Lives, Lies and Statistics

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Review of 'Britain in Numbers', Simon Briscoe, Politico's £14.99

It may be sad, but I love statistics! However inaccurate, they undermine the Thatcherite cry that 'there is no such thing as society'. You cannot have a statistic that brings more than two people together as a group before generalising to reflect social trends and tensions.

Statistics can be seditious. Just look at the Make Poverty History advert with a child dying every three seconds - on the click of a celebrity's fingers - to observe the power of numbers.

Today there is a propaganda war of information and misinformation to win hearts and minds to one solution rather than another, in which 'facts' can be easily lost to spin, partial emphasis, and omission. Most workers complain of information overload with even the most discerning and informed falling foul of spoof websites or the lies of the far right. Who knows what to believe?

As Simon Briscoe, statistical editor of the Financial Times, says, with such confusion 'political debate suffers, a democratic deficit opens up, and voters are left feeling disenfranchised'. The recent explosion of data and statistics requires context and clarification.

Briscoe has produced a thick, accessible paperback of mostly the written word offering a detailed analysis of government management of statistics. He exposes Whitehall manipulation, camouflage and meddling. For example, he compares the government method for producing unemployment figures with those of researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, who identified 2.8 million claimants in 2002 compared with under 1 million officially. The explanation offered is the role of sickness benefits and further education in masking the true extent of the non-working poor.

The domination of social and economic class jumps out of page after page. Briscoe considers poverty classifications, citing child poverty increasing from one in ten children in Britain in 1979 to one in three in 1998 and around 30 percent now. The huge polarity between comfortable and poor pensioners is just as recognisable, with 90 percent of the poorest fifth relying solely on the state pension of around £80 per week. The gap between rich and poor generally is stark by any definition (and there are many). Nearly half of all adults in Britain lived for at least one year in poverty in the last decade, while the richest half own 95 percent of all wealth.

Briscoe asks, 'Has "social exclusion" become a chosen concept because it is harder to define than poverty?' The question itself is ambiguous and so are many of his points. On asylum, he prefers the UNHCR assertion that 23 percent of asylum seekers arriving in Europe came to Britain in 2002, rather than the Refugee Council's statement that 'Britain takes only 2 percent of the world's refugees'. The use of statistics is wholly political, even when compiled by a statistician claiming to seek unbiased fact. But, usefully, all references offer a selection of websites for further reading and thereby a certain autonomy for the reader.

Briscoe's great strength is in discussing the politics of official statistics. For example, in a style reminiscent of the Ridley Plan to smash the unions, the Rayner Report of 1980 concluded that the Central Statistics Office was 'too heavily committed to serving the public at large'. Thatcher was able to cut statistical services to the sole duty of serving central government requirements. The process has continued ever since. One notable recent loss is the annual 'Economic Trends' article showing tax and social security spends in comparison with other countries - 'a blow', Briscoe suggests, 'to the democratic accountability of policymakers'.

There is now a crisis of the official statistic. Many government departments take scant notice of facts on which to base services, fuelling the dependence upon ideology in determining waiting list targets or funding triggers for local authorities. Briscoe illustrates how difficult it is to find properly analysed conclusions in strategy documents despite the huge growth in raw data. Equally, the domination of 'targets' has replaced the construction of informed social policy.

One implication of the recently published Identity Cards Bill is the shift towards personal rather than collective information, and similarly individualised responses from the state. This fragmentation of statistics reflects the fragmentation of society to a point where, perhaps strangely, we all need to defend the right to accurate collective statistics produced independently of government or corporations. For a start, that means saying No to ID cards.