Lies, damn lies and Boris statistics

The London Mayor’s grandiose claims for his administration simply do not add up.

When is a rise not a rise? When you’re the Mayor of London talking about police numbers or the number of newly-built affordable homes. Take Boris Johnson’s convenient reliance on the number of police officers “in post”, as opposed to the number allowed for in the budget.

This means that he has found a method whereby he can claim that police numbers have gone up. However, that same method has been used by commentators to question the Mayor about his assertion. In short, Boris has used a low base line from which to proclaim that police numbers are on the increase.

In fact, police numbers went up in the first year of Boris’s term simply because he followed the predecessor’s budget on this. So, by November 2009, police numbers had reached their peak of 33,404. Then came a freeze on police recruitment which meant that numbers fell due to natural wastage. The result is police numbers are now significantly below what was allowed for in the 2010-11 budget.

The Metropolitan Police’s own figures show that there will be a loss of 581 officers between 2010-2012, from 33,091 to 32,510, below the peak level inherited as a result of Ken Livingstone’s budget. Yet this hasn’t stopped Johnson announcing that numbers are going up. Cunning or just bare-faced effrontery?

Now for the Mayor’s next trick: the affordable homes target and his pledge to build 50,000 affordable homes by the end of his first term. This is only just over a year away, Boris says he’s on course to meet this target and 30,000 homes have been started already. That’s good news – but only if your idea of “starting” to build a home is when you have the funds ready. If, however, your idea of “starting” coincides with the National House-Building Council’s definition – when the foundations are laid– then the figure is actually 19,000.

For the Mayor’s grand finale of number crunching, he unveiled some figures concerning bus crime which were so half-baked that they attracted criticism from Sir Michael Scholar, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, as “poor practice… undermining public trust in official figures”. The data was in the form of a spread sheet of numbers, waved under the noses of journalists at a mayoral media event and showing a jaw-dropping 30 per cent drop in bus crime from the end of the 2007 financial year to the end of the financial year in 2010. The Mayor’s press release made no links to figures relied on and Transport for London’s statistics at the time only included figures up to the end of the second quarter – July to September. A true comparison should have contrasted a like for like period.

If a press release quotes figures not as yet officially published, then this is misleading because they cannot be checked and would also appear to be a breach of the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.

Boris claims a dubious exemption on the grounds that his statistics are not official ones. So there we have it: misleading and inaccurate and flawed number juggling. Few would deny that Boris has a certain oratorical flair. The same cannot be said for his numeracy skills. His number should be up.

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