The term "watchdog", when applied to public bodies, is often a bit of an overstatement. The various quangos and committees intended to scrutinise the performance of politicians and public services are sadly more likely to whimper than bite. That cannot, however, be said of the UK Statistics Authority, whose head, Sir Michael Scholar, has run a very effective campaign in recent weeks to stop the Government abusing official statistics for political ends.
Readers may remember that Sir Michael scored a direct hit back in December when the Government announced proudly that official statistics showed that their policies on knife crime were "making a real difference on the ground". He went public with the shocking revelation that Number 10 and the Home Secretary had wrongly published the figures too early, without proper checking by statisticians and without full context. In doing so they had broken the code on statistics which they had introduced and which he is charged with policing.
At the time, Jacqui Smith eventually gave a non-apology saying she regretted being "quick off the mark" in publishing the figures. Of course, she wasn't "quick off the mark" she was cheating at the race altogether. A lot of other watchdogs, if they even had the guts to have taken things that far, would have left it at that and counted themselves lucky not to have been sacked or smeared by the Government for their efforts. Not Scholar and his statisticians.
Now they have published a blow by blow account of how the Government took the figures out of context, made "selective or otherwise inappropriate comparisons", drew "inappropriate conclusions" and made "unsubstantiated claims". They have also toughened up their Code of Practice and started presing for 340 extra types of official statistics which are not currently regulated to be brought under their oversight.
Good on them - finally we have a "watchdog" that actually does some watching and some biting. We must be vigilant to make sure that Sir Michael and his colleagues are not nobbled, intimidated or abolished in return for their good work - as has happened in the past all too often.
Having effectively brow beaten the Government for their misdeeds on this occasion, Sir Michael has one more ace up his sleeve, which would truly revolutionise the way that the performance of the Government and the public sector is monitored:
"I think the correct principle is everybody should get the figures at the same time: ministers, Parliament, the press, the public, Until it is like that, the public will always be thinking that politicians have been able to get at the figures.”
Here, here. We've known for some time that they can't be trusted with this information, and in December they proved it conclusively. It's time they were put on a level playing field with the rest of us, without advance notice time in which to skew and spin the facts to their advantage. Then they might start working to make things better, rather than just to make things seem better.
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