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Paul McGarr

Social Trends

Lies, damned lies ...

(March 1995)

Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995, p. 5.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The publication last month of the government’s annual Social Trends survey sparked a bitter row in the normally stately world of professional statisticians.

This year is the publication’s 25th anniversary. Its first editor, Muriel Nissel, was invited to write on the survey’s history and development. But the current editors dropped the article as ‘too opinionated’.

The original aim of the survey launched in 1970 was to lay bare the real state of society in tables of facts and figures, to make social debate grounded on hard evidence available to all.

Nissel’s essay was censored because she pointed out how under Margaret Thatcher’s governments the way statistics on society were presented began to change. Coverage of politically sensitive issues like poverty, income and inequality shrank. Tables of figures concentrated on Mr and Mrs Average.

The latest edition shows that the process of changing the way statistics are presented to cover up the reality of society is still continuing at Social Trends.

Take what has happened to living standards over the last 16 years. For the years from 1979 to 1986 this is reasonably straightforward Social Trends shows the poorest 40 percent of households were worse off in 1986 than in 1979. The middle fifth of households were just 1.9 percent better off while the top fifth were 20 percent richer in real terms.

What has happened since? You won’t find the answer in Social Trends. In small print it says that, in the years since, ‘major changes in the methodology’ mean figures ‘are not comparable with figures prior to 1987’. They are not kidding! According to Social Trends everyone in Britain saw their real living standards jump by at least 16 percent in 1987 and 1988. Didn’t you notice?

On almost every page a comparison with previous years shows the kind of changes the Tories have pushed to the presentation of statistics.

Take leisure. Until a couple of years ago Social Trends gave figures each year showing how people’s time was divided up on average between work, sleep and leisure. Through the 1980s people worked longer and spent longer travelling to work.

Suddenly, however, in the 1991 Social Trends this fact was matched with other figures showing that at the same time people had more free time each day. How? The small print reveals that the government had simply decreed that people now slept eight hours a week less!

The new Social Trends contains another crop of changes. The biggest shift is a continued move away from presenting figures in relation to class (in the past many figures used the, limited but still of some use, government categories of social classes A, B, C etc.).

This year tables of figures on disposable income are no longer given in terms of jobs and social class, but in terms of size of household.

Again there used to be tables on holidays in relation to social class. In 1990 these showed that 59 percent of people in ‘classes’ D and E (semi-skilled and unskilled workers, pensioners and the unemployed) had no holiday away from home. Even among the C2 ‘class’ (skilled workers, foremen and some managers) 40 percent had no holiday. Meanwhile almost half of those in ‘classes’ A and B had at least two holidays. Now this class breakdown of holidays has simply been dropped.

Alcohol consumption figures were also given in term of class until last year – and showed that the worst alcohol abusers were ‘employers and managers’. This has been dropped in favour of classification by age.

Figures on the NHS have been especially carefully massaged. Last year figures were given showing the average number of beds available each day in NHS hospitals. They showed that throughout the 1980s this had got worse. This year the figures have simply been dropped.

Statistics can tell us real truths and give us insights into society. But they are open to political abuse, and Social Trends is increasingly a victim of Tory distortion.

The figures cannot completely mask reality. With facts such as that two thirds of taxpayers earn less than £15,000 a year and fully 78 percent get less than £20,000, Social Trends still shows a society more divided than ever.

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