This week has seen a number of stories based on past-performance figures. We began on Tuesday with the economy, after the 2014 growth forecast for Britain was revised up. Then came a fall in unemployment on Thursday and, yesterday, a drop in crime rates.
It’s nice to be able to feature some positive stories on the front of the paper for a change, but despite all these statistics being acquired from independent bodies (the International Monetary Fund, the Office for National Statistics, and the Crime Survey for England and Wales, respectively), their interpretation is open to debate.
At the end of the week the Government also said that the average wage had risen, claiming figures showed that all except the richest 10 per cent saw their take-home wages rise by at least 2.5 per cent, once tax cuts were taken into account – more than the CPI rate of inflation, at 2.4 per cent.
But your anecdotal evidence tells a very different story, so who is right? The key is in how the statistics are presented. By changing the parameters, most figures can be given results that back up the rhetoric – to some extent at least.
When the Institute for Fiscal Studies accused the Government of “fiddling” numbers on the recovery yesterday, it acknowledged that it had used “a perfectly sensible set of numbers” to calculate take-home pay for the 2012-13 period. It’s just that it used annual figures – up to April 2013 – rather than the most recent weekly set of figures. Labour’s counter-assertion that real annual wages had fallen by £1,600, on average, since 2010, was also dismissed as giving only a “partial picture”.
When you add in the news, also this week, that the National Audit Office has found wrong and inconsistent recording of hospital waiting times, it raises serious questions about the way statistics are used for political gain.
Will governments – or the opposition – ever stop using the extremes to present the figures they want and give us the whole picture?
If I were to tell you that I hope to be alive for at least another 50 years, and that life expectancy when I was born was 72, you might even think I’m in my early twenties!