Page 5, 22nd August 1986

22nd August 1986
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Page 5, 22nd August 1986 — There are more questions than answers
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There are more questions than answers

FRANK FIELD

NICE ONE Norman. The way the Social Services Secretary, Norman Fowler, released the latest poverty figures couldn't have been better — if his aim was to ensure maximum coverage. But somehow I don't think this was what was intended.

The Labour Government back in the 1970s doubled the size of what is called the Family Expenditure Survey. The main reason why this material is gathered is so that the government can construct the Retail Price Index. Labour doubled the size of the national survey so that it would be large enough to carry out studies on what are called minority groups.

In practice the studies have only been made on people living on low income. Labour regularly published the annual findings of the FES data even though the results became more embarrassing as each year went past.

Not so with the Tory Government. Soon after the 1979 election — in fact after the publication of the 1979 results on Labour's last year in office — the government announced that, in future, the findings would be published only every alternate year.

The most recent data are for 1983. These should have been published, even on the government's own slow timetable, last summer. Questions were tabled in the House asking when the figures would be released. The response was that statisticians were still working on them.

I understand that ministers had the 1983 poverty data for some considerable time but were reluctant to publish it. Back went the figures to the statisticians with the request to test their reliability. That's a euphemistic way of asking public servants to massage the results.

We may never know whether the results were massaged. What we now know is the underhand way the government attempted to "publish" the data — if that is not too strong a word for what they did.

I had been regularly tabling Questions to the government, as had other MPs, asking when the '83 data would appear. Given that they already had the 1985 figures, I guessed that the information would be slipped out as Parliament rose for the long summer recess.

Come the last day of Parliament before the summer holidays and the DHSS was suffering difficulties in getting the Parliamentary answers over to the House of Commons. There was no sign of the answer by the time the House officially rose.

An hour later the answer arrived. And here I have to introduce you to the planted question. These are questions which Ministers ask friendly backbenchers to table.

The reason for the plant was all too obvious when the answer to my question arrived. In this I was referred to the answer given to the Minister's honourable friend — Edwina Currie.

Normally that would have been all right if the copy of the complete answer Edwina Currie was given, and which accompanied my answer, had had attached to it the relevant poverty data.

But this was not so. My, and Mrs Currie's, answer only told me where this crucial information was.

The government had craftily lodged the poverty tables in the House of Commons Library. But the library in the House of Commons closes at 4.30 p.m. on Friday. The late arrival of the parliamentary answers — for whatever reason — meant that by the time one had been referred to the answer to a planted question, and then on to the library, one would have found the library locked.

The only error the government made in this whole procedure was that people in the library were looking out for the reply. They didn't close until they had distributed copies of the answer.

The balloon went up immediately. The tables showed that poverty under this Administration had risen from six million people living at or below the official poverty line in 1979 to 8.8 million in 1983. The statistical division of the House of Commons Library estimates that this total is now in excess of 11.7 million people. No wonder Norman Fowler wanted maximum coverage for these facts!




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