Ministers in the Home Office are under new pressure – this time over allegations that they published “highly selective” statistics on drug seizures.
The chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, has written to Damian Green, the immigration minister. Sir Michael asked for reassurance that the Home Office did not deliberately publish a press release suggesting a rise in seizures of Class A drugs to enhance the reputation of the UK Border Agency.
The letter says: “It was, I understand, produced without any involvement by, and without the knowledge of, the Department’s statisticians; and it is highly selective in its choice of statistics, in order, it seems, to show the UK Border Agency in a good light.”
Sir Michael suggests that if this was the case it would be “highly corrosive and damaging to public confidence in national statistics”.
This is the latest headache for Theresa May, home secretary, given the recent furore over immigration checks. Right now Brodie Clark, former head of the UK Border Force (part of the agency) – who resigned over the controversy – is facing the Home Affairs Select Committe.
Here is the letter to Damian Green:
Dear Mr Green
I am writing to express concern about the Home Office press release issued on 4 November 2011, copy enclosed, which contained statistical information on the volume of seizures of Class A drugs by the UK Border Agency. This press release was embargoed until 7 November, three days efore the publication of the Home Office’s National Statistics on this subject, in their Statistical Bulletin Seizures of drugs in England and Wales 2010/11.
The Statistical Bulletin makes reference to a fall in the volume of seizures of Class A drugs in the most recent period. This contrasts with the 4 November press release, which highlights a large increase in seizures, albeit for a different time period. The 4 November press release, which appears not to have been published on either the Home Office or the UK Border Agency websites, and seems to have been distributed only to a select group of journalists, makes no reference to the forthcoming Statistical Bulletin; it was, I understand, produced without any involvement by, and without the knowledge of, the Department’s statisticians; and it is highly selective in its choice of statistics, in order, it seems, to show the UK Border Agency in a good light.
It has been suggested to me that one motivation for this release was to generate positive news coverage ahead of the release of the National Statistics which showed a decline in the volume of drug seizures. I would welcome your reassurance that this is not the case. Were it to be the case, the Authority’s view is that this would be highly corrosive and damaging to public confidence in official statistics.
The Statistics Authority considers that the fact and manner of the publication of the 4 November press release, in advance of the official statistics, was irregular and inconsistent with the statutory Code of Practice, and also with the Ministerial Code and published guidance on the handling of official statistics issued by the Cabinet Secretary. The Authority supports the Open Data initiative and the desire to publish important statistical information as soon as it is ready, but we believe that the right way to do this is to bring forward publication of the official statistics to the earliest date possible.
I would be grateful for reassurance that these statistics will, in future, be released in accordance with the Code of Practice, and that the scope to bring forward their publication to the earliest possible date, on a regular and pre-announced basis, will be urgently explored, as required by the Code of Practice.
I am copying this letter to the Chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and the Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, to Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency, and to the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and the Cabinet Secretary.
Sir Michael Scholar KCB