“We are spending £3.2 billion in flood management and defences over the course of this parliament – half a billion pounds more than in the previous parliament.”
Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss, 2 December 2014
Is this government spending more on protecting Britain from floods than the last one?
It’s a simple question, but it’s one that has landed the coalition in hot water time and again.
We have seen angry bluster from ministers – followed by grovelling corrections. And the mild-mannered UK Statistics Authority was moved to issue a (very diplomatic) public rollicking to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over its figures.
Today, Defra returned to the fray, saying: “We are spending £3.2bn in flood management and defences over the course of this parliament – half a billion pounds more than in the previous parliament.”
Unravelling the truth of this gives us an insight into some classic tricks that government spin doctors use to squeeze dubious factual claims past the public – and how we can catch them out.
Changing the time-frame
Today’s claim by Defra is 100 per cent accurate – but only because the government is taking the credit for spending set out by the previous Labour government.
The important thing is whether we talk about the “spending review period”, which means the four years from 2011/12 to 2014/15, or “the course of this parliament”, which takes in 2010/11 as well.
That’s a big issue here because the budget plan set by Labour for 2010/11 involved high levels of spending on flood defences: about £670m in cash terms.
This was cut by around £100m to £573m the following year – the first year of budgets decided after George Osborne’s 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review.
There’s no real dispute that the coalition cut flood defence spending.
The committee on climate change, which advises the government, said the budget for 2011 to 2014/15 represented a 20 per cent cut in real terms compared to the previous four years.
But the then-environment secretary, Owen Paterson – he of “the badgers have moved the goalposts” fame – seemed oblivious to what his department’s official figures were telling everyone else.
In a public meeting he angrily denied any cut in the flood defence budget. Then he told parliament: “I know that those in the Labour whips office struggle with slow learners, but I shall put it on the record again: this government are providing more than any previous government in the current spending review.”
Defra were later obliged to issue an official clarification. In fact, the figure was only higher if you included non-government money.
The UK Statistics Authority weighed in at this point, spelling out the “more money than ever” claim was “not supported by the statistics” if you left out the external funding.
Now the goalposts have moved again, but badgers are not to blame.
The government is careful to talk about spending over “the course of this parliament”, which includes Labour’s legacy of high spending in 2010/11.
When it comes to floods spending, even including an extra year of spending is not quite enough to stand up the claim that Defra is now spending half a billion pounds more than Labour, which brings us to our next classic FactCheck ploy…
Today’s claim only works if we talk about money in cash or “nominal” terms, not real terms – in other words, if we forget about inflation.
In cash terms the difference between this five-year period and the one before is indeed about half a billion. In real terms (we used the Treasury’s GDP deflators to add the effect of inflation) it’s about half that.
If we start counting the coalition’s record from 2011/12, the effect is even bigger: there is a small real-terms cut in spending. Toggle between “nominal” and “real” on the graph to see the difference:
This has got nothing to do with floods, but we couldn’t resist including another slap on the wrist from the UK Statistics Authority, this time directed at the Treasury.
It’s notoriously easy to use graphs to make unpromising numbers look better. This could be one for the FactCheck hall of fame.
This is how the Treasury laid out the figures for the National Infrastructure Plan. That’s spending on big infrastructure projects like new roads.
Pretty high numbers all round, no? Not really: look at the scale on the left. We expect most graphs to use a linear scale: 10; 20; 30 and so on.
But this is a logarithmic scale, where the steps are orders of magnitude: 10; 100; 1,000; 10,000. This has the effect of making very large differences between numbers appear smaller.
The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, said: “My view is that the chart could leave readers with a false impression of the relative size of investment between sectors.”
Look at the difference it made when Sir Andrew changed the graph to a more conventional scale:
Now government plans for investment in some areas, particularly intellectual capital, look much less impressive.
For more examples of how graphs can be used to mislead the viewer, check out this website.