Sir Hugh Bayley the Labour MP for York Central secured a debate on statistics which took place on 14 January (see here at 10.59). He made several important suggestions that would have wide support in the statistics community.
Sir Hugh opened by saying that National Statistics is “a matter of critical importance in the coming general election”. Adding “When voters cast their votes, they will make judgments on our respective parties …… based on the information available to them at the time. In the interests of transparency, accountability and democracy, it is important for the information upon which people make decisions to be accurate.”
The specific points he noted included:
- UKSA should publish “independent and impartial” key statistics in advance of the election. This is an excellent idea but would require a bolder UKSA than we have at the moment as it would stray, he suggested, into areas (such as hospital waiting times and access to legal aid) that are not the responsibility of the ONS, over which it has control. He seemed to base his ideas on what happens, reportedly, in Norway and what UKSA trialled in advance of the Scottish referendum.
- He said he “would like the UK Statistics Authority to be able to respond quickly with a public statement offering clarification if there appears to be controversy between the parties on the facts”. They do this already but again the statement seems to imply a beefing up of that exercise – and being prepared to take the initiative rather than waiting for a complaint to be raised. Again, this is common sense but there might be other ways for UKSA to help in a less direct way – perhaps by offering more help to organisations such as Full Fact (of which I am a trustee).
- He proposed an ending of the two tier system of British statistics. “The authority’s independence and well-regarded code of practice for official statistics apply only to official statistics, not to all statistics published by the Government.” This is important, he said, as “the decision on which figures to designate and therefore quality control as official statistics is taken by Ministers, not by the independent statistics authority.” It is indeed a flaw that needs to be resolved. (It should be noted that Sir Hugh has had a notable success in querying figures on flood defence spending and subsequently convincing the then minister to let those statistics be classified as official statistics. But, as he notes, why should the nation depend on the whim – or embarrassment – of a minister?) He concludes with the proposal to “…. establish a cross-party consensus before the election to ensure that whoever is elected will make the necessary reform to confirm the independence and trustworthiness of the figures that the Government and the UK Statistics Authority produce.”
- He proposes that: “The House of Commons should establish a statistics Select Committee”. While noting “the excellent work” of the Public Administration Committee and before it, the Treasury Committee, he notes that “both Committees have many other things to examine, and they do not devote enough time to ensuring the integrity of Government statistics.”
- Finally, he’d like to see the budget for the UK Statistics Authority determined by the House of Commons, not the Government. He envisages the establishment of either a parliamentary statistics commission, modelled on the Public Accounts Commission, which determines how much money the National Audit Office should have, to determine how much money the UK Statistics Authority needs to do its work, or a full-blown counterpart to the Public Accounts Committee—a special Select Committee, chaired by a Member of the Opposition, as is the Public Accounts Committee.
Those who believe in the importance of statistics would support these proposals and will consider it a shame that Sir Hugh is leaving the House of Commons at the election.
The response from the Minister for Civil Society (Mr Rob Wilson) included several supportive lines about the value of statistics but gave little hope of change in relation to the points made by Sir Hugh. That the government is “considering” giving UKSA “the statutory responsibility to designate numerical information produced by Departments as official” statistics was encouraging but barely compensated for the rejection of the other suggestions.