Why has the predatory bird monitoring scheme gone to ground during the election?

12 May 2017 | Will Moy

We don’t express opinions about the matters we factcheck—that’s our readers’ job. But we will comment on a narrow range of issues about things like access to information or statistics which directly affect our mission to support well informed public debate.

So Full Fact wrote to the UK’s top civil servant when the election was announced, because it is his job to set rules on what public bodies can and cannot do during the so-called ‘purdah’ period that covers the run up to an election.

We pointed out that the purdah rules, which are intended to stop governments misusing public resources to campaign, in practice stop voters getting information from the experts—paid for by those same voters.

We welcome his reply. You can read it here.

“Official statistics should continue to play an important role in informing the public debate during election periods. The same principles apply to research and analysis.” he says, and we agree.

We believe he is equally right to say that “the greatest care must be taken to ensure that information is presented impartially and objectively”, as we expect of official statistics and decent research at all times.

We welcome his assurance that “the UK Statistics Authority will continue to fulfil its statutory function to safeguard and promote the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good.” He calls attention to the letter written by its Chair to all political parties “reminding them of the importance of accurate use of statistics.”

We expect that the Authority will step in clearly and quickly if any party fails to use statistics accurately.

All this is good, and it is welcome see a clear statement from the UK’s top official of how important these institutions and principles are.

Unfortunately the letter stops short of recognising what at other times we hope the Cabinet Secretary would say enthusiastically: that good decisions depend on good information, that the UK has invested in making sure we have robust independent statistics and rigorous independent research, and that citizens need that information as much as government ministers.

In practice the purdah guidelines seem to relegate our official statisticians and publicly-funded researchers to a reactive role answering questions, if at all, only under Freedom of Information rules.

At Full Fact we are hearing stories of journalists unable to get answers to questions, and academic and analysts and scientists employed by government unable provide answers and share their expertise. The guidelines have a chilling effect on citizens’ ability to get good information that we have paid for. That is not necessary and cannot be wanted.

Tom Chivers at Buzzfeed has summed up the situation: Here’s Why Scientists Can’t Speak Freely During An Election, And Why It Matters, with an example of just how ridiculous the effects of these rules get:

“Some of the restrictions seem bizarre: the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme, a body that studies the health of populations of British birds of prey, says ‘there will be little news posted on the PBMS website and no activity on social media’ during the purdah period. But it says its science will continue as normal and ‘please contact us if you find a dead bird of prey’.”

A reminder: you pay for the work that these rules prevent you knowing about.

We hope this will be the last election where these inadvertently sweeping rules stop the public getting the information that can help us make up our own minds at election time.

It’s clear the Cabinet Secretary’s letter has the right principles in mind. It’s equally clear that the effect of the guidelines runs against them.

Because this was a snap election it was too late to get the guidelines rewritten to solve these problems. We need to make sure we’re ready to make the case straight after this election so the next time we vote, whenever that is, every voter has full access to the information we’ve all paid for.

We need your help. If as a journalist or a member of the public you’ve been stymied in getting information from publicly-funded experts during the election, let us know. If you’re one of those experts, tell us how you could have served the public better if the rules let you.

And if you’d like to back this important work, please join the thousand people supporting our election crowdfunder.

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