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
The incomparables: 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.

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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