Leader: the coalition's serial abuse of statistics

David Cameron promised to lead "the most open and transparent government in the world", but he and his ministers have repeatedly manipulated data for political purposes.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

The coalition government entered office promising a new era of statistical transparency after Gordon Brown’s serial manipulation of economic data. It was the former prime minister who spoke of a “nought per cent rise” in public spending, who redefined the length of the economic cycle to meet his “golden rule” and who used off-balance-sheet accounting to disguise the extent of government borrowing. All of this, David Cameron said, would “stop”. He pledged to lead “the most open and transparent government in the world”. But rather than inaugurating a regime of candour, Mr Cameron and some of his most senior ministers – George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove – have indulged in acts of statistical chicanery that would make even Mr Brown blush.

To begin with the Prime Minister. In a Conservative Party political broadcast shown on 23 January, he claimed that the coalition was “paying down Britain’s debts”. It was a seductive political message – one that suggested the government’s austerity programme is “working” – but it was also entirely untrue. Since Mr Cameron came to power, the national debt has risen from £828.7bn, or 57.1 per cent of GDP, to nearly £1.19trn, or 75.4 per cent of GDP, not least because of growth of only 1.1 per cent since the 2010 spending review (compared to 4.9 per cent in the United States).

Then, in the Budget, faced with a near-certain increase in annual borrowing, Mr Osborne forced government departments to underspend by £10.9bn in the final months of the financial year and delayed paying membership fees to some international institutions, including the UN and the World Bank. The deficit subsequently came in £300m lower than in the previous year, but at a hidden cost. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted, “There is every indication that the numbers have been carefully managed with a close eye on the headline-borrowing figures for this year. It is unlikely that this has led either to an economically optimal allocation of spending across years or to a good use of time by officials and ministers.”

But the Prime Minister and the Chancellor’s abuses are slight compared with those of Mr Duncan Smith. In the past month, the Work and Pensions Secretary has claimed that 878,000 people dropped their claims for sickness benefits rather than face a new medical assessment; that thousands deliberately registered for the Disability Living Allowance before it was replaced with the more “rigorous” Personal Independence Payment; and that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the introduction of the coalition’s benefit cap. Not one of these assertions was supported by the official statistics.

Thousands of people move on and off benefits each month as their health, housing and employment circumstances change but there is no evidence that they do so for the reasons ascribed by Mr Duncan Smith. As his own department stated in relation to the benefit cap, “The figures for those claimants moving into work cover all of those who were identified as potentially being affected by the benefit cap who entered work. It is not intended to show the additional numbers entering work as a direct result of the contact.”

Mr Duncan Smith’s insistence that the reverse was true was dog-whistle politics of the worst kind. By stating that 8,000 people entered employment as a direct consequence of the benefit cap, he painted them as “scroungers” unwilling to work until the state ceased to subsidise their fecklessness. As for those who had not found jobs, the implication was that they were not trying hard enough.

Then there is the case of Mr Gove. The Education Secretary, who has long spoken of the importance of “evidence-based policies”, claimed in March this year in a newspaper article that “survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance” among schoolchildren. However, as Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, writes on page 29, a Freedom of Information request by a retired teacher, Janet Downs, found that Mr Gove’s sources “included only one properly conducted poll”. The remainder, including a survey conducted by the hotel chain Premier Inn, were either “amateurish, politically biased or irrelevant”.

When politicians misused statistics in the past they did so in the knowledge that few had the will or the resources to challenge them. But in the age of social media, a minister intent on fiddling the figures can be exposed in minutes. Mr Cameron and Mr Duncan Smith have both been publicly censured by the UK Statistics Authority after their claims were rebutted by a small army of data-literate bloggers and tweeters.

Ministers may continue to give preference to policy-based evidence over evidence-based policy, but they should be aware that they can no longer do so without consequences.