Trust in statistics high but political misrepresentation worries remain – report

Almost half of people who indicated distrust in official statistics said they felt figures were being misrepresented by politicians, according to a survey.

The latest Public Confidence in Official Statistics report found that trust in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) remains high compared with other institutions in British public life.

Some 87% of adults surveyed in 2023 indicated they trust the ONS, slightly down from 89% in 2021.

Trust in both Parliament (36%) and Government (31%) fell, from 49% and 42% respectively in 2021, while trust in the media grew slightly from 23% to 25%.

Some 85% of respondents said they had trust in ONS statistics – a similar level to 2021, while some 12% of respondents said they “tend not to trust them” and 2% said they “distrust them greatly”.

Of the proportion who expressed distrust, the most frequently chosen reasons were that the statistics were being misrepresented by politicians (49%), that the statistics alone do not tell the whole story (45%) and that the Government has a vested interest in, or manipulates, the results (41%).

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), which is commissioned by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) to carry out the research every two years, said these findings were consistent with the low levels of trust people reported they had in the UK Parliament and the Government.

Some 2,364 people aged 18 and over were surveyed across 1,695 households in England, Scotland and Wales between October 4 and December 17 last year.

In December, Rishi Sunak was challenged over his claims to have reduced public debt by the chief of the UK’s statistics watchdog.

The Prime Minister had said that “debt is falling” in a social media video and that “we have indeed reduced debt” at Prime Minister’s Questions the previous month.

But the chairman of the UKSA, Sir Robert Chote, suggested the average person “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”.

In a letter at the time to the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, Sir Robert said: “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.”

In January, the Home Office was reprimanded by the UKSA after the Government was accused of lying about clearing part of the asylum backlog.

Sir Robert warned that “episode may affect public trust” after the UKSA investigated complaints received about Mr Sunak’s claim ministers had “cleared” the outstanding cases in question.

Sir Robert welcomed the latest research on trust in statistics as “reassuring”, given that “trust has remained consistently high over time among those who respond”.

But he added: “Although we shouldn’t be surprised if we see some change next year given the challenges the system has had to confront in more recent months.”

NatCen said survey respondents had mixed views on whether specific statistics are free from political interference, with 76% agreeing this is the case for the census, but only 56% feeling this is the case for employment statistics and 53% for crime statistics.

National statistician, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, said: “Now more than ever it is vitally important that citizens know where to find reliable, impartial statistics and trust the Office for National Statistics to handle their data safely and responsibly.

“We will continue to work hard to maintain and build upon that trust as we continue to modernise and improve our statistics in the months and years ahead.”

Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, said: “The survey provides reassuring evidence that people do value statistics.

“And just as importantly, it shows that people value our regulatory role in standing up against the misuse of statistics.”

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