“The Prime Minister doesn’t want the truth, he wants something he can tell Parliament” (Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister)
First published 27 July 2013
Last week David Cameron made the most of the opportunity to claim that his party’s policies on crime were working and that, even though he had cut police numbers, they were responsible for the recent fall in reported crime in England and Wales. This claim is nonsense and, of course, he knows it. According to the UN, recorded crime has been falling in developed nations for most of the last 20 years or so and as you can read from Channel 4’s Factcheck blog below this phenomenon has little to do with the government’s policies (although properly researched explanations are somewhat thin on the ground). But Dave somehow forgot to mention that niggling little detail.
Crime reduction is just one of an ever expanding list of official statistics and ‘research’ that the coalition government and its Tory members in particular (a few Liberal Democrats like Sarah Teather have honourably refused to play along with what I, bluntly call, lying to the public) have abused and misrepresented since their first day in office.
Taking a lead from their friends in the Republican Party and Fox News in the US these lies have been drilled in to the party’s elite propagandists which include a small number of unattractively aggressive, to the point of rabidity, MPs like Nadhim Zahawi and Priti Patel and supportive media outlets like the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator. Executed with apparent military precision these lies even make it on to the supposedly liberally biased news output of the BBC and are largely unchallenged. Consequently the lies themselves through repetition and dispersion become the public’s accepted ‘truths’.
Just in case you were taken in by these lies here are a selection of some of the more serious falsehoods originated by the Tory’s from what is a long and disreputable list:
• “As Rogoff and Reinhart demonstrate convincingly, all financial crises ultimately have their origins in one thing – rapid and unsustainable increases in debt” (George Osborne, Chancellor, 2010)
To be fair to George Osborne at the time he made this statement it was widely believed that the research of the eminent Harvard economists was “convincing” in arguing that high debt especially at 90% (the tipping point) of GDP causes slow growth. The problem with Osborne’s statement is that, even though their research has now been shown by 28-year old PhD student Thomas Herndon (and accepted by R&R) to have little or no predictive value in terms of level of debt v GDP growth, he is continuing with the policies (Plan A) that he said were justified by the research and has not to my knowledge made any announcements to inform the public that aggressive austerity is not the necessary cure that he had claimed. Briefly, the research conclusions were based on errors contained in a spreadsheet that, once corrected, do not produce results that support Reinhart and Rogoff’s and Osborne’s policy solutions.
Watch this clip from Stephen Colbert’s ‘The Colbert Report’ for an amusing summary of the details:
type or copy and paste the password: imincorrigible
(Video © Comedy Central)
(If the clip shared on Vimeo has been removed. You may still watch the clip on Videobang using this link Colbert on Reinhart and Rogoff. Videobang is not supported for embedding on WordPress)
Not only has our Chancellor decided to carry on addressing a problem that doesn’t actually exist more recent research suggests the opposite might in fact be true: slow growth leads to higher debt, not the other way around.
As reported in The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/reinhart-rogoff-debunked_n_3361299.html) University of Michigan economics professor Miles Kimball and University of Michigan undergraduate student Yichuan Wang have run Reinhart and Rogoff’s data and found “not even a shred of evidence” that high debt levels lead to slower economic growth. University of Massachusetts professor Arindrajit Dube finds evidence that Reinhart and Rogoff had the relationship between growth and debt backwards: Slow growth appears to cause higher debt, if anything. R&R’s research has been used to justify austerity programmes worldwide and the human costs of this error have been enormous. Notably George Osborne has yet to publicise or act upon any of these findings.
• “Already we’ve seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs. This clearly demonstrates that the cap is having the desired impact” (Iain Duncan Smith 2013)
When it comes to misrepresenting the official statistics IDS is a serial and, given his policies and the harm that he is attempting to justify, particularly nasty offender. In an attempt to justify the national welfare cap and to play on and reinforce the Conservative party’s and Daily Mail’s favourite assumption about the unemployed, IDS announced that 8,000 unemployed “shirkers” had chosen to get a job rather than be limited in the amount that they can claim in benefits. In this instance not only was IDS misrepresenting the statistics, the DWP version of the statistics used to support the statement had explicitly cautioned that the figures did not show any impact of government policy to cap welfare. “The figures for those claimants moving into work cover all of those who were identified as potentially being affected by the benefit cap who entered work. It is not intended to show the additional numbers entering work as a direct result of the contact.” Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, said IDS’s claim was “unsupported by the official statistics published by the department”
As reported in The Guardian and some other news outlets but unsurprisingly not in The Daily Mail, in an open letter, Dilnot also criticised the two sets of figures released alongside the ministerial statement, saying they did not fully comply with the UK’s codes of practices on statistical releases, with particular concerns around information on methodology and sourcing, and possible sharing of the data in advance with some media outlets.
Despite the persistently high total numbers unemployed, out of work benefit claimant numbers tend to be quite fluid with people leaving benefits and moving into work on a regular basis. IDS needed to prove that these flows were significantly higher for those affected, and by more for them than for other claimants and, of course, he did not have the statistics to prove this so he invented a conclusion that can not be drawn from the data. I do not know if any of the 8,000 people concerned were claiming above £26,000 a year but it is highly unlikely as last year only 58,000 out of 2,500,000 claimants or 0.02% were in receipt of more than the cap.
• “This is a new figure, nearly a million people have come off incapacity benefit…before going for the test. They’ve taken themselves off” (Grant Schapps, Conservative Party Chairman 2013)
I’ve chosen Mr Schapps or Mr Green as he pretends to be called when selling get rich quick books to the gullible, but I really could have selected from almost any one of our Tory ministers for this one. Mr Schapps and IDS however were particularly involved in driving the PR effort for this scam. With some people literally dying from their existing conditions within months and occasionally weeks of being found by an ATOS medical assessment that they are fit for work, the government are understandably keen to demonstrate that there are thousands of claimants that are ‘pulling a sickie’ and that it is their policy of assessments and reducing support levels that are driving these feckless people back into work.
In order to do this they reported that “more than a third [878,000] of people who were on incapacity benefit [who] dropped their claims rather than complete a medical assessment… A massive 878,300 chose not to be checked for their fitness to work.”As Jonathan Portes wrote in The Guardian “In fact, every month, of the roughly 43,000 people who leave ESA, about 20,000 have not yet undergone a work capability assessment (WCA); a number that over four years or so adds up to the headline 878,000. There is no mystery about this: there is an inevitable gap between applying for the benefit and undertaking the WCA.
During that time, many people will see an improvement in their condition and/or will return to work (whether or not their condition improves). DWP research has shown that overwhelmingly these factors explain why people drop their claims before the WCA; it also showed that it was extremely rare for claimants not to attend a WCA. In stating, in effect, that official figures showed the opposite of this, the story was simply wrong.
• “We’ve seen a rise [in claims] in the run-up to PIP. And you know why? They know PIP has a healthcheck. They want to get in early, get ahead of it. It’s a case of ‘get your claim in early”’ (Iain Duncan Smith 2013)
Here is Jonathan Portes again on DLA/PIP claim: “Some very specific figures were cited [by IDS]: “In the north-east of England, where reforms to disability benefits are being introduced, there was an increase of 2,600 in claims over the last year, up from 1,700 the year before, the minister told the Daily Mail. In the north-west, there were 4,100 claims for the benefits over the past 12 months, more than double the 1,800 in the previous year, he said.” But these figures, to be found on DWP’s website, in fact represent the change – successful new claims minus those leaving the benefit – in the total DLA caseload from August 2011 to August 2012, crucially including pensioners and children who are not affected by the change from DLA to PIP. They do not constitute even indicative evidence of a DLA “closing down sale”. So what happens if we look at new claims, or indeed the total caseload, for those (between 16 and 64) who will be actually affected by the change?
In fact, both fell, in both regions, between those two dates. These falls – well within the normal quarterly variation – tell us little, except to show conclusively that Duncan Smith’s statements are supported by no evidence that he has offered whatsoever.”
Having been rebuked by the UK Statistics watchdog, IDS was reported to the Parliamentary Committee for Work and Pensions where he will appear when MPs return from their 6 week summer holiday (see my blog on MPs pay for more about that) and where the DWP officials were questioned two weeks ago.
• “The government will ban khat so that we can protect vulnerable members of our communities and send a clear message to our international partners and khat smugglers that the UK is serious about stopping the illegal trafficking of khat.” (Theresa May Home Secretary 2013 – announcing the proscribing of the use of khat and its classification as a class C narcotic)
At her request the government’s advisors, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), reported to Theresa May in what she accepted was a robust review as follows:There is insufficient evidence to indicate that chewing khat causes health problems, or wider problems in society, that justify imposing a ban in Britain. They found no evidence to indicate that the trade was linked to organised crime, or used to fund the Islamist terror groups. Their inquiry also found that there was little evidence to suggest that Heathrow was becoming a European hub for the re-export of the stimulant.
Prof Les Iversen, chairman of the ACMD, reacted to May’s decision by saying: “The ACMD considers evidence of harm associated with the use of Khat to be insufficient to justify its control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971” and in the report itself indicated that criminalising Khat has significant risks in terms of criminal activity:
“it can be assumed that if the price of khat increases, for example due to criminalisation, there is the potential for exploitation by organised criminal gangs already involved in the illegal drug trade and this would arguably increase funds available to such networks and groups if khat use went underground” (p.55)
“TORTURE numbers, and they’ll confess to anything” (Gregg Easterbrook, American author)
If Easterbrook is correct then the coalition must be using torture techniques of which the CIA would be justly proud. The list of the coalition’s statistical victims is a long one and yet it strikes no commentators as laughable that, as is widely believed by just about everyone on all sides of the political spectrum, having caved in to lobbying from Big Tobacco PR representative Lynton Crosby, David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt put the lack of research and the importance of “evidence based policy making” as the key reasons for the decision. It’s worth noting that not all Conservative MPs slavishly followed the party line on the tobacco decision. Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, (http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/07/sara-wollaston-tories-are-pandering-to-election-strategists-on-plain-packaging/) told the World At One that the decision to stall introducing plain packaging was ‘pandering to election strategists’ and that this was a ‘very sad day for public health.’
I keep hoping for evidence based policy making and particularly objectivity in the production and use of official statistics but this government has proved to be consistently dishonest in its dealings with the UK electorate. Sadly the Tory’s multi-channel assault on truth has largely been successful if the polling on welfare ‘scroungers’ and our apparent fear of crime and immigration is any measure.
“Ministers have an enviable intellectual suppleness and moral manoeuvrability. Translation: You can’t trust them further than you can throw them” (Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister)
It is simply not good enough for ministers of state like Iain Duncan Smith and others to effectively lie to the public and then, when called upon to explain their dishonesty to parliament, excuse themselves by saying “I believe that I am right” as Duncan Smith did last week. Did you see what he did there? He avoided having to accept that what he has been doing is lying to the public by saying he believed what he was saying was true even though, as we now know, the evidence on which he was basing his statements either did not support his claims or indeed contradicted them. Either IDS has the same ability to interpret data and statistics as do members of the flat earth society (yes, apparently it still exists and its members don’t believe that the earth is an oblate spheroid) or he’s a bare-faced liar and has lied to the public and to parliament in furtherance of his ideologically driven agenda.
For reasons that I have yet to grasp, the great British public expects its government to spin or ‘massage’ the official data and to present statistics in a way that shows their policies in the best possible light. Indeed there are many commentators who see this manipulation of evidence as a necessary element of government communicating its ideological message and persuading the electorate of its ‘successful’ implementation of policy. I am not one of those commentators and what the government is doing is not spinning or if it is the wheels have parted company with the reality omnibus.
“When the facts change, I change my mind” (Quote attrib. to John Maynard Keynes)
I don’t want my government to spin the effects of its policies to show them in the best possible light – I want the objective facts. I would like to think that if the official statistics showed that a government policy was not working or, worse, that it was having unexpectedly harmful effects, the relevant minister would change the policy rather than carry on regardless. It might not serve the narrow interests of the minister’s party but it would be in the interest of the nation and isn’t that what they always tell us they are in government to do?.
*A note for lawyers:
For the purposes of the government’s use of statistics my definition of a lie is when in full knowledge that the official figures demonstrate a certain version of the situation, government minister’s suggest the data shows something completely different. It is my view and that of many others that IDS and Grant Schapps in particular are guilty of misrepresenting data about the effects of government policy in recent months. These widely reported misrepresentations are in most objective commentators assessment “unethical”. IMHO, they are dishonest and morally indistinguishable from lies. On that basis Iain Duncan Smith, Grant Schapps and others have been repeatedly guilty of lying to the British public. Their lies have been reported ad nauseam in the media and it is clear from various phone-in shows and other sources of public opinion that these government lies have been widely accepted as true honest statistics.
The following is reproduced from Channel 4’s Factcheck Blog http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-qa-is-crime-really-falling/13995
Today was dubbed “Police Super Thursday”. The latest crime figures came out just as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) gave us an update on how forces are dealing with the cuts.
The police watchdog said most of the 43 constabularies in England and Wales are coping well after taking a budget cut equivalent to 20 per cent in real terms by 2015.
And there was good news for the government in the crime figures, with overall crime down by 9 per cent or 7 per cent, depending on how you measure it.
But can we believe these figures?
Not everyone trusts the police to record crime figures accurately, or even make an honest attempt to do so.
Dr Rodger Patrick, a retired detective chief inspector with the West Midlands force, is one of a number of former police officers to lift the lid on dubious practices designed to “game” the figures.
These including under-reporting crimes, getting suspects to admit to large numbers of unsolved offences in return for a shorter sentence, throwing resources at areas where performance is being monitored, and even “stitching up” defendants by fabricating evidence against them.
Allegations like these are so serious that Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor has announced a review of how the police record crime.
But they are only allegations: we don’t actually have hard evidence of persistent or serious inaccuracy in crime recorded by the police.
What we do have is the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) – formerly the British Crime Survey – a completely separate set of statistics based on interviews with a representative sample of people.
The survey has its own methodological flaws, but it cuts the police out of the loop and crucially, it has remained consistent over the last few decades, allowing us to follow long-term trends in crime.
If the police were fiddling the numbers we might expect the crime survey to show radically different trends, like crime going up instead of down. In fact, despite the huge differences in the volume of crimes picked up by the two systems – the trends are fairly consistent.
The CSEW suggests that there were 8.6 million crimes in England and Wales in the year ending in March, a 9 per cent drop on the previous year. Police recorded 3.7 million crimes, a decrease of 7 per cent.
Both measures have been falling over the last 10 years and are now at their lowest levels since comparable records began.
Is Britain unusual?
No. Many developed countries have seen big falls in crime over the last 20 years, according to UN statistics.
Comparisons between different countries can be problematic because each has its own way of defining and recording crime, but the homicide rate is a fairly good measure of violent crime.
We looked at figures for the number of intentional homicides in various developed countries. Most (15 out of 20 OECD members who provided complete data ) showed clear evidence of a declining homicide rate since 1995.
This, along with other indicators of falling crime in America and western Europe, is another reason why we shouldn’t be too sceptical about a real fall in crime in Britain.
What about the recession?
Many of us expect to see more crime in hard times, but the economics of crime is pretty complicated. Lower wages ought to tempt people to turn to crime, but criminologists also point out that lower wages mean people spend less money on goods that can be targeted by thieves.
Some researchers have claimed to find a strong correlation between unemployment and crime. If that’s right, the fact that the recent downturn has caused lower levels of joblessness than previous recessions may be significant.
Most experts conclude that the causes of crime are so complex that changes in the economy alone won’t necessarily outweigh other factors.
So why is crime falling?
There are a number of theories, none of them proven.
The US economist Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, has suggested that the legalisation of abortion in America in the 1970s meant there were fewer unwanted babies to grow up into maladjusted young miscreants.
The abortion theory fits the figures in the US: crime rates started to drop 18 years after the legislation. But when you transpose the same theory to Britain the timescale doesn’t quite work.
Another leftfield theory is that high levels of lead in petrol were responsible for a post-war boom in crime, because lead poisoning makes people more aggressive. As catalytic convertors became the norm and lead emissions were reduced, crime fell dramatically.
Some researchers have claimed to find compelling evidence of a link between lead in the atmosphere and crime rates in many different countries, and even at the level of individual neighbourhoods in cities.
A more common-sense explanation for falling crime rates is Britain’s growing prison population, which has almost doubled since the early 1990s.
The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance produced this graph which appears to show a strong historical association between changes in the number of people behind bars and crime.
This fits with the experience in America, where an explosion in the prison population matched a drop in crime rates. But neighbouring Canada has also seen crime fall without locking up significantly more people.
There are any number of alternative theories: the ageing population, changes in technology, better education, improved policing practices.
Perhaps the most pressing question is whether more police on the beat cut crime. It sounds like common sense, but it’s fairly difficult to prove cause and effect.
Researchers at the LSE found that ramping up officer numbers in problem areas did cut crime. And they found that there was less crime in the wake of the 2005 London bombings, when there was a higher visible police presence in the city.
The academics suggested that a 10 per cent increase in police could be expected to cut crime by 3 per cent.
Does that mean we should be worried now, with police officer numbers at their lowest level in England and Wales since 2002?
Not necessarily, according to HMIC. The watchdog has found that forces will increase the proportion of officers in frontline roles from 74 per cent in 2010 to 78 per cent in 2015, meaning the frontline will be protected from most of the cuts and should only shrink by some 5 per cent.
Only time will tell whether that has a measurable effect on Britain’s crime figures.
Factcheck By Patrick Worrall
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- The facts don’t fit your prejudices? No problem. Be like Fox News and invent your own!