What they didn't want you to know : Disclosures

Muriel Nissel on a worrying social trend: censorship
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The Independent Online
It is 25 years since a new government publication brought together in one volume comprehensive statistics about the social life of the country. It was called Social Trends, and I was the original editor. This year, for the silver jubilee issue, I was commissioned to write a major review article. This article, written in close consultation with all the main editors who succeeded me, has been blatantly suppressed. It was made clear to me that the article would only be published if it were confined to a description of the original purposes set out in the 1970s compared with those of the editor today. But that would have left unrecorded important shifts in government attitudes to social statistics, without which a review of the official statistical serviceis seriously incomplete.

Social Trends set out to give some answers to the questions people started asking in the Sixties about how far economic progress was being reflected in improvements in the quality of life. There was at that time very little such information, and so the development of Social Trends during its early years went hand in hand with a determined drive to improve social statistics. It was also thought to be part of the democratic tradition that the civil service should make widely available relevant facts about the economy and society.

In 1979, after the Conservative victory in the General Election, there was a major change in ministerial attitudes. There were to be severe cuts in government expenditure and Sir Derek Rayner was asked to examine the Government Statistical Service. The review concluded that "... there is no more reason for government to act as universal provider in the statistical field than in any other". Moreover the Rayner team could find little or no specific use within government for Social Trends.

The publication survived, but with a revised editorial stressing the relevance of the material for government, and more closely arranged around departmental needs. The emphasis was more on Mr and Mrs Average and their families, rather than those who werevulnerable. There was less analysis by income group, region, social class or family type. Thus, the publication failed adequately to chart a fundamental trend of the decade: the growing inequality in incomes and the widening differences within the country.There was another, subtle, change. Any organisation facing cutbacks is liable to be cautious about sensitive information which may displease its superiors. Government statisticians were no exception; they screened more carefully material sent to otherdepartments and consulted their policy branches more readily. Although the autonomy of the editor of Social Trends in selecting material was unchanged, departments themselves had more control of what was made available.

And occasionally departments made changes, such as in the commentaries on unemployment statistics. But statisticians have high professional integrity and for the most part pressures, particularly those relating to health indicators, were withstood. The pressure should not have been brought in the first place.

In recent years attitudes have again shifted: much more information has been given in Social Trends on topics such as inequality, and government has encouraged wider availability of statistics. Indeed last year's volume opened with the statement that it was aimed at all sections of society.

Regrettably whatever the Government may say in print is not being followed in practice, as the suppression of my article underlines. Unless government is prepared to support a statistical service which publishes uncomfortable as well as comfortable factsa democratic society will not have confidence in it. It is perhaps now time to review the organisation and independence of the Government Statistical Service. People expect sound and reliable information free from government interference so that they can judge for themselves the impact of government policies without having it filtered through bureaucratic eyes. Why the article was censored remains a mystery. Looking over one's shoulder at what the boss might say?