Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Home Office Counting Shambles

Doh! It's happened again!

The hopeless hapless Home Office continues to reel from one crisis to the next. Yesterday, its Permanent Secretary Sir David Normington was once again grilled by the Public Accounts Committee, and was forced to admit not only do his officials ignore the filing and cover up problems, they can't even count properly:

“Since the summer we have gone through 160 data sets and given them a star system from three to nought for their reliability. We are looking actively at the 30 data sets that are not up to scratch.”

Translation- even we have been forced to recognise that one in five of our published statistical series are complete and utter rubbish.

This is a very serious matter. Because these aren't just your usual run-of-the-mill government wibble stats on gender balance among hospital administrators, or community empowerment outreach initiatives. No, these are stats on important stuff like crime and immigration. Stats that are needed to guide vital policy areas and to allow the rest of us to see how the government is really performing.

Home Office statistics have long been a national scandal. From the British Crime Survey- the government's massaged opinion poll on the incidence of crime- though to its wildly understated immigration numbers, HO stats have long been little more than an exercise in political spin.

Obviously we can all understand why the politicos like it that way, but there's a price to pay: nobody believes any of them any more. Indeed, according to a survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics, only 17% of us believe government stats are put together free of political interference.

Ah, you may say, but surely that's why Gordo is setting up his new independent Statistics Commission Board . So they can take responsibility for all key national statistics, and ensure they are produced rigorously and well away from the corrupting hand of the politicos.

Yes. True.

Except for one thing.

The key Home Office stats- like the BCS- are mysteriously being excluded from the whole exercise. Along with many other highly sensitive stats produced by Whitehall.

In fact, in the case of the Home Office, only 12% of their statistical output is actually covered by the National Statistics system.

The Statistics Commission itself says public trust will only be re-established in the integrity of the numbers if the new system ensures "that all appropriate departmental statistics are treated as ‘National Statistics’. The arrangements here must be seen to serve the public interest, not just the convenience of government departments."

Even the Home Office's own "independent" review of crime statistics, while tippy-toeing tortuously over the eggshells, pretty well says the stats should be handed over to ONS control.

Doc Reid can rage and fulminate against his officials as much as he likes. But we'd all be a lot more convinced if he took some real action. And I don't mean just suspending some patsy assisitant-sec on full pay. After all, that poor sap is probably so confused by all the political number massaging that goes on, he's probably forgotten what straight reporting actually looks like.

No. Reid should make a proper start on cleaning the stables by handing over the production and publication of all major HO stats to the ONS. Completely.

He could make the announcement today.


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