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More on the unchecked knife crime stats

Mark Easton | 18:24 UK time, Thursday, 5 February 2009

The row over the release of unchecked knife crime stats by the Home office last December (see earlier posts here and here) has taken an extraordinary new twist today with the government's account of what happened looking increasingly shaky.

This afternoon, cabinet office Minister Kevin Brennan told committee of MPs that "the statistics produced within the Home Office on that fact sheet were approved by statisticians in the Home Office before publication".

Startled by a suggestion made by the committee chair (and revealed on this blog a few weeks ago) that the stats guys had done no such thing, a flustered Mr Brennan replied: "That is the information I have, but if that is incorrect, Chair, I'll correct the record".

police officer holding a knife handed in during an amnesty Andrew Milligan/PA WireA few hours later and my phone rings. It is a man from the Home Office. Did the statisticians know? "The answer is no", he replied.

"They were aware that statistics were being assembled, but saw nothing of the final product", he told me. "They did not see that fact sheet before it was published."

And that wasn't all he wanted to convey. The press office didn't sign off the fact sheet either. "The Home Office press office quite emphatically did not push for the publication of the fact sheet," the official stressed.

So who did? He says it wasn't the stats people and it wasn't the press people. Could it, I ask, have been someone in the private office of the Home Secretary? "That is all I can say. It was a Home Office publication. I cannot go further than that."

The fact that the statisticians apparently didn't know what was in the "fact sheet" raises new questions about the letter by the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, to the head of the UK Statistics Authority, which had raised concerns about the release.

In the letter, Sir Gus writes that "one of the contributing factors to the decision" to put out dodgy figures on hospital admissions for stab wounds was that, while health service statisticians had demanded the figures be withheld, "the same objections were not being raised inside the HO".

Well, if the Home Office number-crunchers had no idea what was in the fact sheet, that might explain why.

Given the confused story emerging from different parts of Whitehall of exactly what happened last December, you can understand why today's Public Accounts Committee demanded a "comprehensive letter" from the Cabinet Office.

"We would like to know exactly what sequence of events, with what species of individuals taking actions, produced this result," said Tony Wright.

And now MPs are turning the spotlight on what was described in the committee today as the "special advisor network inside government".

In particular, the MPs wanted to know which of Gordon Brown's close aides inside Number Ten had overruled the objections of government statisticians to force the premature publication of knife crime figures in December.

We heard about an "e-mail trail" which reveals how a close advisor to the prime minister was "adamant" the data should be published - even though he or she knew the statistics had not been properly checked.

Regular readers will know of my close interest in this case having expressed my own disquiet over the statistics when they were released. And it was gratifying to hear the committee repeatedly refer to this blog as they questioned their witnesses.

First up were Sir Michael Scholar, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, and Karen Dunnell, the UK's National Statistician.

Sir Michael - appointed by the prime minister to restore trust in official figures - today accused one of Gordon Brown's closest advisers of "political interference" in the release of data. He confirmed that he'd seen a series of emails which, he made clear, had confirmed a senior NHS statistician had "forcibly" expressed "very considerable concern" about the use of figures on hospital admissions for stab wounds but had been overruled by one of Mr Brown's staff.

"I saw what [the chief NHS statistician] had said about that. I knew Number Ten were reported as being 'adamant' that the figures should be published and of course the figures were published."

The press release, published through the Home Office in December, had been designed to demonstrate the success of the government's knife crime initiatives. But the figures used were described by Sir Michael as "premature, irregular and selective". Their release was a "clear breach" of the official code, he said.

"I think if you are going to have trust in official statistics, you can't have statisticians being leaned upon by politicians, by ministers or advisers or policy civil servants who are working for them," he said.

So did ministers know anything? Did they lean on anyone? The committee seems determined to find out.

Tony Wright: "My understanding is that the special advisor at the Department of Health was told by the NHS statisticians that this could not be published under the code. The special adviser went to the Number Ten special advisor to take advice on this."

Michael Scholar: "That's consistent with what I know."

TW: "Was it a proper decision for a special advisor to take?"

MS: "The code of practice specifically bans political influence in the production of statistics. It is quite unequivocal under the code which was already in force."

TW: "Do you think it is plausible that a special advisor would have taken the decision to overrule statisticians and release information without taking political advice?"

MS: "I really couldn't comment on that."

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