How reliable are ‘official’ statistics on public policy?

From debt and welfare cuts to poverty and flood defences, we need accurate data to judge our government's record


All governments spin official statistics to claim a good record on managing the economy, public spending and debt reduction. However, this government, and the proceeding coalition, has moved from advantageous interpretation of official statistics to wilful misinterpretation.

So much so that the UK Statistics Authority has censured prime minister David Cameron and communities secretary Iain Duncan Smith on a number of occasion over the last few years.

The prime minister was reprimanded for claiming that the coalition ‘was paying down Britain’s debts’ when debt was actually going up. And Duncan Smith has been warned about his claim that people moved into work as a direct result of the government’s benefit cap.

The latest dodgy use of statistics was during the prime minister’s visit to water-logged Yorkshire, where he claimed that his government has spent more on flood defences than the previous Labour administration. In fact there has been a real terms cut of £250m.

Chancellor George Osborne, with lives wrecked by the Christmas storms, will probably find extra investment for flood protection, just as he found imaginary cash based on estimates of future growth in November’s autumn statement, when he ditched his plans to cut tax credits for the working poor.

Some government figures, such as those relating to homelessness, have been deemed sufficiently misleading that the Statistics Authority has revoked their status as ‘official statistics’. The Homeless Monitor, produced by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has consistently warned that homelessness is far worse than official statistics show.

But perhaps the most worrying of government’s use of statistics is the redefinition of relative poverty, stressing life chances more and downgrading the importance of wealth and income. This is like toning down reference to water when defining thirst. And it magically reduces child poverty into the bargain.

The habit of inappropriate use of official statistics has spread to broadcasters. The BBC Trust has become sufficiently concerned about the use of economic statistics that it is conducting a review on the issue, and has put out a public call for evidence. The nation’s public broadcaster has picked-up on even seasoned economics reporters failing to place figures on growth and debt in proper context.

Sky News is also a ‘non-context’ culprit. On the day of the autumn statement, the broadcaster had the national debt in cash terms emblazoned across its screens, which was seen to increase by the minute, and clearly meant to worry viewers. Yet national debt as a proportion of GDP, which is a more comparable measure over time, shows a much different picture, as this chart shows. (Click to enlarge)
chart - debt to gdp2

What all of this illustrates is that without dependable official figures it is difficult to gauge progress or failure by those we elect to run our country, and the veracity of those we trust to keep us properly informed.

Kevin Gulliver is director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute and chair of the Centre for Community Research. He writes in a personal capacity.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.