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The wrong impression

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Mark Easton | 16:16 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009

The statisticians were right and the home secretary was wrong. Now there are those who wonder whether Jacqui Smith will go back to the House of Commons to put the record straight.

No correction has issued from the Home Office after the publication of official statistics which demonstrate, as the NHS stats people had warned, that those controversial figures on stab wounds trumpeted last December were indeed "potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression" (see the email trail here). One might think that put it generously. The data were wrong. And they clearly gave the wrong impression.

Far from demonstrating the success of the government's plans, the figures used by the Home Office could be interpreted as evidence that the "Tackling Knives Action Plan" (TKAP) was having a negative effect - although that suggestion is as unlikely as the assertion that the programme was having an instant and positive impact.

Claim: The Home Office "fact sheet" said that hospital admissions for assault by a sharp object were down 27% in areas targeted by the government's action programme.

Reality: The official data, published independently of government, show hospital admissions down just 8.6% in those areas.

A welcome fall, but as reported here before, the numbers of patients turning up at A&E had fallen 11% in the three months before the Home Office action plan was introduced.

In fact, if you look what happened in the first couple of months after TKAP's introduction (July to August 2008), hospital admissions for stab wounds in the target areas went up.

Monthly activity: Admissions for Assault by Sharp Object all ages
Monthly activity: admissions for assault by sharp object, all ages; source: Hospital Episode Statistics, NHS Information Centre

The home secretary has already apologised to Parliament once - but only for being "too quick off the mark with the publication of one number in relation to the progress that had been made with tackling knife crime." But some MPs think that she has more to say sorry for.

Jacqui Smith has not apologised for getting her figures wrong, for ignoring the warnings and entreaties of statisticians who correctly feared that the unverified data would prove to inaccurate, for misleading Parliament and the public about the success of the TKAP campaign or for decisions "corrosive of public trust in official statistics".

And what some judge so counter-productive about this episode is that all the evidence points to a good news story on knife crime. There was no "epidemic"; indeed, incidents appeared to be stable or falling before the media and political frenzy last spring (as the table above suggests).

But some, including the head of the statistics watchdog, suggest that such was the government's determination to prove cause and effect and to demonstrate that their response was working, that ministers and their aides appear to have put short-term political gain ahead of long-term public trust.

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