Coalition rebuked again by UK Statistics Authority- this time on flood defence spending

Statistics head Andrew Dilnot says a Treasury graph on infrastructure left readers with "a false impression of the relative size of investment between sectors".

After entering office in 2010, David Cameron promised to lead "the most open and transparent government in the world". But once again, the coalition has fallen foul of the number crunchers at the UK Statistics Authority. This time, the dispute centres over the Treasury's presentation of figures on infrastructure investment in the government's National Infrastructure Plan.

When the document was published last December, several were struck by how the unusual logarithmic scale used on one of the graphs made it appear as if investment was balanced across all sectors, including, most pertinently, flood defence. In fact, the government had spent £4bn in this area, compared to £218bn on energy, £121bn on transport and £14bn on communications. But the graph, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie noted in a letter to UK Statistics Authority head Andrew Dilnot, suggested otherwise. 

Dilnot has now responded to Labour, stating that "the chart could leave readers with a false impression of the relative size of investment between sectors" and including a redrawn version by stats officials. 

The Treasury version

UK Statistics Authority version

And that wasn't the only correction he issued. 

The coalition also boasted that "average annual infrastructure investment has increased to £45 billion per year compared to an average of £41 billion per year between 2005 and 2010". But as Labour MP John Healey noted in a letter to Dilnot, a footnote to the document admitted that there were "challenges when collecting this data", that the figures did not derive from consistent source material and that they were not comparable with the other data used. He added: "Despite these admissions, the methodology by which the figures were produced is not made clear, nor are the timeframes which have been selected for comparison - 2005-10 and 2011-13 - explained or justified." In response, Dilnot writes that "It would have been good practice for this analysis to have been accompanied by full information about the methods used."

As I noted earlier, this is far from the first time that ministers have been rebuked for their statistical chicanery. In December 2012, Jeremy Hunt was ordered to correct his false claim that spending on the NHS had risen in real terms "in each of the last two years". A month later, David Cameron was criticised for stating that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts" (the national debt has risen from £828.7bn, or 57.1 per cent of GDP, to £1.25trn, or 75.7 per cent of GDP since May 2010) and then in May 2013, Iain Duncan Smith was rebuked for claiming that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap. 

Here's Chris Leslie's response to today's letter: 

Time and again Ministers are being warned not to mislead the public with false claims, dodgy statistics and biased graphs.

Now George Osborne and the Treasury have been told off for misleading people about the government's investment in infrastructure. For example, their chart made it look like investment in flood defences was roughly the same as in other areas, when in fact it was a tiny fraction.

This government has a track record of trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. David Cameron has now been rebuked several times for making false claims: on NHS spending, the rising national debt and the impact of his tax rises and spending cuts on economic growth.

And only last month the Tories came up with more dodgy figures to claim people are better off, but which totally ignored the impact of things like the rise in VAT and cuts to tax credits.

In their desperation to paint a rosier picture than the truth David Cameron and George Osborne are showing just how out of touch they are from reality.

David Cameron talks with residents and environment agency workers in the village of Yalding in Kent on December 27, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser