Departments and ministers under fire over dodgy stats

Perm secs urged to up their game after “damaging year for standards in public debate”
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By Jim Dunton

23 Mar 2023

Government ministers and departments have been chastised for failing to provide evidence for claims allegedly supported by statistics and not correcting errors once they have been established.

The Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, and 10 Downing Street featured prominently in fact-checking charity Full Fact’s latest annual report, which calls for a step change in attitudes to boost the quality of information provided to the public.

Full Fact said that in 2022 as many as 50 MPs – including two prime ministers, cabinet ministers and opposition front-benchers – failed to correct false, unevidenced or misleading claims, despite its requests to do so.

It said 2022 had been a “damaging year for standards in public debate” and urged permanent secretaries to take a keener interest in ensuring data and other supporting information was available to evidence claims made by ministers and their departments.

High-profile concerns flagged by Full Fact included claims related to migrant-boat Channel crossings made last year by then-home secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Robert Jenrick. The report gave examples that either turned out to have been incorrect or remained unsubstantiated, prompting the Office for Statistics Regulation to intervene.

Full Fact said a September claim made by Patel in parliament that the majority of arrivals in small boats from France were Albanian nationals had not been backed up by Home Office data and was subsequently shown to be wrong in a Freedom of Information Act response.

It said assertions made by Jenrick about the true ages of asylum seekers arriving at one asylum-processing centre had not been supported by any published Home Office figures, and that the situation had not been rectified.

A false claim about employment levels that was made by then-prime minister Boris Johnson and repeated multiple times was also referenced by Full Fact. It said the claim – that 500,000 more people were in work following the Covid-19 pandemic than had been before – remained uncorrected despite challenge by the OSR, the UK Statistics Authority and parliament’s Liaison Committee. As CSW reported in April last year, there were 588,000 fewer people in work than there had been two years earlier.

Full Fact’s latest report notes that current PM Rishi Sunak has stated he wants to “restore trust into politics”. But it said that neither No.10 nor the Department for Health and Social Care had provided data to support a claim about the flow of patients through emergency care that Sunak made in January, despite repeated requests.

It added that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had taken “several months” to substantiate details in a chart comparing UK sanctions imposed on Russian bank assets alongside those put in place by the European Union and the United States.

Full Fact said that, in addition to its own work, the OSR had written to government departments at least 10 times last year with grievances about accuracy or the lack of transparency in statistics.

As well as the Home Office’s use of statistics in relation to small-boat Channel crossings, other concerns included the Department for Work and Pensions’ claims about its Way to Work campaign, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

Full Fact said government departments – and ministers in particular – were “sometimes too quick to throw around numbers to support their claims and too slow to publish the important supporting or contextual data behind them”.

It said a strengthening of the ministerial code, a culture change on the part of both ministers and government departments and strong scrutiny by the statistics regulator and parliamentary committees were vital components for maintaining public trust in the quality of data.

“This must include adhering to the principles in the Code of Practice for Statistics and OSR guidance regardless of the status of the data they are using,” Full Fact said.

“Permanent secretaries and the heads of professions for statistics should take the lead in fostering this culture within their departments.

“Paragraph 8.15 of the ministerial code should also be strengthened to make it clear that ministers should adhere to the principles of the Code of Practice for Statistics for all data they use to back up statements they make.”

Full Fact said that at present the code only mentioned official statistics.

Charity chief executive Will Moy said that with less than two years until the next general election there was no reason to believe the behaviour highlighted during 2022 would improve of its own accord.

“Without a determined effort to set and live up to high standards in public debate, 2023 will be every bit as damaging to public trust,” he said.

“With an election on the horizon, that’s dangerous. Bullshit manifestos, misleading statistics and adverts that don’t look like adverts have featured in every election we have seen.

“Politicians shouldn’t need fact checking to know this isn’t honest politics.”

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