Tuesday, 5 May 2020
Uses and abuses of statistics
Those of us interested in these sorts of things lost confidence in government statistics during the years Mrs Thatcher was prime minister (1979 to1990).
In the early years of her premiership the measure of people unemployed rose to 3 million. This figure was alarming so the government set about manipulating the figures. I can t remember all the details now and long ago threw away my notes, but there were something like 17 changes in the way the counting was done, and the effect of something like 14 of them was to reduce the figure.
Some of the devices were that school leavers were removed from the count, as were those not entitled to benefits (though of course they still had no job but wanted one.)* Another ruse was to take people our of the potential workforce and place them on "Invalidity Benefit." Twenty years later our government put a lot of energy into gruelling "fitness to work tests" to force them back in again, as tellingly depicted in the film the film "I Daniel Blake."
A hangover of this deception persists today when even the "impartial" BBC solemnly intones without question claims by complacent ministers that unemployment is now the lowest for decades without mentioning that the count no longer incudes anyone under 18, those in part-time work who want full-time work, those on zero-hours contract who would like something more reliable, and the hordes in involuntary self-employment (ie they have lost their jobs and are hawking themselves round as "consultants" or similar and earning only a fraction of the minimum wage)
Be that as it may the reason for bringing this up now is the farcical claim that the target for 100 000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April had been reached.
The vital day was Thursday 30 April. Earlier in the week the figure still stood at around 80 000.but Matt Hancock the Health Secretary boldly proclaimed that his target would be reached.
And lo and behold it was - not just reached but had leapt forward to 120 000.
A great national achievement , said Hancock., only for it to be revealed that this super figure had been reached by including 40 000 tests sent out in the post and not necessarily yet returned. Over the weekend the figure fell back to the 80 000s
it is difficult to believe that this is happening, and now accepted as routine, not in a banana republic or emerging third world democracy with a largely illiterate population, but here in one of the most politically sophisticated and highly educated countries in the world.
Why are we not outraged?
Because, particularly since the referendum of 2016 and subsequent elections, political lying has become commonplace. We can no longer trust anything our government tells us.
I normal circumstances this is disgraceful. At a time when the health of everyone in the country is seriously at risk, such "playful" distortions of the truth to achieve a PR hit are criminal.
* My friend John Cole of Bradford has directed me to this detailed list of the changes: