Inside Westminster: Mind the 'perception gap', or else we pick on the wrong targets

Oliver Wright

Ask yourself a simple question. On a scale of one to 10 how would you rate the services provided by your local GP surgery or hospital? Now ask yourself a slightly different question. On the same scale how would you rate the services provided by the NHS nationally?

Now compare your figures. Any difference and you may have fallen foul of the “perception gap”. A recent study by the Royal Statistical Society found that in 10 key areas of public life  there is a marked difference between what we believe to be true – and what really is.

Take a few examples. Nearly 60 per cent of us do not believe that crime is falling when it has in fact declined by 20 per cent in five years. We think that 31 per cent of the population are immigrants, when the real figure is 13 per cent. And around one in three of us thinks we spend more on unemployment benefits than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions. Going back to the NHS, the picture is the same. Department of Health figures reveal that 77 per cent of us think our local NHS is doing a good job compared to 63 per cent who think it’s doing well nationally – a perception gap of 14 per cent.

Such misconceptions are hazardous for politicians and civil servants making policy. It is all very well to make laws based on the “something must be done” principle – but if nothing really does need to be done we end up with bad laws to solve problems that don’t really exist in the first place.

Take, for example, immigration. The Government recently announced its intention to make visitors to Britain from countries including India, Kenya and Sri Lanka pay a £3,000 bond – to prevent them from staying on illegally after their visas run out. At the time the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said the move was the “next step” in making sure Britain’s immigration system was “more selective while still welcoming the brightest and best to Britain”.

But politicians in those countries affected reacted furiously to the plan – as did UK businesses and tourism groups who warned that it could put off legitimate visitors from coming to Britain, and damage investment.

So presumably it was evidence – rather than just a need to seem “tough” on immigration – that led to the plan? Well, if so that evidence is hard to come by. The Home Office admits it does not have accurate figures on those people who overstay their visas – as, unlike other countries, we do not do checks on people leaving Britain at ports and airports. The only figures they could point to were voluntary or forcible removals of people from those countries.

And what do they show? That so far this year just 146 people from Nigeria have been removed, out of an estimated 30,000 Nigerians who came to Britain in the period and contributed £72m to the economy. Another 835 people from India were removed, out of 42,000 visitors contributing £1.2bn. Just 23 people from Kenya were removed. So the evidence for imposing a bond doesn’t appear to be there – even if the public clamour for “action” is. The Government seems to be making policy based on a perception gap that could potentially damage the real interests of the country.

As the political conference season gets under way it is vital that politicians of all persuasions build their arguments around facts and not perceptions. And, as the RSS points out, the media needs to use statistics genuinely to illuminate issues rather than to sensationalise. Only then will we start to make decisions based on reality.

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