Statistics watchdog rebukes Rishi Sunak over claim debt fallingon December 19, 2023 at 6:21 pm

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The UK Statistics Authority says the assertion “may have undermined trust” in the government’s use of data.

Rishi SunakImage source, Reuters

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s claim that the government has reduced debt has been challenged by the UK’s statistics watchdog.

The watchdog’s chairman said the assertion “may have undermined trust in the government’s use of statistics”.

Debt has been going up since the start of the year as a proportion of the economy.

In a social media post on 7 November, Mr Sunak said “debt is falling”.

During Prime Minister’s Questions on 22 November, the prime minister also told MPs “we have indeed reduced debt”.

This was the same day as the Autumn Statement – when the government sets out its tax and spending plans for the year ahead.

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokeswoman Sarah Olney wrote to Sir Robert Chote, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, to raise concerns the comments misrepresented official public finance statistics.

In a letter in response, Sir Robert said the PM’s office had told the watchdog the claims referred to the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility was forecasting debt would be falling as a proportion of GDP in the final year of its five-year forecast.

GDP – or gross domestic product – is a measure of all the economic activity of companies, governments and individuals in a country.

However, the latest figures for October showed that government debt stood at 97.8% of GDP, slightly higher than the figure for January.

Chart showing debt as a proportion of the size of the economy. It has risen since Mr Sunak became prime minister (October 23)

Sir Robert wrote: “The average person in the street would probably not have interpreted the prime minister’s claims in the way that his office explained them to us and would likely have assumed that he was claiming that debt was already falling or that the government’s policy decisions had lowered it at the fiscal events – neither of which is the case.

“This has clearly been a source of confusion and may have undermined trust in the government’s use of statistics and quantitative analysis in this area.”

Ms Olney said: “Rishi Sunak knows he has no good story to tell on the UK economy so he has resorted to making one up. The least this no-growth prime minister could do is be honest about it with the British public.

“Instead, he has reached for the Boris Johnson playbook and is undermining trust in politics.”

Downing Street has been contacted for comment.

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