Newspapers are full of numbers, particularly upmarket ones, and numbers in an article are just like words in that they are there to convey information. However unlike words we tend not to ask ourselves what numbers mean, or to question if they are correct. In March this year, the Daily Telegraph faithfully reported figures from a Conservative party press release, that claimed ‘nearly a million people’ have come off incapacity benefit rather than face new medical tests for what is now called the Employment & Support allowance (ESA). The figure in the press release was actually 873,000, still a very large number nevertheless.
The article quoted the party chairman, Grant Shapps, as saying that the figure was a vindication of the government’s stricter policies on benefit claimants, and a demonstration of how the ‘welfare system was broken under Labour’. Readers were led to suppose that this showed the scale of malingering before the coalition put a stop to it. And before long, other like-minded newspapers took up the call, in their efforts to convince voters that the government was on the side of ‘hard-working families’ and was cracking down on vast numbers of ‘job shirkers’ and ‘benefit scroungers’.
But the big number was a lie, there is no other word for it. And the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, had to reprimand ministers, though in polite Whitehall language, about their misuse of statistics. The 873,000 alleged malingerers had never received incapacity benefit. They were new claimants, aggregated over three and a half years. Many withdrew their claim because they recovered from their condition or found a job. In 2011-12, out of 603,600 established benefit claimants referred for new medical tests, just 19,700, that is 3.3%, withdrew their claim before taking them. That figure, which most people would think small, represented the true scale of people pretending to be sick.
Mr Dilnot has had to warn ministers before about misusing statistics, or putting it more bluntly the quotation of bogus figures. The Prime Minister was rebuked in January when he claimed the national debt had gone down when in fact it had gone up. In December the Health Secretary was asked to withdraw his claim that NHS spending had risen in real terms ‘in each of the last two years’, and the Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith was on the naughty step for claiming this May that 80,000 people had moved into jobs as a results of the new benefits cap. Politicians, like journalists and campaigners, habitually quote figures selectively, seizing on those that support their case, ignoring those that don’t. But the examples above are surely deliberate attempts to mislead the public. What can be done?
The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration has proposed that the Head of the UK Statistics Authority take greater control over the collation and publication of departmental statistics, and that ministers should not have advance access to the release of official figures, to prevent their putting their own ‘spin’ on them. Perhaps Dilnot should have the power to require a House of Commons censure debate on a minister’s conduct. Big lies about big numbers need big deterrents.
Abridged from an article by Peter Wilby in the The Guardian