Problems with Government statistics need to be addressed

25 February 2013

In a Report published today, Monday 25 February, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) concludes, despite the positive steps implemented by the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, there remain issues and concerns about the way government statistics are produced and disseminated which remain a genuine risk to public confidence in the statistical system and must be addressed.

The Report looks at how the Act was brought in to restore public confidence in the statistical system. Reliable statistics are required for effective policy-making; to raise confidence in the evidence base for government policies; and to allow proper external scrutiny of policy in practice.

The Committee finds that the Act has helped to ensure that statistics are produced to the highest professional standards and that effective governance structures are in place to protect transparency and accountability. The latest version of the Code of Practice for Government Statistics in legislation has set a clear standard which Government departments and their agencies must observe in their treatment of statistical information.

The public interventions of the Chair of the Statistics Authority to censure and correct misrepresentations of statistics - if necessary publicly - are highly effective in building the credibility of the Statistics Authority. However, there must be greater clarity and transparency in the way the UK Statistics Authority operates.

PASC concludes that the Statistics Authority is not able to prevent departments from finding ways around the obligation to try to meet the standards in the Code. PASC recommends that the Statistics Authority should take greater control over the quality and integrity of the different data sets and statistical products produced by departments and their agencies.

As a consequence, the core purpose of the Act - to ensure minimum standards of quality and integrity are met - may be undermined. This situation has potentially serious consequences for public confidence in the statistical system and public administration more widely.

The Statistics Authority should systematically engage with ministers and departmental heads to ensure that the spirit of its guidance is correctly interpreted and implemented.

Dual role

The dual role of the Statistics Authority – to both produce statistics and to assess and monitor statistics - means that it is effectively required to report on itself. More needs to be done to demonstrate that the two parts of the Authority are genuinely separate and are seen to be separate. There is more the Authority could do to make its operations more transparent and accountable, which would contribute to public trust in statistics. Pre-release access – where ministers and governments are allowed access to announcements of statistics in advance of publication – is a risk to public confidence in the independence of the statistical system. Government should legislate as soon as possible to transfer responsibility for determining policy on pre-release access to the Statistics Authority.

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, said

“Good statistics underpin good policy and proper scrutiny of it. Public confidence in the information produced by Government is vitally important to an effective democracy. Without it there can be no confidence in the transparency and accountability of Government, which in turn can only fuel public apathy and disengagement from the democratic process.

“We believe the Statistics Authority should take greater control over the quality and integrity of the statistics produced by departments and their agencies. It must be and be seen to be an effective, independent watchdog able to ensure statistics are produced efficiently and to a set standard. In short, its existence should create trust in government statistics.”

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