The chair of the UK Statistics Authority Sir David Norgrove has written to Boris Johnson saying he was “surprised and disappointed” that the foreign secretary reiterated a highly controversial claim that Britain pays £350m a week to the EU.
In a letter published online, Norgrove branded Johnson's claim "a clear misuse of official statistics".
But Johnson last night called the intervention a "wilful distortion of the text of my article” and demanded it be withdrawn.
This was not the first time the watchdog has disputed the claim: after hitting the headlines during the EU referendum, former UKSA chair Sir Andrew Dilnot said the £350m claim peddled by Vote Leave was “misleading and undermines trust in official statistics”.
The official Brexit campaign wrote on its bus that the UK sends the EU £350m a week, adding: “Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
Pro-Leave figures such as Johnson repeated the figure regularly on the campaign trail – but critics have argued the number fails to account for the UK's rebate from the bloc.
In a 4,000 word treatise in the Daily Telegraph this weekend, Johnson risked the anger of opponents by brazenly reiterating the claim.
“Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” he wrote. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”
In his letter, Norgrove wrote: “I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350m per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union.
“This confuses gross and net contributions. It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave.”
He added: “It is a clear misuse of official statistics.”
Writing back, Johnson accused the statistics chief of a “complete misrepresentation of what I said”.
“I must say that I was surprised and disappointed by your letter of today, since it was based on what appeared to be a wilful distortion of the text in my article,” he added.
A spokesperson for Johnson then claimed that Norgrove had made it clear in a phone conversation between the two of them that he was complaining about media coverage of the article, not the actual wording of it.
But the UK Statistics Authority has said this was not the case, and that Norgrove "has not changed the conclusion set out in his letter to the foreign secretary".
In an interview with Civil Service World earlier this year, Norgrove remarked on the difficulties of preventing people from misusing data, especially during unusual circumstances such as the EU referendum.
“In the case of the £350m, I thought it was clear that the Brexiters didn’t really mind about the number so long as there was focus on it,” he said. “So the controversy about the number was helpful to their cause because it kept people discussing it, and most people don’t see a big difference between £350m and – say – £100m because [either way] it’s a lot.”