Page last updated at 15:48 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

ONS staff must 'report pressure'

Shoppers in London
The population figures row was the latest between ministers and officials

Office for National Statistics (ONS) staff should report cases where they feel they have been put under political pressure, Civil Service regulators say.

The body which hears appeals by officials against alleged breaches of the civil service code said it would be "sad" it they felt unable to do this.

In one of several recent rows, a minister accused the ONS of "playing politics" over population statistics.

A Conservative MP criticised ministers for "raining vitriol" on the ONS.

Fraught relationship

The relationship between the ONS, which was made independent of government by Gordon Brown in 2007, and ministers has become fraught of late.

Earlier this week, immigration minister Phil Woolas said he was "appalled" at the timing of its decision to release figures showing one in nine British residents was born abroad.

Mr Woolas said the figures - released out of schedule and against his wishes - were neither "new nor informative" and led to the government being accused of stoking "anti-foreign sentiment".

Those civil servants in the ONS should have come to us and raised those concerns with us immediately they felt that kind of pressure
Janet Paraskeva, First Civil Service Commissioner

The data, released at the same time as figures showing a fall in the number of Eastern Europeans registering to work in the UK, was widely covered by the media.

Appearing before the Public Administration Committee, First Civil Service Commissioner Janet Paraskeva - who oversees compliance with the civil service code - said officials should know there was an external forum open to them to raise concerns about what they were asked to do.

"Those civil servants in the ONS could have and, maybe should have, come to us and raised those concerns with us immediately they felt that kind of pressure," she said.

"It is sad in a way that they didn't realise they could tell us the pressure they were under if it was pressure they felt."

'Trashed'

She was responding to suggestions by Conservative MP Charles Walker that ONS was being victimised by ministers.

"We have senior civil servants who are told to be completely impartial and neutral and are trying to do the right thing and they are basically being trashed by sections of government," he said.

"That must poison the well somewhat."

MPs, who are investigating cases of whistle blowing in the civil service, heard that the majority of appeals brought by officials of alleged breaches to their code of practice had been upheld although the number of cases were small.

Ms Paraskeva said allegations of deliberate distortion of information was one of the most regular areas of concern brought up by civil servants.

"Distortion of figures, I think, is one of the things clearly that people worry about - the timing and publication of figures."

After the population figures row, No 10 defended the independence of the ONS but said it must be aware of the "sensitivities" of the immigration debate and be careful about when it published certain information.

Opposition parties have accused ministers of bullying the ONS.

In December, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority - which oversees ONS - accused No 10 of ignoring the wishes of statistical officials and releasing "premature and selective" figures on knife crime.

Sir Michael Scholar said such behaviour eroded public confidence in the accuracy of figures.

The Home Office apologised for the early release of some of the information - that relating to hospital admissions for knife wounds in areas where they had launched a crackdown on knife crime.



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