Independent think-tank Civitas has called into question the way in which the government collects and utilises statistical data forming the basis of its decisions and policies.

In its new report Failing to Figure the organisation accuses the government of “side-lining honesty and truth” in some of its key decisions, by keeping the information used to form its positions under close wraps.

According to report author Mervyn Stone, emeritus professor of statistics at University College, London, ministers sitting at the top of the food chain “can put a blanket of confidentiality not only over all the advice he or she gets from policy-making civil servants within the department, but also from any advisory committee set up by the minister”.

This, the report points out, means that the public is not being given access to basic information about how certain recommendations, which can lead to the allocation of significant sums of money, for example, are being constructed, making it “impossible” to pit those policies adopted against potential alternatives.

Furthermore, the report rejects claims that advisory bodies making policy recommendations are independent “in the sense in which most people would understand the term”, says Prof Stone.

For example, the £74 billion awarded by primary care trusts to National Health Service providers, which accounts for one-fifth of all public expenditure, is portioned to PCTs via a formula developed by the University of Glasgow based on recommendations by the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation. But at the time of inquiry, the report claims, ACRA was comprised of: six Department of Health employees, five NHS chief executives, five people with GP links, a research council chief executive and two academics - a health economist and a 'social exclusionist'.

Fairness of funding in question
Civitas points out that, although the fairness of this funding formula - which dishes out twice as much cash to some PCTs than others – has already been questioned, it is impossible to debate the issue “as confidentiality was, and continues to be, maintained about the proceedings of ACRA and its Technical Advisory Group”.

Prof Stone has called for a “radical transformation” in the quality of quality of policy-making, and highlights the urgent need for greater transparency in the advice the government seeks and receives from external bodies in making its decisions.

And David Green, Director of Civitas agrees: “Our system gives the Executive great power…and if the abuse of power is to be controlled - whether it involves gaining the personal advantages revealed by the expenses scandal or forcing through ill-considered measures - then transparency is vital”, he stressed.