Friday, May 24, 2024
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Our official statistics don’t add up


BEFORE Thursday’s shocking immigration figures were published, the government were laying the groundwork to attribute a good part of the rise to a change in method at the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 

It transpires that until recently the ONS was estimating immigration from air passenger survey data at some airports.

Read that again. Rather than using hard data from something like the issue of NI numbers, the agency that exists to supply data on the UK’s economy, society and population to the government so that policy can be made has been estimating when it could (and should) have been measuring.

It ‘discovered’ this when the 2021 Census data revealed rather more migration than ONS had estimated. To its credit it has now recalculated. But it is shameful that it created such a poor estimate in the first place. It is appalling that no one in government questioned its numbers. Neither did anyone in the media.

This fiasco is akin to the confusion of ‘died of Covid’  and ‘died with Covid (and other health problems)’ that led directly to the lockdowns and so to the current economic mess. How is it that our civil service seems unable to support ministers in robustly interrogating data? Answer: the modern mandarin thinks robust interrogation is bullying and has a hissy fit. Absent such questioning, government data is starting to make Enron’s financial statements look like holy writ.

Bad data makes sensible decision-making impossible. In the real world, businesses expend vast effort to ensure that corporate information is timely and accurate. When it goes wrong, as it sometimes does, people are sacked and if the error is big enough companies collapse. As some in Enron found, jail looms for those who wilfully mislead. In the rarefied world of Whitehall, sacking for incompetence is unheard of, so the error-prone remain – quite possibly promoted and honoured, and definitely expecting a fabulous pension.

The impact of understated net immigration includes even more demand for housing than the government understands, more demand for services ranging from the NHS through education, more demand for energy as well as less obvious things such as road space and sewage processing. (More people mean more lavatory flushes, which probably contribute to the problems of sewage processing – it doesn’t let the water companies off the hook, but it might explain in part how they got there.)

If the ONS can’t count people entering and exiting the country, which is pretty easy, how can we trust its other numbers on more abstract things like inflation and growth? Worse, if the ONS is bad at data, what about the stuff generated in the other departments not staffed by stats experts? Or indeed any other numbers that the government produces? And if those numbers are wrong how the heck is the government actually running the country? Without good data, big government is impossible. (Even with such data, government also requires wise decision makers, and they seem scarcer than hen’s teeth in Westminster and Whitehall.)

In normal times a government error of this proportion would have the Opposition (rightly) attacking the government for its utter ineptitude. Unfortunately for the governed, Labour won’t do that as it is the party of the perpetrators, largely funded by public ‘service’ unions and attracting senior ex-civil servants such as Sue Gray to its ranks. It dares not bite the hand that feeds it. The Conservative Party should, of course, be the party of competence and small government. Unfortunately it no longer is – whether that’s due to the wannabe-world-king or one of his predecessors is irrelevant. Much of the Tory party (the Remain/Remoan/Rejoin bit) has been captured by the Blob too. Few Tory MPs see exposing the utter incompetence and idiocy of this government as a path to re-election. Certainly the party that jailed the country on hooky evidence and broke the economy doesn’t deserve reward. Which leaves us in the absurd position of a government running the Opposition’s policies as it’s easier to paper over the cracks in public service and government finances than to fix the problems, certainly with an election looming in under 12 months.

That election is going to be interesting. With a few exceptions, all the mainstream party candidates are representing the Blob. Those joining the electorate are assumed to be likely to vote Labour. For sure, having been imprisoned, had their education ruined, facing mounting debt from third rate universities and house prices that are unaffordable, they are unlikely to vote Tory. But if they want to fix the crappy future that Bozo and his successors have left for them a vote for the Blob parties won’t do it. Generation Z has become Generation Shafted. As Laura Perrins wrote in TCW on Wednesday, they’re already inheriting huge bills from the bloated state. 

This then is the challenge for Reform and the other insurgent parties – demonstrating to the new cohort of voters that the Blob is the problem, not the solution. I don’t know how they can do that when they’re shut out from much of the mainstream media but do it they must.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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