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  1. Election 2024
6 June 2024

It’s official: Sunak’s £2,000 claim is a lie

The government’s own statistics watchdog has ruled that many people would have “no way of knowing” the truth about the figure and how it was produced.

By Will Dunn

The government’s statistics regulator, the Office for Statistics Regulation, has concluded its investigation into Rishi Sunak’s claim that “independent Treasury officials” provided costings showing that Labour’s spending plans would require a tax hike of more than £2,000 per household.

The OSR decided that while it is “not for us to say whether the number itself is accurate or not”, the way in which it was presented suggested Sunak needs a refresher course in the regulator’s principles of “intelligent transparency”. Hunt and Sunak have repeatedly presented the £2,000 figure as a tax hike, which most people would therefore understand to be an annual rise, but it is actually spread over four years. The OSR took issue with this: a person who had not read more detailed documents relating to the claim “would have no way of knowing that this is an estimate summed together over four years”, it concluded, adding: “We warned against this practice a few days ago.”

The OSR is in a delicate position here, and its language is necessarily careful. It is subject to the principles of pre-election sensitivity that apply to all civil servants, but it also has a duty to ensure numbers aren’t misused – as, in this case, they very clearly have.

The Conservatives began claiming that Labour’s spending plans imply a tax hike of £2,094 per household on 15 May, when Jeremy Hunt published a document entitled “Labour’s tax rises”. The document repeatedly presents its claims as official statistics: “Almost every costing contained here has been conducted by HM Treasury,” it claims. It also declares that if Labour is elected, “these are the numbers officials will present them with”.

Sunak repeated the claim that the costing of opposition policy was the work of “independent Treasury officials” in Tuesday night’s debate with Keir Starmer.

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But these claims were untrue. James Bowler, permanent secretary to the Treasury, wrote to shadow treasury minister Darren Jones on Monday confirming that Hunt’s document was not an official opposition costing, because it “includes costs beyond those provided by the civil service” and that the £2,000 claim “should not be presented as having been produced by the Civil Service”.

Some parts of the document can be said to be based on opposition costings, but the civil servants who wrote the costings documents qualified that their findings were “uncertain” and “driven by assumptions provided by special advisers” – who are appointed by the Conservative Party and cannot be considered impartial.

Those costings are also misrepresented in the Conservatives’ document, in that the costs they arrive at are divided by the wrong number of households (the total ignores that pensioners also pay tax) and as the OSR noted, the £2,000 figure is an estimate for four years, not a £2,000-a-year tax hike as the reader is clearly intended to conclude.

Robert Chote, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to all party leaders on Tuesday morning to remind them to use statistics appropriately. “In the case of the governing party,” he wrote, “it is also important that any public statements made during the pre-election period refer only to official statistics.” In that evening’s debate, Sunak repeated his £2,000 claim 12 times, falsely presenting it to 4.8 million viewers as an official statistic.

The response from the OSR is notable in that it has arrived considerably faster than previous judgements. One of Chote’s predecessors, Andrew Dilnot, described the claim that leaving the EU would save the UK £350m per week as “potentially misleading” in May 2016, a month before the Brexit referendum. In September 2017, Dilnot’s successor David Norgrove wrote to Boris Johnson to express that he was “surprised and disappointed” at the then foreign secretary’s continued use of the figure – but by then it had long since played a decisive role in the vote.

It’s encouraging to see the statistic authorities recognise the danger of allowing such claims to gain traction – but will it stop the Conservatives from using them?

[See also: Could Vaughan Gething’s donations scandal affect Starmer?]

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