Sir Michael Scholar, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has written to Immigration Minister Damian Green to “express concern” about the way in which the Home Office has released drug seizure statistics to the media.
On 4 November Mr Green was quoted in a press release praising the UK Border Agency for preventing more illegal drugs from entering the country since April 2011 than they had in the previous year.
The Immigration Minister said: “These seizures show our investigators are keeping pace with the ever changing methods of criminal gangs to keep the border secure.”
This, it would seem, was a piece of good news for an agency that has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late.
The Prime Minister pointed to these figures when defending his Government’s border policy at PMQs last week, saying that “in the first six months, we seized more drugs than in the whole of last year.”
However as Sir Michael points out, there are significant problems with these figures.
The official Statistical Bulletin on drug seizures actually (published six days after the press release was sent) notes that there was a fall in the volume of drugs seized on UK borders, precisely the opposite to what was claimed in the Home Office press release.
Instead, the press release relies upon a different time frame to the official stats, which, as Sir Michael notes, is “highly selective in its choice of statistics, in order, it seems, to show the UK Border Agency in a good light.”
Even more worryingly, Sir Michael suggests that it is his understanding that the press release was produced without the involvement or knowledge of the Home Office’s statistics team.
To compound the confusion, the press release “seems to have been distributed only to a select group of journalists, [and] makes no reference to the forthcoming Statistical Bulletin.”
The UK Statistics Authority concludes that the manner and content of the release was inconsistent not only with the Code of Practice on official Statistics, but also the Ministerial Code.
This is not the first time Full Fact has noted concerns about the way in which the Home Office releases information. Last year we highlighted two cases where figures showing problems with the student visa system where briefed to the press before being made publicly available.
In one of these cases there proved to be important caveats to the data which were not picked up in the press coverage, however in those cases the Statistics Authority was unable to take any action as the numbers involved were not classed as official statistics.
However the Statistics Authority was able to intervene last year when we spotted that the Department of Work and Pensions was briefing the media with research that wasn’t publicly available. As a result, this research is now published online.
We hope that a similarly positive outcome can come from this shortcoming at the Home Office.