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It’s worth celebrating independence and integrity when we get a chance

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My children are a bit older now, so it’s a while since I’ve been to one, but I’ve been invited to two tenth birthday parties recently, one only last week. No balloons or party games, though, for these invitations were to celebrate the tenth anniversaries of two of our newer public institutions — the UK Statistics Authority and the Committee on Climate Change. They are well worth the celebration.

At first look, they may appear to have little in common. The climate change committee, of which I am a member, advises the government on how it can best achieve its aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It employs about 30 staff. The UKSA is a hundred times bigger and oversees the production of a vast range of statistics on just about every aspect of society, the economy and life from cradle to grave.

What links them is that they were set up, with cross-party support, as statutory bodies independent of government. That independence is jealously guarded. It makes the analysis, statistics and recommendations trustworthy. It takes the technocratic stuff away from political interference. It allows governments to be held to account. It means that ministers can be told when they are misusing statistics or when they are not doing enough to meet their own promises on reducing carbon emissions. Each body can look back on its first decade with a degree of satisfaction.

Climate change has dropped off the perch it briefly occupied towards the top of the public agenda as first the financial crisis, then austerity and now Brexit have caused us to focus on more immediate priorities. But aided, and sometimes held to account, by the committee’s careful and evidence-driven interventions, progress has been pretty good. Emissions are more than 40 per below their 1990 level and have fallen faster than planned over the past decade. That is, in part, a side-effect of poor economic growth, but it also reflects remarkable success in bringing renewable electricity supplies on line and thereby reducing emissions from power generation. There is, of course, plenty more to be done. Big reductions in emissions from road transport and heating will be required. Each will need more strategic direction and investment from government than is promised at present. But that should not obscure the real progress seen to date.

The committee has provided road maps for the future, monitored progress up to now and ensured that this long-term priority is not ignored. It also will be advising government on whether emissions targets need to be strengthened further in light of new and more ambitious international agreements. That advice will be objective, transparent and rooted in the evidence.

Evidence is what the UKSA is all about. Whether you’re looking at statistics on inflation, growth, the public finances, the nation’s health or crime, you can be pretty sure that either statisticians there or their colleagues in the Government Statistical Service will be responsible for producing them. These statistics are needed for running government. Trust in them is vital for a functioning democracy.

The independence from ministerial interference that the UKSA enjoys is necessary for that trust. Since last year, that independence has been further underlined by the fact that ministers now no longer see official statistics before anyone else. While there are, inevitably, sometimes mistakes, the statistics that do get through are trustworthy and, the evidence suggests, trusted. We generally manage to combine a healthy scepticism for the way in which politicians use figures with a belief in the honesty of the underlying statistics.

One reason that trust is so important here is that the process for producing many of these numbers is mind-boggling in its complexity. It is hard to convey just how big a task it is to produce the inflation figures, let alone the national accounts that measure the nation’s economic activity. Judgments are required. This is an art, as well as a science. Trust is vital. That trust can be knocked when things go awry, as they sometimes do.

There have been some rocky moments for the nation’s statisticians in recent years. There is still a way to go in improving the quality and usability of some of these statistics, but the drive for improvement has been palpable, the progress real, the mistakes honest ones.

So I want to conclude with three messages of a type that we hear all too infrequently, perhaps because expressing them invites accusations of complacency.

First, in both its leadership on climate change and statistical arrangements, Britain is ahead of the pack. As far as climate change is concerned, both our institutional arrangements and our actions have been more effective than most. Our statistical system has an honesty and independence not enjoyed by all. Many other countries look to us as an exemplar.

Second, the civil servants working in these organisations carry out vital work with great professionalism and little recognition. They deserve our respect and thanks.

Third, a word about leadership in public life. John Pullinger, the National Statistician, and Lord Deben (formerly John Gummer), the chairman of the Climate Change Committee, are very different characters. The former is a career civil servant and statistician, the latter a party politician who has spent decades in first the Commons and now the Lords. Neither is always right and I disagree with both on important matters. But what they share is the independence of thought, the integrity, and perhaps above all, the wisdom that are vital in our public realm. They are not the only ones.

Let’s celebrate all that when we can. It is not complacent to do so. In fact, it is vital to our future that we recognise success, integrity and trustworthiness when we see it.

This article was originally published in The Times and is reproduced here with full permission. Paul Johnson is director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Follow him on @PJTheEconomist.