Sunak tax figures row 'damaging trust', stats watchdog says

UKSA chair says politicians should be clearer about the source of stats after PM said officials had signed off on claim Labour would raise taxes by £2,000
Sunak said Treasury officials had calculated that a Labour government would mean a £2,000 tax rise. Screenshot: ITV

Rishi Sunak’s claim that Treasury officials were responsible for an analysis of Labour tax pledges based on Conservative Party figures is damaging to trust in political debate, the UK’s statistics watchdog has said.

The prime minister found himself in hot water yesterday when it emerged that the Treasury’s top official had warned against attributing a costing of Labour tax policies that was partly based on Conservative Party estimates to civil servants.

In a general election debate on Tuesday, Sunak said: "Independent Treasury officials have costed Labour's policies and they amount to a £2,000 tax rise for every working family".

But a letter from Treasury permanent secretary James Bowler that was made public yesterday made clear that “civil servants were not involved in the production or presentation” of the figures Sunak was referring to.

Bowler said he had “reminded ministers and advisers” that “costings derived from other sources or produced by other organisations should not be presented as having been produced by the civil service”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Sir Robert Chote, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said the row highlighted the need for politicians to use statistics transparently in the run-up to the election.

“If you're going to make high-profile numerical claims about things, then it's a good idea to define clearly what it is that you're talking about and you're trying to measure,” he said.

“You should say how you've calculated the numbers, you should identify the source that the underlying figures, the underlying data, comes from. You should explain to people what confidence they can have [in] that and what uncertainties might lie around it. And in particular, in cases where you distil a whole lot of complicated analysis into a single number or a soundbite, it's always a good idea to ask yourself ‘Would the average person in the street hearing this number have a realistic chance of understanding what it means, what its significance is, without having to hand them eight pages of explanatory material?”

Chote added: “In this situation, the prime minister basically said or implied that this had been signed off in total by the Treasury – the Treasury permanent secretary has himself said that that wasn't the case. And clearly having that in dispute is not great for overall trust in the dialogue and the debate as a whole.”

He said there have been two issues under contention – whether the £2,000 figure is accurate, and whether Sunak was right to attribute it to Treasury officials. The first issue is for political parties “to have a political debate about”, he said.

“It's certainly not our job to fact check the numbers… But when you've got people getting the wrong picture about the confidence, the independent verification that goes behind this, that's not a great place to be,” he added.

Chote's comments come shortly after he urged political leaders to commit to “ensuring the appropriate and transparent use of statistics” in their general election campaigns.

In a letter this week, Chote called on the heads of political parties to adhere to UKSA's principles of "intelligent transparency" and use stats to "enhance understanding of the topics being debated and not be used in a way that has the potential to mislead".

"We will be willing to highlight publicly where statements draw on statistics and data that are not published or are presented in a misleading way," he warned.

“Bad precedent”

Since Bowler’s letter was made public yesterday, several commentators have criticised the convention – which dates back to 1955 – of civil servants being asked to cost opposition parties’ policies.

Chote said his view is that “this was a bad precedent when it started and we'd be much better off without it because it confuses the picture”.

“It puts the Treasury in a very difficult position because their officials are effectively held responsible for numbers that are partly shaped by political biases,” he said.

“Both the advisers and the Treasury have played by this rule book, which is long established, but I think it's a rule book we could probably do without,” he added.

Starmer: Sunak broke ministerial code

Yesterday, Keir Starmer said Sunak's claim that Labour would hike taxes by more than £2,000 if it wins the general election amounted to a breach of the ministerial code.

The Labour leader told LBC: “He breached the ministerial code because he lied and he lied deliberately.

“We have made clear that our plans are fully costed, fully funded, they do not involve tax rises for working people – so that’s no income tax rise, no national insurance rise, no VAT rise,” he added.

“And the prime minister, with his back against the wall, desperately trying to defend his awful record in office, resorted to lies and he knew what he was doing, he knew very well what he was doing.”

Responding to Starmer’s comments, a Conservative Party spokesman said: “This is a man who has broken every promise he has ever made. It is now for him to explain whether he has ditched his policies yet again or intends to break his own fiscal rules.”

They added that during the ITV head-to-head, Starmer had claimed a mental-health policy included in the costings was not a Labour Party policy “despite publicly committing to it only five weeks ago”.

“The costings provided for this policy are the lowest estimate provided by the Treasury and available on their website,” they said.

“If he becomes prime minister, he won’t be able to just cry lies when presented with the reality that he needs to find £2,094 worth of tax per working household to fill his black hole.”

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