Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Treasury select committee give both sides a richly deserved telling-off.

The House of Commons Treasury select committee is one of the very few groups of politicians who come out of the EU referendum campaign with their reputations enhanced.

They have made a consistent attempt to hold the arguments of both sides up to scrutiny, subjecting everyone from David Cameron and Boris Johnson to the heads of various campaign groups to forensic scrutiny. In the process they have made it much easier for those members of the public who are following the debate about whether Britain should stay in the EU to obtain objective facts on which to base their decision - something in short supply from either campaign.

They have in the past few days released their full report which is available at

As I write as my quote of the day yesterday, committee chairman Andrew Tyrie MP said of the start of the official referendum campaign:

"It needs to begin with an amnesty on misleading, and at times bogus, claims. The public are thoroughly fed up with them. The public are right".

He added that

"The arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter claims made by both the leave and remain sides is not just confusing the public. It is impoverishing political debate."

The committee was severely critical of some of the statistics quoted by both sides. To their credit, the report was unanimous, which means that some members of the committee who support Brexit endorsed criticisms of the Leave campaign and similarly MPs on the committee who support Remain also endorsed criticisms of their own side.

However, a little bit of the shine went off my admiration for those individuals when they also allowed their names to be used in highly selective adverts by each campaign which highlighted the select committee's criticisms of the other side and ignored its' criticisms of their own.

Andrew Tyrie singled out for his strongest criticism the grossly exaggerated figure of £350 million a week which the Leave campaign wrongly claims Britain pays to the EU - a figure which has also been strongly criticised by the UK Statistics Office.

The unanimous view of the committee - including prominent pro-Leave MPs - was that

"This, and the other figures used by Vote Leave for the UK’s EU budget contributions (£150 billion ‘contributed’ in the past decade, and £511 billion since joining) are highly misleading to the electorate."

The committee added that the Leave campaign's decision to put the £350 million a week claim at the core of their campaign

"has been done in the face of overwhelming evidence, including that of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority"

"Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget."

"Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic."

The committee raised a number of other serious criticisms of the Leave campaign's claims on issues such as the cost of the Common Agricultural Policy and of EU regulation.

However they were also critical of a number of Remain claims. For example, while it may be correct that there are 3 million British jobs "linked to" trade with the EU, the committee pointed out that it would be wrong to give the impression that these would all be lost in the event of Brexit and "It is misleading to claim, as some campaign groups continue to do, that 3 million jobs are dependent on EU membership."

They were also critical of a number of other remain figures such as the suggestion that being in the EU saves British families £4,300 per year. this is an estimate, which is subject to a number of uncertainties, of the effect of membership on GDP divided by the number of households and should not be presented in a way which makes it appear to be an estimate of the effect on income per household.

I think it would be a very good thing if both sides were to listen to the Treasury Select committee and stop using figures which range from being flat-out wrong to highly misleading, or being used in misleading ways.

Sadly there is little sign of either side doing this. But I personally will be paying much more attention to those people on both sides who can make their case without resorting to these misleading figures. They have risen in my estimation. Everyone who continues to use dodgy numbers will go down in it.

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