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Why is the UK’s supposedly impartial statistics watchdog joining the Boris-bashing?

17 September 2017

7:46 PM

17 September 2017

7:46 PM

Okay, it’s a rainy Sunday, but surely the new chief of the UK Statistics Authority has better things to do than send angry tweets to the Foreign Secretary? Alas not. Today Sir David Norgrove, the newish chairman of the UK Statistics Agency, tweeted out a letter declaring himself ‘surprised and disappointed’ that BoJo has ‘chosen to repeat the figure of £350 million per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union’. He says that this ‘confuses gross and net contributions…. It is a clear misuse of official statistics’.

Perhaps Sir David didn’t have time today to also purchase a Telegraph subscription and therefore was unable to read what the Foreign Secretary actually wrote. Because, unlike the ordinary everyday abuse of statistics by politicians (on which the Statistics Authority is normally silent) every word from Boris (this time) was accurate. Here’s what he had to say:-

‘Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week. It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology.’

How on earth does this sentence ‘confuse gross and net’ as Sir David claims? To be sure, Vote Leave did try that trick in the past, but Boris has been careful not to do so here. It seems that Sir David has blundered, and in his haste to he has criticised a point that the Foreign Secretary has not actually made.

We all know the deal with the EU: we pay in, then there’s the rebate and EU spending (farm subsidies, etc) in the UK. So our net contribution is about £200 million a week.

But as Boris argued in the campaign debates, the gross figure matters. If you’re talking about control, it’s the main figure to use. Boris says, for example, that money spent by the EU in the UK (on farming and regional development) could be better directed by the UK government. You can agree or disagree with this but it’s fairly clear that it’s not quibbling about the net amount: it’s about ‘control’. About what happens to the gross, before it’s converted into net.

So Boris was not talking about the net figure – but Sir David seems to think otherwise in his letter. So he has distorted Boris’s argument, then attacked the distortion. Nowhere does he quote what Boris says. For a letter devoted to upholding standards of accuracy, a mistake like this is nothing short of extraordinary.

Boris was talking about gross payments because it’s impossible to make any argument about control of money referring to a gross figure. Taxation is routinely referred to as gross: the lower-paid half of the country gets all of its money back (and more) in public services. So their net contribution is negative (and rightly so). But people still talk about the sum that’s taken from them. Those who advocate lower taxes emphasise – as Boris does – control. That people spend their own money better on themselves than the government does on their behalf. So the gross figure is, obviously, the most relevant.

Doubtless Sir David doesn’t like this argument, but in trying to say that it’s illegitimate  – or somehow a “clear misuse” of statistics – he is over-reaching and calling the neutrality and even competence of his office into doubt. During the campaign, Sir David’s more measured predecessor Andrew Dilnot was called in to adjudicate in the £350 million figure being used in genuinely dodgy way (ie, leading people to suspect that this was the net payment that could be recouped after Brexit). Dilnot rightly said that this was ‘potentially misleading’ – ie, if used the wrong context. Emphasis on ‘potentially’.

So when the Foreign Secretary uses the gross figure in legitimate correct context, why then does Sir David upgrade his condemnation from ‘potentially misleading’ to ‘clear misuse of official statistics?’ He’ll have written his letter for consumption for the press, so for clarity ought to have said that the better figures is a net payment of £200 million a week. Or might that have conceded that Boris has a point about the post-Brexit prospect of more cash to spend on public services?

More seriously, the ONS and UK Statistics Authority have hitherto avoided serious accusations of bias. If under Sir David’s tenure it proposes to embark upon what Niall Ferguson calls “political correction” then it puts its hard-won reputation at risk. Of course, Sir David might soon be firing off letters to Jeremy Corbyn telling him that UK inequality is not rising, and confronting other popular myths – but Mr S won’t hold his breath.

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