Statistics watchdog raps Treasury over personal tax summaries


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The official statistics watchdog has warned the Treasury after letters were sent to 24 million people detailing how their taxes are spent.

In its own letter published this week Sir Andrew Dilnot, head of the UK Statistics Authority, draws attention to several questionable features of the letters. Sir Andrew does not explicitly censure the Treasury, but a source close to the authority said the very act of sending the letter, which was copied to David Gauke, Financial Secretary to the HMRC, indicated that ministers’ cards have “been marked” over future communications on public expenditure.

The Government has already been criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for lumping together, in the letters, diverse items of public expenditure such as the pensions of public sector workers and social care for the elderly under a broad heading called “welfare”. Some have also accused Conservative ministers of seeking to exaggerate the size of welfare spending to generate public support for the party’s planned cuts in the next Parliament.

The letter from Sir Andrew notes that it is “good practice” for public bodies to “clearly define” category labels. The Treasury’s letters sent out by the Government fail to do so.

Sir Andrew also notes that when George Osborne came up with the concept of the personalised letters in 2012 the Treasury’s worked examples included a breakdown of state welfare spending into sub-categories such as “old age” and “housing”. The department also broke down “public order and safety” into spending on the police, courts, prisons and the fire service.

In the letters that were actually sent out, all of that spending, including that for the fire service, is simply described as “criminal justice”.

“Worse things have been done by the Government and worse things undoubtedly will be done in future but this marks their card,” said the source close to the UK Statistics Authority.

Sir Andrew’s letter was addressed to Will Moy of the Full Fact website, who had asked the watchdog to state what context should be included in government summaries of tax expenditure.