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Warning over statistics 'spinning'


Both PM David Cameron, left, and Labour leader Ed Miliband, right, have been criticised for their selective use of statistics

Both PM David Cameron, left, and Labour leader Ed Miliband, right, have been criticised for their selective use of statistics

PA Wire/Press Association Images

Both PM David Cameron, left, and Labour leader Ed Miliband, right, have been criticised for their selective use of statistics

Statistics are being twisted so far by headline-seeking politicians that they sometimes paint a picture that is "no longer true", MPs warned.

An investigation into the presentation of official figures welcomed a series of recent rebukes to leading Westminster figures for "spinning" numbers.

Whitehall experts should do more to insist press releases give an "accurate and meaningful" picture, said the public administration select committee. But authorities also had to find ways of presenting data that were more accessible to the general public, it concluded.

The report noted that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was told by the UK Statistics Authority to "clarify" a Government boast about NHS spending. Labour leader Ed Miliband's comparison of UK and Spanish youth unemployment figures was also questioned, it pointed out. Prime Minister David Cameron recently had his knuckles rapped by another regulator about claims he made regarding economic growth.

"Wider and deeper improvements are still needed to the presentation and explanation of government statistics if public trust in them, and therefore in public policy, is to be earned and kept," the report found. It went on: "Government statistics press releases do not always give a true and fair picture of the story behind the statistics. We recommend that press officers and statistics producers work together much more closely to ensure that press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture.

Committee chairman Bernard Jenkin said: "In our evidence, we were given examples of where the change in one month's figures, on say trade or unemployment, would generate the headline, but where the trend over the year, a far more significant indicator, is ignored. We are expecting statistics officials to insist that press releases tell the true picture."

The Tory MP added: "Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. Finding the whole truth about government statistics is not always easy, and it should be. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture.

"This is important when those numbers are being used to justify a particular policy, a particular apportioning of resources. In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true. The UK Statistics Authority and the Government Statistics Service have a special obligation to act as an antidote to the famous dictum that 'there are lies, damn lies, and statistics'.

"Where the chair of the Statistics Authority judges that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene. This is an important part of the role of the UK Statistics Authority, to monitor the use and abuse of official statistics."

A Government spokeswoman said: "The responsibility of Government communicators is to ensure important public information reaches citizens in an accessible and engaging way so that they can scrutinise those in power and make important decisions about their lives. Our communicators work incredibly closely with policy colleagues to ensure this is done in a way that ensures accuracy and integrity at all times."

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