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Allowing Others to See Us

Craig Dalzell

Folk might have noticed that my newsletter articles recently have been a little on the long side – though I’m sure that didn’t stop you getting to the end of articles looking deeply at very important issues such as lobbying transparency and the Programme for Government. I promise I’ll be a bit briefer this week.

I was having a conversation with Bill Johnston, the co-author of our book on Age and Ageing All of Our Futures, as we were preparing our response to the consultation on creating a Commissioner for Older People (As of the time of writing, the consultation is still open and you can submit your own views here). The short version of that is that we broadly support the role but want to ensure that Parliament (not Government) has proper oversight and even then we worry that the creation of a Commissioner in a time when the Minister for Older People has been dropped sets a slightly dangerous example where work advising government is done by unelected officials rather than elected members. This said, there are advantages to having a bit of distance from Government when giving that advice too so our call is essentially that we need both a Commissioner and a Minister looking at issues important enough to require it – as is often the case when it comes to issues of equalities that cut across many areas of policy.
This does raise a question of what such a Commissioner would do in the day to day though. A good part of the job will be to scrutinise government policy and to offer advice and suggestions on new policies – much like much of our role as a think tank, albeit from a slightly different and more focussed perspective.

To do this properly though requires data and access to that data. We need to know the current state of our country as it is measured, we need to know if policies are having an impact on that state (it’s easy for governments to tell us they’ll build houses, harder for them to demonstrate that they’ve actually done it and harder still to show that the act of building houses has improved the housing sector in the way they claimed it would) and this brings us round to a problem that I’ve been banging on about for years.

Back in 2019 I warned that one of the less discussed and less well understood aspects of Brexit as it was happening was the risk that the UK (and thus Scotland) would drop out of the Eurostat database and divergences from EU standards and practices to do with data handling would mean that statistics produced by the UK would not be easily comparable with our neighbouring and peer countries in Europe. Under the arrangements at the time, the UK would remain in Eurostat until December 2021 after which we would drop out unless a new deal was negotiated. At the time, I was pretty sure that I was just been incredibly nerdy about obscure politics but as a result of that article I was inundated with messages from various data people around the UK (who, I’m sure, are only marginally less nerdy than I am). A motion was raised in the House of Commons on the matter and a reply from the UK Statistics Authority outlined that it was committed to cooperation with Eurostat though the reply from the government themselves was much less committed to anything.

Even better, just a few months later a motion to the SNP conference to adopt our policy of a Scottish Statistics Agency was debated on the floor and passed overwhelmingly.

But after that, the data desert began to encroach. The Scottish Government never picked up the SSA policy and has scarcely mentioned it officially. It has certainly never made it into any of the subsequent Programmes for Government. December 2021 rapidly arrived and the promised negotiations did not. Boris Johnson appeared to have very little interest in using actual data to form policies and every incentive to avoid having to do so. 2022, of course, became the UK’s Year of Three PMs and the resulting political turmoil was, if anything, even less receptive to the idea of negotiating a re-entry into Eurostat. Never mind negotiations failing, I can’t find evidence that they were ever begun and so the Eurostat data maps now have a new grey blob sitting between the Continent and Ireland. Scotland and the UK can no longer easily compare ourselves to those neighbours nor them to us.

One of my major frustrations in Scottish politics is that statistics that show Scotland’s shortfalls can be and are brushed aside so long as we “beat the UK average”. 24% of Scottish children in poverty? Well, so long as it’s 31% in England then that’s fine. In fact Scotland has the second lowest rate of child poverty in the UK so it’s actually good news that one in four Scottish kids are poor. Eurostat shows that that Scotland’s rate of child poverty is just about on the EU average – so certainly nothing to celebrate – and  several European nations have child poverty rates less than half of Scotland’s. Are these statistics valid comparisons though? Perhaps…perhaps not. Now that we’re no longer in Eurostat ourselves it has become difficult to compare methodologies to check and it’s becoming much harder to even find the various statistics that we want to compare in the first place. The UK should make it a priority to pick up those dropped negotiations and apply to rejoin Eurostat formally but my hunch is that the closest we’ll come to that is Keir Starmer denying making a promise to do so or doing it then U-turning by the next newspaper edition.

But there is absolutely nothing stopping Scotland from looking after our own data. With the SSA policy still on the SNP’s policy book and with it backed by the overwhelming support of members then it should be a priority policy for the Scottish Government. I’d suggest that a primary role for the SSA should be to gather statistics produced around and for Scotland into one easily navigable place. They should especially look at replicating the Eurostat database so that they can produce comparable data for Scotland covering everything that Eurostat itself covers. This would instantly allow Scotland to directly compare ourselves to our European peers and allow their experiences to directly inform our policy developments. It would also, incidentally, help speed the accession of an independent Scotland into the EU – as per Scottish Government policy – as there is a chapter on data and statistics that we’ll have to meet as part of the membership criteria. In other words, we’re going to have to do this eventually, so why not do it now?

The old line “To see ourselves as others see us” is vitally important – we cannot hope to build a better Scotland if all we do is talk to ourselves and will it to be true without checking to see if it is, but to do this we also need to allow others to see us and that means having robust, transparent and comparable data published about what we’re doing as a country and how we’re doing it. That is the difference between a country striving to make itself the best place it can be, and one merely chasing headlines without looking at the results of our actions.

Image Credit: Eurostat – Percentage of people aged under 18 in poverty.

3 thoughts on “Allowing Others to See Us”

  1. Bill Johnston

    Good stuff Craig,

    If Scotland achieves independence at some point in the future then on the midnight hour the new nation will have its own population, with a size, shape and trajectory that is officially Scottish and open for comparison with Europe and the rest of the world as well as rUK. That population will also be the material foundation for planning and developing the new state’s approach to health, social care, education, housing, employment and the full range of issues government will be responsible for. Planning needs to start in advance of independence and that needs good, reliable data in order to be credible.

    So it is a dire situation that the current Scottish Government has passed over the call for a Scottish Statistics Agency. Don’t they want to be a ‘normal’ independent nation?

    The SNP answer would obviously be yes they do, but that claim would be more convincing if the present Scottish government was taking more steps to establish a working state that could be up and running from day one of independence. The foundation of the Scottish nation will be its population and whoever forms a government must be able to base policy decisions and expenditure commitments on a rational account of Scotland’s demographics. So we need to get the statistical basis of nationhood covered before independence and this leads onto the current political situation.

    The next UK General Election is on the horizon and Humza Yousaf is developing an independence strategy around that event. This should provide an opportunity to revisit the Scottish Statistics Agency and any other relevant aspects of state building. What have Humza and the SNP got to loose? Surely their Election manifesto will be strengthened by the number of proposals that clarify what an independent Scotland and Scottish state will look like? Otherwise they can look forward to being pilloried by opponents claiming that the SNP is putting ‘constitutional obsessions’ before bread and butter issues.

    Clearly the unionists will have nothing to say about forming a new Scottish state as they will be quite satisfied with the current UK arrangements. So unless the SNP and other independence supporting parties say something about it, the issue is unlikely to come up and the field of debate will have been narrowed down accordingly.

    I think a General Election campaign putting forward not only the case for independence but a clear design for an independent state would be more convincing and harder to destroy than a campaign founded in process issues and relying on the kind of ‘we’re better than England’ arguments that Craig skewers in his article. If Humza is serious about opening negotiations for independence and wants to get the desired result at the Election, then he and his colleagues need to get serious about the design of the nation state they want to usher onto the world stage and put it before the electorate.

    So, onwards to the Scottish Statistical Agency!

    And who knows, the Great Scottish Database might have a section on how many nerds are in the population.

    All the best,

    Bill.

  2. There is little point in having a separate statistics agency if we still produce totally meaningless statistics – I am thinking about the “24% of children in poverty” claim. before people explode in anger, just remember that if we manage to double the real income of every individual and family in the country, the percentage of children in poverty will still be reported as being exactly the same despite everyone being twice as well-off. This is because the measure of poverty is based on a comparison with the average rather than some absolute measure and, as such, the statistic is actually a measure of the degree of inequality in the country rather than of poverty. None of that should detract from the fact that some children live in real poverty…but not 24%.

    1. While I haven’t been shy about criticising the lack of good data in Scotland (see my articles on Scottish trade data for instance) Scottish poverty statistics are among the better and more nuanced of the datasets.

      Not that relative inequality should be discounted as meaningless because it is a primary factor in limiting social cohesion and community.

      For comparison though, absolute child poverty – the percentage of children in Scotland who live in a low income environment regardless of how everyone else is doing – stood at 21% across 2019-2022 and the percentage of children in Scotland suffering from the effects of both low income and material deprivation stood at 11%.

      The methodology behind Scotland’s child poverty statistics can be explored in detail here: https://www.gov.scot/collections/child-poverty-statistics/

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