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Public trust official statistics, but not how they are used

23 February 2015

The majority of the British public trust official statistics, a report by NatCen Social Research reveals today. New findings from the British Social Attitudes survey show that 81% of those who expressed an opinion trust the statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

However, the research, commissioned by the UK Statistics Authority, also found that the public is sceptical of how accurately official statistics are used. Only 28% of people expressing an opinion agreed that the Government presents official figures honestly when discussing its policies, and only a fifth of people (19%) agreed that newspapers present official figures honestly. Of those who said that they did not trust statistics produced by ONS, the most commonly reported reason was that the figures are misrepresented by politicians or the media.

High level of public trust in ONS

The British public has a relatively high level of trust in the ONS, the UK’s National Statistical Institute (NSI). 88% of those who expressed an opinion trusted the ONS as an institution. The level of public trust in the ONS is broadly in line with the levels of public trust in the NSIs of Australia (92%) Sweden (84%) and Denmark (97%), as reported in similar surveys.

Variations in trust of official statistics 

Public perceptions of official statistics vary quite widely depending on the specific statistical series in question. For example, of people who expressed an opinion, 85% agreed that the Census accurately reflects changes in the UK, but only 63% said the same of crime statistics.

Pre-release access

Almost three quarters (71%) of the public think that official statistics should be made equally available to everybody at the same time. Only 25% think that the current rules for ‘pre-release access’, whereby Government Ministers and their advisers are shown official statistics before they are released, should continue.

Ian Simpson, Research Director at NatCen, said: “It is encouraging that our study has found that the public has relatively high levels of trust in the ONS and the figures that they produce. However, evidence of widespread public scepticism in how statistics are presented by the government and media is cause for concern.

“As we approach the general election, where political parties will use all kinds of statistics in order to promote their agendas, our findings show how crucial it is that independent organisations are involved in the collection and presentation of data that help the public understand what is happening in the UK”.

ENDS

For further details contact Sophie Brown: Sophie.Brown@natcen.ac.uk, 020 7549 9550

Read the full report

Notes to editors:

NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.

The research used a new internationally harmonised questionnaire developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation OECD. Interviewing was carried out between 1 August and 3 October 2014. Fieldwork was conducted by NatCen interviewers and was conducted using face-to-face computer-assisted interviewing.  A total of 1,907 respondents answered these questions.