Getting the numbers right

Yesterday, I wrote to the UK’s National Statistician–the start of all riveting stories, eh? The reason I had cause to write is that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are gearing up for the 2021 census and efforts have been made for some time to broaden the range of ethnic groups represented to include Sikhs. Now politicians are being asked to lend their support to the campaign, which I was very happy to do.

Ethnicity is a complicated subject and, despite various historical efforts, it’s not a term which has any scientific meaning. Ethnicity is rather a matter of culture and self-definition. So, given the range of culturally unique traits, including the fact that the Sikhs once had a very impressive empire, it’s rather hard to claim that the designation ‘Sikh’ applies purely to matters of religion and not to ethnic identity.

There seems to be a general tendency these days for people to dismiss statistics, following Disraeli’s alleged remark that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics”. Yet, if we are to take good decisions we need to have accurate numbers and the very reason the ONS was established independently of Government in the first place was to try to restore faith in the accuracy of government figures.

While there are many examples of where the failure to get this right has been shown on the national level, one local example stands out to me in particular. Crawley Borough Council used to have a Financial Deprivation Scrutiny Panel and when I was a backbench councillor–a requirement for being a member of a scrutiny panel–I was one of its members. The panel made any number of discoveries, one of which was that the number of eligible parents claiming free school meals for their child was half of the number of those who were eligible. That’s unfortunate in its own right, but it also causes real problems for Government as uptake rates of free school meals are used as an indicator of deprivation in a locality and has affected decisions taken around where to direct efforts to alleviate poverty. With inaccurate data those efforts could be misdirected, compromising the success of the policy. Of course, if we knew that the uptake rate was fifty percent across the UK then the distribution of those resources could still be accurately undertaken on the basis of free school meals, but then again we won’t know if the uptake rate is uniform across localities without accurate data. We need accurate information if Government is going to work.

Society is changing. We simply do not live our lives or define ourselves in the same ways as the UK did when the modern census began in 1801. The census is vital for us to have a clear picture of Britain today but if it is to fulfil that remit it must continue to adapt with the times.

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