Exposure of the stats crime is the real story

with 2 comments

Humiliation for Labour on Knife Crime‘ (The Express). ‘Home Secretary Jacqui Smith apologises over knife crime figures‘ (The Telegraph).

The most interesting aspect of this story was not that the government was spinning statistics about knife crime, but that this was exposed by Sir Michael Scholar. In a corruscating letter to Jeremy Heywood, Permanent Secretary at Number 10, and in robust broadcast interviews after that, Sir Michael said that the release of the statistics was “premature, irregular and selective“.

Statistics are always being spun. Spun by the media, spun by the government, spun by NGOs. And of all statistics, crime figures are most ripe for manipulation. The statistics most often referred to by the media come from the British Crime Survey that relies not on police records but on a regular survey commissioned by the Home Office. Critics suggest the survey under-reports crime – for example by excluding under-16s (eg. see Wikipedia entry).
New Labour became notorious for using figures in ways that suited them. Blair and Brown frequently double counted government spending (e.g. see Peter Oborne on how £9bn miraculously became £21bn in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review). Large capital projects, most notably PFI, were mysteriously missing from the government’s books. Numerous Home Secretaries inflated police numbers, deflated immigration figures and touted selective successes in bringing down crime. Most memorably New Labour manipulated facts and figures to ‘sex up’ the dossiers justifying the war in Iraq.
Indeed this is the reason that Gordon Brown decided to make the statistics published by the Office for National Statistics independent of government, and why the UK Statistics Authority was set up in April 2008 with Sir Michael Scholar as its first head. Brown wanted to distance New Labour from its reputation for chronic spinning.
Little did Brown realise that his appointment would prove so effective, or that Scholar’s bark would match his bite.
Having now been bitten, will the government take more care in the future? Let’s hope so. But watch out for what happens to Sir Michael. If he is quietly shifted from his post in the next few months we will know that far from learning from its experience, the government will have decided it cannot live without spun statistics.

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2008 at 2:00 pm

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2 Responses to 'Exposure of the stats crime is the real story'

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  1. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the PFI figures were mysteriously missing from the government figures. There has been a long and comprehensive debate about how to classify PFI spending which has been covered extensively in the FT. The final decision was backed by a number of independent bodies including (I think) the NAO.It may not be right that the figures were missing. It was not, though, mysterious.

    Matthew Cain

    18 Dec 08 at 6:38 pm

  2. Agreed – mysterious is the wrong word. Just ‘missing’ would be more accurate

    Martin Moore

    18 Dec 08 at 6:56 pm

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