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Statistics: Accuracy

Volume 798: debated on Monday 1 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what procedures they follow to ensure the accuracy of any statistics used by ministers in parliamentary proceedings.

My Lords, the independent UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice for Statistics details the practices to which departments must commit when producing and releasing official statistics and of which Ministers must be mindful under the Ministerial Code. Upholding the code of practice in each department is the responsibility of that department’s head of profession for statistics, who is professionally accountable to the National Statistician. This will be reflected in the arrangements of individual departments for ensuring that parliamentary statements are accurate.

My Lords, we know that the Government are worried when this Minister is put up to answer the Question. Is he aware that: on 10 January, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, misled the House on benefit statistics; on 1 April, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, did the same on rough sleepers; and, on 4 April, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, gave false statistics on fuel poverty? For these breaches, should not these Minister be referred to paragraph 8.15 of the Ministerial Code, to which the Minister referred, for breaking the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice? This House is fed up with being given false statistics by government Ministers to cover up the misery caused by their austerity.

If the noble Lord looks at the website of the UK Statistics Authority, he will see when Sir David has intervened since August 2017. Counting the interventions when he has written directly to a parliamentarian, raising issues with their presentation of statistics, four are Conservatives and five are Labour. However—to avoid accusations of misuse of statistics—if one then looks at the indirectly critical letters, where Sir David has written to a third party, agreeing with them and copying the letter to the parliamentarian, my party is the worst offender.

My Lords, does the Minister recall occasions in the other place where, immediately when it was pointed out that statistics or other information given to that House was misleading, Ministers immediately came to the House—not waiting for somebody dealing with statistics in their department or whatever—to make an apology and clear up the matter? Is it not much better to own up? Do Ministers not get more respect from their respective House if they are prepared to accept that what has happened is not right? I recall such an occasion, when a statement was made and an apology was made to me. Does he not recall that too?

Under the Ministerial Code, if a Minister misleads the House, he or she is obliged to put it right. So far as Ministers doing the right thing, a year ago the Home Secretary resigned after inadvertently misleading the House. I say in passing that when it comes to the creative use of figures, none of us can lay a glove on the Liberal Democrats, with their use of bar charts—“Only the Lib Dems can win here”. These multicoloured instruments of fantasy now have a website all of their own on Buzzfeed.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think it wrong that the official statistics body has openly admitted that there is an error in the retail prices index which results in commuters, students and other groups being short-changed? Should not a body responsible for the integrity of our statistics resile from its current position, where it refuses to adjust the error?

My noble friend tempts me to reach for my folder which has a 20-minute speech in response to his debate, which is shortly to begin, on the use of the retail prices index and the role of the UK Statistics Authority. If he can contain himself until then, he will get a very full reply.

My Lords, “lies, damned lies and statistics” is a phrase generally accepted to have been coined by a former Tory Prime Minister. Modern Tory Ministers seem to have misinterpreted it, because Benjamin Disraeli was not advocating it as party policy. The UK Statistics Authority’s latest rebuke of the Department for Education over misleading statistics to support claims of generous funding for schools is the fifth since the Secretary of State for Education took up his post in January 2018. The facts are that £2.8 billion has been cut from school budgets since 2015, leading to 91% of schools having less per pupil in terms of funding. Can the Minister say what it will take for the Government to heed the advice of the UK Statistics Authority that, for a “meaningful debate” on any aspect of public policy to take place, there is a requirement for trustworthy data?

I agree with that. If any Minister misuses statistics then, under the Ministerial Code, as I said, he should put the record right as soon as possible. As I also said, the UKSA covers not just Ministers but all those in public life. We all have a duty to use statistics responsibly, because if we do not, it just debases public confidence in our profession.

In that regard, has the Minister been following the promises made by Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt over the weekend of low taxation and a massive increase in public expenditure? Does he think that those promises should be subject to the Statistics Authority’s considerations?

As a former Treasury Minister, I view with alarm the weeks that are passing during the contest which is under way, where increasingly generous commitments are being made from the headroom which lasts, I think, for only one year. I hope that, in due course, there will be costings for all these commitments so that the members of my party who are choosing which is the most responsible leader can see which one has the most credible economic policy.

I believe my noble friend is referring to the £350 million figure produced during the referendum. That was not a government statistic or a Conservative Party statistic. It was a Vote Leave statistic, which was criticised at the time by Sir Andrew Dilnot, who made it clear that the £350 million was a gross figure that did not take into account the rebate or other flows from the EU to the UK. The gross annual figure of £19.1 billion—the basis of the Vote Leave claim—reduced to £7.1 billion after these factors were taken into account. Sir Andrew concluded, in what might be considered an understatement, that the £350 million figure was “potentially misleading”.