Fraser Nelson

A new Brownie Buster

A new Brownie Buster
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Michael Scholar: hero. The newish head of the UK statistics authority is finally coming to the aid of the statistics nerds who have been protesting that Gordon Brown makes things up. Normally, the ONS do not censure Mr Brown when he misrepresents their data: that's not their job. But as head of the Statistics Authority, Sir Michael has - wonderfully, inspirationally - written an open letter to the Prime Minister telling him not to lie. Well, not quite in so few words, but this is the plain implication.

What is significant is that Sir Michael is using his job to protect  the integrity of statistics in Britain. One of my favourite ever facts is that "65 percent of the UK population do not believe statistics". This is not because the people compiling them are crooked, but because people like Gordon Brown try to willfully deceive the electorate by careful editing and abuse of figures. Usually, the Tories are too witless to complain but Chris Grayling has been on Brown's case with this. And Sir Michael has adjudicated.

This is a healthy step forward for democracy. Next time Brown tries to use dodgy figures - on immigration, knife crime, whatever - he will have to ask himself "will Sir Michael expose me?".

So far, the press has not spent too much time exposing Brown's half-truths and fiddles. Arguments about statistics lose viewers and readers, so statistical lies are seldom exposed in the papers or on broadcast. It is a structural flaw in the mainstream media, which Brown exploited to the full. But the digital media is ideal for tearing apart figures, and subjecting them to endless analysis. We have unlimited energy and space to devote to exposing any not-so-sweet little lies.

And now with Sir Michael Scholar on his case, Brown knows there is someone from within government apparatus who is not afraid to blow the whistle on him if he tries one of his Brownies again.

P.S. I don't often do this, but Grayling has just issued a press release showing Brown's lies and how they were nailed. I paraphrase it below. I hope you're reading this, Douglas Alexander, because you repeated plenty of these Brownies on the Today programme last Saturday. Brownies may well be the first casualty of this digital election.

1) THE BROWNIE: "Some people talk as if net inward migration is rising. In fact, it is falling – down from 237,000 in 2007, to 163,000 in 2008, to provisional figures of 147,000 last year” (Downing Street website, 26 March 2010).

THE TRICK:
He used two different sets of statistics that should not be directly compared without caveats. For 2007 and 2008 he used Long-Term International Migration estimates. These include data from the International Passenger Survey, the Irish border (separate until recently), incoming asylum seekers and migrants who arrive on short-term visas but stay longer, or vice versa. For 2009, he only used the Provisional International Passenger Survey estimates. These do not include asylum seekers or people who overstay their initial visa. Unsurprisingly, this gives a smaller figure.

2) THE BROWNIE:
“We have shown our commitment to our armed forces by increasing expenditure on them every year... We want a spending path for the armed forces that is completely consistent with their responsibilities” (Hansard, 24 June 2009, Col. 795) AND “The defence budget was rising every year” (Evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, 5 March 2010)

THE TRICK: He was using nominal (cash only) sums, which did not adjust for inflation.

3) THE BROWNIE: "Everyone now has a clear right to see their neighbourhood policing team spending 80 per cent of their time on the beat” (Number10.gov.uk, ‘Speech on crime and anti-social behaviour’, 1 March 2010).

THE TRICK: The pledge did not apply to all 140,000 police officers in England and Wales, only to the 13,500 neighbourhood constables and 16,000 community support officers who work in neighbourhood policing teams.