Anything but the truth

It is a sad fact of modern life that we don’t always feel that those who govern us, both politicians and civil servants, are always totally straight with us. Too much of politics appears to be concerned with the manipulation of the facts to suit the policy of the day. We see it virtually every week at Prime Minister’s Questions, where the same batch of statistics released by some agency or other is given a totally different interpretation from the two dispatch boxes that are on either side of the Table of the House. The term “spin” has been coined to describe the economy with the truth that we see on such occasions.

The shenanigans of the House of Commons are one thing, but shouldn’t we have the right to expect that a document published to inform a public consultation will be truthful and straightforward in its presentation of the evidence? If the consultation document High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future (here) is anything to go by we need to treat all such “evidence” with caution.

For example, in my blog That’s a bit sneaky (posted 18 Aug 2011), I pointed out that Figure 1.2 on page 37 of that document does not give a fair comparison of carbon emissions by Intercity rail and Eurostar because the data present relates to different passenger load factors and the use of two different electricity generation regimes (in the UK and, predominately, in France). The Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Royal Academy of Engineering described this trickery as “a distinction which is inappropriate if the purpose of the document is to represent alternatives for the UK in the 2030s”.

In my blog … and nothing but the truth (posted 19 Dec 2011) I cautioned care when source documents are used in support of an argument and I have found an example in High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future that illustrates this. The cynics amongst my readers may feel that it is an example of political spin.

In a section called Investing in transport infrastructure on page 31 of High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future reference is made to the findings of a survey of UK businesses carried out for the Association for Consultancy and Engineering and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association. Now to be fair to the authors of the consultation document a weblink is provided to this document, so we are able to check what the document says for ourselves.

The consultation document says that the report on the survey says that “95 per cent of companies agree that the UK’s road and rail network is important to their business and its productivity”. In fact this is a direct quote from the source document (from the section Transport – UK’s Infrastructure Priorities on page 4) so that’s fair enough, isn’t it?

Well I’m not sure that it is, because the whole force of the consultation document is that it will be a good idea to invest in our rail network. Indeed the indications are that the DfT is investing much more in rail infrastructure than roads; the very next paragraph on page 31 of the consultation document advises us that the allocations in the 2010 Spending Review were £18 billion for rail and only £4 billion for roads. If the quote from Transport – UK’s Infrastructure Priorities is meant to support rail investment, then such support is surely somewhat undermined by what is says elsewhere in that document. You don’t have to look far; in the very next paragraph to the one that DfT/HS2 Ltd extracted the quote from it says:

“When asked to differentiate between the importance of road and rail, 75% of companies felt rail was important in terms of its significance compared to 90% for roads.”

The paragraph goes on to state that the rating for the significance of roads was 94% for companies operating in the North of England and Scotland.

So it looks to me that this survey is really saying that investment in roads should be given priority over rail investment. This is reinforced by the findings of the survey in respect of businesses that reported that the current state of the rail and road networks was resulting in “loss of business”; 50% for rail, but 66% for roads.

So my point is that removing a single quote from the survey report that appears to support an argument in favour of increased investment in rail, may be misrepresenting the source as a whole which appears to give support to giving preference to investment in the roads.

Actually the DfT would not have to look too far to find evidence that the main transport driver in our economy is roads, not railways. A table on the Department’s own Transport Statistics Great Britain website (here) reveals that in 2009 only 8% of the total passenger kilometres travelled in Great Britain were by rail and that this figure has been below 10% every year since 1965. Of course this evidence has not found its way into High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future.

So is this example just careless editing or is it deliberate spin? I’ll let you decide, but I know what I think.


One response to this post.

  1. Peter, as per usual a very pertinent posting. I fully agree with your interpretation.


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