Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

No 10 'warned over crime figures'

Knives seized by police
The Statistics Authority was set up to improve confidence in official figures

Statisticians warned officials at No 10 that controversial knife crime figures should not be released as they were "potentially inaccurate".

Details of e-mails released by the Public Administration Select Committee showed the figures were published despite warnings about their release.

An NHS official said their publication would suggest the government was merely "cherry picking" good news.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith apologised for the early release of information.

'Cherry picking'

But the Conservatives said the details showed that No 10 had a "blatant disregard for the rules".

The row broke out in December when the head of the UK Statistics Authority accused No 10 of ignoring the wishes of statistics officials in releasing "premature and selective" figures relating to hospital admissions for knife wounds.

The figures appeared in a Home Office press release on 11 December.

This is a government that has completely abandoned principles and is clearly now only concerned with its own political interests
Chris Grayling
Shadow home secretary

The BBC's Home Affairs Correspondent Daniel Sandford said the emails released on Thursday appear to show how hard No 10 pushed for the statistics officers to be used early and how the Official for National Statistics (ONS) tried to prevent it.

In response to an inquiry from No 10, a statistics officer in the NHS Information Centre said his view was that the data was provisional and should not be released.

"They are potentially inaccurate and may possibly give the wrong impression," he wrote.

An official at the Department of Health wrote that he had been informed that No 10 was "adamant" about publishing them and were likely to do so "irrespective of the concerns raised".

In response Andy Sutherland - the senior official responsible for statistics at the NHS Information Centre - said their publication would violate principles that decisions should be taken by professionals and data was not simply published out of the blue.

"This will look to observers as if the government has cherry picked the good news and forced out publication for political ends - is this really what they want?" he wrote.

The figures, which suggested admissions for knife wounds had fallen by 27% in ten areas between July and September 2008, were published on the day Gordon Brown attended an event to promote the fight against knife crime.

In a letter to the committee on 27 February outlining the government's position, Cabinet Office minister Kevin Brennan said ministers "attached great importance to tackling the problem of knife crime".

Mark Easton
The last line of the chief statistician's email may well come to haunt Gordon Brown

The government, he added, had been "keen to use the data gathered to assess the progress of the Tackling Knives Action programme to inform the public about the true prevalence of knife crime as soon as it was reasonable and appropriate".

He said the publication was sanctioned by the Home Office but that ministers had not been aware of the concerns expressed about some of the data.

He said lessons would be learnt and the individuals involved regretted the damage that had been done.

The Conservatives said the incident showed that ministers were determined to publish good news "come what may".

"This is a government that has completely abandoned principles and is clearly now only concerned with its own political interests," said shadow home secretary Chris Grayling.

After the row, Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell sent a memo to senior civil servants and special advisers outlining the details of the Code of Practice on Official Statistics including the stipulation that all decisions taken by statisticians are final.

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