Statistics watchdog moves to stamp out “secret” briefings


In a major success for Full Fact, the new Chair of the national statistics watchdog – the UK Statistics Authority – has today moved to ensure that the public has equal access to the data used by Ministers and the media, after Full Fact raised concerns about "secret" briefings.

This means that figures prepared specially for Ministers on everything from immigration to unemployment will now be open to public scrutiny.

Andrew Dilnot has instructed the Office for National Statistics to publish the ‘ad hoc’ information it provides to politicians and the media on its website. National Statistician Jil Matheson is currently preparing similar guidance for statisticians in all government departments.

Full Fact wrote to Mr Dilnot earlier this month to point out that these ad hoc analyses of Official Statistics were often described as “secret”, “unpublished” or “exclusive”.

For example, the Guardian last month ran a story on unemployment among young, black people based upon Official Statistics. The Guardian referred to the figures as "unpublished" and the Mirror even spoke of "secret data".

This suggested that the figures weren’t available for public scrutiny, when in fact the Code of Practice for Official Statistics requires civil servants to “make official statistics equally available to all”.

If the public is to trust the figures quoted by politicians and journalists, it is extremely important that they are not seen as the preserve of these two groups.

It is encouraging that Andrew Dilnot, who took up his position with a promise to be an "enforcer of impartial statistics" has acted swiftly to apply best practice in transparency across the whole of government.

In 2010 the UKSA required the Department for Work and Pensions to publish the ad hoc analyses conducted by DWP statisticians, after Full Fact found that the figures quoted by ministers in support of welfare reform weren’t available for public scrutiny. 

Will Moy, Director of Full Fact said:

“In his first days in the job, Andrew Dilnot has kicked off a quiet revolution in Whitehall.

“This new guidance will make it far harder for Ministers and interest groups to use government figures selectively for political aims. When statistics are put out, anyone will be able to see where they come from, and all the caveats that apply."

“It is good to see Andrew Dilnot living up to his stated intention of being the "enforcer of impartial statistics" and putting the important long-standing principle of equal access firmly into practice."