U.K. stats office only multiplies divisions

Stephen Beard Mar 14, 2007

U.K. stats office only multiplies divisions

Stephen Beard Mar 14, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Take everything that goes in and out of this country from cash to car parts. That’s an economic statistic called the current account. The broadest measure of U.S. trade with the rest of the world. The Commerce Department reported this morning the current accounts deficit hit a record for a fifth-straight year last year. It’s a government number from respected and nonpartisan professional bureaucrats. Over in Britain official reports have a history of being less than entirely objective. Parliament has created an independent statistics office. But Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from London, for many the numbers still don’t add up.

STEPHEN BEARD: The British government loves to bombard the British people with statistics.

But the barrage of figures depicting a wealthier, healthier and happier Britain falls on stony ground. Eighty percent of the British people don’t entirely trust official statistics. And they’re right, says Vincent Cable, economics spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party.

VINCENT CABLE: Governments manipulate statistics whether it’s on school-leavers or hospital waiting lists, or crimes. And they can be interpreted in different ways. And they are always given a political spin.

Treasury Minister John Healey says the new law should restore public trust in government figures.

JOHN HEALEY: For the first time we’ll have an independent system for statistics run by a board that is independent from Ministers, reporting to Parliament and no longer to Ministers.

But Martin Wheale of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, says even under the new law there’s plenty of room to massage the numbers.

MARTIN WHEALE: It’s going to be ministers and not the statistics board which decide whether national statistics are national statistics or not.

Under this slightly Orwellian arrangement, say the critics, the board won’t handle some of the most politically sensitive statistics like crime figures, healthcare waiting lists or public exam results. And the new law leaves intact one of the most controversial aspects of the old system, says Professor Tim Holt of the Royal Statistical Society: Ministers still get a long look at the figures before anyone else.

TIM HOLT: The bill allows ministers to keep to themselves the right to decide who gets pre-release access, and for the length of time and so on.

In the U.S. the president gets to see important official data the afternoon before the day of release. In Britain, Ministers get the stuff a whole week before. And why not, asks Treasury Minister John Healey.

HEALEY: Pre-release access is important. It allows Ministers to account for the impact of policy at the same time as significant data is released.

Also, say the cynics, it allows Ministers time to spin and manipulate the figures. Andrew Hilton of the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovations says the new statistics board is itself an exercise in spin. Britain is not at the dawn of a new age of numerical purity.

HILTON: Numerical purity is really like virginity — once you’ve lost it, you can’t get it back. And I think governments are never going to give up the power to spin the data.

Tweaking the numbers is self-defeating, he says. Such is the public mistrust that governments won’t get the credit even when the numbers haven’t been tweaked and are genuinely good.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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