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Department for Education: Use of Statistics

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 11 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to address the concerns raised in the letter sent to the Secretary for State for Education on 8 October by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority concerning the department’s presentation and use of statistics.

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to confirm our support for the UK Statistics Authority’s work. This ensures that the communication of statistics across government meets the highest standards. The Education Secretary has written to the UKSA to respond on its points and clearly set out statistics that show the success that this Government’s education reforms are achieving. The Permanent Secretary has also responded, giving detail on the department’s work to strengthen our internal processes on fact-checking.

I thank the Minister for that, but it does not answer the Question. This latest rebuke by the UK Statistics Authority is the fourth since the Secretary of State’s tenure began less than nine months ago. In his letter, Sir David Norgrove writes:

“I regret the department does not yet appear to have resolved issues with its use of statistics”,

and calls on him to,

“ensure that data are properly presented in a way that does not mislead”.

In an era of fake news and alternative facts, perhaps that is not too surprising, but it is completely unacceptable in a government department, particularly when previous warnings have been ignored. In response to Sir David’s letter, the DfE’s Permanent Secretary admitted, “We need to improve our performance”, but the Secretary of State’s response showed no such contrition. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise for the manipulation of statistics by him and fellow Ministers and state unequivocally that the department will begin complying fully with the statutory code of practice on statistics?

I reassure the Chamber about one statement we made that has caused criticism. I shall read it and then give a little context. We said that the UK is the third highest spender on education in the world, according to the OECD, spending a higher proportion of our GDP on education than Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal and Spain. This is correct, but I accept the noble Lord’s comment that the context needs to be made clearer; indeed, the Permanent Secretary acknowledged that in his letter this week to the UKSA.

My Lords, on the subject of his department’s use of statistics, is my noble friend aware of the Economic Affairs Committee report which pointed out that the penal rates of interest being charged on student loans—currently 6.3%—are counted as income by the Government, even though they will be written off 30 years down the line? Therefore, the numbers give the impression that the deficit is being reduced by charging students those penal rates of interest when in fact it is not. Is it not time that students were treated fairly and the statistics put in order?

My Lords, I certainly agree that student loans constitute an important and sensitive issue, which is continually under review. Recently, we agreed to the lifting of the threshold at which repayment begins, and I am sure that debate will continue in this important area.

My Lords, I am quite happy to believe that the Minister and the Secretary of State have not behaved improperly, but that noble stance cannot be said to have been taken right across the department. Will the Minister give the House an absolute assurance that no pressure has been brought to bear by either Ministers or special advisers on any civil servant in the department to act outside the political impartiality and neutrality that is part of our Civil Service?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, absolutely no inappropriate pressure has been put on civil servants. I do not have any spads, so I have not been able to put any pressure on them. I assure the noble Lord that we have never endeavoured to mislead. To take one area about which people were concerned—the statement on the number of children in good or outstanding schools—the figure of 1.9 million is correct, but it is also correct that 600,000 of those relate to the increased pupil population over the past few years. One of the most important things that the department has done is to ensure the expansion of pupil places in good or outstanding schools. That is something that I began when I joined the board six or seven years ago and have been able to put a lot more emphasis on since I became a Minister. Indeed, I regularly berate any local authority considering increasing pupil place numbers in poor schools. There is a context around all this, but I assure the noble Lord that I have no knowledge of any inappropriate pressure being placed.

My Lords, the issue of the manipulation or misuse of statistics is extremely important, but it is perhaps worth recalling that this came to a head last week because the Government were able, by the use of statistics, to challenge the assertion of head teachers that school budgets were being cut in an unsustainable way. Those among your Lordships who have direct contact with schools will know that that is the case in many instances. Schools are struggling to maintain the level of their curriculum and the offer that they believe appropriate for their students because they have lost funds. Does the Minister accept that that is the case?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not accept it. I will use the work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has done a long-range analysis of school funding since 1979. It has said that the real-terms per-pupil funding for five to 16 year-olds in 2020 will be more than 50% higher than it was in 2000 and 70% higher than it was in 1990.

I am not aware of the practice in other government departments. As I said in my earlier answer, this is a subject of ongoing debate. We have to consider where the cost of this education lies. Is it with the individual, who will benefit in his or her future, or with the general taxpayer?

One of the most chilling remarks I heard during my limited time in government was from a special adviser complaining about civil servants being “prissy” with the figures. Will the Minister take this opportunity to state clearly that the Government believe it is an absolute duty of civil servants to be prissy about the figures?

My Lords, as I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I am not aware of any undue pressure. In all my dealings with officials they are meticulous in the presentation of their data. Many noble Lords will be aware that there has been a tightening of data releases, so Ministers are not privy to information until 24 hours before it is released. I can assure you, there is no skulduggery going on as far as I am aware.