Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Uppal: drearily predictable

As readers of Plashing Vole, you'll be a connoisseur of Boring Issues. So you won't be particularly surprised that our favourite MP is launching a Boring attack on the BBC. Warning:  Boring material coming. Do not operate heavy machinery while reading. 

It all started innocuously enough:

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office
(1) what discussions the UK Statistics Authority have had with representatives of the BBC on the issue of Homes and Communities Agency statistics during 2011;
(2) what media briefings the UK Statistics Authority gave to the BBC on the issue of Homes and Communities Agency statistics.

What an odd - and Boring - question, I thought. Wonder what it's all about. It struck me that Boris Johnson recently called Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UKSA, 'a Labour stooge' for ticking the government off for using dubious and unverified statistics. With this in mind, and knowing the Tories' hatred for the BBC, I suspect that Uppal is suffering a persecution complex at the hands of proper mathematics and what Tory MPs used to call the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation in the 1980s. 

So - and this is where it gets really Boring, I looked up the story and the correspondence between Sir Michael and the HCA. It turns out that the statistics for building affordable homes (the HCA's job) are a) awful and b) thoroughly massaged by the HCA to make themselves look better in press releases. The BBC established that the total number of houses built came to 454. In the whole country. Then Mark Easton started to look into the HCA's communications strategy and smelled several rats around the use and strategic release of statistics. 

Enter Sir Michael Scholar, whose entire job it is to ensure that whenever the government quotes figures, those statistics are reliable and mathematically significant - no touching up for PR and political purposes. Thankfully, the Statistics Agency post all their correspondence on the internet. No doubt much to Paul Uppal's conspiracy-minded disappointment, there's no documentation linking him to a BBC plot against the government - but there is a chillingly polite letter from Scholar to the Housing Minister Grant Shapps demanding to know why Housing and Communities Agency statistics aren't sufficiently rigorous ('National Statistics') and when he might expect them to be so. This, you should understand, is the Civil Service equivalent of taking Shapps down a dark alley and administering several sharp blows to tender parts of his anatomy, before delivering a warning about future conduct. 

According to the Cabinet Office, 
The UK Statistics Authority received one telephone enquiry from a representative of the BBC asking for an Authority view on the release of statistics produced by the Homes and Communities Agency on 22 November 2011. The Authority responded by confirming that it would wish to review any particular statistical issues or concerns that were raised before commenting further.
…the Minister, as the appropriate authority, is required to provide the Statistics Authority with a statement as to whether he intends to make a request for such an assessment. No reply has yet been received.

So despite Uppal's tedious whinging, he's actually exposed a plot to discredit an independent and impartial government agency, attacked the BBC and revealed himself - yet again - as a small, mean, partisan and untrustworthy individual happy to perform his duty as part of a propaganda machine. Far from the BBC persecuting the government, Grant Shapps is refusing to commit himself to making sure that the statistics he's been using in press releases and interviews will ever be accurate or impartial. 

A good morning's work. 

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