Being a statistician in the wrong country is a bad business.
Greece’s former chief statistician, who corrected inaccurate and misleading debt figures, is still threatened with jail even after Greek judicial officials and panels have ruled that the charges against him be dismissed on at least six separate occasions.
Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri began his term in power by restoring the professional independence of his country’s statistical office, after his predecessor was repeatedly accused of covering up the true rate of inflation.
The most senior statistician in Norway resigned last year after an argument about the restructuring of her department, including allegations that the restructuring was politically motivated.
So it is easy to see why, when we speak to factcheckers and journalists from around the world about the maze of regulators, standards bodies and protocols related to the accuracy and transparency of UK public debate, they look at us with astonishment and envy.
In the UK, we have an independent statistics profession. There are many factors contributing to this independence but here are the most important ones:
- Statisticians are professionally accountable to the National Statistician, not to their Ministers or even their departments.
- The Code of Practice for Official Statistics sets out standards including on sound methods, equality of access, impartiality, and predictability of publication.
- The UK Statistics Authority and its Office for Statistics Regulation protects public confidence in official statistics and publicly rebukes people who misuse them.
Late last year, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson disregarded the UK Statistics Authority’s warnings about the EU membership fee claim, repeating the inaccurate figure again. The Authority responded bluntly that Mr Johnson’s latest repetition was “a clear misuse of official statistics”.
Afterwards MPs from both sides spoke in support of independent official statistics in a formal meeting with the heads of the statistics regulators.
Paul Flynn, a Labour MP and Remain supporter, said,
“As you and your predecessor have correctly pointed out to politicians out to deceive, they have criticised them from both parties, and I think this is the first time there has ever been a party division on this. We have supported criticisms of Labour Ministers in the past by UKSA and we should continue to do so.”
Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP, Leave supporter, and Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, agreed:
“I would like to make it clear, as Chair of this Committee, I support your discretion to intervene on any Minister or any public authority whenever you want and I would not want any ambiguity about that.”
We are lucky to have politicians committed to protecting the culture of independent official information. It’s not a permanent state of affairs. The EU membership fee figure is a sad example of high quality information which, through being marked by controversy and spin, becomes distrusted.
We need everyone – and especially MPs, who shape political culture – not to let the same thing happen to information that underpins debate and decisions in other areas of politics. Journalists too, sometimes have to choose between speaking truth to power and picking sides.
There’s no single right way of going about this – it could mean anything from checking your own statements before you go live, to retweeting the UK Statistics Authority when it makes an important statement, to publicly and loudly rebuking colleagues who repeat inaccurate claims.
Most of all, it means being willing to put honesty and accuracy above siding with your political team.