violent crimes, has increased substantially over the past decade, even taking into account any changes to data collection".
It is extremely rare for a public official to issue a warning of this kind to a politician of Mr Grayling's standing close to a general election – although Sir Michael issued a similar warning last June to the Equalities minister Harriet Harman, about exaggerating the pay gap between men and women.
Mr Grayling acquired a reputation for being highly effective in attacking Labour ministers when he was an up-and-coming Conservative MP but has made a series of errors since being elevated to the party's high command and has shown a less sure touch since he was promoted to one of the four most senior posts in the Shadow Cabinet.
His misuse of official crime figures, first exposed by the BBC's home affairs editor, Mark Easton, has been seized on by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson as a major gaffe that can be used against every Tory candidate at the forthcoming election.
Every prospective Labour candidate has been sent a draft letter to send to their Tory opponent, asking for an undertaking not to use "bogus statistics" in the coming campaign.
"David Cameron and Chris Grayling should apologise for continually misleading the British people about crime," Mr Johnson said yesterday. "They have plenty of form on this. In order to justify talking Britain down they have quoted dodgy statistics about schools and hospitals. Now it has been confirmed officially that they have continually misled the public about crime. Up and down the country Conservative candidates are using these dodgy statistics.
"They must stop doing this immediately and explain that since 1997 crime has gone down by 36 per cent and violent crime by 41 per cent. I wrote to David Cameron in November 2009 and January 2010 challenging him on his use of dodgy crime statistics. I trust he will now have the decency to reply."
Calamity Chris: Grayling’s gaffes
Last August, Chris Grayling made a headline-grabbing speech in which he likened life in Britain’s inner cities to that in Baltimore,Maryland, as portrayed in the acclaimed television series The Wire. “When The Wire comes to Britain’s streets, it is the poor who suffer most. It is the poor who are the ones who have borne the brunt of the surge in violence under this Government,” he said.
This drew angry rebukes from city leaders, including London’s Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, who described it as “absolute nonsense”, because crime levels are actually much lower in British inner cities than in Baltimore.
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, remarked: “The connection between The Wire and Chris Grayling’s grasp on the problems of modern Britain is that they are both fictional.”
Mr Grayling also almost ruined a political coup that David Cameron pulled off during last autumn’s Conservative Party conference, when the Tory leader announced he had taken on Sir Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, as a political adviser.
Asked for his reaction, in front of a television camera, Mr Grayling thought that Sir Richard had agreed to be Gordon Brown’s adviser, and rubbished the appointment as a “political gimmick”. He spent the rest of the day eating his words.