Inside Whitehall: Beware - Humpty Dumpty statistics can mean whatever you want them to

The UK economy only grew faster over the last three months


There are few more treacherous stories for a political journalist to write than those that involve statistics.

Take just three recent examples. “Britain is growing faster than any other major advanced economy, official figures reveal”. “Up to 1.5 million people could be addicted to prescription drugs, MPs have warned.” Or “600,000 unemployed migrants are living in Britain, an EU study has found”.   

At first these stories seem beguilingly straightforward. But take a closer look and they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, based upon statistical nonsense.

Take the growth story. Yes it is technically true that Britain is growing faster than any other major advanced economy – but only over the last three months. Over a more meaningful period since the Coalition came to power in 2010 only France and Italy have had lower GDP growth rates than us while the US economy has grown twice as fast.

Next up prescription drugs. The 1.5 million figure, quoted by the Home Affairs Select Committee, is actually an extrapolation from a 2001 poll by the BBC Panorama programme.

It found that three per cent of 2,000 adults surveyed had been taking benzodiazepine tranquillisers on prescription for longer than four months. Hardly up to date and hardly an authoritative figure.

Finally, the 600,000 unemployed migrants. This actually refers to the number of economically “non-active” EU migrants living in Britain. But “non-active” is not the same thing as unemployed. According to the European Commission, only 28 per cent of the total is made up of jobseekers, less than the proportion accounted for by pensioners (30 per cent). The figure also included students, the disabled and those who don’t need to work.

These examples – all deconstructed by the statistical fact-checking website Full Fact – show clearly three of the problems when dealing with statistics: selective use of figures, insufficient data and misinterpretation.

While newspapers, politicians and the public may misinterpret statistics, there is an even more significant problem if the data which is used to produce them in the first place is itself inaccurate.

And yesterday that is exactly what Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of UK Statistics Authority, suggested might be the case.

He told the Public Administration Select Committee that UKSA is to launch an inquiry to try and establish how accurate so-called “administrative data” collected from across the public sector is.

The inquiry comes after UKSA found significant discrepancies in recorded crime figures suggesting police forces were deliberately under-reporting crime.

Although it won’t say so publicly, UKSA is concerned that other public-sector bodies may also be recording inaccurate statistics because they have an ulterior interest in  doing so.

This matters because statistical information is used across the public sector to make policy and determine priorities, and if it is incorrect or incomplete we may end up making bad policy or pursuing the wrong priorities.

To give just one example: if crime appears to be falling than it might provide evidence to reduce police budgets. But if it is just not being reported then that reduction would be based on a false assumption.

None of this is easy or straightforward and the UKSA report is unlikely to be clear cut. But the basic point is clear: we the public need to care more about how we use statistics and the Government needs to care more about making sure they are accurate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Hilary Mantel in 2003 - years before she released a short story, in which she fantasised about the death of Margaret Thatcher  

In what universe is Hilary Mantel's imaginary assassination of Margret Thatcher worthy of police investigation?

Matthew Norman
Noddy Holder must be glad he wrote 'Merry Xmas Everybody' as he'll earn £800,000 this year from royalties.  

Noddy Holder: A true rock ’n’ roll hero, and a role model for sensible people everywhere

Rosie Millard
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam