Earlier in the summer, I wrote an article for ConservativeHome setting out why I thought Gordon Brown had broken his own rules on statistics and, as a consequence, I explained that I had complained to the Statistics Commission. It was an admittedly rather techie article but made an important point about how Brown works. It is now time for an update.
Last week’s Sunday Times covered the conclusion of the Statistics Commission investigation under the headline: “Watchdog raps Brown over use of statistics”.
The Statistics Commission is a serious, sober-minded organisation which does not seek to court controversy. But, in a carefully worded letter, its criticisms of Brown’s use of statistics are damning.
The incident is a timely reminder that our new Prime Minister is no fresh start from the Blair era of spin but a slippery manipulator of statistics. This time, however, he has got caught.
By way of background, following this year’s Budget, the Institute of
Fiscal Studies had calculated that 5.3m households had lost out as a
consequence of the Budget measures. A hapless Treasury official had
confirmed this figure and the then Chancellor, when being grilled by
the Treasury Select Committee, was desperate to produce an argument
which would enable him to dismiss the IFS estimate. He did so by
claiming that the take up for Working Tax Credits (WTC) for families
without children had increased by ‘almost 100,000’ since 2004-5.
I asked a Parliamentary Question seeking clarification as to the most
recent take up figures. In light of the answer, I suspected Brown had
reached the figure of take up increasing by ‘almost 100,000’ by (1)
including households with and without children in his calculation and
(2) using the 2005-6 tax credit take up figures before their official
release, in breach of his own rules.
That was my original complaint. And I was wrong.
The response from Nick MacPherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury,
made it clear that the then Chancellor did not reach his new number for
WTC take up in the manner I had previously thought. Instead, he
reached his figure by comparing the ‘annualised’ figure for 2004-5
(that is, the official figure) with a ‘snapshot’ figure for December
2006. The snapshot figure is reached following surveys and was not
mentioned in response to my Parliamentary question seeking the most
up-to-date take up figures.
The only problem is that the final series and snapshot series of data
are not comparable. The snapshot figures are consistently higher than
the annualised figure for the same period. So, if you compare the
annualised figure for one year with a snapshot figure for a later date,
you will always have an exaggerated increase in the level of take up.
(It would be the equivalent, in looking at inflation figures, to
compare last month’s CPI figure with this month’s RPI figures – a
methodology which would always suggest inflation had jumped sharply).
The Statistics Commission agreed. The Chairman, Professor David Rhind
stated that ‘it could be misleading to compare the level of the
snapshot series with the level of the final annual series – unless it
can be confidently asserted that the snapshot series is a good
predictor of the final series’. Given that, as Prof Rhind stated, the
snapshot series ‘is not a particularly good predictor’, it is clear
that a respected watchdog considers that the evidence Gordon Brown
provided to the Treasury Select Committee was based on a misleading
Rather charitably, Prof Rhind concluded that ‘it looks to us as if the
statistical advice given to the Chancellor on this point was
unsatisfactory’. Perhaps, but it is consistent with the way in which
Gordon Brown has manipulated numbers in his long years in the Treasury.
As a Party, we are warning the British public that, whatever Gordon
Brown says, you have to look at the small print. Here is one
illustration of how reality and what the Prime Minister says rarely