A tale of two chancellors – and an anniversary that shouldn’t slip by

Today has been dominated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review. Many, many hours will already have gone into understanding the implications of each word, number and chart.

Five words in George Osborne’s speech in the House of Commons particularly grabbed my attention: “independent Office for National Statistics”.

Why these?

Because ten years ago the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was not independent – not in the way that it is now. Indeed, this Saturday (28 November 2015) marks the tenth anniversary of an announcement by another Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, which started the process that meant his successor could utter those words.

At that time the Office for National Statistics was then an executive agency of HM Treasury, and accountable to it. For bodies such as the Royal Statistical Society, this was unsatisfactory as it did not guarantee that the work of ONS was entirely free from political interference, albeit that it was nominally independent. This was seen as one factor contributing to low levels of public trust in official statistics.

Gordon Brown’s announcement set out that there would be legislation to place ONS at arms length from government, and accountable not to government but to Parliament. By the summer of 2007, the Statistics and Registration Service Act had achieved Royal Assent. Not only did it set up a new non-ministerial body – now known as the UK Statistics Authority – but it also established in law that official statistics were not simply for government use but to serve the public good. The Office for National Statistics became the Authority’s executive arm – producing many of these statistics.

In the first few months from its formal establishment on 1 April 2008, the Authority gained little attention. Then in late 2008, the Home Office issued a fact sheet on knife crime. It used provisional statistics showing big falls in hospital admissions from assaults with sharp objects, including knives. The use of these statistics was against the wishes of the statisticians involved, given that work was still required.

The Authority’s then chairman, Sir Michael Scholar, took up the matter. Media widely reported his comment in a letter to the permanent secretary (a top civil servant) in Downing Street: “…the publication of prematurely released and unchecked statistics is corrosive of public trust in official statistics, and incompatible with the high standards which we are all seeking to establish.”

Within days the Home Secretary had apologised for the incident in the House of Commons. In early 2009, Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary issued clear guidance about the proper use of statistics in Whitehall.

The public and unequivocal nature of Sir Michael Scholar’s intervention was widely seen as proving that the UK Statistics Authority was a watchdog with teeth.

Nearly ten tears on the Authority continues to be seen in this light.

Sir Michael Scholar was succeeded by Andrew Dilnot (subsequently knighted) as chairman. At Sir Andrew’s discretion, correspondence on substantive statistical issues is published to the Authority’s website. A glance down the list shows that the Authority is kept busy. It won’t escape anyone’s notice that the Department for Work and Pensions features a number of times as a transgressor.

The Authority also maintains an Issues Log which records more fully “matters on which concern has been expressed directly, or to which the Authority’s attention has been drawn”. The length of the list and the breadth of subjects suggests the extent to which the Authority’s watchdog role is recognised and respected.

All politicians look to their futures and to their legacies.

In his speech today, George Osborne will hope to have laid ground for his – it is widely believed he wishes to emulate Gordon Brown in moving from No. 11 to No. 10 Downing Street. In referencing the independence of the Office for National Statistics today, Osborne has confirmed that at least as far as the UK’s official statistical system goes, Gordon Brown has indeed a lasting legacy.

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