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David Gauke MP: Has Gordon Brown broken his own rules on statistics?

David Gauke is Conservative MP for South West Hertfordshire and a member of the Treasury Select Committee.

Has Gordon Brown broken his own rules on statistics?  I think he has and I think it is both important and revealing.

As with most matters involving the Chancellor, this is a matter of some complexity but, if you will bear with me, I think Gordon Brown may have got himself into some difficulty.

Last month, I wrote a piece outlining the various techniques Gordon Brown uses in order to answer (or avoid answering) difficult questions.  As a case study, I examined the evidence the Chancellor gave to the Treasury Select Committee, of which I am a member, following the 2007 Budget.

Much of the session focused on the assessment of the Institute of Fiscal Studies that 5.3m households would lose out as a consequence of the Budget.  Despite the fact that a Treasury official had confirmed that this figure was ‘in the right ball-park’, the Chancellor argued that increased take-up of Working Tax Credit (‘WTC’) would reduce this number.  In support of this assertion, he stated that ‘since April 2005 the take-up of working tax credit has grown by almost 100,000’.

This was a rather vague figure.  It did not tell us the breakdown between those households with children and those without (where take-up rates are particularly low) and, most unhelpfully, it did not give the numbers in percentage terms. 

Consequently, I asked a Parliamentary Question asking for the most up-to-date figures on WTC take-up.  The answer from the Financial Secretary, John Healey MP, on 2 May pointed me in the direction on the 2004-5 figures and stated that the ‘figures for 2005-06 are due to be published on 22 May’.  In other words, the Minister could not confirm or elaborate upon the numbers the Chancellor had given the Treasury Select Committee some weeks earlier.

Now that the figures have been released earlier this week, they more or less confirm what Gordon Brown had previously said - there has been a take-up increase of 90,000 - although the percentage increases are not particularly impressive. 

But does the way in which these figures have been released matter? Yes, because if the Government is able to release its statistics in a partial manner, public confidence in the accuracy and impartiality of Government statistics will be undermined.

This is not just my view but also Government policy.  The National Statistics Code of Practice: Protocol on Release Practices states that ‘the basic principles for the release of National Statistics are that only those people essential to their production and publication should have access to them before release, that they are released to a published schedule in an orderly fashion, and that access to the published material is as wide and equal as possible’.

Last year, the Cabinet Secretary had to apologise after Tony Blair made an announcement about unemployment figures at the TUC conference a day before they were officially announced.
As far as I can see, the Chancellor is also in breach of this protocol.  Clearly, the figures have not been released ‘to a published schedule in an orderly fashion’, access to the full figures prior to 22 May was not ‘as wide and equal as possible’ and one must question whether Gordon Brown was ‘essential’ to the production and publication of the WTC figures and, therefore, entitled to access before release.

As a consequence, I have complained to the Statistics Commission, the body which polices the protocol, and await their enquiry.

One of the ironies of this matter is that Parliament is currently debating the biggest reform of the structure relating to Government statistics since the 1940s.  The most contentious issues relate to Ministerial access to statistics prior to release.  The Treasury, the Department responsible for overseeing Government statistics, seems determined to retain control in this area, notwithstanding that the Government has suffered defeats in the House of Lords on these matters.  Given the Chancellor’s behaviour in this case, perhaps we can see why.

But the most the most important point about this incident is what it reveals about the Chancellor’s character when under pressure.  Gordon Brown was embarrassed by his official who confirmed that 5.3m households lost out because of the Budget.  He was desperate to refute those figures and it appears that he was prepared to break his own rules to do so.

If Gordon Brown is seeking to restore trust in politicians and distance himself from the informal, ‘sofa-style’ approach of his predecessor, he should, at least, comply with the rules for which his Department is responsible.  However, when in a hole, his first reaction was to focus on spin and ignore the rules.  The significance of these particular statistics might not be earth shattering, but it is a worrying (although not unprecedented) personal characteristic for a Prime Minister.


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