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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era