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Head of Stats warns politicians: 'Hands off our numbers!'

"No sh*t, Sherlock" moment after public confidence warning

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UK Party leaders were this week on the receiving end of a sharp rap to the knuckles, as a letter from the Head of the UK Statistics Authority, the aptly named Sir Michael Scholar, warned them to keep their paws off official stats for the duration of the election campaign.

The letter is a masterpiece of understatement, combining pre-emptive rebuke with a shame-faced plea for greater attention and, by implication, protection from cuts in a time of cutbacks.

Sir Michael begins with an observation that may prove useful to those unaware of the religious affiliations of the Pope or the defecatory habits of bears. He states: "Public confidence in official statistics is low and there is a perception that official statistics are subject to political interference."

However, his view of the world is upbeat. He goes on: "Progress has been made in recent years – notably through the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 – in building the trustworthiness of official statistics. But more needs to be done."

In this case, "more" decodes as:

* Strengthening and entrenching of arrangements for ensuring the independence and impartiality of statisticians in ALL Government Departments.

* More use being made the Statistics Authority – particularly in respect of the allocation of statistical resources.

* Asking the Statistics Authority to determine the pre-release access arrangements for all official statistics.

The last point, Sir Michael explains, is just in case anyone should be so perverse as to believe that ministers and their advisers manipulate official statistics before they are published.

How anyone can believe this following the recent appointment of a new and independent academic to head up the fight against drugs is quite beyond us.

However, ministers have been involved in misunderstandings over the release of statistics before. Back in November 2008, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was told off for premature release of ONS figures on knife crime. Similarly, in 2009, Harriet Harman came under fire for misleading the Commons over the whole question of how pay inequalities were calculated.

The issue is likely to be particularly sensitive at election time, as politicians of all parties may be tempted to make selective use of official statistics to bolster their case, with little concern for the damage done to public confidence in them.

Sadly, misleading election advertising is not subject to quite the same strictures as ordinary advertising. In the case of the latter, the Advertising Standards Authority might eventually do something about it: for the former, they will do nothing. ®

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