UK

Stats watchdog to investigate building data release

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Media captionCampbell Robb of the housing charity Shelter says despite government plans to kick start housing "we still don't think we'll have enough homes"

"One or two people are not overly happy…"

I have just taken a call from an official at the Department of Communities (DCLG) following my post on the housing stats yesterday and my appearance this morning on the Today programme.

I am told that ministers reject any suggestion that they timed their big announcement on building affordable homes to come 24-hours before the worst-ever statistics on building affordable homes.

However, my observations on the fanfare for a set-piece political release one day before the quiet publication of pertinent and troubling official statistics have led the watchdog UK Statistics Authority to say they are "looking into the issues raised."

The senior DCLG official who called me said that the timing of the housing strategy had been decided, not by a wish to pre-empt some horrible data, but by the demands of the prime minister's diary and his desire to mention housing in his speech to the CBI on Monday.

"I can honestly say that at no time did the publication of house-building statistics the next day have any bearing on when to put out the housing strategy," the official told me.

My question to him was: "Well, shouldn't it have?"

The point is that the DCLG were told on 19 October that new house-building figures would be published this week. Because of changes to the way contracts for affordable housing projects are conducted, they had very good reason for suspecting the statistics would look really bad.

And yet, they insist that at no time in discussion with Downing Street officials on the release of the housing strategy did they even mention the imminent arrival of official and grim building stats.

"We are damned if we do and damned if we don't", the official complained. "If we had managed it so that they were not at such close quarters then we could be accused of undermining confidence in statistics and trust in politicians."

That may be true, but in considering the timing of political announcements like the housing strategy, should ministers not think long and hard about the possible perception that they are also news-managing the publication of official statistics?

One could argue that the release date of major government reports should have less to do with No 10's desire to get a quote from the PM in the papers and more to do with ensuring we have the most informed public and parliamentary debate.