Leading article: The figures on average pay do not add up

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THE USES of numeracy: does John Prescott know the difference between a mean and a median? This simple mathematical puzzle explains why the figures given for "average earnings" always seem so high - it is because they are high. Oddly enough, as our economics editor reports on our news pages today, two-thirds of people in full-time jobs earn less than the "average" full-time earnings of pounds 20,861 a year. That is because the average is distorted by a relatively small number of people who earn much, much more than the rest. Premiership footballers, for example, tend to earn considerably more than pounds 20,861 a week.

However, if the average is calculated in a more meaningful way, it comes down from pounds 20,861 a year to pounds 17,360. That is the median or "middle" figure: half of all full-time workers earn more and half earn less. We shall try to use that measure of average earnings, equivalent to pounds 334 a week, in our reporting in future.

So what has this got to do with the Deputy Prime Minister? Well, as the shop steward for the Amalgamated Union of Cabinet Ministers and Allied Trades, he needs to do a bit of maths homework before he puts in his next bid for a pay rise. His members will be keen to increase their pay, because they are about to be overtaken by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman. He is expected to go up to pounds 95,000 next April, just pipping the basic cabinet minister's pay of pounds 94,157. And it will be no use Mr Prescott railing on about the triumph of presentation over substance - the Prime Minister probably regards that as a good thing. Nor is it a good idea to accuse the boss of "acting like Jesus Christ", which is what Mr Prescott did when members of the Cabinet were told to give up pounds 16,000 a year of their salaries.

This time, he needs a solid mathematical rationale. Mr Prescott should argue that, because the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor earn more than the rest of the Cabinet, 20 of the 22 cabinet ministers earn less than the average, and need a pay rise to catch up.

David Blunkett, the instigator of the numeracy hour, would be proud of him.