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17 April 2023

Sunak’s misuse of statistics exposes the real “anti-maths mindset”

The last two years have seen high levels of governmental number-fudging.

By Will Dunn

Rishi Sunak has claimed in a speech today (17 April) that the UK economy suffers from an “anti-maths mindset” that costs the economy “tens of billions per year”. He’s not talking about the billions he handed out to fraudsters as chancellor during Covid; those were counted with diligence and enthusiasm, especially by the organised criminals who received them. For Sunak, the problem is a deep-seated prejudice against numeracy itself that keeps this country in a fog of miscalculation.

The New Statesman can reveal who is responsible for spreading this pernicious mindset: why, it’s none other than the Conservative government and its leader, Rishi Sunak.

Exhibit A is the graph above, published by the Treasury to promote Sunak’s stated goal of halving inflation. It appears from the declining bars that progress towards that goal is well under way, but that’s because (as you can see if you really peer at it) the y-axis starts at 8 per cent, not zero. In February Ed Humpherson, director-general for regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), wrote to the Treasury that this creates “a misleading impression of the scale of the deceleration in inflation”.

Humpherson noted that a similar misrepresentation had been made in a tweet by the Department of Health and Social Care about pay increases for NHS staff, which the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Robert Chote, described as “a poor and misleading representation of the underlying data that risks damaging public confidence in the presentation of official statistics”.

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The truth is that “anti-maths” appears to be essential to this government, which makes extensive use of the backs of napkins to “calculate” claims such as the idea that public-sector pay rises would costs everyone in the country £1,000 (which Chote said was based on “judgements and assumptions that others might wish to debate”). Or that Britain’s new trade deals are worth £800bn (which the UK Statistics Authority called “misleading”). The OSR’s caseload for investigating the misuse of statistics in the past two years has been more than double pre-pandemic levels.

[See also: Inflation is at a 30-year high – what does this mean for you?]

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Sunak himself seems particularly keen on this type of miscalculation. He claimed in parliament in January that Labour’s policies include “£90bn in unfunded spending”, a figure that Full Fact found to be based on a mish-mash of figures including outdated costings, policies that aren’t necessarily planned and the combination of both one-off and annual spending. He told the Commons that his government had halved the immigration backlog left it by Labour 13 years ago, when in fact it had risen by eight times. The Prime Minister has repeatedly claimed that the UK under his government is “delivering record numbers of new homes”, which is only true if you use a specific measure implemented in the 1990s, when British house-building slowed to a crawl. Like previous chancellors, Sunak committed to continue using an outdated measure of inflation, the retail price index (or RPI), because it overstates inflation and allows the government to increase taxes faster than benefits (which are calculated using the lower CPI measure).    

In 2019, as Treasury minister, Sunak claimed that “wages are rising at the fastest rate in a decade”, a claim that was only believable if you ignored inflation. Back then, that was something most of us could do, but today inflation is rapidly dissolving the affordability of everyday life for millions of people. When the Office for National Statistics announces that inflation has fallen back to single digits this Wednesday (19 April), Sunak or Jeremy Hunt will claim that their programme of reducing inflation is working, but again this will be based on a hope that voters don’t understand the mathematical realities of what controls inflation (energy prices, monetary policy and greed, none of which fall under the control of central government), or how it manifests in their daily lives (even at 7 or 8 per cent, prices will still be racing upwards).

It is absolutely right, then, that every British schoolchild is educated in maths until 18; the first module should be on how politicians fudge their numbers.

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