Hugh Bayley: Salvaging the truth from flood of official statistics

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WE have already started the longest general election campaign in the UK’s history, which is the consequence, perhaps unintended, of a decision earlier in this Parliament to agree to fixed-term Parliaments.

When voters cast their votes, they will make judgments on our respective parties, our leaders, the constituency candidates and the issues during the campaign. They will make those decisions based on the information available to them at the time.

In the interests of transparency, accountability and democracy, it is important for the information upon which people make decisions to be accurate. Rex Stout, a US crime writer, wrote: “There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”

During the general election campaign, it is important that we have more of the former and less of the latter.

The guardian of the integrity and trustworthiness of official statistics is the UK Statistics Authority, which was set up in 2008 as a result of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, introduced by the Labour government to remove political – that is, ministerial – control of national statistics, the Office for National Statistics and its officials.

The UK was slow off the mark compared with other countries. Statistics Norway was established as an independent entity as far back as 1876, and it uses its independence to publish a dossier of key figures for circulation to the public before each Norwegian general election. The UK Statistics Authority did a similar independent and impartial job of publishing key statistics before the Scottish referendum. I hope that it will use its independence to do so again before the general election.

The public have a right to know how much the national debt, for example, has risen under the coalition Government; how much the deficit, the rate at which the national debt increases, has fallen; and by how much the Government have failed to meet their promise to eliminate the deficit by the end of the Parliament.

The public have a right to know the waiting times for hospital treatment compared with under previous governments. They have a right to know the crime rate and our trade and investment figures. Immigration will be a big issue in the election, and we want reliable figures upon which the public can make a judgment about the relative merits of the different parties’ policies on immigration. It might be sensible to have figures about the cost to the UK of membership of the European Union or statistics on the number of people who have lost access to legal aid.

Those will all be issues in the election, and I hope people will be able to make judgments based on good facts. I would like to see the UK Statistics Authority publish figures on such matters.

The independence of the authority was a great step forward, but it did not go far enough. The authority’s independence and well-regarded code of practice for official statistics apply only to official statistics, not to all statistics published by the Government.

On the Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill in 2007, Theresa Villiers, the Conservative spokesperson at the time, pointed out that only 12 per cent of statistics published by the Home Office were designated as official statistics and would therefore become controllable by an independent statistics authority.

She said: “The Bill leaves intact the two-tier system between National Statistics and other official figures… the whole two-tier division should be abolished.”

The problem is that the decision on which figures to designate and therefore quality control as official statistics is taken by Ministers, not by the independent statistics authority.

I came up against that flaw on January 6, 2014, when the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, claimed that more money was being spent “than ever before” on flood defences. I took that claim to the statisticians because it was directly contradicted by figures that I had recently received from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in answer to a Parliamentary question. The statisticians concluded: “Departmental spending on flood defences in 2011-15 will be lower than it was in 2007-11 in both nominal and real terms.” Indeed, the figures showed that spending would be £247m lower.

I wrote to ask the views of the UK Statistics Authority, and it agreed with the conclusion that flood defence spending had indeed fallen, not increased. The chair of the authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, [told] me in a letter: “It is my view that it would...serve the public good if Defra were to consider publishing official statistics on expenditure by the relevant organisations on aspects of flooding and coastal erosion management in future.”

We should establish a cross-party consensus before the election to ensure that whoever is elected will make the necessary reform to confirm the independence and trustworthiness of the figures that the Government and the UK Statistics Authority produce.