Thursday, 20 June 2013

The government's statistical untruths: something must be done

Bending the truth. Making yourself look good. Forcing your opponents onto the back foot. It's all the rough-and-tumble stuff of In the Thick of It politics, isn't it? All a bit of harmless fun? The cut-and-thrust of normal life in a democracy? Business as usual?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. There are limits. You can't just say whatever you want and pretend that it approximates anything like a coherent or creditable argument.

Especially not when it concerns statistical reality - increasingly the very language in which politics is conducted, but increasingly a rigorous way of thinking and proving assertions that's under attack (as we noted the other day) in an age of 'post-truth politics'. An age the dawning of which we should question and resist.

Here's the two nastiest and most mendacious examples, both concerning the weakest and the poorest in our society. Again and again the Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps (above) has said that new checks investigating people on benefits have pushed many claimants off those rolls - the implication being that they were frightened that their lack of real need would be revealed. Except that it wasn't true, that he was adding up everyone who was coming off the rolls for whatever reason (because they'd found work, for instance) whether they were being 'checked' or not. Shapps said one million people had withdrawn their claims rather than have them checked out. The real figure was less than 20,000. And that then he tried to resist the release of any more information about exactly that topic - leaving civil servants between a rock and a hard place, to put it mildly. Not a particularly edifying spectacle, is it?

Then have a look at the 'statistics' quoted by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. Back in May he was rebuked by Andrew Dilnot, the head of the UK Statistics Authority (created in 2008) for claiming that 8,000 people had been encouraged back into work by the welfare cut the Coalition government has imposed on the total level of state cash any one family can receive. Well, there was absolutely no justification for this number whatsoever - the Secretary of State appeared to have plucked it out of thin air. Did he grovel? Apologise? Not really. Instead he's been going on about how child poverty has been dropping - another entirely baseless claim.

It's a depressing state of affairs, all this, and something has to be done to stop public faith in government numbers collapsing altogether.

Here's two proposals that might help. One: give the Statistics Authority the power to cite Ministers in the House of Commons for their behaviour. After three offences, a confidence vote would have to be held in that Minister or Secretary of State. Two: draw up a stronger code of conduct for civil servants, creating a duty to at least have a stab at statistical reality in all their numerical releases and advice to Ministers. As soon as they bend the facts to suit the Minister's agenda - and it would again be the Statistics Authority that would have the power to decide that they had - then they would be subject to a written warning from the Permanent Secretary. Three strikes, then, and they'd be out.

Now that'd focus minds nicely, wouldn't it?