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Where is the accountability in Number Ten?

Mark Easton | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 17 April 2009

Does Gordon Brown know what his special advisors are up to? The results of a Freedom of Information request the BBC lodged some weeks ago reveals this morning that the prime minister was apparently totally unaware of the dubious activities of another of his so-called "SPADs" in Number Ten. Not Damian McBride this time, but Matt Cavanagh.

Ten Downing StreetMr Cavanagh, you may recall, was the Number Ten official involved in the e-mail exchange in which Downing Street insisted that the Home Office publish figures on knife attacks, even though they had been warned by official statisticians not to use the data because they were "potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression".

At what point, I asked, did the prime minister first become aware that release of some information was contrary to the advice of statisticians?

Today, David Deaton, the head of the "Statistical Reform Team" in the Cabinet Office replied to me saying that neither Gordon Brown, nor any minister in his department or the Home Office was aware of "outstanding concerns" before the publication of the "fact sheet", as he still likes to describe it.

foi2619161.jpg(The full response to our FoI request can be found here [44Kb PDF].)

"Who did know?" I asked.

"The Cabinet Office", he confirmed, "holds some information of this nature."

"However", he continues, "I believe disclosure would contravene the first data protection principle, which provides that personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully. This is an absolute exemption and the Cabinet Office is not obliged to consider whether the public interest favours disclosing the information."

Disappointing, but not surprising.

What is really troubling, however, is what today's response implies about the powers of special advisors. If no minister knew anything about the decision to override the pleas of statisticians, why not?

Remember this e-mail exchange from the day before publication?

NHS statistician: "our view is that these provisional data are NOT released" because "they are potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression".
Department of Health: "Number 10 are adamant about the need to publish the statistic".
NHS Chief Statistician: "this will look to observers as if the govt has cherry picked the good news and forced out publication for political ends - is this really what they want?"

Put yourself into the shoes of Mr Cavanagh inside Number Ten. Or indeed into those of the special advisors and officials inside the Home Office and Department of Health who must have been aware of this exchange.

You are being warned by one of the most senior statisticians in the land that putting out these "provisional data" would go against "fundamental principles". It would also break a promise the Home Office made that the figures were only for internal use. You are told that the matter will be taken to the National Statistician Karen Dunnell and that it is contrary to the arrangements being introduced by the new UK Statistics Authority. What do you do?

According to Mr Deaton today, not one of those officials or special advisors thought it might be a good idea to mention this problem to any minister. As for which civil servants were told, we are not allowed to know.

If this behaviour is par for the course, the power of these unelected special advisors is extraordinary. Ministerial responsibility is non-existent - we are merely told that they knew nothing.

And just in case anyone has forgotten, the figures on stab wounds - which an official at Number Ten was "adamant" should be published - proved to be both highly inaccurate and thoroughly misleading.

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