The Government has been allegedly caught fiddling with figures in order to push through austerity on exaggerated and misleading premises yet again. It’s hardly a surprise from a Government which distorts its own figures and definitions so consistently, it’s a wonder that ministers can ever keep track of them all.
This time, the statistics under the spotlight are those cited by health secretary Jeremy Hunt in his core argument for introducing changes to Junior Doctors’ contracts. Hunt claims that people are 20 per cent more likely to die of a stroke on a weekend, something which he believes his seven day NHS proposal would change.
It’s a shocking thought that, within one of the most sophisticated medical infrastructures in the world, life or death can depend on the day of the week in which you have the misfortune to fall ill.
However, there is growing concern that this claim simply isn’t true: 59 senior medical professors and doctors wrote a letter to The Times, arguing that the statistic has been distorted for political end. They claim that the government has been using “inappropriate” and “out of date” data to “misrepresent” statistics on stroke care. In fact, they feared that the use of these statistics was actually putting more lives in danger as people suffering from a stroke on the weekend may now wait until the following Monday to seek help, risking severe harm to their health.
UCL Professor David Curtis, who specialises in stroke care and has authored more than 200 reports on the matter, has been most direct in his response, directly accusing the health secretary of “lying”. “It’s like the dodgy dossier in Iraq,” he says. “He’s trying to find excuses for his actions and he knows he doesn’t really have any.” Hunt, naturally, denies the accusations and wrote on Twitter: “Intelligent transparency not just thoughtless [sic] pumping out statistics the key.”
But it’s not the first time that this Government has been accused of distorting facts, figures and definitions in order to push through the case for cuts. A look at the Conservatives’ time in government reveals a disturbing track record of such troubling and underhand tactics.
On 30 June last year, the government’s own child poverty watchdog announced that the Conservatives’ policies would help push a million more children into poverty over the course of this parliament. The following day, it was reported that Iain Duncan Smith had announced that the definition of child poverty was to be changed. He argued that the measurement criteria was “flawed” and the government would alter what poverty indicators could be taken into account.
And in July 2015, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced his ‘living wage’ for Britain. However, as the Living Wage Foundation was forced to politely point out, the wage in question wasn’t actually a living wage by their formal definition at all. While Osborne was pledging £7.20 per hour, the living wage rate calculated by the very organisation that popularised the term stands at £7.85 per hour.
The Government’s many claims to support “affordable housing” has also come under pressure amid its refusal to pin down precisely what this pleasant buzzword meant. It was revealed that under their definition, the average Londoner was deemed capable of affording £400 per week rent; a colossal sum which no reasonable person could have believed was implied by the term "affordable".
Statistics and definitions are hard to get passionate about. For all but the most committed political anoraks, such facts and figures may appear painfully dull or intimidatingly complicated. I fear the Government is relying on apathy over official figures to plump up their own arguments and plough on with their campaign of attacks on working class and vulnerable people in the name of austerity.
It's easy for the Conservatives to act like they're governing well when they're constantly changing the goalposts and then declaring victory, but it’s a deeply dishonest and self-deluded way of going about politics.
In one sense, it’s almost reassuring; any twisting of the facts suggests that even the Government knows its policies simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. However, the possibility that the Tories know their policies are causing considerable hurt to all but the richest in our society, but simply do not care, is even more disturbing.