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23 May 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:17am

How to make a decision on the EU referendum

Reliable evidence and risk assessments should guide the public in the build up to next month's vote.

By Debbie Abrahams

Whatever you may think about Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England (BoE), he gave a very impressive performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on 15th May. Deftly swatting away attacks, he insisted it was appropriate for the BoE to publish their quarterly inflation report with an analysis of the risks to the economy of leaving the EU; in this particular report, the Bank warned that Brexit would impact on the UK’s economic growth, with a potential recession following. In a few sentences he explained what many of my political colleagues have failed to – how data and evidence from a variety of sources are analysed for their quality, their validity and their strength enabling an assessment to be made of the risks, as well as their likelihood, in relation to the implementation of a particular policy. In this case, the policy in question is about leaving the EU.

I am a great advocate of good quality risk and impact assessments. They should provide strong evidence to help policy-makers make informed decisions. Too often, evidence is scant, ignored, or selected by policy-makers to help make the case for the policy they’re trying to drive through – policy-based evidence as opposed to evidence-based policy as Dr Alex Scott Samuel calls it.

In relation to the EU referendum, evidence can also help voters decide how to vote. With less than 35 days to go until the most important political decision in a generation, polls say that about 10% of voters are still undecided whether they will vote to stay in the EU or leave. And this reflects my experience on the doorstep too. One of the key issues that people have said to me is that there isn’t enough information with evidence to enable them to weigh up the pros and cons of EU membership. Another of the issues raised is who and what information should they trust – how reliable is it?

As someone who believes passionately in evidence-based policy, I thought it would be useful to provide a quick check list to help those of you who are still undecided so you can judge for yourselves the quality of evidence you may come across, and so its reliability. I have also provided some links to useful sources of evidence at the end of this piece.

But decision-making is not just a rational process. Where I think all of the EU referendum campaigns have singularly failed, and don’t seem to have learnt any lessons from the Scottish referendum, is that we must appeal to the heart as well as the head when we campaign, with hope and passion, not fear.

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Recent analysis of last year’s election results from Professors Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee and David Stuckler shows that the attitudes and values of the majority of the British public are firmly rooted in wanting a fairer society, with principles of equality and social justice. We need messages and a vision for Europe that reflects these values, that reinforces why EU countries came together in the first place – for peace and prosperity after two horrendous world wars.

Reeves et al also showed, as other studies have done, that there are concerns about immigration, particularly in those communities with housing pressures and where other public services are in crisis such as the NHS and, increasingly, education. But immigration was also raised as an issue in communities where there is no diversity. For me, this says more about the daily pressures people are facing and how politicians on the centre left and centre right have failed to have any meaningful debate about immigration until recent months. Prior to that it was discussed only under duress from certain political parties, always inflammatory and always negative. And with the EU referendum around the corner, immigration is once again flagged up on the doors and in the polls as a key issue.

I take solace from the many emails and other contacts I have had urging me to do more about the dreadful plight of Syrian and other refugees. The haunting pictures on our television screens of children’s bodies washed up on beaches, as they die risking life and limb crossing the Mediterranean, because the terror they and their families faced in their home country was far, far worse, has touched thousands of people. The unaccompanied children living in absolute squalor on our doorstep in the Calais ‘jungle’, vulnerable to the worst kinds of exploitation, have left many of us thinking, what if that was my child?

I’m proud that in the wake of the Second World War, the UK helped to draft and was one of the first signatories to the UN Convention for Refugees ( )so that anyone, anywhere could claim refuge from persecution. I believe most people feel that way too. But for some, superimposed on top of this, are feelings of fear about jobs, public services but also about difference. What about my job? Will employers want to pay me less, or even replace me? What about my kids’ education? Will there be enough school places? Where will they live? What about housing supply? Will it push rents and housing prices up? Will they be good neighbours?

And many of these questions relate to economic migrants from the EU as well. Politicians must respond to these issues by engaging with communities to understand the local impacts of migration. We must make sure that communities with migrant populations are appropriately resourced and supported so that pressure on services are mitigated, migrant and indigenous communities get to know each other, and employers are prohibited from undercutting local wages by recruiting solely from the EU. The Labour Party and I have been pushing hard for this and on 27th May Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Minister for Immigration, will be in Oldham to discuss this with local people.

But we must also understand the huge role that migrants have and continue to play in our economy, for example, with approximately 1 in 4 doctors in the NHS coming from abroad and, according to the British Medical Association, making ‘a valuable and important contribution to the NHS’. Although there are year on year variations it’s estimated that all migration contributes about 1% GDP to the economy, with EU migrants contributing the most.

I’ve already spoken about being an unabashed Europhile & internationalist. This is no doubt partly as a result of my own experience – my great grandparents were migrants from Germany and Poland at the turn of the last century, my grandmothers were French & Irish, my Dad’s wife is Dutch and they retired to Spain, my brother’s wife is American and they live in the US, and my husband was born in South Africa. These are the emotional ties that I have with Europe and beyond.

My previous work as a public health consultant took me across the world but predominantly across Europe. Viruses such as Zika and Ebola don’t recognise borders. Nor do organised criminal gangs or tax evaders. Or carbon, particulates, or N0x emissions. All of these issues require working closely with the EU and more widely. I believe the best way to achieve this is being part of Europe, not on the fringes.

I have experienced the immense benefits of cultural diversity and employment opportunities beyond our shores. And there is also reliable evidence of the economic benefits of EU membership to the UK as a whole – 3.5m jobs, 14,000 in Oldham. The biggest trading block in the world, contributing £227bn to the economy last year alone. But that’s enough from me and why I’m voting to stay in. You judge for yourself!

Checklist to assess the reliability of evidence

Is the data or evidence from an independent source with a history of providing reliable information, for example, an academic team, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (more reliable), or is it based on unsubstantiated opinion (least reliable)?

If it is an academic report, is it a one-off study (less reliable) or a systematic review (most reliable)?

If it is a forecast, how reliable are the models used? Has the same model made accurate forecasts in the past?

Does it explain if there are any limitations or assumptions underpinning the study and how these affect the findings (more reliable)?

Are several independent sources of information saying the same or similar things (more reliable)?

If information is based on an analysis of data, does it provide the source of the data and how they’ve analysed it (more reliable)?

Sources of data and evidence

About evidence




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