Political leaders warned about stats transparency in general election campaigning

Watchdog will speak out if stats are used in a misleading way, political parties are told
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The UK’s stats watchdog has urged political leaders to commit to “ensuring the appropriate and transparent use of statistics” in their general election campaigns.

In a letter to the leaders of the UK’s political parties, UK Statistics Authority chair Sir Robert Chote stressed that stats should be used in debates to "enhance understanding of the topics being debated and not be used in a way that has the potential to mislead".

The letter, which comes amid a row over the prime minister's claims about Labour's tax plans, reminded politicians of principles set out by the Office for Statistics Regulation – UKSA’s regulatory arm – of “intelligent transparency”.

The principles, which are designed to help government departments and other public bodies use stats responsibly day to day, demand that statistical claims and statements are based on data to which everyone has equal access, that are clearly and transparently defined, and for which there is appropriate acknowledgement of any uncertainties and context that people need to be aware of if they are realistically to interpret what they mean.

“Adhering to these principles is just as important when parties are using statistics and making quantitative claims to help their candidates seek public office,” Chote said.

“Needless to say, the use of statistics in political communication is often necessarily succinct and devoid of lengthy explanation. Under these circumstances, a good rule of thumb is to consider how a reasonable person would interpret the statement being made and ensure that this is not likely to be misleading in the absence of additional information.”

He used the letter, which was also copied to cabinet secretary Simon Case, to warn candidates that the OSR will be monitoring the use of statistics in public debate throughout the general election campaign.

“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.

Chote’s letter also stressed the importance of making sure that any public statements made by the governing party during the pre-election period “refer only to official statistics and data that are already in the public domain and not those to which ministers have privileged access”.

He suggested that adhering to the OSR’s principles is in campaigners’ best interests, by avoiding the need for subsequent clarifications and “possible loss of trust in future claims, either later in the campaign or in government”.

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