The Cabinet Office run by Michael Gove has been officially reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for using unpublished and unverifiable data in an attempt to deny that Brexit had caused a massive fall in volumes of trade through British ports.
The criticism follows a story in the Observer on 7 February that cited a survey by the Road Haulage Association (RHA) of its international members showing export volumes had dropped by a staggering 68% in January through British ports and the Channel Tunnel.
The RHA wrote to Gove at the time saying: “Intelligence that we are collecting on an ongoing basis from international hauliers suggests that loads to the EU have reduced by as much as 68%, which can also be evidenced by the increased number of empty trailers which are not currently considered in the statistics.”
The RHA also accused Gove of failing to heed its warnings that trade would be damaged unless there was a dramatic increase in the number of customs officials.
The Cabinet Office had responded to the Observer’s story with a point-by-point rebuttal of the RHA’s claims on its website, stating that “inbound and outbound flows (across all UK ports) were close to normal, at 95% outbound and 96% inbound, in spite of the impact of Covid lockdowns on trade.”
But in a letter to Richard Laux, chief statistician at the Cabinet Office, sent on Friday – following an investigation – Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the Statistics Authority, expressed serious concerns at the way the department had used data to rebut the RHA’s information.
The letter said the Cabinet Office’s strong rebuttal contained “claims based on unpublished data, and as such these figures cannot be verified. It is our expectation that any data used publicly by government should be published in an accessible form, with appropriate explanations of context and sources.”
While Humpherson suggested that the Cabinet Office has given assurances that it would provide more information about where its information came from, he added: “The Cabinet Office should consider how, in future, it can be more transparent through the release of data.
“For example, it should ensure that where there is a significant reason to use unpublished management information in a public statement, the underlying data is published before or at the same time as the public statement. If there is continued or anticipated public interest in the data, it should consider whether there is need for a new ad hoc or regular statistical release.”
The authority, which is independent of ministers, has a statutory objective to “safeguard the production and dissemination of statistics by government.” Its terms of reference state that it will intervene (raise concerns) if “official statistics in a document or statement are presented in such a way that, in the authority’s opinion, they are liable to mislead the public or undermine the integrity of official statistics.”
Rachel Reeves, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “Our British businesses are under huge strain from the pandemic and reams of costly new red tape as a result of the government’s deal with the EU – the government should spend less time arguing with our businesses and spinning against them, and more time working with them to help.”
Trade experts and industry sources said ministers had deliberately tried to deny there was a serious fall-off in trade caused by Brexit by claiming that “flows” of lorries had been largely unaffected, rather than the volume of goods contained in them.
The RHA had made clear, however, that it was referring to the “volume” of goods carried, and stressed that very high numbers of lorries which travelled to and from the UK were returning to the continent empty because of problems faced by UK exporters as a result of post-Brexit rules and regulations. Industry sources said last night that while there had been an improvement since January, there was evidence that the number of lorries returning empty to the EU was still around 50%.
The first official statistics on the level of trade to and from the EU since 1 January are due to be published later this month.