LETTERS : The use and abuse of statistics

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The Independent Online
From Mr Malcolm Wicks, MP Sir: Your series of articles on official statistics focuses on the abuse of data by the Government. Certainly this has been profound and has led many to Disraelian scepticism about official facts and figures. But it would be foolish to imagine that all this started in 1979. Rather, statistical manipulation is endemic to government and calls for some profound and radical thinking.

Government itself needs data for smooth administration, to assess input and output. And inevitably data is used by government to present itself in the best possible light.

But the Government is also responsible - or should be - for something very different. It is the custodian, the collector and the disseminator of statistics for the wider democracy. And in this role government - any government - cannot and should not be trusted. So what do we do?

In the early days of public broadcasting it was recognised that radio, and later television, should be removed from control by government. The British Broadcasting Corporation was established.

Since then the association between the BBC and government may not have been perfect and it has been at times a bumpy journey. But the BBC is rightly cherished for its independence in a way which would not be possible if Michael Howard as Home Secretary, say, was in charge of schedules, deciding news items, forecasting the weather and writing a script for a new series of The Prisoner.

If the independence of public radio and television is vital for a democracy, so too are solid statistics, decent data. Perhaps we need an independent British Statistical Council to oversee this area, with direct responsibility for, inter alia, the Central Statistical office, the publication of Social Trends and other key documents.

Then the collection and publication of data about employment, education, health, could be done in ways which serve the widest possible audience, including Parliament, the Government and other key bodies. Statistical significance demands a correlation between integrity and independence.

Yours faithfully, MALCOLM WICKS MP for Croyden North West (Lab)

House of Commons London, SW1

21 December