UK statistics chief criticises Treasury ministers for misleading tax claims

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The chair of the UK Statistics Authority has admonished Treasury ministers for making potentially misleading claims about the level of personal taxation in Britain — his third such intervention in three months.

The rebuke by Sir Robert Chote, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, came in a letter to Labour MP Dame Angela Eagle in response to her concerns about the claims.

He criticised Laura Trott, chief secretary to the Treasury, for claiming on November 22 that “taxes for the average worker have gone down by £1,000” and a week later that “taxes for the average worker will have gone down by £1,000 since 2010”.

He wrote: “I suspect that the public are more likely to have been misled — or at least confused — by Ms Trott’s statements, both of which would probably suggest to a typical listener that the average worker’s overall tax bill has fallen in cash terms.”

The Treasury’s £1,000 figure is based on a counterfactual estimate of how much people would pay if personal tax thresholds had increased in line with inflation over the past 14 years.

Chote concluded that the combined impact of a recent cut to national insurance, along with above-inflation increases to tax thresholds since 2010, meant that the average earner would pay £1,000 less in personal taxes in 2024-25 “than they otherwise would have done”, not than they did in 2010.

The statistician said that ministers needed to consider how a “typical listener” would understand their statements, especially when giving “round number talking points” derived from very specific calculation methods. 

“The Office for Statistics Regulation is increasing its engagement with government departments, including HM Treasury, to ensure future communications do not have the potential to mislead and comply with the principles of intelligent transparency,” he added. 

Eagle also complained about comments from Bim Afolami, economic secretary to the Treasury, on January 8 when he claimed that “taxes are coming down” leaving average earners better off.

Chote said Afolami could have been more explicit that he was referring to the cut to national insurance, and the interviewer “immediately put this in the context of broader personal tax changes” so listeners were unlikely to have been misled. 

Darren Jones, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said the UKSA’s verdict on Trott’s comments was “damning” and called on her to “correct the record” in the House of Commons. “She is found to have potentially misled the public or used confusing statements when talking about the Tories’ record on tax,” he added.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government between 2010 and 2015 pushed through several above-inflation increases to the income tax personal allowance threshold, on which no tax is paid.

But since 2021, the Tory government has announced multiple freezes to personal tax thresholds, rather than indexing them to inflation, pushing people into higher tax bands as wages rise, a phenomenon known as “fiscal drag”.

In November, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that, relative to lifting thresholds by consumer price inflation, these freezes would raise an extra £42.9bn annually by 2027-28.

The letter is the third intervention by Chote in as many months questioning ministers’ dubious use of statistics. In December he reprimanded Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for claiming that debt was falling.

Last month Chote said voters might feel “misled” by Sunak’s repeated claim that he had “cleared” the so-called legacy backlog of asylum cases given thousands of cases remained unresolved.

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