Fraser Nelson

Why Brown was so desperate to release those dodgy knife crime numbers

Why Brown was so desperate to release those dodgy knife crime numbers
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For those who love email trails, the Public Administration Select Committee has served up a feast - the emails flying around when Brown released premature knife crime figures last December. You can read the full trail here, Email Trail PDF .

From my reading, it seems that the decision to use unready statistics came straight from Gordon Brown himself.  The only No10 official named in the email trail is Dr Matt Cavanagh, who is the very opposite of a Campbell-style No10 praetorian spinner. He's a former academic (and published author of a book which was well-received in The Spectator) and the emails kick off with him asking the ONS for permission to release data on knife crime

"Here is the statement that the PM would like us to publish tomorrow as part of the knife crime announcement"

Internal emails then fly between ONS officials saying they not be used, given they are "potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression".

The Department of Health then warns the ONS that No10 "are likely to publish the data irrespective of the concerns raised". Andy Sutherland then sends another email saying

"If No10 go ahead and publish against our will then they are going against two fairly fundamental principles of statistics: (a) that decisions onpublication 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.... On a practical note, this  will look to observers as if the govt has cherry-picked the good news and forced out publication forpolitical ends-is this really what they want?" 

In No10's defence, I note that nowhere in these emails is there an example of the ONS conveying this urgency or level of alarm back to No10. It is the Department of Health that tells them to forget it. Still these things are normally kept internal - Brown would never have believed that Sir Michael Scholar, the new statistics watchdog, would have the nerve to blow the whistle on him.  The last email we have is from an unnamed No10 official saying to the ONS "I am most grateful to you for bringing this to my attention and am pursuing urgently at this end." Not, it seems, with much success. Note the reply to No10 was made a day later, the 11th, and this email was sent at 11.34pm. According to the Home Office website, the contested figures were released at 12.34pm

One aspect is always left out of his sorry tale. Why was Brown so desperate to release those figures in spite of being told they were misleading? Because he was due at a photo-call with the relatives of the victims on knife crime: famous ones like Brooke Kinsella, an ex-Eastenders actress and Richard Taylor, father of Damilola. He evidently didn't want to turn up empty-handed, so asked for these figures to suggest that progress is being made on this front. When Sir Michael got to hear about this, he went nuclear.

In the grand scale of Brown's systematic abuse of statistics, this hardly merits a mention. The event itself was in The Sun but it didn't get much coverage overall, so even the spin failed. But the significance, in my view, is that the ONS is now willing to take on the government. It is behaving more like an independent organisation, and this is to be encouraged. The UK Statistics Authority may yet turn into that rare thing: a watchdog with teeth. In these emails, Sir Michael has made it perfectly clear that he bites.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

Topics in this articlePolitics