Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies and Politics

Let's face it, none of us genuinely think that politicians are telling us the whole truth all of the time. While the field of political communications may not be quite the bloodbath portrayed in "The Thick Of It" and "In The Loop", it's fair to assume that some figures receive massages that not even the most blatant of MPs would put on their expenses.

From the Iraq war "45 minutes" to Grant Shapps "a third of government spending is on welfare", there are plenty of examples out there of politicians playing around with numbers for support - in much the same way as a drunk seeks out a lamppost.

This week however has seen a couple of special examples of the art.

The Department of Health briefed the media ahead of the publication of the report into eleven failing NHS Trusts by clinical director Sir Bruce Keogh. This led to the widespread reporting of a figure of 13,000 "excess" deaths in the Trusts investigated. It's fair to assume that this briefing and in particular the 13,000 excess deaths figure went on with Ministerial approval.

And yet, Keogh himself has come out and dismissed the mortality rates used to come up with this 13,000 figure as "meaningless". It simply was not possible, in his opinion, to extrapolate a figure of excess deaths from his statistics with any degree of accuracy.

Now I don't much care for Sir Bruce. His actions in the debate on children's heart surgery in Leeds showed that he's not above using irrelevant statistics to justify his own ideology and opinions.

It seems in this case that he has kicked a stool out from under the Health Secretary's claims.  Keogh's rebuttal however, has received nothing like the same coverage in the media as the distorted statistics that prompted it in the first place.

If you think that's a bit of poor form, just wait. You haven't seen anything yet.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (he of the rent-free living in his father in law's country mansion) stated that 8,000 people who otherwise wouldn't have taken up work had done so as a result of the pilot of the new benefits cap.

This claim was referred to the Office for National Statistics, who decided that there was no "causal link between the benefits cap and people moving into work". In other words, that he made the numbers up. So what does IDS do? Apologise? Keep quiet and hope it goes away? Oh no, not him.

He came out on yesterday's "Today" programme on Radio 4 with probably the most bare-faced pile of codswallop I've heard in a long time. Read on, and prepare for your jaw dropping...

"You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right. I believe we are already seeing people going back to work who were not going back to work until this group were capped."

Get a load of that. He made a statement and it was pointed out to him that there was no evidence to back it up. However, he believes what he said to be right. Facts. Schmacts. Who needs evidence based assessment and research when you can just believe stuff and it becomes true? It's the political equivalent of Dorothy putting on her ruby slippers, clicking her heels three times and telling us there are no lies like politicians lies.

So why does it matter? Why are we so bothered? The lies have been exposed now, it's not like anyone is going to keep believing them outside of IDS's own fantasy world, is it?

In a poll conducted by IPSOS-MORI last month on a representative sample of over 1,000 adults, they were quizzed on what they thought they knew about public services, welfare, immigration and a number of other topics.

A couple of alarming results jumped out.

In response to the question "In your opinion, what proportion of girls under the age of 16 get pregnant in Britain every year", the mean response was 15%. That would be more than one in seven. The actual figure of course is much lower, at 0.6%.

To the question "Of every £100 spent on the welfare budget, how much do you think is claimed fraudulently?" the mean response was £24. That would account for a quarter of the welfare budget being given out to people who are not entitled to it. The actual figure? No surprise to realise it is much lower at 0.7%. So for every £100, only 70p is down to fraud.

Across the whole spectrum of the survey, things were shown to be not as "bad" as the public perceived them to be. The percentage of the UK population that were immigrants, black or Asian, Muslim - all much lower than the responses suggested. 

So why do we have such a distorted opinion of what is happening in our own country? I refer the honourable reader to the answer I gave some moments earlier. A government determined to place ideology ahead of evidence and a media either too complicit or casual to care.

Time to put down the Kool-Aid, before it's too late.

If you're interested, the topline results of the IPSOS-MORI survey "Perils of Perception" can be found at http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos-mori-rss-kings-perils-of-perception-topline.pdf

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