On Tuesday 4 June, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority Sir Robert Chote wrote to leaders of political parties to ask that their parties and candidates use statistics appropriately and transparently.

When political parties make high profile numerical claims about their policies, or those of their opponents, they should follow the principles of what we call ‘intelligent transparency’, which means proactively taking an open, clear and accessible approach to the release and use of data, statistics and wider analysis.

Sir Robert also appeared on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (6 June) to highlight that during an election, when political parties make high profile numerical claims about their policies, or those of their opponents, they should follow these ‘intelligent transparency’ principles to avoid misleading or confusing people.

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) independently manages regulatory work on behalf of the UK Statistics Authority. In the context of intelligent transparency, OSR’s expectations are that campaign communications should be:

  • based on data to which everyone has equal access; 
  • clearly and transparently defined; and 
  • have appropriate acknowledgement of any uncertainties and context that people need to be aware of if they are realistically to interpret what they mean. 

When distilling claims into a single number, the context should be sufficient to allow the average person to understand what it means and how significant it is.

Following ITV’s election debate on 4 June, we have been considering the claim that a Labour government would mean £2,000 of tax rises per working household. Our remit focuses on official statistics produced by Government. It is not therefore for us to say whether the number itself is accurate or not. However, to support trust in statistics more broadly, we have considered whether the way the claim was presented and communicated met the principles of intelligent transparency.

Media and other commentators have observed that other political parties have made similar statements about future fiscal impacts. We note this, but the concerns raised with us related specifically to the statements made in the ITV election debate.

In considering this case OSR found: 

  • The Conservative party put out a detailed document explaining which policies it had included, how it interpreted them and how Treasury officials had costed some but not all of them. Under long-standing practice, officials can be asked to prepare and publish costings of Opposition policies based on the assumptions of Ministers and their Special Advisors. 
  • One claim in the debate was that independent Treasury officials had costed Labour’s policies, and they amount to a £2,000 tax rise for every working family. The Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, in a letter dated 3 June, explained the role that HM Treasury and the wider Civil Service played in this process. The Permanent Secretary’s letter agreed with the view that policy costings “derived from other sources or produced by other organisations should not be presented as having been produced by the Civil Service.”
  • Without reading the full Conservative Party costing document, someone hearing the claim would have no way of knowing that this is an estimate summed together over four years. We warned against this practice a few days ago, following its use in presenting prospective future increases in defence spending. 

Abiding by intelligent transparency is in the interests of all party campaigners themselves and not just the public. It will avoid the need for subsequent clarifications and corrections and will help build and maintain trust in their claims and statistics overall.

OSR will respond to concerns raised with us, and will continue to do so regardless of which political party the concern involves.

Notes to Editors 

  • The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) provides independent regulation of all official statistics produced in the UK, and aim to enhance public confidence in the trustworthiness, quality and value of statistics produced by government. OSR regulate statistics by setting the standards official statistics must meet in the Code of Practice for Statistics. We ensure that producers of official statistics uphold these standards by conducting assessments against the Code. Those which meet the standards are given National Statistics status, indicating that they meet the highest standards of trustworthiness, quality and value. We also report publicly on systemwide issues and on the way that statistics are being used, celebrating when the standards are upheld and challenging publicly when they are not. 
  • OSR is independent from government Ministers, and separate from producers of statistics, including the Office for National Statistics (ONS). OSR’s Director General, Ed Humpherson, reports directly to the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority Board, Sir Robert Chote. The Director General, and OSR, have wide discretion in highlighting good practice and reporting concerns with the production and use of statistics publicly. 
  • OSR’s work is overseen by the Board’s regulation committee (made up of non-executive directors, and with no statistical producer in attendance). OSR’s budget is proposed by the Board’s regulation committee and endorsed by the Board. 

For media enquiries please contact OSR at regulation@statistics.gov.uk