'Desperate' Sunak slapped down by statistics watchdog for wrongly claiming debt is falling

By John Mercury December 20, 2023

Rishi Sunak has been chastised by the UK’s statistics watchdog for claiming to have reduced public debt – despite not having done so.

Sir Robert Chote, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), said the prime minister’s assertion that “debt is falling” may have caused “confusion” and “undermined trust in the government’s use of statistics”.

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Reducing debt is one of the five pledges Mr Sunak made to the public at the start of the year, alongside cutting NHS waiting lists and “stopping the boats”.

He claimed “debt is falling” in a video posted on social media after the King’s Speech on 7 November and that “we have indeed reduced debt” at Prime Minister’s Questions on 22 November, the day of the Autumn Statement.

However, Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney questioned the veracity of the claim – pointing to a projection from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that month which showed public sector net debt has risen on every measure.

Number 10 had argued Mr Sunak was referring to a projection that debt would be falling as a proportion of GDP by 2028.

But responding to Ms Olney’s concerns, Sir Robert said “the average person in the street” would have interpreted the comment to mean “debt was already falling or that the government’s policy decisions had lowered it at fiscal events – neither of which is the case”.

He added: “This has clearly been a source of confusion and may have undermined trust in the government’s use of statistics and quantitative analysis in this area.

“Members of the public cannot be expected to understand the minutiae of public finance statistics and the precise combination of definitional choices that might need to be made for a particular claim to be true.”

Ms Olney accused the prime minister of “reaching for the Boris Johnson playbook” and undermining trust.

She said: “Rishi Sunak knows he has no good story to tell on the UK economy so he has resorted to making one up. The least this no-growth prime minister could do is be honest about it with the British public.

“Instead, he has reached for the Boris Johnson playbook and undermined trust in politics. This is desperate stuff from a desperate prime minister and it is right that he has been called out on it.”

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced five goals which he says the government will accomplish this year.

It comes after Mr Sunak briefed his cabinet this morning on the progress of his five pledges which he made in January.

They are: Halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping boats from crossing the Channel.

Mr Sunak said successes included halving inflation and reducing small boat crossings by a third, “but that there is still much work to do that will require continued dedication”.

While inflation has halved, critics said that was more to do with Bank of England policy – and the cost of living crisis remains, with the economy flatlining this year.

Read More:
UK economy flatlines but avoids recession this year

Meanwhile, thousands of people have come to the UK in small boats amid chaos over the Rwanda deportation policy.

And while NHS waiting lists fell slightly for the first time this year in October, the appointments backlog is still 7.71 million (down from a record 7.7m the month before), with the NHS bracing for a difficult winter.


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