The ability of politicians to spin official statistics to support their own point of view is likely to be severely curtailed – at least if UK Statistics Authority has its way.
While the Reg finds it hard to believe that any government minister would be tempted in this way, the good folk over at the Statistics Authority would appear to be a little more cynical.
At present, official statistics are "pre-released" to ministers up to 24 hours before they are made public. This practice enables politicians, if they are so minded, to digest the data, identify key points helpful to their cause and as a result, to prime national media to focus on issues and areas of their choosing, thereby shaping subsequent debate.
The Statistics Authority wants this practice to end. In a report (pdf) issued this week, the Authority proposes that government ministers should have a maximum three hours' advance viewing of official statistics – and that there should be a period of at least an hour when the only comment allowed to the press on such information would be from the Statistical Authority itself.
Sir Michael Scholar, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said:
The current 24-hours advance access by Ministers and their advisers contains too many dark hours during which no-one can see what is happening. In Scotland and Wales, the current arrangements allow five days advance access for devolved statistics, which is inconsistent with international best practice.
We believe that the recommendations in our report will minimise the opportunities for political influence or exploitation, and will help to build public confidence in the independence of the statistical system. The Statistics Authority also proposes that ... Ministers in all four UK administrations should look to the Authority to guide future practice. Equality of access levels the political playing field, demonstrates statistical independence, and is a reasonable arrangement which respects the interests of Parliament, the press and the public.
Concern over the possible abuse of statistics has been growing for some time. Last summer a new campaigning group started up; Straight Statistics unites journalists and statisticians to improve the understanding and use of statistics by government, politicians, companies, advertisers and the mass media
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour on 14 March, Labour peer and instigator of this campaign Lord David Lipsey warned politicians that Straight Statistics will "punish them if they misuse statistics.
"Any politician who lies must expect to be up in lights on our website, in the newspapers, as having abused the statistics to mislead the public."
Lipsey praised the impartiality of official statistics and commented that the UK Statistics Authority is "proving a very robust body in defending the integrity of our statistics ... There's some things we can do that they can't because they're an official body." ®