by Henry Hill
Thursday, 28
January 2021
Explainer
08:01

How the nationalists tweak their records to escape scrutiny

Devolved administrations have a habit of making comparisons impossible
by Henry Hill
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford. Credit: Getty

The UK has now passed the grim benchmark of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. It’s a horrifying statistic. But it also has a slightly Frankenstein character that warrants attention. Visit the Government’s official page for tracking the mortality figures and you will find the following disclaimer:

“Data from the four nations are not directly comparable as methodologies and inclusion criteria vary.”
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK, GOV.UK

What this means is that the official UK-wide total is not based on a single, uniform dataset, but is produced by adding together the separate totals for each of the Home Nations, each of which has been keeping track of coronavirus in a different way.

In this particular instance, this probably doesn’t matter very much. Nobody — except perhaps the smiley-face brigade — is suggesting that the figures from any part of the UK are significantly inaccurate.

But as on so many other occasions, the pandemic has shone a light on a longer-running problem which ought to concern unionists far more than it seems to.

It is a common complaint on my side of the argument that devocrats such as Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon manage to enjoy enviable poll ratings no matter how badly their administrations misgovern Wales and Scotland respectively.

Less attention is paid to how they achieve this, and the above-mentioned lack of comparable statistics hints at the answer: devolved politicians masking their records by systematically dismantling the means by which they might be compared to others.

Take education, arguably one of the most important areas of public policy and one which has gone badly wrong in both Scotland and Wales since the advent of devolution. In Scotland, the SNP have responded to falling attainment by pulling out of most international surveys and severely degrading internal standardised testing too.

In Wales, meanwhile, old-fashioned Labour politicians seized on the advent of the Assembly to opt out of Tony Blair’s education reforms and roll back many of those instituted by John Major, including the league tables so hated by the teaching unions. The result was a self-inflicted education disaster on a legendary scale.

Healthcare is apparently a similar story, with sources suggesting to me that the Welsh Government tweaks the measurement of things such as ambulance response categories to burnish an unenviable record.

Yet when an MP wrote to the House of Commons Library to ask for comparative statistics on how Edinburgh and Cardiff were managing key public services compared to London, they got a similar response:

“Due to devolution the education systems in the home countries have grown apart. This means the usual school attainment figures would not be comparable.”
- House of Commons Library

And on higher education, again:

“We can’t directly compare all four home nations”.
- House of Commons Library

This isn’t the only tactic the devocrats employ to shield their records. But it does make it easier for them to obfuscate, shift blame to London, and otherwise mislead Scottish and Welsh voters who deserve better.

If the Government wants to build on the groundwork laid by the UK Internal Market Act and further restore Westminster’s proper role in upholding standards and protecting the interests of citizens across the nation, it should legislate to mandate and empower the Office for National Statistics to collect uniform data on public service performance throughout the United Kingdom. The clue is, after all, in the name.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

All sensible and informed people know that the Welsh and Scottish administration perform abysmally when it comes to health and education. The problem is that there are very few informed and sensible people, largely because the media is so useless and/or biased.

And, of course, it suits these administrations to produce uneducated school and college leavers, year after year, because they will be incapable of informing themselves and therefore more likely to vote for appalling individuals such as Sturgeon and Drakeford.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes, see my post above. We are in a trap because the moment we cut back on Arts students there will be a huge overnight increase in the unemployment figures. Drakeford is indeed proud that we are producing more and more students but this only means that Tesco has one of the most highly-educated workforces in the world.

Claire Olszanska
Claire Olszanska
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

And what’s wrong with that? Are you saying Tesco employees should be uneducated – is that a prerequisite?

Claire Olszanska
Claire Olszanska
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I sort of agree with what you say but again the condescending attitude to non-English nations is evident. It doesn’t help the narrative or the people for that matter. If the discussion is aimed at bringing the devolved nations together your tone will not help in the slightest – even if I do agree with you !

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

Obfuscation is the one thing the Scottish government is good at, and nobody seems to care.
I don’t know whether it is feasible that comparable statistics are drawn up, but, if it is, it would be a damn good idea.
Take education… What is going on there? Just as well there is a pandemic, so we can obfuscate even better.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

Everybody will be bored with my rants about the Welsh Assembly. Whenever there is a problem they complain that they aren’t getting enough money from Westminster but then they spend their money on the Welsh language, free tuition fees for students, subsidised exchange schemes for students, the staff at the Welsh Assembly, six independence surveys in 2020 alone. We’ll be OK now because they have lowered the voting age for the Welsh Assembly to 16, in order to massage the figures.

Claire Olszanska
Claire Olszanska
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Yes I am – even though I sort of agree. Give it a rest especially the ‘language’

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Rant on, Boyo.

E E
E E
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Do us a favour next time, just post a blank. We’ll recognise the name.

Nick Taylor
Nick Taylor
1 year ago

When the eventual look at how we handled the pandemic comes then we will find that devolved responsibility for health has been a major determinant in our failure. A virus does not respect borders or political structures – it is a force of nature. The four nation strategy has been a disaster and has confused people and response. For example, the behavioural psychology responses we need have been destroyed by this approach. I remember one day when Johnson announced the rule of six for meeting outside and set an age limit on child exclusions. Within an hour Sturgeon did the same but tweaked the age limit. It was a marginal difference that no science or public health strategy could back up it just enforced a confusing and unnecessary difference. It is pathetic and purely political opportunism. The challenges coming whether pandemics or climate change will never be met by a devolved and divided set of nations and we are heading for catastrophe.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Nick Taylor

One caveat. Which version do we choose? Maybe the issue of the pandemic will be relatively short-lived but the climate change ‘thing’ will go on for ever.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago
Reply to  Nick Taylor

Moreover, she had had a meeting with Allister Jack at which the rule of six came up and she said nothing. If she had suggested omitting children, it could have been accommodated. But she didn’t want to be accommodated: she wanted to be at loggerheads with HMG and puffed by the media as coming out on top.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

In Wales most of the old telephone boxes contain defilibrators and are thereby removed from ambulance response time figures.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

In Gwent on a Friday night the telephone boxes have
better response times after about 2200.

Jack Walker
Jack Walker
1 year ago

I wrote to Drakeford and Gethin last week criticising their vaccine rollout policy and the health service more widely. True to form they tried to blame the UK government for a devolved matter.
I am surprised the Conservatives in Westminster and Wales are not far more vocal on the failures of the devolved governments. So many people in Wales fail to understand what powers are devolved and little is done to educate them.
During the referendum the Welsh people voted to leave the EU, the Welsh Labour government refused to accept the public’s decision, but the Conservatives did nothing to bring this to the fore.

C-19 has shone a spotlight on how disjointed the UK has become, and it’s time to wind back some powers the devolved governments have been given. Health, education and environment would be a good place to start.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago
Reply to  Jack Walker

The Ministers do say a bit on this on the floor of the House. Maybe they think if they go in too hard they will be counterproductive, because of the treacherous broadcasters and journalists. But I am with you and think they should. There is nothing to lose now, so late in the day.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
1 year ago

The fact is, when Sir John Redwood was administering Wales, the schools were brilliant and so were the hospitals. Teachers who moved to Wales couldn’t believe how well off they were after England. He saved money on the administration too and returned it to the Treasury, for which he was pilloried. Wales always looked lovely then, the Capital a real credit.

The BBC has long been anti unionist, staffed by a disproportionate number of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh Anglophobes, including English Anglophobes. Since Brexit it has become a whole lot worse throughout the media, with Remainiacs puffing the separatists as a way of punishing the Brexiteers by maliciously breaking up the Kingdom and then saying “We told you so.”

In Northern Ireland they are still doing very well, despite having to have Sinn Fein in the administration. Mrs Foster is the one Devocrat the media should be lauding, but we almost never see or hear her. She is a Brexiteer, you see, and so are all her party. And she is a Unionist.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
1 year ago

If this is so, the GDP estimates will also be undermined if the real output of the education sector and the health sector is not measured on the same basis in the different Home Nations. This may not be the most important problem, but it certainly is a problem that should be addressed by the ONS. Much more than most national statistical institutes, the ONS tried to measure the output of the public sector appropriately, without resorting to crude measures of inputs as a proxy. It would be a shame if its efforts were thwartted as Henry says they have been.