Statistics society urges Cabinet Office to clarify 'troubling' comments

Cabinet Office said government statistical needs "take precedence" over wider users
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By Tevye Markson

26 Mar 2024

The Royal Statistical Society has raised concerns about Cabinet Office comments that government’s statistical needs “take precedence” over the needs of wider users of statistics.

The RSS’s leadership urged the Cabinet Office to clarify the statement, which came in the department’s response to the independent review of the UK Statistics Authority published earlier this month.

The review, by Prof Denise Lievesley, recommended that UKSA set up a triennial statistical assembly, which would bring together key organisations inside and outside of government and across devolved nations, to help determine the country's statistical needs.

The Cabinet Office said it agreed, but “with conditions”.

“While the Cabinet Office welcomes improving the transparency and accountability of the UKSA through the establishment of a UK-wide Triennial Statistical Assembly and an annual chair’s lecture, external user engagement will always be balanced against the statistical needs of the government – particularly economic – which take precedence,” the department said.

In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Lucy Neville-Rolfe, RSS’s chief executive Dr Sarah Cumbers and president Dr Andrew Garrett said the department’s statement was “potentially troubling and would benefit from clarification”.

They said the statement “goes against the spirit of Section 7 of the 2007 Statistics Act – which emphasises that the role of UKSA is to safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good”.  “This is clearly intended to be wider than governmental need,” the society chiefs added.

Garrett told CSW: “The review rightly recommends an assembly to determine the statistics the UK needs and we welcome its emphasis on user engagement.

“We recognise that the government requires statistics to govern and plan effectively, but for a healthy democracy, the public need to have the right data to hold the government to account. We counter the government's response that their needs will always take precedence.”

In the Cabinet Office response to the recommendation, it also said any plans for a statistical assembly would be “delivered out of the UKSA’s current funding envelope, for which there are resources for user engagement”.

The letter expresses concern that the comments from the Cabinet Office suggest “the government is not vested in properly supporting UKSA to effectively deliver” a statistical assembly and “may not take outputs from the assembly seriously”.

In the letter, the RSS chiefs points out that Baroness Neville-Rolfe herself had “somewhat distanced herself” from the comments made in response to the UKSA review.

Asked at a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee session earlier this month why the Cabinet Office had said the needs of government should “take precedence”, Neville-Rolfe said: “I think that what this is saying is that when the assembly is taking place and the chairman is about to make his lecture, it is important that there is proper engagement between the government and the statistical office on the way ahead. I do not read it in the way that you do as suggesting we are going to veto everything. That is certainly not what is intended at all.”

Lievesley was also asked about the comments at the committee hearing. She said was “sorry to see that” and does “not agree with that phrasing”. She also said she does not think it reflects “current practice”.

RSS criticises decision to stick with ‘harmful’ pre-release access to statistics

The RSS letter also expresses “disappointment” at the Cabinet Office’s decision not to abandon pre-release access to statistics.

The review argued that the Cabinet Office and devolved governments should amend legislation for each nation at the earliest opportunity to follow the Office for National Statistics’ approach to pre-release access. Since 2017, the ONS’ policy has been to only give government departments and other public bodies pre-release access to statistics in “exceptional circumstances”.

In its response, the Cabinet Office said it disagreed with the recommendation, as pre-release access “provides time for departments to have a considered policy and media response to publications of official statistics”.

“At this time the UK government has no plans to alter the current arrangements,” it added.

Garrett told CSW that the RSS was “pleased” to see the report urge other departments to follow ONS’s lead on ending pre-release access to their statistics and “disappointing” to see the government’s objection.

The RSS said the idea that governments need to see statistics early to prepare their response to them is harmful for two reasons. “It means that when the public see a department’s statistical release it comes with a pre-prepared press line – the public are sensitive to this spinning of information, and it risks breeding mistrust in the statistics themselves. Secondly, it helps to perpetuate the impression that ministers control data and its release,” it said.

“The RSS has long argued that pre-release access to statistics has a harmful impact on our political system and that abandoning the practice could improve public confidence in official statistics,” the society’s chiefs added.

“Ending this outdated practice will increase public trust and end the government’s privilege of being able to determine the narrative.”

The RSS also urged the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to follow ONS’ example rather than the UK government’s approach.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The work of the UKSA is vital for the effective implementation of policy and work of government across the country.

"We accepted 18 of the 19 recommendations made by this review, and our response sets out our continued commitment to ensuring statistics and the work of the UKSA can continue to deliver for the public."

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