Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Dame Angela Eagle MP – statements on tax changes

Dear Dame Angela,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding comments made by Treasury ministers on changes in personal taxation. Specifically, you expressed concern that:

  • On 8 January 2024, Bim Afolami MP, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, stated on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that “taxes are coming down”, adding that for “an average earner on £35,000 a year, they will be £450 better off as a result.”
  • On 22 November 2023, Laura Trott MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told the House of Commons, “I am sure the hon. Lady will be interested to know that taxes for the average worker have gone down by £1,000”. On 30 November she said that “taxes for the average worker will have gone down by £1,000 since 2010”.

Mr Afolami made his comment on the first working day after the cut in the main rate of employees’ National Insurance Contributions (NICs) from 12 to 10 per cent took effect and he could reasonably have been assumed to be referring to that change specifically. He was not as explicit about that as he could have been, but the interviewer immediately put this in the context of broader personal tax changes and trends, and so the listener is unlikely to have been misled.

I suspect that the public are more likely to have been misled – or at least confused – by Ms Trott’s statements, both of which would probably suggest to a typical listener that the average worker’s overall tax bill has fallen in cash terms. But, as set out in a press statement issued on the day that the NICs cuts took effect, the Treasury has provided two figures of similar magnitude (£1,000) to illustrate the impact of the NICs cut which led to some confusion.

  • First, taking the NICs change in isolation, it has argued that the cut in the main rate “puts £450 back in the pocket of the average worker” (in fact £456.60 for an average worker on £35,404 [gross mean annual pay across the UK from ASHE table 7.7a]) and that a household with two average salaries will thus save “nearly £1,000” (in fact £913.20).
  • Second, the combined impact of the NICs change and above-inflation increases to tax thresholds since 2010 means that “the average earner [as above, earning £35,404] will pay over £1,000 less in personal taxes in 2024-25 than they otherwise would have done”, not than they did in 2010.

Given that Ms Trott referred to an average worker rather than an average household, I presume she was using the latter definition.

Debating points in the House are often necessarily succinct and shorn of some nuance, as you will appreciate. But to maintain trust and confidence in their statements, and to avoid the need for subsequent clarification, Ministers and other members need to consider how a typical listener is likely to understand what they say. This is perhaps especially important when they are provided with ‘round number’ talking points derived from very specific methods of calculation.

The Office for Statistics Regulation is increasing its engagement with government departments, including HM Treasury, to ensure future communications do not have the potential to mislead and comply with the principles of intelligent transparency.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Dame Angela Eagle MP to Sir Robert Chote – statements on tax changes

Response from Sir Robert Chote to James Murray MP – Communications on National Insurance Contributions

Dear Mr Murray,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding recent official communications from HM Treasury on changes to National Insurance Contributions (NICs) this year.

You expressed concern about posts by @HMTreasury on X that referred to the average employee on a £35,400 salary saving £450 a year from the cut to NICs taking effect on 6 January. Taking the posts together, the Treasury was reasonably clear and transparent that they referred specifically to the impact of the NICs change taking effect on the day of the posts and not to the wider range of personal tax changes taking effect this year that were referred to by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others.

You also expressed concern about a Treasury post on X that claimed:

“After today’s NICs changes, the UK’s tax rate for those on average salaries is lower than all G7 nations based on the latest @OECD data.”

Under the principles of intelligent transparency, it should have been made clear that this referred specifically to single workers with no children and not to other family types for whom this is not the case.

The Office for Statistics Regulation will continue to work with HM Treasury to ensure future communications are clear and comply with the principles of intelligent transparency.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

James Murray MP to Sir Robert Chote – Communications on National Insurance Contributions

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Alistair Carmichael MP – Asylum backlog figures

Dear Mr Carmichael,

Thank you for your letter of 3 January regarding claims by the Government to have delivered on its 2022 commitment to clear a backlog of asylum claims.

As you noted, the Prime Minister posted on X on 2 January:

“I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done.”

This was accompanied by a Home Office press release stating that “the legacy backlog asylum target has been met” and that “the Prime Minister’s commitment of clearing the legacy asylum backlog has been delivered”.

The commitment to clear the backlog was made in December 2022. In a letter to the Home Affairs Committee on 29 January 2023, Suella Braverman, then Home Secretary, confirmed that the commitment referred to ‘legacy’ applications that had been submitted before 28 June 2022 and were still awaiting an initial decision to grant or refuse asylum, rather than to subsequent ‘flow’ applications. This backlog stood at 92,601 in November 2022.

Alongside the press release and the social media post, the Home Office published an ad-hoc statistical release showing that 4,537 of these legacy cases were still awaiting an initial decision on 28 December 2023. The press release explained that these were ‘hard cases’ that had been through an initial review but required additional checks or investigation for a decision to be made. These were said to typically relate to asylum seekers presenting as children (whose ages need to be verified), those with serious medical issues, or those with suspected past convictions where checks may reveal criminality that would bar asylum.

The average member of the public is likely to interpret a claim to have ‘cleared a backlog’ – especially when presented without context on social media – as meaning that it has been eliminated entirely, so it is not surprising that the Government’s claim has been greeted with scepticism and that some people may feel misled when these ‘hard cases’ remain in the official estimates of the legacy backlog. That said, there may be a perfectly good case for excluding cases of this type from any commitment to eliminate the backlog over the timeframe the Government chose, but this argument was not made at the time the target was announced or when it was clarified in the letter to the Home Affairs Committee.

This episode may affect public trust when the Government sets targets and announces whether they have been met in the other policy domains. It highlights the need for ministers and advisers to think carefully about how a reasonable person would interpret a quantitative claim of the sort and to consult the statistical professionals in their department.

It is nonetheless welcome that the Home Office publishes and clearly explains the data in this important policy area and that it publishes ad-hoc releases when ministers wish to bring hitherto unreleased numbers into the public domain. However, we note that this latest supplementary dataset was not provided along with the press statement when it was released to journalists under embargo on 1 January, which prevented them from being able to scrutinise the data when first reporting it. This does not support our expectations around intelligent transparency, and we have raised this with the Home Office.

I have copied this letter to Stephen Kinnock MP who wrote to us on 4 January on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Letter from Alistair Carmichael MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Letter from Stephen Kinnock MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Stephen Kinnock MP – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Stephen Kinnock MP – Asylum backlog figures

Dear Mr Kinnock,

Thank you for your letter dated 4 January in which you raised concerns about statements that the government has cleared the backlog of asylum claims.

Today I have responded to Alistair Carmichael MP, who raised similar concerns to the UK Statistics Authority on 3 January.

Please find a copy enclosed.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Letter from Stephen Kinnock MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Letter from Alistair Carmichael MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Alistair Carmichael MP – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Shaun Bailey MP – GDP forecast

Dear Mr Bailey,

Thank you for your letter regarding the claim made by the Shadow Chancellor, the Rt Hon Rachel Reeves MP, in her response to the Autumn Statement on 22 November 2023, that:

“The economy is now forecast to be £40 billion smaller by 2027 than the Chancellor said back in March.” [1]

The table below shows the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) March and November forecasts for real GDP in 2019 prices (ie adjusted for inflation)[2] and the difference between them. It shows that the OBR’s November forecast for the size of the economy in 2027 was around £10 billion larger than its March forecast (and roughly £11 billion larger in 2022 prices)[3].

Real GDP Forecast (£bn)

March forecastNovember forecastDifference
2021 outturn2142.72176.233.5
2022 outturn2229.42270.841.4
20232224.92283.458.5
20242264.72299.534.8
20252320.32331.210.9
20262369.72377.27.5
20272414.22423.99.7
Source: Office for Budget Responsibility

The Shadow Chancellor’s office explained that their figure was calculated by taking the cash size of the economy in 2022 reported in the OBR’s November forecast[4], and then generating forecasts of real GDP in 2027 in 2022 prices by applying the real growth rates in the March and November forecasts and comparing the resulting figures. The figure was £2,715 billion using the March real growth rates and £2,678 billion using the November real growth rates (which the OBR had revised lower), leaving the economy £37 billion smaller in 2022 prices.

As commentators such as Ben Chu pointed out at the time, the OBR’s published forecasts for 2027 show an increase between March and November because the Office for National Statistics revised up recent outturn estimates of GDP when it published its annual National Accounts Blue Book update in September 2023[5]. The table shows that by November the economy was thought to have been more than £40 billion larger in 2022 than appeared the case in March. By 2027 the upward revision to the starting level of GDP was still outweighing the impact of the downward revisions to the growth forecasts on the forecast level of GDP.

The average person in the street would not be able to square the Shadow Chancellor’s statement with the OBR’s published figures. In this instance brevity was a source of confusion and it would have been clearer and more accurate to have said that the economy was forecast to be around £40 billion smaller by 2027 than if it were still forecast to grow at the rates expected by the OBR in March.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Footnotes

[1] Autumn Statement, Hansard, 2023

[2] From Table 1.1 of the Supplementary Economy Tables published with the OBR’s Economic and Fiscal Outlooks in March and November 2023

[3] Using the OBR’s GDP deflators reported in Table 1.7, Supplementary Economy Tables, OBR Fiscal and Economic Outlook, November 2023

[4] Table 1.4, Supplementary Economy Tables, OBR Fiscal and Economic Outlook, November 2023

[5] ONS: Impact of Blue Book 2023 changes on gross domestic product, September 2023

 

Related links

Letter from Shaun Bailey MP to Sir Robert Chote – GDP forecast

James Murray MP to Sir Robert Chote – Communications on National Insurance Contributions

Dear Sir Robert,

I am writing to you regarding the use of statistics in recent communications from HM Treasury regarding personal taxes.

On 6 January, HM Treasury issued communications stating someone on an average earnings would be £450 better off as a result of government tax cuts. This communication presented only a partial account of government policy, failing to include the impact of related tax policies that increase the amount of tax paid by someone on average earnings.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, writing about the changes, said that “2024 will see both the NICs rate cut and a tax increase via the planned freeze in income tax and NICs thresholds and allowances in April. Put the two together and this is, overall, actually a tax increase.” The combined effect of government tax policy this parliament means that, according to the Resolution Foundation, an average household will be £1,200 worse off by 2028/29.

On the same day, HM Treasury also issued communications stating that the average effective tax rate as a percentage of gross earnings in 2022 was lower in the UK than other G7 countries. This was sourced from OECD data, but failed to provide sourcing information that clarified it referred to only single workers with children. When looking at other family types, such as one-earner married couples, the same OECD data shows that the UK has a higher effective tax rate than other G7 countries including Canada and the USA.

These communications were issued on a range of social media platforms including X, Facebook, and Instagram.

HM Treasury is a producer of official statistics and therefore must comply with the code of practice for statistics.

The code of practice is quite clear that producers of official statistics, such as HM Treasury, must demonstrate coherence, not simply publishing a set of numbers, but explaining how they relate to other data on the topic to improve understanding. By misleading and presenting a partial account of the effect of Government tax policy, these communications did not demonstrate coherence.

The code also states that the nature of data sources should be explained and any bias, uncertainty, and possible distortive effects in the source data should be identified and the impact of this clearly reported. The communications that use OECD data do not provide enough information on what the data show, and why these data from that source were used rather than others.

On this basis, I would like to ask whether you will investigate HM Treasury’s use of statistics as set out above, and provide guidance on whether they are misleading or breach the code of practice for statistics.

Yours sincerely,

James Murray MP
Shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury & Member of Parliament for Ealing North
Labour and Cooperative Party

 

Related links

Response from Sir Robert Chote to James Murray MP – Communications on National Insurance Contributions

Letter from Stephen Kinnock MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Dear Sir Robert

I am writing to you in relation to the government’s publication this week of ad-hoc statistics on the Home Office’s handling of asylum cases, and statements to the media by members of the government about these statistics.

As you will be aware, both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have made claims about the government’s progress toward clearing the backlog of unresolved asylum claims, including but not limited to cases which predate the introduction of new rules in June 2022. I am by no means alone in finding these claims implausible, misleading and at odds with the government’s own published statistics.

Media reports this week have indicated that the UKSA plans to look into these claims and – if necessary – take such actions as you see fit to correct the record on any erroneous claims. I am writing to set out my own concerns, which I hope you will take into consideration in the course of carrying out this work. I would also appreciate an update from your team on any outcomes of your enquiries.

As you know, in December 2022 the Prime Minister announced his intention to clear the backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023. As discussed in our previous correspondence, the government later revised this target to resolving only those claims made prior to 28 June 2022.

Once again, however, there has been a striking disconnect between what the official statistics clearly show, on the one hand, and Ministers’ statements about what the statistics show, on the other. Perhaps the most egregious example this week was the Prime Minister’s statement on X/Twitter:

“I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Yet the figures published by the Home Office the same day show unambiguously that the “total asylum backlog” stood 98,599 cases on 28 December 2023.

Even if we accept at face value the distinction drawn by the government between the so-called “legacy backlog” and the total backlog of all unresolved claims, the Home Secretary’s claim – widely reported by the BBC and others – that the “legacy backlog” has now been cleared also appears to be at odds with the fact that some 4,500 “complex” cases, which predate the 28 June 2022 cut-off point, remain unresolved. The Home Secretary himself does not dispute that fact, judging by his statements this week.

I am concerned that these statements by Ministers – if left uncorrected – risk creating a highly misleading picture of the actual state of affairs with respect to the asylum backlog, an issue of significant interest to the public.

I would therefore be grateful if you would look into these issues as soon as you are able to, with a view to establishing whether there is any evidentiary basis to support claims by Ministers that either the asylum backlog as a whole, or the so-called “legacy backlog”, had in fact been fully cleared by the end of December 2023. It should go without saying that the record should be corrected if, as appears likely, any demonstrably false claims have been made by Ministers. I trust that you and your team will work with Ministers and officials to ensure that any necessary corrections are made expeditiously.

I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Kind regards

Stephen Kinnock
Member of Parliament for Aberavon
Shadow Minister for Immigration

 

Related links

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Stephen Kinnock MP – Asylum backlog figures

Letter from Alistair Carmichael MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Alistair Carmichael MP – Asylum backlog figures

Letter from Alistair Carmichael MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Dear Sir Robert,

I am writing to raise concerns about the misrepresentation of asylum backlog figures by the Prime Minister on social media.

On 2nd January, Rishi Sunak wrote on X that

“I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done.”

As you will know, the Government originally defined their pledge to “clear the backlog” in relation to so-called “legacy” asylum applications made before 28 June 2022.

However, the latest Home Office release has shown that 4,537 “legacy” asylum cases are still subject to further investigation by the Home Office before a final decision can be made. Although these cases have been reviewed, they have not yet been resolved.

Similarly, new Home Office figures have shown that the total backlog of asylum cases – including applications lodged after June 2022 – now sits at 99,000.

The Prime Minister’s claim has been branded as “misleading” by the Refugee Council.

As such, it would appear that there is no justifiable basis for the Prime Minister to claim that the Government has “clear[ed] the backlog of asylum decisions”, given that both “legacy” cases and overall asylum cases remain unresolved.

I therefore ask that you investigate the Prime Minister’s statements and offer your guidance on whether they are misleading.

I look forward to your response on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Alistair Carmichael MP
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Home Affairs

 

Related links

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Alistair Carmichael MP – Asylum backlog figures

Letter from Stephen Kinnock MP to Sir Robert Chote – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Stephen Kinnock MP – Asylum backlog figures

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Sarah Olney MP – public sector debt

Dear Ms Olney,

Thank you for your letter regarding recent statements by the Prime Minister about changes in public sector debt. As you note, the Prime Minister said that “debt is falling” in a video posted on social media following the King’s Speech on 7 November and that “we have indeed reduced debt” at Prime Minister’s Questions on 22 November, the day of the Autumn Statement.

The veracity of claims of this sort – of the brevity typical of a social media post or during a parliamentary debate – often depend on how they would be stated in a fuller form. As regards movement in public sector debt, this might depend on:

  • How you define debt: For example, are you referring to the broadest measure of public sector net debt, the narrower measure that excludes public sector banks, or the underlying measure that also excludes the Bank of England? And are you referring to debt in cash terms or expressed as a percentage of GDP?
  • What time period you are looking at: if you say that debt is falling, do you mean that it has fallen in the latest month or over a longer period in the outturn data? Or do you mean that it is falling in the current year or over some period covered by the latest official forecast?
  • Whether you are referring to overall changes or those resulting specifically from policy action: if you say that you have reduced debt, do you mean simply that debt is lower than it was or that your policy decisions have reduced it (or will reduce it) relative to what it otherwise would have been?

In this instance, the Prime Minister’s office informed us that both claims referred to the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was forecasting that the underlying measure of net debt (excluding the Bank) would be falling as a proportion of GDP (although not in cash terms) in the final year of its five year forecast, in line with the Government’s target. This was 2027-28 at the time of the March Budget and 2028-29 at the time of the November Autumn Statement. In both forecasts, debt was forecast to fall as a proportion of GDP in these years primarily because of changes to the OBR’s underlying economic and fiscal projections. Government decisions on tax and spending pushed debt higher in cash terms in each year of both forecasts. (It should also be noted that at the time of the King’s Speech official figures showed the broadest measure of net debt (including the Bank) falling as a share of GDP between June and September.)

The average person in the street would probably not have interpreted the Prime Minister’s claims in the way that his office explained them to us and would likely have assumed that he was claiming that debt was already falling or that the Government’s policy decisions had lowered it at the fiscal events – neither of which is the case. This has clearly been a source of confusion and may have undermined trust in the Government’s use of statistics and quantitative analysis in this area.

Members of the public cannot be expected to understand the minutiae of public finance statistics and the precise combination of definitional choices that might need to be made for a particular claim to be true. So, when speaking about the public finances and making claims of this sort, intelligent transparency demands that ministers, other senior politicians, departments and political parties ask themselves how someone with an interest but little specialist knowledge is likely to interpret a particular claim and to explain themselves clearly if they choose to depart significantly from that in definitional terms. When a claim is made in abbreviated form, they should certainly be ready to explain the precise basis for their claim when approached and asked to do so after the event.

That said, the ‘person in the street’ test is not always reliable in choosing what definitions to use when describing changes in the public finances. Most people would probably interpret statements about debt rising or falling in cash terms. But there is a strong case to be made for focusing on debt as a percentage of GDP as this gives a better sense of how easy the debt burden is to service using tax revenue.

The Office for Statistics Regulation will work with the Prime Minister’s office to ensure further statements on debt levels adhere to our guidance on intelligent transparency. And hopefully this letter will help other people presenting claims and analysis in this area to think carefully about how they do so.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Letter from Sarah Olney MP to Sir Robert Chote – public sector debt

Letter from Shaun Bailey MP to Sir Robert Chote – GDP forecast

Dear Sir Robert,

I’m writing to raise concerns over recent comments made in Parliament by the Shadow Chancellor, the Rt Hon. Rachel Reeves MP.

I think we can all agree that the proper use of statistics in public life is essential to trust in our politics. As a result, I am deeply concerned with the recent comments by the Shadow Chancellor who stated during her response to the Autumn Statement on the 22nd November that:

‘The economy is now forecast to be £40 billion smaller by 2027 than the Chancellor said back in March’.

This is wholly inaccurate. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook shows the UK economy is forecast to be 0.6 percent bigger in 2027 than previously forecast – roughly £15 billion larger than the Chancellor stated in March.

This means that there is a £55 billion gap between what the Shadow Chancellor said in Parliament, and reality. To quote these misleading statistics in the House of Commons Chamber is therefore profoundly misleading and risks misinforming the public on the vital issue of the UK’s economic performance.

I am sure that you will agree that Members of Parliament, have a duty to use statistics – particularly those related to the economy – accurately and in a manner that reflects the influence of an elected representative. I therefore request that you investigate the Shadow Chancellor’s statement and would welcome your view on her remarks.

Yours sincerely,

Shaun Bailey MP
Member of Parliament for West Bromwich West

 

Related links

Response from Sir Robert Chote to Shaun Bailey MP – GDP forecast