The government keeps getting told off for using misleading stats

Most recently, the Department for Education was warned that it "risks undermining" public trust in official figures

11th October 2018

Anyone who follows politics regularly will know there are many ways in which politicians often bend the truth slightly, or present information in a way which might lead us to a conclusion that’s not quite the reality.

One extremely common example is when someone in government says, “We are spending more than ever on X.” It sounds great, but when you take both inflation and that we are an ever-growing population into account, this is nothing to brag about: it’s to be expected.

This debate has been reignited once again, as Sir David Norgrove, head of independent government body the UK Statistics Authority, has issued a rebuke to Education Secretary Damian Hinds, over his department’s use of misleading figures with relation to funding, reading comprehension rates and the quality of schools in the UK.

In the letter, Norgrave says: “I am sure you share my concerns that instances such as these do not help to promote trust and confidence in official data, and indeed risk undermining them.”

Education Secretary Damian Hinds has been warned about his department’s use of misleading stats

In a written response, Hinds has acknowledged the potential for misunderstanding the statistics but has doubled down in certain areas. The government’s claims about funding will strike a particularly discordant note with many teachers and headteachers, about 2,000 of whom marched on Parliament just a couple of weeks ago to protest the highly damaging effects that funding cuts are having on schools.

Schools minister Nick Gibb’s claim that, in relation to reading comprehension among nine-year olds, England had “leapfrogged up the rankings last year, after decades of falling standards, going from 19th out of 50 countries to 8th” is described as “not true” by Norgrove, who pointed out that “figures published last year show the increase was from 10th place in 2011 to 8th place in 2016”.

Norgrove also took issue with a blog post published by the department. He said that by using a truncated axis, not adjusting for per pupil spend — widely regarded as the most important measure of education funding — and by using an international comparison which takes into account all different types of spending on education, including private school fees and other costs not borne out by government, the result was “to give a more favourable picture”.

The final concern raised by Norgrove relates to Department for Education claims that there’s been a “substantial increase” in the number of children in high performing schools. Norgrove concedes that the claim that there’s been a substantial increase in the number of children in schools judged by Ofsted to be high-performing is accurate but is concerned that, stripped of the context of growing pupils numbers, outdated inspections and changes to the way inspections work, the claim “does not give a full picture”.

These instances do not help to promote trust and confidence in official data, and indeed risk undermining them

This is far from the first time Norgrove or the UK Statistics Authority have felt compelled to publicly question and even counter claims made by senior government ministers or departments. The letter sent earlier this week mentions three recent incidents, but also reminds us that there have been four other similar occurrences in the last year: “I regret that the department does not yet appear to have resolved issues with its use of statistics,” he says.

Boris Johnson has also been warned about his misleading figures

The problems with clarity of figures is not confined to the Department for Education alone, though.

Norgrove famously issued a rather stark reprimand last year to then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, criticising his continued claims that there’ll be £350m extra for the NHS as a result of Brexit. Prior to that, Ed Humpherson, the Authority’s director general, responded to a letter of complaint from Lib Dem peer Baroness Grender, regarding the government’s claim in 2016 to have “more than halved homelessness since 2003”. Humpherson agreed with Grender that the statement was misleading and was only true if using a very narrow and specific definition of homelessness.

Norgrove also criticised Theresa May and the Home Office earlier this year, after the prime minister claimed to be boosting police funding by £450m, saying, “The prime minister’s statement and the Home Office’s tweet could have led the public to conclude incorrectly that central government is providing an additional £450m for police spending in 2018/19.” The truth was that local councils would have to force through substantial council tax rises to increase police funding by this amount.

It’s not just the UK Statistics Authority either — cross-party groups of MPs on a number of select committees have also criticised the government over similarly misleading or unclear statements, relating to issues like NHS spending and the government’s flagship free childcare policy.

The current climate for trust is toxic

Taken alone, any one of these instances would be pretty unimportant, and could be written off as honest mistakes. And, given the official language used, particularly in the letters from the UK Statistics Authority, you could be forgiven for assuming this was all well within the bounds of what’s considered reasonable, but the reality is quite different. For a government to be chastised so many times across so many different departments and briefs for issuing misleading and incorrect statements is largely unprecedented. At best, it’s a sign of incompetence spread right across the government, and at worst, it suggests a concerted and consistent effort to mislead the British public. Either way, it has to stop.

The issue has gained the attention of external organisations too. More United is a campaign group founded in 2016 which tries to unite MPs across party lines on key issues. It has launched a petition calling on the Secretary of State for Education to:

  1. Stop the distortion of education funding statistics
  2. Publish a transparent breakdown of the calculations behind the claims
  3. Commit to uphold the principles and practices defined in the statutory code of practice for statistics.

A spokesperson for More United says: “The current climate for trust is toxic. Fake news, imposter news sites and referendum lies, have left trust in politics and politicians in tatters.”

11th October 2018