Peter Bye

I started this blog just over three years ago. My purpose was to defend the importance of evidence for policy-making, something that should be obvious. Yet all too often, it was clear that evidence was being ignored or distorted unless it suited policy. Since I wrote that first piece, the situation has deteriorated. In the UK, the Brexit campaign was characterised by lies and half-truths, along with much wishful thinking. And the election of Donald Trump has taken dishonesty to new depths: his administration’s combination of arrogance and ignorance represents the triumph of bullshit[1] over reason.

What is, then, the point of evidence, and the considerable expense governments in particular incur in gathering it, for it only to be ignored if it doesn’t say what the government wanted to hear? Before attempting to answer the question, I’d like to look at a couple of recent examples of wilfully ignoring evidence by the UK government.

The first example concerns the Universal Credit scheme for benefits[2]. The scheme was introduced in 2013 by the then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith. Its purpose as stated was reasonable. It aimed to simplify benefits by replacing six means-tested benefits and tax credits (Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit, income-based Employment and Support Allowance, and Income Support) by a single benefit. It also aimed to encourage people to go into work by making work more attractive.

Its introduction has been plagued by technical and administrative problems. A report[3] published on 15th June 2018 by the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises public spending for Parliament, was very critical of the whole policy and its expected gains. The report highlighted the near-impossibility of measuring whether or not Universal Credit was achieving its objectives. Unsurprisingly, there was much comment as a result of the NAO’s report[4]. Yet the immediate reaction from government circles was to claim that the policy is a success. It ignored the report, in other words.

The second example is the government’s announcement of increased spending on the National Health Service (NHS). Theresa May, the Prime Minister, stated in an interview on17th June[5]:

‘We must fund [the £20 billion boost to NHS spending]. That will be through the Brexit dividend. The fact we are no longer sending vast amounts of money[6] every year to the EU once we leave the EU. As a country we will be contributing a bit more’.

And on the 18th June in an interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC she said[7]:

‘Some of the extra funding I’m promising today will come from using the money we will no longer spend on our annual membership subscription to the European Union after we have left.’

The decision to spend the extra amount was welcomed, although some said that even more would be required. The point of contention was the reference to some of the funding coming from not having to pay the UK’s annual subscription to the EU – the so-called ‘Brexit dividend’. This claim has strong overtones of the ‘£350 million per week for the NHS’ claim on the side of the leave campaigner’s Brexit bus during the 2016 campaign.

All the evidence, including from official sources, suggests that there will be no Brexit dividend. Here are just two responses to the announcement. The Financial Times published an article entitled ‘Doubts cast on “Brexit dividend” for NHS’[8]. Full Fact concluded[9] that

‘there is no guaranteed extra money to pay for increased NHS funding from stopping our payments to the EU budget. Other costs associated with Brexit are expected to outweigh the savings.’

To return to my question at the beginning of this piece: what is the point of evidence if it is ignored? Government departments and supporting organisations spend a lot of money gathering data and preparing evidence. Special reports are commissioned from eminent people, again at considerable expense. Yet, unless the conclusions are what the government wants to hear, the results are too often ignored; the reports gather dust on ministerial bookshelves.

But without evidence behind policy, we risk going in wrong directions, trying to fix non-problems and ignoring real challenges. The remedy in the UK at least is for Parliament to be more assertive in performing its job of holding the government to account, with Parliamentary Select Committees playing a role in the detailed scrutiny of policy. Independent, serious journalism is also vital but has become increasingly under financial threat following the rise of social media. There is success in some areas, for example in the concern, and some action, on climate change within Europe and beyond (apart from Donald Trump). But much remains to be done to avoid the threat of movements with nationalist leaders promoting simple (non)-solutions to complicated problems.

Notes and sources

[1] I use the word ‘bullshit’ in the sense that it was described by Professor Harry Frankfurt: A liar knows what truth is and that he is not telling it. The bullshitter appears to have no concept of truth: truth is what is convenient for the bullshitter at the time. A copy of his 1986 essay ‘On Bullshit’, published in Raritan, can be obtained from https://www5.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f12/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf

[2] A brief history can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Credit

[3] The report can be found at https://www.nao.org.uk/report/rolling-out-universal-credit/

[4] See for example the reactions of The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jun/15/universal-credit-savaged-by-public-spending-watchdog-nao and the Learning and Work Institute: https://www.learningandwork.org.uk/2018/06/15/national-audit-office-report-on-universal-credit-our-response/
There’s a powerful blog on Universal Credit on the RSA’s website: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2018/06/universal_credit_enough_is_enough?id=newsletter/fellowship/250618

[5] For a transcript of what she said, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3hshxFhHM4dKd3px6Q3NzRF/transcripts

[6] The net amount paid to the EU in 2017 was about 0.45% of GDP and about 1.14% of government expenditure. See https://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/government_expenditure.html

[7] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dB_9kMjLUBc#t=44m04s

[8] FT 16 June 2018

[9] FullFact.org: https://fullfact.org/europe/does-brexit-dividend-exist/

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