Findings: Trustworthiness

Maintaining public confidence in the statistics is important

Statisticians are working with honesty and integrity

Whilst the majority of users we spoke to for this report expressed a preference for a basket of measures to understand income-based poverty, they acknowledged that this increases the risk that statistics are used selectively in public debate. To date, we have received several complaints concerning misuse of poverty statistics in political exchanges.

We found that the statisticians working on income-based poverty statistics across the UK are engaged with the topic of poverty and understand how they contribute to the evidence base. They endeavour to provide clear briefing on complex data, yet the information is still sometimes misunderstood and misused by politicians.

Users also expressed frustration that too much of the public debate on poverty is hindered by discussions around acceptance and understanding of the different measures, for example, which statistics to use when, rather than the people behind the statistics and how to eradicate poverty in the UK.

Decisions around the development of the statistics need to be transparent

Throughout this report we have referred to the work of the Social Metrics Commission (SMC). The SMC was formed with the primary aim of moving the discussion around poverty beyond the statistics and onto action that the government can take to effectively tackle poverty in the UK. It argues that policymakers and politicians cannot effectively be held to account for tackling the causes of poverty or improving the lives of those who experience it, without measuring the wider context of poverty set out in its framework.

The SMC worked to ensure its recommendations received cross-party support, so that there could be consensus around the way progress on poverty is discussed. In 2018 the then Secretary of State for DWP, Amber Rudd, committed that DWP would publish new experimental statistics in the second half of 2020. These would take the SMC’s measure as a starting point and assess how it could be further developed to increase the value of these statistics to the public.

The development of these experimental statistics was paused in early 2020 due to significant resource pressures in DWP arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021 the current Secretary of State for DWP, Thérèse Coffey, gave an update on the direction of this work to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, outlining that DWP plans to focus its improvements to income-based poverty statistics on material deprivation, rather than on the basis of the SMC findings.

At the time of writing this report, the preannouncement page for these experimental statistics states that this work is paused due to COVID-19 and does not inform users of the change in direction. To comply with the Code of Practice for Statistics, producers should be open about progress towards meeting priorities and objectives, and no action should be taken, nor public statement made, that might undermine confidence in the independence of the statistics when released.

We consider that the development of statistics should not be limited to policy need. Government departments need to take a wider view of user needs and look beyond any immediate policy needs. Users told us that it is perceived as Ministers “marking their own homework” if they choose not to publish alternatives to their preferred measure based on current policy priorities, and therefore cannot be held to account through other measures.

The SMC proposed measure, a starting point for the DWP experimental statistics, captures many aspects that users would like to see in income-based poverty statistics. We consider that DWP and ONS should assess how the SMC recommendations can be implemented in their own work to enhance the public value of their statistics. Any planned developments to the statistics should also be communicated in an open and transparent way.

The GSS Income and Earnings Coherence Steering Group, established in 2020 to address the coherence and accessibility of income and earnings statistics, provides a cross-GSS vehicle to help producers address the recommendations set out in this report. The group is made up of statistical leaders across DWP, HMRC and ONS, as well as representatives from the devolved administrations and academia. We were pleased to hear that the group already had plans to communicate its vision and workplan for income and poverty statistics with users around the end of May 2021, to demonstrate its commitment to transparency of developments.

Back to top
Download PDF version (363.67 KB)