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A smokescreen over statistics

FErret enjoys chewing over numbers in search of the truth. I'm at one with John Humphrys, the dyspeptic presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, who rails against lazy press and media hacks who swallow official statistics uncritically. Like the one at the weekend, where everyone quoted claims that smoking one to four cigarettes a day doubles your risk of dying from of heart disease, compared with non-smokers, without saying what the base figure was. It could have been from one in 20,000 to one in 10,000 for all anyone learned from most reports. That's hardly a scare story. Such facts are more likely to kill the story than the person.

There were similar problems with Learning and Skills Council figures on exactly how many people would be made redundant in the coming round of cuts. A cut of 1,300 from 4,700 to 3,400 was the headline figure. A cull of top managers would be followed by an axe to the lowest orders (clerical grades 1 and 2). Around pound;40 million would be freed for use by colleges and other training providers.

Where would redundancies be made, I asked? A brief chat with people around local council offices and a glance at numbers employed at head office in Coventry proved inconclusive. The press office was as helpful as it could be, pointing out that "it is early days, we are consulting the unions and staff and no exact figure is known".

Sally Stewart, LSC director of human resources, explained all: "Around 350 are filled by temporary staff and around 300 are vacant. The proposed changes we have announced are about making the LSC fit for purpose rather than just smaller." They were part of a reform package "to enable the organisation to become more dynamic and more customer-facing," she said. So it seems the Public and Commercial Services Union will be fighting to protect fewer than 800 jobs - the same number as in the previous cull.

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