Ministers accused of lying to the UK Statistics Authority

Published: 8th Jun 2012

Last month the Morning Star ran a story accusing Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith of lying to the UK Statistics Authority, and apparently had the emails to prove it.   Back in January, the Authority wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over concerns that figures they had released on the number of foreigners claiming benefits could be "highly vulnerable to misinterpretation" and were released in a way that made them hard for the public to scrutinise.   But the Work and Pensions Secretary told them that his Ministers had followed the advice of their Head of Profession for Statistics in preparing and publishing the release.   The Morning Star says this is not true, based on documents it has uncovered with a Freedom of Information (FoI) request. According to the paper, Ministers had overridden the advice given by the Department's Chief Statistician on the publication arrangements.   However Full Fact has investigated the basis of this accusation and found that what Mr Duncan Smith had said was in fact accurate.   While the emails unearthed by the FoI request do show that there was considerable discussion between DWP Ministers and statisticians on what was and wasn't an acceptable method of releasing this information, the eventual arrangements conformed with the final advice from the DWP's Head of Profession for Statistics.   Unfortunately, the Morning Star's story did not cover this final significant document and rests instead on earlier emails.   The Morning Star did accurately quote this earlier material, but Mr Duncan Smith is, ultimately, entitled to say that the advice from the Head of Profession was followed.   This incident does show that that there is still ambiguity about what constitutes official statistics, which are subject to the standards set by the Code of Practice for Statistics. Full Fact is exploring this further.   It also demonstrates the considerable pressures and responsibility that departmental statisticians experience in advising Ministers on the Code of Practice.   It is important that the code is interpreted and applied consistently, or it will risk undermining good work being done to uphold trust in official statistics.   So in future, Full Fact plans to use more Freedom of Information requests to help scrutinise the important "behind the scenes" role of the government statisticians.

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