Data watchdog fires parting shot

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A stinging farewell note singling out several government departments for politically driven use of statistics has been published by the Statistics Commission.

The official watchdog, which will be disbanded this month after waging a long war on ministerial “spin”, savages the Department for Children, Schools and Families for its practice of failing to provide “clear and separate publication” of statistics before issuing ministerial statements on them.

Also in its sights are the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office. The commission accuses the three departments of going “to some lengths to ensure that the press receive ‘the departmental line’ on the figures, through separate press releases giving a departmental steer on the numbers with attributable quotes from ministers”.

Allegations about the politicisation of data have intensified throughout the years of New Labour rule – most recently with last week’s issue of national figures showing thousands of children had not won entry into their first-choice state school.

Critics of Ed Balls, schools secretary, accused him of trying to deflect attention from the statistics by simultaneously reporting that “a significant minority” of schools were breaking new admissions rules.

The commission has written to Mr Balls’ department and stressed the release of official figures should be “seen to be independent from policy comment”.

The commission assessed government releases against six criteria to judge whether the presentation of the statistics was clear, accurate, objective and professional, written in simple language, with the focus on making the statistics easy for users.

A fifth was rated red on a red, amber, green scoring system. One release was judged to fall short against all six criteria – the quarterly NHS Inpatient and Outpatient Waiting Times issued by the Department of Health.

This was the last report from the Statistics Commission, set up in 2000 to improve trust in government figures. The new UK Statistics Authority, which will run the Office for National Statistics and oversee data from other departments, replaces it next month. It is understood it will follow up the issues in the report.

Responding to the report, the Treasury said it had “entrenched the independence of statistics” by creating the UK Statistics Authority, which was designed to strengthen the ONS’s autonomy.

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