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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.