Mr Maude says no to official statistics changes
The Government has rejected calls from the UK Statistics Authority for changes in the way official statistics are handled.
In a letter dated 27 July (and now available here) Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, refuses all three suggestions put forward by the authority and its chair, Sir Michael Scholar.
In a letter to the Prime Minister immediately after the election, Sir Michael had asked for three changes: reducing pre-release access to statistics from 24 hours to no more than three hours; giving the National Statistician greater authority over the statistical work in government departments; and involving the authority more closely in deciding what statistics to gather, and how much to spend in doing so.
Mr Maude disagrees that any of these changes are needed. It is for each department to decide on how they manage their budgets, he says, and “it would not be appropriate to effectively ring-fence statistical expenditure, as this reduces the flexibility that departments have to manage their budgets and prioritise accordingly”. He apparently fears that having to consult the National Statistician about changes would inhibit such freedoms, though Sir Michael was not suggesting she should have the power of veto.
Mr Maude also rejects changes to pre-release access without explaining why. He simply says that the issue has been considered carefully, and the Government has decided to continue with the present arrangements. He also rejects any greater involvement of the authority in making choices about statistical outputs.
Sir Michael told a meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology last night that he was disappointed at the reply but he would have to accept it. In a reply to Mr Maude, sent last week, he says that he had no intention of cutting across the lines of departmental responsibility, but merely to be consulted before departments make major changes in statistical staffing and output.
The reason, he says, is that the statistics produced by department cannot be considered in isolation, since they are often used in conjunction with those of other departments to produce outputs. A decision by one department to stop collecting some data could impinge on others – and “there could be a high price to pay later in terms of unforeseen consequences”.
At last night’s meeting, he added: “A modest cut in one area can do serious damage to another, and we think it’s our job to point this out to Parliament”. The cuts announced in the spending review could have effects on statistical capability and outputs, and the authority plans to collect as much data as it can about such changes, and report any concerns to Parliament.
The authority has prepared a long list of such outputs, attached to Sir Michael’s letter of 14 October. They include almost all classes of data. He calls on Mr Maude to think again.
Will he? It appears unlikely. The authority's proposals have now been rejected both in England and in Scotland. If ministers in either country share Sir Michael’s concerns, they certainly don’t share his recipe for eliminating them.
The only consolation from the authority’s point of view is that Mr Maude, a critic of the 2011 Census before the election, now professes himself a supporter and promises other ministers’ support in encouraging the public to participate.
He warns that the problems of the 2001 Census, where the response rate was low, must not be repeated – though “this must be balanced by cost considerations”. The ONS will have its work cut out to achieve this.