Thursday, 3 February 2011
Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
So how to make sure of your return? It should be the greatest post ever, even better than "First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Council, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade, Baron Mandelson of Foy." And that was quite a post. Only "Dark Lord, Ruler of All that is Insidious" was missing, and I don't think I have it in me. So I thought I'd blog about sun cream, and not just about it being taken away from me by kleptomaniac airport stasi. I thought I'd point out how as much as I prefer the spray sun cream, it irritates me that the rather vital spray element of the item tends to pack up after 4 squirts leaving you pouring liquid hither and thither cursing your positively mormonesque sunbathing neighbour with his retro but functional cream bottle. But I realised that was all I had to say on that, and it probably wouldn't be good enough. So I'm going to talk about equality instead.
The "Equality Act", and it is certainly an act, is the 'brainchild' of none other than Joan of Harman, crusader for apparent equality. Shabbier than the standard pardons of political friends on leaving office in the US, this was a true Parthian shaft from Harperson. If it wasn't for the fact that I don't believe her intellectually capable of such devilment, I might suggest she forced this utterly crap Act through in the last breaths of the Labour Government just to spite those who she knew would inherit it.
Now the Coalition were right to get rid of the horrific social engineering element of this pathetic leftist Act. They have purged the awful clause, begging for legal exploitation, about making it beholden upon all public bodies to essentially socially engineer if a person's lower socio-economic level in any way correlated to their not getting a free mansion, a Double First from Cambridge and an endless supply of £40,000 a year for life scratch cards. They have not gone far enough, though.
They have pressed on with the "Equality Duty." Whilst I can see logic in bringing together a lot of the miscellaneous equality legislation, and this is the only straw to which the Government are grasping, it is still utterly misguided. Perhaps it will save a lot in the long run by condensing what has been a haphazard legislatory debacle into "one easy to manage loan", I mean 'piece of legislature'. But that doesn't get around how it is still a total load of crap itself.
Under the "Equality Duty" all public bodies have to ask a bunch of questions of their employees. The larger the organisation, the more intrusive the questions and more expensive the implementation. In the case of the Department for Work and Pensions I imagine they require gold plated speculums. Apparently we must know if employees are: gay, straight, black, white, brown, blue, tall, short, male, female, right handed, left handed, Catholic, Hindu, Jedi. Competent unsurprisingly doesn't make the list. Then we put it all into a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, highlight it all and click the pie chart button. A paper clip will pop up in the bottom corner saying "It looks like you have collated a load of irrelevant data. Would you like me to make it look like society is being ruined by the domination of pushy tennis mums and white middle class men who listened at school?"
You see, all this is, is a very expensive census. Telling us who is employed, how many of them are over 50, how many are atheists and how many have an extra nipple (not necessarily all together) is pretty pointless on its own. You can't look at those numbers and say: We don't employ enough Scientologists. We don't employ enough 42 year olds. We don't employ enough pole dancers. Without going into massive detail, you will have no idea why the breakdown is as it is, or whether it is right or wrong.
Every year people harp on about the number of state school versus private school children who get into universities, and especially into Oxbridge. No-one ever bothers to publish application numbers, interview and test results, exam results or the personal statements on UCAS forms. No, there are many things weighed up on deciding which students to accept, but if in a given year the number of state school kids going to Oxford drops, the call of "off with their heads" echoes around Fleet Street and Whitehall. No-one asks if enough cricketers got in. Or enough cider drinkers. It may seem to be taking it a bit far, but the point is you can't take a single statistic in isolation when it is viewed alongside many others you choose to ignore. What if record numbers of state school children applied that year, but were not deemed up to scratch? Universities are there to pick out those with the most potential. They have been charged with encouraging more state school children to apply, but that is where their responsibility ends. If they get loads to apply but they aren't good enough, they've done their bit, and the state schools have not done theirs. But we all know how it would play out in the media.
So I expect the public sector censuses will "tell" us that women don't get paid enough, and white men are unfairly dominant. Unfortunately, in doing so it steps well beyond what it can know. It does not know if any of that is warranted or needs redressing, because all it is is a bunch of numbers that cost you and me a bucketload of money. It won't have asked how many women took breaks for motherhood so have lower salaries commensurate with their lesser time at work and lack of continuity. It will just tell us that women are discriminated against. It will tell us that it is unfair that the British Army doesn't recruit many Buddhists. It will not have asked how many actually applied, and whether the ones who were turned away were any good.
It is no surprise the Government wants nothing to do with the results, devolving responsibility for interpreting these random numbers to the Big Society. According to the Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, we are all meant to look at the results and then "be in the front line for holding public bodies to account." At best one hopes that means everyone will give it all a damn good ignoring, at worst it will give bad ideas to those in local government with the dangerous combination of a little power and a little brain. You wonder whether the Tories let this one go because they have bigger fish to fry or are still worried about the "nasty party" image that the Grauniad and others would happily run if they amended this codswallop. Either way, all the "Equality Duty" will ever be is an embodiment of the truism that there are "lies, damn lies and statistics."