Just 8% of MPs….

Last week I received an email from the Royal Statistics Society reporting on the results of their Parliament Counts campaign, aimed at promoting better-informed debate and decision-making in parliament. The Society were keen to help MPs understand both how to interpret statistical claims and how to use statistics themselves when setting out arguments. (As for why this is necessary, you need look no further than Jeremy Hunt’s attempts to mislead the public about weekend mortality rates, or Ian Duncan Smith’s insistence on changing benefits policy on the spurious grounds that if one person is cheating the system everyone else must be.)

The Statistics Society rightly recognises that MPs come from a range of backgrounds, and that most of them aren’t scientists  (the group of people most likely to be well versed in using statistics and other forms of evidence to inform decision-making). In promoting statistical literacy the Society is also picking up on the expectation that politicians do as they claim to, – i.e. that they do actually use evidence to inform the policy decisions they make (or support or challenge, depending on their role). So before the 2015 General Election, they asked prospective MPs to sign up to their campaign, committing them to attend a training session if elected.  324 parliamentary candidates signed up to the campaign, of whom 55 were elected. That might sound good, but it’s only 8% of MPs. Or, to be more precise, 14% of Labour MPs and 4.5% of Conservative ones (and none in Suffolk, Essex or Norfolk or several other counties).  So despite the best efforts of the Society, it doesn’t sound as if our politicians are likely to become more statistically literate any time soon. Nor does it appear as if they want to. That doesn’t augur well for evidence-based policy-making – and therefore for the rest of us.

There are of course some exceptions. Anyone hearing Sarah Wollaston (the former GP and MP who chairs the Commons Health Committee) talking on the Today programme last week about vaccination policy, will have been left in no doubt about both her ability and intent to use evidence to inform her judgements about policy even in the most emotionally charged of circumstances.

I can’t help thinking that Sarah Wollaston must feel quite lonely at times in the House of Commons. Not only does she have to contend with being in a minority of MPs with any apparent willingness to learn how to use statistics appropriately in political discourse, she has to put up with her own side making bizarre decisions like the one made by David Cameron last week to deny young people compulsory sex education.  As succinctly expressed by Bridget Christie in Saturday’s Guardian magazine, Cameron decided to ignore all the evidence from a very wide range of sources and deny young people compulsory sex education.  Quite why is a mystery – even The Telegraph can’t find a meaningful counter-argument. And unfortunately debate on the subject has since sunk in the English Channel, along with most other items of news that don’t concern Britain’s membership of the EU.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and Ian Duncan Smith aren’t on the list of MPs who attended the National Statistics Society training sessions.  But given their actions, I wonder if next election we may need to set the bar rather lower. Asking prospective MPs to sign up to using and interpreting statistics appropriately may be several steps too far for politicians who don’t appear to wish to make judgements informed by evidence of any sort. But given the sheer disdain for data demonstrated by the likes of Jeremy Hunt in the last few weeks, it’s never been more important for MPs (on all sides) to be not just interested in evidence for itself, but statistically literate enough to use it to defend our public services.

 

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