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Numbers that never add up

The head of the Government Statistical Service, Bill McLennan, is concerned that there is little public confidence in the official unemployment statistics. Controversy over continual changes to the definition of who is out of work has prompted an inquiryby the Royal Statistical Society.

Meanwhile, Virginia Bottomley's frequent recitations of health service performance figures are rewarded with a Gallup Poll that rates her as the most insincere of all of Britain's leading politicians.

The lack of public trust in the statistical data used by politicians has become a cause for serious concern. Ignorance of the statistician's craft has contributed to the malaise. Sometimes expressed as simplistic faith in numbers, it is also shown as vulgar contempt for statistical evidence. Such disdain can only nourish reliance on emotion and anecdote as the sustenance of political discourse.

If the root of the problem was the production of phoney statistics at political behest, it would be a scandal. But Mr McLennan has stoutly defended the professional integrity of government statisticians against accusations of political bias. Indeed, it was data gathered by its own statisticians that undermined the Government's dearly held theory of "trickle-down" from rich to poor.

The central problem is not inaccurate statistics, but their selective deployment by politicians. There is no reason why disagreement about the interpretation of statistics should boil over into rejection of their validity. But if this is to be avoided, greater openness must be introduced into all aspects of statistical presentation.

The current general scepticism about government figures could be relieved by a new draft Code of Practice drawn up by government statistics chiefs. Mr McLennan's sensible proposal to harmonise UK unemployment statistics in line with the International Labour Office standard should also be adopted by the Government. The public rightly expects that advice from the Head of the Government Statistical Service should be heeded.

The health of a modern state demands at the very least a minimum of information that all parties can accept as the basis for political argument. Without such reliable data debate will be impoverished and popular disillusionment with politics will increase. Politicians can no longer afford to have their figures dismissed as damned lies.