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Knife "fact sheet": The e-mail trail

Mark Easton | 18:25 UK time, Thursday, 5 March 2009

A fascinating set of e-mails [283 Kb PDF] has just been published that covers roughly 24 hours around the release of that controversial knife crime "fact sheet" on the morning of 11th December last year.

You may recall how I have been covering the inadequacies of the release ever since, starting here and continuing here, here, here and here.

The electronic exchange shows how it is possible for a special advisor in Gordon Brown's office to overrule the anxieties of senior statisticians.

I am told that senior civil servants are outraged that the Public Administration Select Committee - the all-party group investigating the affair - has chosen to put the e-mails up on its website. But to me, they provide important evidence of the power wielded by special advisors at the summit of government.

The first is a note from an advisor in Number Ten called Matt Cavanagh to another special advisor at the Department of Health, Mario Dunn. In it, Mr Cavanagh quotes a line on "knife wounding figures" that, he says "the PM would like us to publish tomorrow".

OCR reads: From. MCavanaqhno1C Sent: 1O/1V2008 1159 To: Mano.Dunnd_ Cc: GBealesno1C Number 10 offictal Subject: knife wounding figures Mario - we spoke . Here is the statement that the PM would like us to publish tomorrow as part of the knife crime announcement . As discussed, like the equivalent CJS figures, this does cover stats which are covered by national statistics, but it is only a subset and we wilt be making clear that these figs are provisional and the final figs, subject to the usual nat statistics rigour, will be coming out in the usual way (if there is any particular form of words you'd like us to use, to convey that, let me know). Can you confirm whether this is ok as soon as possible, if pass by 2pm? Thanks. 'Hospital admissions in the ten TKAP areas for knife or sharp instrument woundings were 27% lower tar July to September 2008 compared to the same period in 2007 .' From: Mano.DundL Sent: 10/12/2008 12:31 To: Department of Health official (policy) ; Department Of Health official (policy) Cc: Department of Health official (private onice) Subject: Fw: knife wounding figures URGENT Assume ok to clear this?

So, assuming Mr Cavanagh has checked, Gordon Brown himself is apparently keen to use this very specific figure on patients admitted to hospital with stab wounds. Downing Street knows that "these figs are provisional" and promises to make that clear in the release. (They never did.) Mr Dunn sends the request on to a Department of Health official assuming that this will be fine.

However, the health official has spoken to the statisticians involved in putting together the data. There is a "deadline" of just 45 minutes to provide clearance.

Notice how the original wording is altered. Downing Street wanted to call the category of hospital admission "knife or sharp instrument woundings" - stressing how these data are about people stabbed with a blade. Mario Dunn prefers a more accurate description: "assault by a sharp object (including knives)".

OCR reads: From: Department of Health official (policy) Sent: 10 December 2008 13 :16 To: Mario. Dunn Cc  Department Of Health official (policy) Department of Health official (private office) ; NHS Information Centre statistical officer; NHS Information Centre statistical officer Subject: Re: Fw: knife wounding figures Importance: High Mario, I just tried to call . I have spoken to at the Information Centre and she is seeking clearance to publish this information, She is aware of the deadline and we will aim to get back to you by 14:00. Assuming we do get clearance, the statistic should be rephrased as : Hospital admissions in the nine TKAP areas in England for assault by a sharp object (including knives) were 27% lower for July to September 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, Thanks,

Then comes the bad news for Number Ten. Just four minutes before the 2pm deadline, the statisticians at the NHS Information Centre make it clear that their view is that the provisional figures "are NOT released". They explain how "they are potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression".

OCR reads: From: NHS Information Centre statistical officer Sent: 10/12/2008 13 :56 To: Department of Health official (pohcy), Mano Dunndf Cc: Department Of Health official (policy) department at Health Offidal (private office) : NHS Information Centre statistical officer; Andy Sutherlandçs NHS Information Centre statistical officer Subject: RE: Fw: knife wounding figures Ive spoken to a number of people here, including the Head of Profession at the NHS IC and our view is that these provisional data are NOT released, Our reasons are: 1) As explained already these ate provisional data for 2007/08 and 2008109 and therefore they are potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression. 2) If we allowed these data to be published, we open ourselves up to provide these provisional data to others who may ask for data which shows different trends. Regards

But Downing Street are, apparently, unimpressed. In an e-mail from an official at the Department of Health, copied to Alan Johnson's special advisor, we learn that while the DH "would not seek to overrule the Information Centre on this matter... Number 10 are adamant about the need to publish this statistic".

OCR reads: From: Department of Health official (policy) Sent: 10 December 2008 15:54 To: NHS Information Centre statistical officer Cc: Andy$Utherland(licnhs NHS Information Centre statistical officer ; Department Of Health official (policy) 4HS Information Centre statistical officer ; Mario . Dunndr Department of Health official (private office) ; Department of Health Statistician Department Of Health official (policy) Subject: RE: knife wounding figures Importance: High I have tried to call you and Andy but you are both in meetings . For your information, I have passed on your concerns regarding the release of this data and outhned the Departmental position to all concerned that we would not seek to overrule the Information Centre on this matter . However, I have also been informed that Number 10 are adamant about the need to publish this statistic. As a result I have been informed that they are tikety to publish the data irrespective of the concerns raised . Happy to discuss,

As revealed on this blog last week, the e-mail goes on to say that Downing Street "are likely to publish the data irrespective of the concerns raised".

Forty minutes later, the chief statistician at the NHS Information Centre, Andy Sutherland writes back. He is not a happy man.

OCR reads: From: AndySutherIandiCflhs Sent: 10 December 2008 16:36 To: Department of Health official (policy) : NHS Information Centre statistical officer Cc: NI-IS Information Centre statistical officer : Department Of Health official (policy) NHS Information Centre statistical officer ; Mario. Dunndh Department of Health officifT,rivate office); Department of Health Statistician Department Of Health official (policy) Subject: RE: knife wounding figures I have discussed this with C*4S and within the IC . If NolO go ahead and publish against our will then they are going against two fairly fundamental principles of statistics: (a) that decisions on publication of statistics are taken by professionals and not by politicians ; (b) that publications of statistics are preannounced - we dont just publish out of the blue. I have no wish to be awkward, but if they are insistent on this course of action then I will need to ratse it with Karen DunneD, the National Statistician . NolO have just supported setting up the UK Statistics Authority and a new pie-release access order tightening up on arrangements in order to build trust - this goes right against these developments . On a practical note, 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? Andy Andy Sutherland Programme Head, Population and Resources Head of Profession for Statistics andy,suthertanKnhs

The last line of his missive may well come to haunt Gordon Brown. "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?"

Mr Sutherland then informs the Office for National Statistics.

The following morning at 8.35 - a few hours before the official release of the "fact sheet", but after some journalists have been sent it - Mike Hughes from the ONS reveals that the National Statistician, Karen Dunnell has been on the phone...

From: Andy .Sutherlandic .nhs Sent: 10/12/2008 16 :57 To: Office for National Statistics official (policy) cc: NHS Information Centre statistical officer Subject: for info at this stage FW : knife wounding figures Just for info at this stage and so that you are aware of the advice I have given . I (or probably as I am on a train tomorrow) will speak further with you ifnecessary, Andy Andy Sutherland Programme Head, Population and Resources Head of Profession for Statistics andy. sutherlandtic . nhs From: Mike.Huhe$(ons Sent: 11/1212008 08 :35 To: Number 10 official (private office) cc: Karen.Dunnellcons Subject: FOR URGENT ATTENTION OF JEREMY HEYW000 - Knife wounding figures Karen Dunnell, the National Statistician, has spoken to Jeremy this morning about the inclusion of certain unpublished statistics in a statement the PM may be making . Further information is provided below, Mike Hughes Director National Statistics and Policy Group Office for National Statistics

At just after 11am, Mr Hughes writes to an (unnamed) official at Number Ten making it clear that, as revealed here last week, the figures had been prepared on the understanding that "the figures aren't final and aren't for publication".

OCR reads: From : Mike,Hu~ihes(äons . Sent: 11 December2008 11 :03 To Number 10 official Cc: Karen.Durinellons Subject: Knife wounding figures As discussed . I understand that the information Centre currently provide this information to No 10 for management purposes, with provisos that the figures arent final and arent for publication . The Code of Practice doesnt specify the handling of statistics derived from administrative data per se but the relevant principles of the Code are that ; • the Head of Profession will decide the publication date for the derived statistics • the publication date will be pre-announced. Happy to discuss further. I'm best contacted on my mobile Mike Mike Hughes Director National Statistics and Policy Group Office for National Statistics From: Number 10 official Sent: 11/12/2008 11 :22 To: Mike.Huhesojis Cc: Karen, Dunneflons ihevwoodno 10 . Subject: RE: Knife wounding figures EUNCLASSIFIEDI [Non-Record] Thanks Mike, I am most grateful to you for bringing this to my attention and am pursuing urgently at this end . Regards

The official says he is "pursuing urgently".

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