Politicians and senior officials have been publicly called to account for the misuse of government figures on 47 occasions by the official statistics watchdog, according to its latest review of the files.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s use of Covid testing data and Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf’s use of unpublished statistics were among the cases raised by the UK Statistics Authority. So far this year, the watchdog has also intervened with concerns over the criminal spending figures used by Boris Johnson in July and the crime statistics used by Sir Keir Starmer in May.
UKSA chairman Sir David Norgrove wrote publicly to five MPs, four Scottish MPs and a member of the Senedd between April 2020 and March 2021, according to the authority’s annual review of files, while other issues were raised with officials by Ed Humpherson. , the Director General of Regulation at the Office for Statistical Regulation.
OSR newspapers show that regulators have published 47 formal responses to complaints raised, after the number of complaints from politicians and members of the public nearly tripled from 109 in 2019-20 to 323 in the year last.
Seventy-six percent of the cases were related to the pandemic and 48% related to the reliability of the statistics.
The review highlighted the lack of publication of statistics when the Prime Minister announced the second Covid lockdown on October 31, 2020. “The data underlying the briefing was not in the public domain at the time of the briefing and were only published on November 3. This was not in line with our expectations for equal access, ”the report says.
This week, UKSA will publish a report on lessons to be learned from using statistics during the pandemic.
Mary Gregory, OSR’s deputy chief executive officer for regulation, said ministers from all four administrations and senior officials have generally been quick to correct mistakes and do not seek to mislead. “In principle, everyone we talk to subscribes to the concept of transparency. But sometimes, often by accident, things are said when no data has been released.
Glen Tarman, Policy and Advocacy Manager at Full Fact, said: “It’s no surprise that OSR is busier than ever. Gaps in data and unpublished information, confusing messages, inaccuracies and refusal to correct the record are just a few of the issues we encountered in our fact check this year.
“It’s good that we have an independent statistical system that works for more informed public debate. The work of the OSR is crucial at a time when we still see examples of ministers and officials failing to release data when challenged, or politicians failing to correct the record when they make mistakes.
“Failures like this, and during a public health crisis, showed that a parliamentary inquiry into the oversight of government communications was overdue.”
Stian Westlake, Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: “The work of statisticians has been extremely important in helping us understand and control the pandemic. The ONS and bodies like Public Health England have done a remarkable job in rapidly building an infrastructure of Covid statistics that is widely hailed around the world.
“However, the increase in the number of cases shows that it is not always easy. It’s good to see the OSR step in when statistics are misused, for example, during the exam fiasco last summer when they responded to a call from us to review Ofqual’s use of algorithms.