The politics of data and evidence: a Q&A with Julian Huppert MP for the Lib Dems

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The general election campaign is now well underway and the RSS has been busy campaigning for politicians to recognise the importance of using data and statistics to improve policy making, democracy and prosperity.

We have been asking voters to lobby their local candidates to attend our statistical literacy events for MPs after the election. But before May 7, we also wanted to ask the political parties about their views on the value of statistics and the importance of evidence based policy making.

Our Data Manifesto outlines how the RSS believes data and statistics can be used to change society for the better. We have asked the Labour Party, Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and the UK Independence Party to answer questions on the issues we set out in the Data Manifesto. First up, Julian Huppert MP has answered our questions on behalf of the Lib Dems.

 

What is your party’s view on the current provision of maths and data literacy in our education system?

There is a real problem in data literacy at school and in the wider public, including the media. This is increasingly an essential part of modern life, and should be taught in a more useful and relevant way. I would also urge organisations to present numbers in useful formats, such as by using natural frequencies.

What is your party’s view on how personal data held by public bodies can be safeguarded, yet still made available for research benefiting society?

Identifiable personal data should in general be controlled by the person to whom the data refers. Given the appropriate tools, people are generally happy to share their information for good reasons, and tools such as Patients Know Best have demonstrated how this can be done for even very personal data.

Appropriately anonymised or pseudonymised data can be used more freely, and can be very useful, but care needs to be given to check it is genuinely non-identifiable. The care.data fiasco made things much harder, and generated a huge amount of ill feeling, damaging data sharing. Part of the problem with it was that it was set up as an opt-out system, which made it very hard to opt-out. Had it been opt-in, many people would have been quite happy.

What is your party’s view on the level of resources available to the Office for National Statistics and the Government Statistical Service?

It is important to ensure that these two services are adequately resourced to be able to perform the essential tasks that we require of them. The next challenge is to ensure that the evidence is used appropriately in public debate and policy development.

How strongly will your party be continuing with the open data agenda?

We are strongly supportive of open data – there is huge potential to develop new products and services and improve both public and private sector provision by promoting open data. Where data is not personal, the general principle should be that it should be openly and freely accessible, unless there are reasons why it should not be. For example, we would like to see the Postcode Address File, Ordnance Survey data and Met Office information made open – the economic return from making them open exceeds the current sales value.

What is your party’s view on the current level of public funding for academic science and research?

We have long argued for an increase in the level of funding for science and research. For the last three years, we have been seeking to build a consensus between the parties for a 15 year commitment to a 3% above inflation increase in a ring-fences science and research budget, to include both capital and revenue. Sadly, none of the other parties have been prepared to join that commitment, but we will still press for above inflation increases over the next parliament. There are clear financial returns from expenditure in this area, particularly because of the very strong ‘crowding-in’ effects of public investment in science.

How important do you believe evidence is in the formulation of your party’s policies?

We are very committed to evidence informed policy making, and our policy making process is designed to facilitate that. We have also argued for it to be a stronger part of government decision making, by having chief scientists in every government department, with more independence and access to information, as well as a cross government chief social scientist.

 

We have asked the same questions of all the main political parties. We will publish their answers as we receive them over the course of the campaign.

2015 General Election RSS Data Manifesto

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