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Politics

When was the ‘truth’ era?

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THAT was one of the questions posed at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Royal Statistical Society to consider whether we really are in a post-truth world of ‘alternative facts’, and if so what we can do about it.

These terms have become commonplace as people try to make sense of a global political landscape that looks and feels different to what many would have predicted a year ago. So it was refreshing to hear a more critical take on the concepts such as post-truth, fake news and echo-chambers.

That isn’t to say that the panellists thought all is well. It was accepted that misinformation, ‘fake news’, and a lack of regard for evidence in some quarters are issues worthy of addressing, and that it’s vital for the health of our democracy that we do so. What’s more, Helen Margetts (Oxford Internet Institute) presented a compelling case that the Internet and social media may be exacerbating the problem.

“Is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence?”

What was questioned was the notion that there is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence.

Or, to restate the earlier question – against what previous golden age of ‘truth’ are we implicitly comparing our modern era to when we use the phrase ‘post-truth’?

This sense of perspective is welcome. William Davies’ recent piece in the Guardian, which has generated much discussion in the statistical world, painted a gloomy picture of the supposedly waning power of statistics. But as the National Statistician pointed out in response, our supposedly ‘post-truth’ era is also characterised by both a yearning for more trustworthy analysis to make sense of the world and an abundance of data out there to help inform it, if only we can tap into and make sense of it.

And that is central to our mission here at the Office for National Statistics. We are constantly striving to produce better statistics to support better decisions. We have ambitious plans to harness big data and exploit its potential to help us understand the modern world. And we are always looking to better understand current and future user needs and respond to them where we can.

“We will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.”

It’s not just about producing better statistics, however. There are challenges in explaining to a wide audience what the evidence says about any given issue when the matter at hand is complex, the evidence is not always clear cut, and the methodological limitations of statistics need to be made clear in the name of transparency.

The difficulty with that, as panellist James Bell from Buzzfeed explained, is that when it comes to dealing with a mass audience and a controversial issue, a simple and clear message usually beats a complex one.

Those of us working in the field of official statistics always need to challenge ourselves to communicate better and in a way that is clear and accessible. But we cannot get away from the fact that by necessity we deal in complexity and nuance, which can make it tricky to get our message across where others may be peddling a simpler line and in a louder voice.

The answer, as argued by Full Fact’s Will Moy, lies in recognising that the ONS and UK Statistics Authority, along with other bodies such as new Office for Statistics Regulation, are part of a bigger picture including civil society groups, media outlets, businesses and ordinary citizens. Working together is crucial to help people make sense of the world around them, to continue to build the case for evidence, and to challenge those who wilfully misuse or disregard it.

That’s why, for example, the UK Statistics Authority is partnering with Full Fact, the House of Commons Library and the Economic and Social Research Council on the ‘Need to Know’ project. And it’s also why the work done by organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society to improve statistical literacy is so valuable, so we can all understand the importance of evidence and challenge its misuse.

Responding to Mr Davies’ Guardian piece, the National Statistician argued that “this is the moment when we can make our greatest contribution to society” by seizing the opportunities open to us to produce the statistics that Britain needs to answer the big questions of the day. That’s something we certainly intend to do. And working with others, we will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.

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News

Vaughan Gething faces scrutiny over campaign donations

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VAUGHAN GETHING, a candidate for the Welsh Labour leadership, has come under fire for accepting a substantial sum of £200,000 from a company led by David Neal, a businessman with a history of environmental offences.

Neal, who has been convicted twice, first faced legal action in 2013 when he received a suspended prison sentence for unlawfully disposing of waste on a conservation site. Despite this, his involvement with Gething’s campaign has raised eyebrows, particularly as the donations were made during a critical period in the leadership contest to succeed First Minister Mark Drakeford.

Gething, representing Cardiff South and Penarth, has declared the donations to the Senedd, stating his commitment to transparency. The funds were provided by Dauson Environmental Group, among others owned by Neal, and were recorded with the Electoral Commission as two separate donations of £100,000 each. One of these contributions was made shortly after Drakeford’s resignation, highlighting the timing’s potential significance.

Criticism has been vocal, especially from Lee Waters, Llanelli MS and supporter of Gething’s opponent, Jeremy Miles. Waters has condemned the donation as “completely unjustifiable and wrong,” expressing concern over the optics of such a large sum being spent on an internal election amidst a cost of living crisis.

Gething’s past acceptance of funds from Neal’s other ventures, including Atlantic Recycling and Neal Soil Suppliers, which donated a total of £38,000 in 2018, further complicates the issue. These companies, along with another Neal enterprise, Resources Management UK Ltd, have faced legal and regulatory challenges, including fines and actions by Natural Resources Wales for environmental violations.

Despite these controversies, Gething’s campaign has defended the legitimacy and transparency of the donations, emphasising their adherence to electoral regulations and Gething’s pledge to enforce stricter environmental penalties.

The debate over these donations comes at a pivotal moment for Welsh Labour, prompting discussions on the ethics of political funding and the implications for environmental policy.

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News

Pembrokeshire council tax rise ‘could lead to failed budget’

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A PROPOSED 16.3 per cent council tax increase in Pembrokeshire could see the council failing to set a budget for the next financial year, the county’s main opposition group has warned.

At the February meeting of the county council’s Cabinet, members backed a recommended council tax increase in Pembrokeshire of 16.3 per cent.

The proposed increase, which will be decided by full council at its March 7 meeting, would see the basic council tax level – before town/community precepts and the police precept are included – rise by £219.02 for the average Band D property, taking it to £1,561.98.

It is expected to be the highest percentage rate in Wales, on top of previous increases of 12.5% 9.92%, 5%, 3.75%, 5% and 7.5%.

Councillor Huw Murphy, on behalf of the independent group on Pembrokeshire County Council says a similar 16.3 per cent rate is also being proposed for the 2025-26 to 2027-28 financial years, despite a proposal at the February 2023 Cabinet, ahead of that year’s budget, to increase the rate by 7.5 per cent annually.

In a letter to Cabinet Member for Corporate Finance Alec Cormack, Mr Murphy says that 16.3 per cent annual increase would lead, over the following years, to future basic Band D rates of £1,816.60, £2,112.89, and £2,457.50.

He adds: “The need to consider imposing a higher than 7.5 per cent council tax for 2024/25 will be debated and voted upon on March 7. However, I currently see no justification to also recommend a 16.31 per cent council tax rise for the following three years.

“If we go down this path, I foresee significant community tension and disengagement between residents and PCC, and a brief glance at social media over the last week will confirm this.”

He said the proposed increase was not just a concern for his political group.

“There is huge concern by a majority of councillors across the whole chamber with regards to the proposed 16.31 per cent rise in council tax for 2024/25 and I am gravely concerned at your desire to now factor in an annual 16.31 per cent council tax rise into the Medium Term Financial Plan (until 2027).”

He warned: “I do not want to see this authority reject a budget and the consequences this will bring upon officers and ourselves.

“However, in life we sometimes have to make decisions that appear controversial, possibly unthinkable, but if done in the best interests of our residents then that is what has to be done, and your recommended council tax rise of 16.31 per cent is taking us to this point.

“Through many recent conversations it’s clear your council tax proposals need to be reduced by a significant percentage to have the support of council on March 7.

“Therefore, should council fail to agree a budget on March 7 through the loyalty of the majority of councillors to the people of Pembrokeshire in defending them from an unaffordable council tax rise; then you as Cabinet lead for finance, along with the Leader [David Simpson] and other Cabinet members must bear full responsibility, and with it the consequences, as all Cabinet members voted for a 16.31 per cent council tax rise in 2024/25 and the recommendation of an annual 16.31 per cent council tax rise into the MTFP.”

Cllr Cormack responded by saying the 16.3 per cent increase is for the 2024-25 budget only, with increases for the remainder of the medium-term financial plan not discussed at the Cabinet meeting, modelling instead based on the 7.5 per cent figure.

“The 16.3 per cent increase in council tax for 2024-25 is necessary to achieve a sustainable budget throughout the MTFP,” said Cllr Cormack.

“I will also point out that it is the joint responsibility of all 60 Councillors to set a balanced budget on March 7.”

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Education

Estyn decision to scrap headline gradings has ‘lifted a burden’ on schools

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Estyn’s decision to remove gradings such as “excellent”, “adequate” or “needs improvement” from inspection reports has lifted a burden on schools, a committee heard.

Owen Evans, Estyn’s chief inspector, told the Senedd’s education committee that feedback from schools since scrapping the headline gradings has been overwhelmingly positive.

Giving evidence on Estyn’s 2022-23 report, Mr. Evans said the new approach has led to a far more professional dialogue with schools about what’s working and what’s not.

“I think that’s been incredibly refreshing,” he said. “There are several layers of pressure that come with an Estyn inspection of a school….

“The removal of summative judgements and the fact that you’re going to be labelled with that one word, has lifted a burden on the sectors that we look at.”

‘Outlier’

However, Mr Evans stressed that removing gradings must be seen as a trial.

He said: “We are a bit of an outlier. We are still the only inspectorate in the British Isles that has removed summative judgements and a lot of eyes are on us about how this is working.”

Mr Evans, who has been in post for two years, added that Estyn is likely to carry out a review to ensure the reforms have led to further improvements.

He said it was important to introduce parental reports given the removal of gradings, suggesting that reports for learners themselves could also be on the horizon.

Asked about Estyn’s funding, which has increased from £11.5m in 2021-22 to £16m currently, Mr Evans told the committee the uplift was due to the pandemic.

‘Backlog’

He told the committee the interruption created a huge backlog and Estyn needed to increase capacity to finish its six-year cycle of inspections by the end of the current academic year.

Mr Evans said 90%-plus of the uplift has gone on additional inspections and inspectors.

Arguing the additional funding should become a part of the inspectorate’s baseline budget, he told MSs that Estyn will start visiting schools twice every six years from September.

He explained that the main inspection has been slightly curtailed, so Estyn can afford to have an interim inspection after three years rather than a “big bang” every six.

“It’s imperative the budget stays at that or slightly higher,” he said. “But we realise there’s a lot of pressure on the system – we have to demonstrate the value of what we’re doing.”

‘Self-evaluation’

Laura Anne Jones, for the Conservatives, raised concerns about an emphasis on self-evaluation, saying: “I don’t think anyone’s going to mark themselves badly.”

Laura Anne Jones MS speaking in the Senedd
South Wales East MS Laura Anne Jones MS is the Conservative shadow education minister

Mr Evans shared the shadow education minister’s concerns as he warned that self-evaluation is not yet strong enough within schools for Estyn to rely on it.

The chief inspector, who was previously S4C’s chief executive and a senior Welsh Government civil servant, warned that the pandemic continues to cast a shadow.

Mr Evans said variability between schools has widened, raising attendance as an example.

“Some are coping and some are not,” he told MSs: “I think the social contract between schools and parents has, to a degree, broken down.”

‘Stubborn’

Claire Morgan, a strategic director at Estyn, said average attendance is 87.5%, meaning pupils are missing 12 days of education in an academic year “which is far too much”.

She called for more to be done to tackle “stubborn” attendance issues, saying successful schools have a strong community focus.

Mr Evans said exclusions are rising while the number of children and young people going into pupil referral units has doubled since the pandemic.  

He said pupil referral units are no longer helping learners return to mainstream education.

He said: “The wave of anecdote I hear – from everyone from headteachers to teachers and caretakers to support staff – is behaviour, particularly out of the classroom, has worsened.”

‘Relentless’

On Wales’ poor performance in the latest Pisa results, Mr Evans said he was disappointed but not shocked as he called for a “relentless” focus on standards.

He said the results reinforce Estyn’s previous annual reports, which have long raised concerns about numeracy, science and literacy.

Mr Evans suggested a focus on the new curriculum has taken away from subject specialism.

Asked about the impact of poverty on attainment, he said the pupil development grant can make a difference but he suggested the funding is being used to plug budget gaps.

The chief inspector also raised concerns about “great deficiencies” in recruiting teachers in terms of the Welsh language and secondary school subjects such as maths.

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