THAT was one of the questions posed at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Royal Statistical Society to consider whether we really are in a post-truth world of ‘alternative facts’, and if so what we can do about it.
These terms have become commonplace as people try to make sense of a global political landscape that looks and feels different to what many would have predicted a year ago. So it was refreshing to hear a more critical take on the concepts such as post-truth, fake news and echo-chambers.
That isn’t to say that the panellists thought all is well. It was accepted that misinformation, ‘fake news’, and a lack of regard for evidence in some quarters are issues worthy of addressing, and that it’s vital for the health of our democracy that we do so. What’s more, Helen Margetts (Oxford Internet Institute) presented a compelling case that the Internet and social media may be exacerbating the problem.
“Is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence?”
What was questioned was the notion that there is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence.
Or, to restate the earlier question – against what previous golden age of ‘truth’ are we implicitly comparing our modern era to when we use the phrase ‘post-truth’?
This sense of perspective is welcome. William Davies’ recent piece in the Guardian, which has generated much discussion in the statistical world, painted a gloomy picture of the supposedly waning power of statistics. But as the National Statistician pointed out in response, our supposedly ‘post-truth’ era is also characterised by both a yearning for more trustworthy analysis to make sense of the world and an abundance of data out there to help inform it, if only we can tap into and make sense of it.
And that is central to our mission here at the Office for National Statistics. We are constantly striving to produce better statistics to support better decisions. We have ambitious plans to harness big data and exploit its potential to help us understand the modern world. And we are always looking to better understand current and future user needs and respond to them where we can.
“We will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.”
It’s not just about producing better statistics, however. There are challenges in explaining to a wide audience what the evidence says about any given issue when the matter at hand is complex, the evidence is not always clear cut, and the methodological limitations of statistics need to be made clear in the name of transparency.
The difficulty with that, as panellist James Bell from Buzzfeed explained, is that when it comes to dealing with a mass audience and a controversial issue, a simple and clear message usually beats a complex one.
Those of us working in the field of official statistics always need to challenge ourselves to communicate better and in a way that is clear and accessible. But we cannot get away from the fact that by necessity we deal in complexity and nuance, which can make it tricky to get our message across where others may be peddling a simpler line and in a louder voice.
The answer, as argued by Full Fact’s Will Moy, lies in recognising that the ONS and UK Statistics Authority, along with other bodies such as new Office for Statistics Regulation, are part of a bigger picture including civil society groups, media outlets, businesses and ordinary citizens. Working together is crucial to help people make sense of the world around them, to continue to build the case for evidence, and to challenge those who wilfully misuse or disregard it.
That’s why, for example, the UK Statistics Authority is partnering with Full Fact, the House of Commons Library and the Economic and Social Research Council on the ‘Need to Know’ project. And it’s also why the work done by organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society to improve statistical literacy is so valuable, so we can all understand the importance of evidence and challenge its misuse.
Responding to Mr Davies’ Guardian piece, the National Statistician argued that “this is the moment when we can make our greatest contribution to society” by seizing the opportunities open to us to produce the statistics that Britain needs to answer the big questions of the day. That’s something we certainly intend to do. And working with others, we will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.
Lib Dems slam ‘botched’ scheme
THE WELSH Liberal Democrats have slammed the Conservative Government for their “hapless treatment” of EU citizens after the Home Office released guidance on the new EU Settlement Scheme.
The Home Office has confirmed that for the duration of the trial period, until 30 March, EU citizens applying to stay in the UK must either use an Android phone or travel to one of 13 ‘document scanning’ centres instead.
For Holyhead, the closest ‘document scanning’ centre is Trafford.
According to an analysis by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, EU citizens travelling from Holyhead would face costs of £55 on the train for at least a six and a half hour round trip. The drive would be a 224-mile round trip costing around £56 in fuel.
The only document scanning centre in Wales is in Caerphilly. Travelling from Pembroke to Caerphilly and returning the same day by rail would cost £32.10 (the cheapest available fare at the time of enquiry), the cheapest off-peak fare from Aberystwyth would be £77.10 return. By car at an average of 40mpg, the cost of travel would be at least £27 to and from Pembroke, while from Aberystwyth the cost would be at least £25. Both car journeys represent round trips of over 180 miles.
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds said: “Too many people in Wales are deeply anxious about their right to stay. Many of them fill vital roles in the health service, our schools and the tourism sector. They want to register as soon as possible, but Theresa May’s hapless treatment of EU citizens could result in a new Windrush scandal.
“For anyone who doesn’t have an android phone, this botched scheme means they will have to travel. For people in Holyhead, that means facing a 224-mile round trip and paying over £50 for the privilege. This postcode lottery is simply unacceptable.”
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Ed Davey MP said: “Following significant pressure, the Prime Minister said there will be no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay. How long did that commitment last?
“It is Conservative Ministers who have made a mess of Brexit. They should either pay the cost for EU citizens or change the application system and ensure EU citizens are made to feel welcome in the UK.
“Ultimately, the best way to avoid all of this mess is by giving the people the option to remain in the EU with a final say on Brexit.”
Retailers’ no deal reality check
THE HEADS of the UK’s major food retailers, including McDonald’s, M & S and Asda, have written to MPs and dramatically spelt out their view of the risks of leaving the EU without an agreement.
The warning comes shortly after the revelation that Britain has begun stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition at military bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus and the Falklands in case of a no-deal Brexit.
With all contingency plans routinely labelled ‘Project Fear’ by those Brexiters stuck on transmit instead of receive, the retailers have taken a significant risk in sticking their collective head above the parapet by trying to address a substantial issue which is rather glossed by those proclaiming the benefits and underplaying the downside of a crash out Brexit.
The letter is backed by the British Retail Consortium, which represents over 70% of Britain’s retailers by turnover.
The Government said that it was taking special measures to minimise the impact of a no-deal Brexit on supermarkets’ suppliers and insisted that food was not going to run out as a result.
“The government has well-established ways of working with the food industry to prevent disruption and we are using these to support preparations for leaving the European Union.”
The Food and Drink Federation, which represents thousands of food processors and manufacturers, has said a no-deal Brexit would be a “catastrophe”, with uncertainty undermining investment and constraining businesses’ ability to plan and export.
DEAL OR NO DEAL: THE LETTER
On behalf of our businesses and the wider food industry, we want to highlight to you the challenges for retailers and the consequences for millions of UK consumers of leaving the European Union without a deal at the end of March. While we have been working closely with our suppliers on contingency plans it is not possible to mitigate all the risks to our supply chains and we fear significant disruption in the short term as a result if there is no Brexit deal. We wanted to share with you some practical examples of the challenges we are facing.
Our supply chains are closely linked to Europe – nearly one-third of the food we eat in the UK comes from the EU. In March the situation is more acute as UK produce is out of season: 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit are sourced from the EU at that time of year. As this produce is fresh and perishable, it needs to be moved quickly from farms to our stores.
This complex, ‘just in time’ supply chain will be significantly disrupted in the event of no deal. Even if the UK government does not undertake checks on products at the border, there will still be major disruption at Calais as the French government has said it will enforce sanitary and customs checks on exports from the EU, which will lead to long delays; Government data suggest freight trade between Calais and Dover may reduce by 87% against current levels as a result. For consumers, this will reduce the availability and shelf life of many products in our stores.
We are also extremely concerned about the impact of tariffs. Only around 10% of our food imports, a fraction of the products we sell, is currently subject to tariffs so if the UK were to revert to WTO Most Favoured Nation status, as currently envisaged in the no-deal scenario, it would greatly increase import costs, which could in turn put upward pressure on food prices. The UK could set import tariffs at zero but that would have a devastating impact on our own farmers, a key part of our supply chains.
Our ability to mitigate these risks is limited. As prudent businesses we are stockpiling where possible, but all frozen and chilled storage is already being used and there is very little general warehousing space available in the UK. Even if there were more space it is impossible to stockpile fresh produce, such as salad leaves and fresh fruit. Retailers typically store no more than two weeks’ inventory and it becomes difficult to restock stores if the supply chain is disrupted. We are also attempting to find alternative supply routes but there are limited options and not enough ferries, so this could only replace a fraction of the current capacity.
We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no deal Brexit. We anticipate significant risks to maintaining the choice, quality and durability of food that our customers have come to expect in our stores, and there will be inevitable pressure on food prices from higher transport costs, currency devaluation and tariffs.
We are therefore asking you to work with your colleagues in Parliament urgently to find a solution that avoids the shock of a no deal Brexit on 29 March and removes these risks for UK consumers.
WG votes down another rights Bill
THE WELSH Government has voted down a second Private Members Bill in a week, leading to an angry reaction from the Welsh Conservative Party.
Welsh Conservative AM – Darren Millar – slammed the Welsh Governments ‘tribalism’ as a key contributor to its failings in Wales, and described its rigid approach to politics as ‘comparative of an authoritarian regime’.
Last week, The Herald reported on opposition AMs’ fury that the Welsh Government voted against Assembly Member Paul Davies’ private bill which aimed to ensure increased support for autistic people of all ages, by addressing issues such as health and social services, educational outcomes, access to housing, and employment and providing rights of statutory redress when services fail.
The Older People’s Rights Bill was proposed by Mr Millar, and designed to ensure that older people in Wales were protected, promoted and respected by public sector decision makers.
The Bill was backed by the Older People’s Commissioner, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Age Cymru, Age Connects, and the Cymru Older People’s Alliance, amongst others.
Proposals for Mr Millar’s Bill had previously received cross-party support, and the Welsh Government supported a motion which was agreed by the National Assembly for Wales on 12th January 2016 to bring forward legislation to protect and promote the rights of older people.
GOVERNMENT REJECTS STATUTORY RIGHTS
Notwithstanding the Welsh Government’s previous position, it once again waved the shroud of wanting to deal with issues in a holistic way without resorting to legislation ‘at this stage’.
Fear is growing that the Welsh Government is fearful of enacting legislation that confers rights to individuals, preferring instead to listen to service providers whose services might not withstand close scrutiny and a rights-based approach to ensuring compliance with standards.
Speaking in the Assembly, Darren Millar said: “The purpose of the Bill is to build on Wales’s excellent track record to date by embedding a rights-based approach in the development, planning and delivery of public services that affect older people in Wales.
“If given permission, I will seek to consult with stakeholders to develop a Bill that will further enshrine the rights of older people within Welsh law, by placing a duty on Welsh Ministers to have regard to the United Nations Principles for Older Persons when making decisions that may impact upon older people in Wales; that will provide for the ability to extend that due-regard duty to local authorities, health boards and other Welsh public authorities; that will place a duty on Welsh Ministers to promote knowledge of and understanding of the UN Principles for Older Persons; and that will require Welsh Ministers to publish annual reports on their compliance with their older people’s rights schemes—something that doesn’t happen at the moment.”
The proposed legislation was very similar to the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. A Bill which passed the Assembly with little controversy.
Mr Millar continued: “We embarked upon this journey a number of years ago and we can deliver and pioneer a new rights-based approach for older people’s rights here in Wales. We’ve got an opportunity to develop legislation that will result in practical improvements in the decision making and delivery of public services, that will raise awareness of older people’s rights and give them recognition and status, and that will empower those hundreds of thousands of older people across Wales to access those rights.”
THE TIME IS NOT RIGHT
Responding on behalf of the Welsh Government, Minister for Local Government Julie James suggested that older persons’ rights are already sufficiently protected by a range of Welsh Government measures, including its totemic Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
In any event, the Welsh Government did not regard the time had yet come for legislation – rather ignoring the point that the current First Minister supported such legislation when he was Health Minister.
Ms James concluded: “While I strongly support the sentiments behind this Bill, the time is not right for this particular bit of legislation. When we do legislate, we should do that holistically for the whole of society and in a way that identifies the needs of all disadvantaged groups.”
Supporting Darren Millar’s bill and suggesting that it should progress to the next stage so elements of it could be incorporated into future Welsh Government legislation, Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones pointed out: “Unless individuals have mechanisms they can use which don’t depend on the Government and that do not depend on an independent commissioner, but that they can use themselves to enforce those rights, those rights at their very end may not be enforced.”
David Rowlands (UKIP) said: “It is incumbent on statutory authorities to ensure that the core mainstream services are available to older residents in the same way that they are for other people… If children are protected in law, why not the other most vulnerable group, the old?”
THE PAYROLL VOTE VOTES
Concluding the debate, Darren Millar noted that an invitation extended to both himself and the older people’s commissioner to meet with the Government on February 6 to discuss its ‘holistic’ plans for the future was made only the day before the scheduled debate.
As usual, Labour AMs, including ‘independent’ government minister Dafydd Elis Thomas and Lib Dem Kirsty Williams, followed the government line. Two members abstained, Bethan Sayed and Jenny Rathbone. Apart from Ms Sayed, all other opposition parties supported the Bill.
It fell by 27 votes to 21.
Speaking after the vote, Darren Millar said: “This is not the way politics should be handled in this country, and it’s not the footing that the First Minister should start on with his new Government. It’s a tribal attitude and it is holding Wales back.
“The Welsh Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas. Both this Bill – and last week’s Autism Bill – are non-contentious proposals which had widespread cross-party and stakeholder support.
“We are supposed to be a democracy where the ideas of all elected representatives, regardless of their party politics, can be treated with respect, but in Wales, under this regime, that clearly isn’t the case.”
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