I'm not the ref, says Sir Michael

Some tricky footwork by the Government in presenting statistics on sport and on local authority funding has gone unpunished by the regulator. Not even a yellow card.
Sir Michael Scholar, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, has ruled that no breaches of statistical propriety occurred in either case, disappointing the Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, and shadow minister Andy Burnham. A counter-complaint by Conservative Andrew Bridgen against Labour’s claims on sport was also ruled out.
Sir Michael’s reasoning in both cases is that so long as statistics are not misrepresented, they can be quoted selectively to make a political point. It is not up to the authority but to politicians, commentators and journalists to draw attention to such selective use. “Our role is to make sure that public debate is well informed by good statistics, not ourselves to become a player or the referee in the debate” he writes in his letter to Sir Robin.
The complaint from the Mayor of Newham was that the Government had contrived to present the cuts to local authority spending in two distinct ways. When presenting the funding settlement, Eric Pickles used a measure called Revenue Spending Power, which includes both receipts from council tax and grants from central government. He also used as the baseline the 2010-11 budget, after the first £6 billion had been lopped off in the emergency cuts of June 2010.
This enabled him to present the cuts in grants as a smaller percentage of total local authority income by increasing the denominator. The average reduction was 4.4 per cent, and the largest 8.9 per cent, he said.
But a week later, he published a list of formula grants per head for each local authority  in order “to show residents where their money is spent”. This showed that the £21.5 billion of central taxpayer funding for local government is very unevenly spread. Some authorities get less than £250 a head; others more than £500. Newham gets a whopping £919.49 per head, for example, while at the other extreme Richmond-on-Thames gets just £157.70.
Mr Pickles’ intention was plain: to show that despite the cuts the disadvantaged authorities were still getting substantially more than the rich.
Sir Robin complained that Mr Pickles was failing to use statistics in an “appropriate and transparent way” but Sir Michael disagrees. He says that it is clear that ministers have used these statistics “in order to argue their case and to present their policies as persuasively as possible” – and that, indeed, is what Sir Robin is complaining about. It is not a matter for intervention by the authority.
The wrangle over sport involves selective claims made by both sides. Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have claimed that there has been no increase in the number of people playing competitive sport, based on results from the Taking Part Survey, which relates to activity in general. The School Sport Survey, which does show an increase, has gone unmentioned.
The Prime Minister also selected his figures carefully when claiming that the number of schools offering rugby, netball, hockey and gymnastics fell under Labour. These were the only sports to show a decline, from a high level, and the decline was small.
But the opposition, including Labour leader Ed Miliband and Mr Burnham, has also done its share of exaggeration by claiming the numbers of young people doing two hours of sport a week has risen from 25 per cent in 2002 to 90 per cent now, Mr  Bridgen complained. The 25 per cent figure was just an estimate: when the School Sport Survey began in 2003-04, it found 62 per cent were doing two hours a week. So the increase is more modest than claimed.
Sir Michael says that he can’t act as referee in these squabbles. It would be neither appropriate or practical to do so every time statistical or quasi-statistical comments are made in interviews or in Parliament. It’s up to others to keep politicians honest, as best they can.  
The full exchange of letters is available here.