Statistics ‘not presented honestly’

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Published: Monday 23rd February 2015 by The News Editor

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Fewer than one in three voters trust politicians to be honest with official statistics and most want them banned from seeing official figures in advance, a study found.

The British Social Attitudes Survey showed a healthy confidence in the reliability of the numbers produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), with 81% expressing faith in their accuracy.

But as parties step up campaigning ahead of May’s general election, a mere 28% who expressed a view said they had faith in government to ” present official figures honestly when discussing its policies”.

There was still less faith in the reliability of the media’s presentation of statistics, with only just under a fifth (19%) having faith that they were being portrayed accurately.

Among those harbouring doubts about the ONS figures, the most common reason cited was the use made of them by politicians and journalists.

The evidence of widespread “confusion and distrust” was seized on by a watchdog which has long campaigned for an end to the practice of the Government seeing the numbers in advance.

As chair of the UK Statistics Authority – which commissioned the research – Sir Andrew Dilnot has issued a string of public rebukes to ministers, including Prime Minister David Cameron, for mis-using official figures.

He has consistently blamed the “absurd” pre-release system, under which key Whitehall figures get to examine the numbers for 24 hours before anyone else, for undermining public trust.

The Conservatives pledged before the 2010 general election to scrap the arrangement but have failed to implement the reform while in power.

Only a quarter of those polled supported the practice, with 71% believing official statistics should be made equally available to everybody at the same time.

“These new survey results indicate a level of public trust in ONS that is encouraging, but confusion and distrust about the way official statistics are used remains an issue,” Sir Andrew said.

“The current pre-release access given to ministers and their advisers undermines public confidence in official statistics.

“The UK’s arrangements for pre-release access fall a long way short of international best practice.

“The UK Statistics Authority believes that official statistics should be available at the same time for everybody and that pre-release access should be ended.”

Carried out by NatCen Social Research, the survey of 1,907 voters between August and October last year showed wide variations in the confidence people had in particular types of data.

The Census was trusted by 85% as an accurate reflector of changes in the UK, while only 63% had a similar faith in crime statistics – often a fierce political battleground.

Ian Simpson, research director at NatCen, said: “It is encouraging that our study has found that the public has relatively high levels of trust in the ONS and the figures that they produce. However, evidence of widespread public scepticism in how statistics are presented by the government and media is cause for concern.

“As we approach the general election, where political parties will use all kinds of statistics in order to promote their agendas, our findings show how crucial it is that independent organisations are involved in the collection and presentation of data that help the public understand what is happening in the UK”.

Published: Monday 23rd February 2015 by The News Editor

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