The Royal Statistical Society hosted a ‘getstats in parliament’ panel event, the day before the UK’s 2013 budget.
Panellists included Labour MP Margaret Hodge, current chair of the Public Accounts Committee; Michael Kell, chief economist of the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO); Paul Moxey, head of risk management at ACCA, the global body for professional accountants; and Professor Tony Travers, public finance expert from the London School of Economics. The meeting was chaired by BBC journalist Paul Lewis, who presents Radio 4’s Money Box programme.
The lunchtime event was well-attended, with an audience of 120 people working in parliament, including MPs and their staff. Introducing the event, RSS president John Pullinger explained the aims of the Society’s getstats campaign for better statistical literacy.
The panel discussion that followed outlined the problems with accessing and understanding public finance data and official statistics on the economy. The Treasury’s own annual report and accounts were ‘obfuscating’, according to Margaret Hodge. The panel also discussed whether sometime data was simply ‘dumped’ into the public domain without proper explanation, and whether some data collections were needed at all.
Professor Travers remained unconvinced that year-to-year comparisons could safely be made from much of the material put out by Whitehall departments, as definitions were often changed or series interrupted, making it impossible to establish what might be changing over time.
However, the panel also acknowledged that budget documentation has been improving. The level of detail now available in the Treasury’s Whole of Government Accounts was praised, as was the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), created in 2010 to provide independent and authoritative analysis of the UK’s public finances.
Overall, the panel agreed the public needed to be better equipped to handle numbers – confirming the need for the RSS getstats campaign to improve statistical literacy.
The event was held in association with ACCA and supported by the House of Commons Library and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics. It was the fourth in a series of on-going ‘RSS-getstats in parliament’ events, aimed at boosting statistical literacy in parliament. Others have focused on crime, health and education. The next parliamentary event is scheduled for 2 July.
getstats director, David Walker, has written a more detailed report of the pre-budget event on the getstats blog, which can be found here