Miscounting the Scottish NHS workforce

Voices have been raised in the Scottish Parliament over claims made by Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon on NHS Scotland’s workforce.

On July 28 a press release was issued which began: “Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon comments on NHS Scotland workforce statistics, published today by ISD”.

She was quoted as saying “While there has been a reduction in the number of people working in NHS Scotland in the last year, the actual reduction has been much lower than projected. Boards originally indicating (sic) a decrease of approximately 4,200 whole-time equivalent posts during 2010-11 and the actual reduction is 800 wte lower.”

Any reasonable reader of this press release would assume that the figures she was referring to appeared in that days’ NHS Scotland workforce statistics. In fact, the comparison was drawn instead from statistics on public sector employment in Scotland, published the same day.

These show that public sector employment in the NHS in Scotland fell during the year from 136,600 to 133,300, a fall that is recorded as 3,400 (presumably due to rounding).  The 2011 figure is quoted in the NHS Scotland Workforce statistics as 133,325.6, but the trend chart including this figure does not provide a comparable figure for the same month in 2010. It does, rather confusingly, include under the heading 2010 a figure for September 2010, (134,964.2). At no time, according to this trend table, has the wte workforce exceeded 135,825 (the 2009 figure). This makes it clear, I think, that the comparison Ms Sturgeon made must have come from the Public Sector Employee statistics. So we’ll settle for 3,400.

The comparison she drew was with projections made by Scottish NHS Boards on 3 June 2010 for the 2010-11 financial year, which estimated a fall of 3,790 wte posts during the financial year then in progress. So the actual decline in jobs, 3,400, was fewer than the boards predicted by a modest 390.

Ms Sturgeon claimed, however, that 800 fewer posts had been lost than expected. How did she do that? By adding to the 3,790 posts the boards expected to disappear a further 389 support service jobs transferred by NHS Forth Valley to a private company under a transfer that protected their terms and conditions of employment. These people are still working for NHS Scotland and still paid under contract by the NHS but because they are no longer public sector employees they were counted as part of the projected workforce reduction by Ms Sturgeon, if not by the NHS Boards, which listed them separately as transfers. By adding them in, Ms Sturgeon recalculated the projected reduction as 4,179.

A further minor twist was to revise this upwards to 4,193 by means of an unpublished management exercise. That enabled her to claim that the actual reduction represented 795.7 fewer wte staff than projected by the boards.

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie complained to the UK Statistics Authority that by failing to refer properly to the source of the claims, Ms Sturgeon broke the Code of Practice on Official Statistics.She had failed to mention either of the sources from which the comparison actually came, and used a revised set of figures with no provenance.

Sir Michael Scholar, UKSA’s Chair, seems inclined to agree, saying that although the differences were small it would have been better if the press release had made clear that the analysis was new and not drawn directly from published statistical sources.  

My reading is slightly different. The comparison does come from published sources – the Boards’ projections and the public sector workforce figures, both of which are available. They are just not the same source Ms Sturgeon appeared to be relying upon.

While it may be technically correct to exclude the transferred workers from a count of public sector employment, it’s misleading to claim them as a reduction in NHS employment, at least without explanation.  (GPs are not public employees: they too, work on contracts. Yet most people would expect them to be included in any count of NHS workforce.)  And adjusting the figures post hoc, albeit marginally, is not acceptable.

Scottish Labour believes that the error was not inadvertent. They suggest Ms Sturgeon was putting a better gloss on the situation than the data justify, and add that the press release never actually appeared on the Scottish Government’s website, as is normal.

Given the presentation of the NHS Scotland Workforce Statistics I’d be inclined to say that any such comparison as Ms Sturgeon attempted is hazardous – the latest release, for example, omits tables on “all NHS staff including GPs and GDs” because, it is explained, of changes in methodology and data quality issues.

But if Ms Sturgeon is determined to make such comparisons, she is obliged to make it clear exactly what she is comparing – a task in which this press release fell lamentably short. There’s even less excuse for muddle in Scotland, where ministers have access to statistics five working days before release, and some officials (the NHS workforce document tells us) eight days before release.

Plenty of time to work out what to say and get it right, I would have thought.