Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Sarah Olney MP – statements on tax burden

Dear Ms Olney,

Thank you for your letter regarding statements by the Chancellor about changes in the tax burden. Specifically, you expressed concern that:

  • During his budget speech on 6 March, the Chancellor said “Today, in contrast, a Conservative Government brings down taxes”.
  • On 7 March, during an interview with BBC Radio Scotland, the Chancellor said Scotland “is the only part of the United Kingdom that is raising taxes”.

HM Treasury has informed us that the claims made in the budget speech were made in relation to the Spring Budget document that states,

Together, this Spring Budget and Autumn Statement 2023 deliver a total tax cut of £20 billion for workers, the largest ever cut to employee and self-employed National Insurance Contributions (NICs), as well as making full expensing permanent – with the combined impact of government policy from Autumn Statement 2022 reducing the tax burden by 0.6 percentage points”.

In the Spring Budget document, this paragraph is clearly sourced as the combined size of Spring Budget 2023, Autumn Statement 2023, and Spring Budget 2024 tax measures in 2028/29 as a percentage of GDP, using data from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) policy measures database and the OBR public finances databank, to combine the effects from several policies at multiple fiscal events.

As you have pointed out, the OBR has also forecast that the cuts to national insurance rates will be offset by other policy decisions such as freezing national insurance and income tax thresholds. In my previous letter to you, dated 19 December 2023, I noted that intelligent transparency demands that ministers consider how someone with an interest, but little specialist knowledge, is likely to understand what they say. The average person would be likely to interpret the Chancellors’ claim to “bring down taxes” as referring to the overall tax burden.

Regarding the claims made by the Chancellor on BBC Radio Scotland, Scotland has introduced a new ‘Advanced Rate’ leading to increased tax payments for individuals earning over £75,000. However, the claim that Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom raising taxes lacks the context of threshold freezes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

HM Treasury officials were unable to provide us with a source for this claim about Scottish taxes and did not clarify its intended meaning.

Demonstrating transparency and analytical integrity builds public confidence in how analytical evidence is used across government. The Office for Statistics Regulation is continuing to work with government departments, including HM Treasury, to embed the principles of intelligent transparency as the default approach to communicating statistics and data.

Yours sincerely,
Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Sarah Olney MP to Sir Robert Chote – statements on tax burden

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Jess Phillips MP – statements on crime

Dear Ms Phillips,

Thank you for your letter of 24 April regarding the use of crime statistics by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and the Home Office. You asked us to investigate the following statements about changes in the level of crime since 2010:

  • “Since 2010, violent crime is down 51%. Neighbourhood crime is down 48%.”
  • “Thanks to our record and plan, violent crime has fallen by 50%.

These estimates of violent and neighbourhood crime come from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) headline estimates, reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The CSEW remains the best estimate of long-term trends in crimes against the household population for the crimes included in the survey.

The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Home Office used the most appropriate data source for comparing trends in violent crime and neighbourhood crime since 2010. Nevertheless, it would support public understanding if they had been explicit in stating which offences are excluded from the violent crime estimates.

As you note, the CSEW headline estimate of violent crime incidents does not include all violent crimes. Almost all sexual offences, and all harassment and stalking offences, are not included due to the under-reporting of these crimes in face-to-face interviews and the difficulties of measuring the number of incidents that have occurred. The ONS’s preferred measure for this subset of violent crime types is the prevalence rate – the proportion of the population who have experienced such victimisation. This is estimated using data collected through separate standalone survey modules, with higher reporting rates, from those used to produce the CSEW headline estimates referred to above.

ONS’s Crime in England and Wales bulletin includes clear and prominent caveats about which crime types are excluded from the CSEW headline estimates. The ONS has also published an article titled ‘Crime trends in England and Wales and how we measure them’, which sets out how it measures crime, and which measure is best for which crime types.

Yours sincerely,
Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Jess Phillips MP to Sir Robert Chote – statements on crime

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Sir Michael Ellis MP and Andrew Percy MP – Gaza statistics

Dear Sir Michael and Mr Percy,

Thank you for your letter of 25 March regarding the UK Government’s and the Opposition’s use of casualty statistics produced by the Gaza Ministry of Health related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. You raised concerns about the accuracy of the figures produced by the Gaza Ministry of Health and the UK Government’s reliance on these figures to calculate the provision of aid to Gaza.

As you will appreciate, it is beyond our remit and our capability to assess the accuracy of casualty statistics in an overseas conflict. Tracking the number of fatalities is challenging in any conflict and there are often inaccuracies and inconsistencies in real-time reporting. There is always the potential for numbers emerging from a conflict situation to be contested, and for there to be suspicions that they reflect a particular narrative.

Given these uncertainties and potential sources of bias, it would be desirable for Ministers, Shadow Ministers and other Parliamentarians to state the source of any estimates they use in the public domain and to recognise the limitations attached to them.

As regards determining aid provision, the Leader of the House of Commons explained in the House of Commons on 21 March 2024 that the Government uses satellite imagery of building damage, information from humanitarian partners on the ground and data on living conditions as well as casualty estimates. Transparency around the information feeding into such judgements can help establish confidence in the robustness of the decisions taken; however, there are clearly obstacles to providing that for some sources in a conflict situation with lives at risk.

Yours sincerely,
Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Sir Michael Ellis MP and Andrew Percy MP to Sir Robert Chote – Gaza statistics
Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Jonathan Turner – Gaza statistics

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Andrew Gwynne MP – social care funding

Dear Mr Gwynne,

Thank you for your letter to Sir Ian Diamond regarding comments made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 7 March, during an interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. During this interview, the Chancellor said:

“On social care, in my first Autumn Statement I put up the budget by nearly 40 per cent, over £5 billion or nearly £5 billion.”

In September 2021, the Government announced plans for additional funding for social care totalling £5.4 billion over 2022-23, 2023-24 and 2024-25. In Autumn Statement 2022, the Chancellor increased this by 39 per cent to up to £7.5 billion but, having delayed some of the reforms, said that the additional funding would comprise up to £2.8 billion in 2023-24 and up to £4.7 billion in 2024-25. Treasury officials told us that it was this uplift in 2024-25 that the Chancellor referred to as “nearly £5 billion”. The reference to an increase of “nearly 40 per cent” presumably referred to the increase in the size of the overall funding package.

In an ideal world, the Chancellor would have been clearer about exactly what budget he was referring to and the time periods he was comparing. That would certainly be my expectation in a prepared statement or speech, but such clarity is less easy to achieve in an off-the-cuff response to an interview question.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Andrew Gwynne MP to Professor Sir Ian Diamond – social care funding

Jess Phillips MP to Sir Robert Chote – statements on crime

Dear Sir Robert,

I am writing to raise concerns about a lack of intelligent transparency in the use of crime statistics by the Home Secretary and Home Office on social media and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons.

All have publicly drawn attention to long term falls in violent crime. The Home Secretary and Home Office have also pointed to falls in neighbourhood crime.

These statistics are accurate as defined. But those definitions omit crimes that affect women’s safety and those have not fallen (like sexual assault and stalking). Someone with little specialist knowledge might reasonably assume that, for example, sexual assault would be counted as a violent crime.

The communications from the Home Secretary and Home Office do not make these limitations clear.

The Home Office and Home Secretary each tweeted responding to the latest publication of crime statistics (25 Jan) citing the following statistic:

“Since 2010, violent crime is down 51%, Neighbourhood crime is down 48%.”

During PMQs on 20 March, the Prime Minister said

“Thanks to our record and plan, violent crime has fallen by 50%.”

“Violent crime” does not include indecent exposure, unwanted sexual touching and rape, which collectively are put in the separate category of “sexual offences”[1]. It also leaves out stalking and harassment.

“Neighbourhood crime” is defined as vehicle related theft, domestic burglary, theft from the person (including pickpocketing) and robbery of personal property. Beating Crime Plan[2]

The prevalence of sexual assault, including rape, is little changed from 2010, having fallen until about 2014 and risen since then. Stalking has risen since 2010. The Office for National Statistics are currently developing questionnaires on harassment.

Communications from government should highlight when they rely on a technical definition whose meaning differs substantially from that which a non-specialist might reasonably assume. This is especially important when the statistical trends are different for each of the available definitions.

I therefore ask that you investigate the Prime Minster’s and the Home Secretary’s and Home Office’s statements and offer your guidance on whether they meet the standards of intelligent transparency and whether they are misleading.

I look forward to your response on this matter.

Yours sincerely,
Jess Phillips MP
Birmingham Yardley

 

Footnotes

[1] There is one violent crime with a sexual element: “wounding with sexual intent” that gets badged as a “violent” crime, but this accounts for a very small proportion of sexual or violent crime.
[2] Home Office’s Beating Crime Plan, October 2021. It does not cover all forms of theft, leaving out bike theft and both “other theft of personal property” and “other household theft”.

 

Related links

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Jess Phillips MP – statements on crime

Sir Michael Ellis MP and Andrew Percy MP to Sir Robert Chote – Gaza statistics

Dear Sir Robert,

We are writing to express my concern about the statistics used by official authorities in the UK relating to the casualty figures in the Israel/Gaza conflict.

All loss of life in a conflict is a tragedy and to be deeply regretted. It is of course important to recognise that, behind the statistics, every single instance of loss of life is an appalling tragedy for the loved ones, family and friends of the deceased. In a conflict where thousands are killed that is a human tragedy of appalling proportions and significant global impact.

It is therefore all the more important at a time of increased geopolitical tensions that His Majesty’s Government and its agencies are alert to the fact that, in an ongoing conflict, disinformation may be deliberately utilised to secure greater diplomatic and financial support for one of the combatants in the conflict.

This is especially so when information is sourced via a recognised terrorist organisation, proscribed as such in the United Kingdom. It is accepted that Hamas control the so-called ‘Health Ministry’ in Gaza, from which disinformation has regularly been disseminated, and the motivation of Hamas to inculcate hatred and terror against Jewish people and the State of Israel are well known and openly documented, even in their founding Charter. It is patently obvious that Hamas cannot be treated as a reliable source.

It is therefore of paramount importance that the media, Government and Opposition in the United Kingdom do not depend on this obviously unreliable propaganda source to parrot the unproven claims of one side in an ongoing conflict.

This is not just a political matter. It is a use of statistics relevant to the UK taxpayer, not only for reasons of propriety and the global reputation of the UK, and not even also for the wish to avoid an exacerbation of an already tense global crisis, but also because the figures are presumably used by UK authorities to help calculate the quantum of provisions and supplies sent by the UK Government, on behalf of the UK taxpayer, to the conflict zone.

Consequently, if the figures of persons injured, for example, have been dramatically exaggerated by the Hamas ‘Health Ministry’ then a greater amount of goods may be sent than is actually needed, which might then be misappropriated by malefactors, to be sold and the proceeds used to purchase items which may be utilised to sustain Hamas, an armed party to the conflict. It is clear from the evidence that aid to Hamas has been misappropriated in the past.

Earlier this month, a leading academic statistician, Professor Abraham Wyner, a Professor of Statistics and Data Science at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, an ‘Ivy League’ university whose business school is regularly ranked as one of the highest-rated Business schools in the world, calculated that the Hamas casualty figures are …”highly suggestive…[of]…a process unconnected or loosely connected to reality…”. His report was published in Tablet magazine on 7th March.

Professor Wyner wrote that the reported casualty rate from Hamas increases with “metronomical linearity “- a “regularity…[that]…is almost surely not real.” In other words – he assesses that the figures are far too uniform and have clearly been created to follow a precisely-increasing trajectory. The graph he uses in his report shows a highly unrealistic exponential increase with “strikingly little variation.”

The Professor continues in his Report that “Most likely, the Hamas ministry settled on a daily total arbitrarily. We know this because the daily totals increase too consistently to be real.”

For the full report please see: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/how-gaza-health-ministry-fakes-casualty-numbers#

This issue was raised last week in the House of Commons with the Leader of the House, and Ms Mordaunt confirmed that “[the government] need to ensure that we have the most accurate data…” The Minister went on to say that they were collecting that data from other sources as well as Hamas, including satellite imagery.

However, in the circumstances outlined above we are concerned that the Government and Opposition are relying on inaccurate figures in a way which is injurious to the public discourse, at a time of inflamed tensions, and contrary to the UK national interest. My primary concern is that the maximum amount of aid can be sent by the UK to actually support the urgent needs of the Palestinian civilians within Gaza and not be misappropriated for nefarious purposes.

As the Statistics Authority in the UK, which has proven itself willing to criticise leading political figures over their use of statistics, including recently, we would be grateful for your assessment of the situation and we look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Michael Ellis
Member of Parliament for Northampton North

Andrew Percy
Member of Parliament for Brigg and Goole

 

Related links

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Sir Michael Ellis MP and Andrew Percy MP – Gaza statistics
Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Jonathan Turner – Gaza statistics

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Karin Smyth MP – hospital beds

Dear Ms Smyth,

Thank you for your letter of 1 February regarding recent official communications from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England on the delivery of hospital beds this winter. 

On 25 January, DHSC posted on X:

 “We’ve hit our target for 5,000 extra permanent hospital beds across the country this winter to help patients receive care faster”

with an infographic stating “5,000 extra hospital beds delivered this winter.”

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Rt Hon Victoria Atkins MP reposted this, adding:

“I want faster, simpler, fairer health care for all our patients. That’s why we’ve delivered 5,000 extra beds this winter to help cut waiting lists”.

The NHS England Urgent and Emergency Care (UEC) Plan was published in January 2023. As part of this plan, the NHS committed to “5,000 new beds as part of the permanent bed base for next winter” which was later referred to as “5,000 more staffed, sustainable beds in 2023-24”.

NHS England told us that ‘permanent’ here refers to what are categorised in the statistics as ‘core’ beds. It monitored the growth in core beds internally using the UEC Daily Situation Reports from 2022-23 that contained the split of core and escalation beds, and tracked changes from the April 2022 position of 94,502 core beds (from which the original target was set), leading to a target of 99,500. However, the breakdown of core and escalation beds is not currently presented in the published statistics prior to 20 November 2023. This means that it is not possible for the public to verify progress against the NHS England or DHSC news statements using data for the 2022-23 series. It would support greater transparency for the 2022-23 series to be retrospectively updated to include this breakdown.

In July 2023, an NHS England press release expressed a slightly different target – with a slightly smaller number to be achieved by a slightly earlier date:

“With high levels of bed occupancy all year around, hospitals are putting more beds in place for patients and are on track to hit 5,000 additional ‘core’ permanent general and acute beds. Thanks to the efforts of the NHS, more than 99,000 core beds will be in place across the country by December 2023 – thousands more than last year, to boost resilience”.

Published statistics from the UEC Daily Situation Reports 2023-24 (in the chart below) show that the highest number of core beds on any given day in December was 98,673 on 14 December, slightly shy of the more recent target. The number of core beds then exceeded 99,000 for the first time on 8 January and the original target of 99,500 on 10 January. The average number of core beds over the seven days from 15 to 21 January 2024 – immediately prior to the DHSC post – was 99,750. So, strictly speaking, the original target was met ahead of schedule and the subsequent one a few days behind schedule. DHSC could have spelt this (and the definition of ‘permanent’ beds) out more exhaustively, but on balance its communications were reasonable and not materially misleading, notwithstanding the desirability of greater transparency as to the original target, as above. 

 

A graph: Total core beds open, England (All Acute Trusts, Urgent and Emergence Care Daily Situation Reports 2023-24) over the period late November 2023 to late January 2024. The graph shows that the number of beds exceeds 99,500 in early January and continues increasing thereafter

Source: Urgent and Emergency Care Daily Situation Reports 2023-24

 

Yours sincerely,

Sir Robert Chote
Chair

 

Related links

Karin Smyth MP to Sir Robert Chote – hospital beds

Andrew Gwynne MP to Professor Sir Ian Diamond – social care funding

Dear Sir Ian,

I write concerning comments made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the morning of 7th March, during an interview on Good Morning Britain.

The Chancellor said: “By the way on social care, in my first autumn statement I put up the budget by nearly 40%, nearly £5 billion.”

I wish to raise concerns about the accuracy of this statement, which would appear to contradict already published statistics.

According to analysis by the Institute for Government, government spending on adult social care in 2021/22 was £23.1 billion, making the Chancellor’s £5 billion figure amount to just over 21%, not the 40% he suggests.

IfG data also shows that the additional funding does not come from government spending alone, rather a combination of levers including delays to charging reform and council tax increases.

Further, such increases fail to account for the levels of inflation we have seen since the Chancellor’s first Autumn statement.

I welcome your guidance on this matter, in particular what clarification you can provide on the veracity of the Chancellor’s claim and look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Gwynne MP

 

Related links

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Andrew Gwynne MP – social care funding

Sarah Olney MP to Sir Robert Chote – statements on tax burden

Dear Sir Robert,

I am writing to raise concerns about misleading statistical claims made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, in relation to the tax burden on the British people.

In his Budget speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday 6th March, Mr Hunt claimed that “today… a Conservative Government brings down taxes”. He also referred a number of times to “our plan to deliver more jobs, better public services and lower taxes”.

In addition, on BBC Radio Scotland on the morning of Thursday 7th March, Mr Hunt claimed that Scotland “is the only part of the United Kingdom that is raising taxes”.

To the typical listener, these comments would clearly suggest that, outside of Scotland, either the overall tax burden is falling, or at least the personal tax burden is falling. However, neither of those things are true.

On the overall tax burden, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s latest forecasts, published alongside the Budget, show it rising in each of the next five fiscal years – in cash terms, in real terms and as a share of GDP.

In fact, the OBR forecasts tax as a share of GDP to rise “to 37.1 per cent of GDP in 2028-29, which would be the highest level since 1948. This would be 4.0 percentage points above the pre-pandemic level of 33.1 per cent of GDP in 2019-20”.[1]

On personal taxes, the Government’s cuts to national insurance rates are dwarfed by its tax rises, through freezes to the income tax and national insurance thresholds. The OBR’s forecasts show that – this year and in each of the next five years – the Government will take far more through its threshold freezes than it gives away through national insurance rate cuts.

In 2028-29, the OBR forecasts the threshold freezes to raise £41.1 billion, while the national insurance rate cuts will cost £21.4 billion. In other words, the rate cuts offset only around half of the Government’s tax rises. [2]

With both the overall tax burden and the personal tax burden rising in every one of the next five years, according to the OBR’s forecasts, I am concerned that Mr Hunt’s claims that the Government is “bringing down taxes” and delivering “lower taxes”, and that only Scotland is raising taxes, are misleading to the typical listener.

I am sure you will agree that all politicians – and especially senior Cabinet Ministers – should always be careful not to make misleading statistical claims like these, especially on something so important as the taxes people pay. I therefore ask that you investigate the Chancellor’s statements and offer your guidance.

Yours sincerely,
Sarah Olney
Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesperson and MP for Richmond Park

 

Footnotes

[1] OBR, Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2024, Paragraph 4.5 on page 80
[2] ibid, Table 3.8 on page 68

 

Related links

Letter from Sir Robert Chote to Sarah Olney MP – statements on tax burden

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