NEWS23 February 2010

Statistics Authority’s power ‘should be extended’

Government UK

UK— Representatives of the three main political parties said yesterday that the powers of the UK Statistics Authority should be extended.

At a meeting hosted by the Royal Statistical Society, MPs were asked to set out their parties’ policies for rebuilding trust in the UK’s official statistics, which, according to a 2007 Eurobarometer survey, were the least trusted national statistics in Europe.

Labour MP James Plaskitt said that the kite mark system introduced by the Authority in 2008 should be extended to cover statistics produced by all government departments, and that the code of practice for official statistics “may need to move to a statutory footing”.

On the contentious issue of pre-release access for ministers, Plaskitt suggested giving equal access to the chairs of parliamentary select committees, as a check against the manipulation of data by government. Abolishing pre-release access completely would only create a new set of problems, he said, because ministers would not have a chance to study data before being questioned on it in public.

Sir Michael Scholar, who chairs the Authority, wants its powers to be strengthened and its remit widened. He is pushing for control of pre-release access to be given to the Authority (it is currently in the hands of ministers) and for measures meant to ensure impartiality to be aplied to data from all government departments, not just the Office for National Statistics. Currently the Authority does not get to decide which figures are to be assessed for ‘National Statistics’ status.

Francis Maude, the Conservative shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said that although the existence of an independent statistics authority has proved at times to be “uncomfortable” for politicians its brief should be extended. “The remit seems to be fairly randomly selected,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any particular rationale behind it.”

The Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Vince Cable, called for the authority’s role and powers in the enforcement of its code to be clarified. “It’s terribly important that there is a source of unimpeachable integrity to which we can turn,” he said.

The MPs also discussed the efficiency and usefulness of official data, particularly in relation to next year’s census. Maude said that the aim should be quality of data, not quantity, warning that it is possible to have too much. “My experience is that statisticians like statistics,” he said.

Plaskitt suggested an idea borrowed from market research: a ‘consumer panel’ of users of official statistics to guide the government’s work and make sure that the data produced meets the needs of the people who use it.

Both Cable and Maude highlighted concerns that the address database being compiled for the 2011 census at a cost of £12m will not be maintained or made available as a public resource – a situation that Tony Wright, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, has called “a scandalous waste of public money”.

@RESEARCH LIVE

1 Comment

11 years ago

The final question to the speakers expressed concerns about the impact of outsourcing on reducing the flow of statistics about public services as data becomes classified as 'commercially sensitive'. The bleak future for public services, that all parties forecast in reducing the level of national debt, are likely to substantially increase the level of outsourcing in the next few years meaning that an increasing amount of data on how tax payers money is being spent will be locked away from public view. Unfortunately, Francis Maude left early having indicated that a Tory regime would seek to try & slash the content of the 2011 Census form, currently forecast as being at over 30 pages! I share this concern, and it's likely impact on 'response rates', but with only a year to go it would have been interesting to hear how he thought agreement to the cuts would be achieved in such a limited time scale, and exactly where he felt the cuts should be.

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