What the budget numbers tell us, Getstats in parliament panel

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‘What the budget numbers tell us, and what they don’t’ an RSS-getstats parliamentary panel event took place on 19 March. Read on for a brief account of discussion.
Budgets are ‘political’ and interpretation of the numbers they present will always be ‘pluralist’, the RSS getstats panel audience was told - the event taking place a day before Chancellor George Osborne did his best to prove the point.
But recognising political reality did not exonerate government, whether ministers, statisticians or accountants. Too often statistics offered the public are incomplete, misleading, impenetrable. The Treasury’s own annual report and accounts were  ‘obfuscating’, according to Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, and a member of our panel.
The panel, chaired by Paul Lewis the BBC radio presenter and financial journalist, agreed that Budget documentation has been improving. A close reader can now extract useful comparisons between one time period and another. Several panel members praised the detail now available, albeit after some delay, in the Whole of Government Accounts published annually by the Treasury. The panel had words of praise, too, for the Office of Budgetary Responsibility, set up as an independent check on fiscal forecasts by the Treasury.
But more could be done to make the government’s financial paperwork intelligible and reliable. Panel member Tony Travers, the public finance expert from the London School of Economics, remained to be convinced that year-to-year comparisons could safely be made from much of the material put out by Whitehall departments. Too often they changed definitions or interrupted series, making it impossible to establish what might be changing over time.
Budget documents might show aggregates to be stable but what was happening underneath? Figures were being switched from current to capital spending; government work (Network Rail is an example) gets reclassified as private sector, and so on. ‘It’s often difficult to read tables consistently, he said.
From the journalist’s perspective Paul Lewis regretted the often ‘rapid-fire delivery’ of Budget speeches by chancellors, obscuring what was being presented. Inflation measurement had become confusing, with a set of competing measures: which is which, he asked.
Even the powerful National Audit Office had to labour to get at the true figures, Michael Kell, its chief economist said. Often the sheer detail of government accounting made it hard to get at the truth, to find out what it cost to deliver a service. ‘Getting reliable information can be difficult’ and the NAO had to delve deep. But the reason wasn’t deliberate attempts by civil servants to cover. Officials, including government statisticians, were often overwhelmed and distracted by having to respond to immediate demands from ministers.
The panel agreed the public needed to be better equipped to handle numbers – giving an implicit boost to our RSS getstats campaign to improve statistical literacy.
None the less, government could do more. Margaret Hodge said sometimes ministers thought they could just ‘dump’ statistics, and they failed to put enough effort into explanation and contextualisation. Government information had to be relevant. And of course government was often selective about the statistics it released. Panel member Paul Moxey of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants noted government had its own priorities about which information to collect, and they did not always conform with the public interest.
This event was organised by the Royal Statistical Society in association with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the House of Commons Library and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics.
For more information on getstats in parliament, please click here.

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