Communicating statistics: Not just true but also fair - Public Administration Committee Contents

5  Misuse of official statistics

40.  The Statistics Authority has a role in monitoring the use and abuse of official statistics, and intervening where judged necessary. Its statement of strategy has a strategy priority of "trustworthiness" and states that it

[...] will speak on matters of statistical controversy, reporting publicly to Parliament, especially where there are concerns about political involvement in the production or publication of official statistics, or about damage to the integrity of official statistics through misrepresentation. The Authority will continue to give priority to investigating any significant concerns in these areas and reporting those findings publicly to Parliament.[42]

Jil Matheson told us

The intervention of the Statistics Authority is very important in sending the signal within Departments that this is something that will be taken seriously and that they have a role in alerting Ministers, special advisers and senior officials that there is potentially a Code compliance issue.[43]

41.  The Statistics Authority has not been shy about addressing some issues of significant public policy importance. For example, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health raised concerns with the Statistics Authority in November 2012 about government claims about a real-terms increase in health spending. The Statistics Authority wrote to the Secretary of State for Health in December 2012, stating that real-terms expenditure on the NHS had "changed little" and requesting that the Government clarify statements made on the matter.[44]

42.  On a different issue, youth unemployment, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Employment wrote to the Statistics Authority about a claim made by the Leader of the Opposition that "only Spain has higher numbers of young unemployed than the UK". The Statistics Authority replied stating that while this claim was factually true, "accepted statistical practice is that comparing unemployment rates between countries is preferable to comparing absolute numbers" and included a table of figures which showed that in terms of rates the UK was not high relatively.[45] This and other similar correspondence is published on the Statistics Authority's website.[46]

43.  The evidence received for this inquiry was broadly supportive of the extent to which the Chair of the Statistics Authority had intervened in public to raise issues relating to the misuse of statistics.[47] The Royal Statistical Society commented "[the Statistics Authority's former Chair's] interventions were generally effective, established the Authority as a force to be reckoned with and were clearly uncomfortable at times for those concerned. Further, the Authority appeared even handed between government, opposition and other politicians".[48]

44.  Where the Chair of the Statistics Authority has judged that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene. We are grateful to both the current and former Chairs for their role in upholding the integrity of government statistics and in therefore striving towards achieving higher levels of public trust in government statistics. It would be prudent, given the controversy of the areas in which the Authority intervenes, to reduce the scope for future misunderstandings, if the Authority set out why it chooses to intervene publicly on some issues and not on many others that are raised.

42   UK Statistics Authority, Statement of Strategy, February 2013 Back

43   Q137 Back

44   Letter from Andy Burnham MP to Andrew Dilnot, 1 November 2012, and letter from Andrew Dilnot to Jeremy Hunt MP, 4 December 2012, accessible at Back

45   Letter from Harriett Baldwin MP to Andrew Dilnot, 31 January 2013 and letter from Andrew Dilnot to Harriett Baldwin MP, 26 February 2013 Back

46   At, Reports and Correspondence Back

47   See for example, Demographics User Group (Ev 42), Royal Statistical Society (Ev 44) and Full Fact (Ev 46) Back

48   Ev 44 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 29 May 2013