The misuse and misunderstanding of statistics is not new. One topic where misinterpretation, embellishment and outright falsehoods about data and statistics thrives is the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

The 2016 EU membership referendum was fought with contentious arguments about the costs and benefits of the UK’s EU membership. The Treasury Select Committee report, published prior to the referendum, recognises and rebuts many of these claims.

“Facts from official sources”

I was directed to a blog called Brexit Facts4EU.org, which purports to provide “Brexit news using facts from official sources”. In particular, this blog suggests that the UK’s net contribution to the EU is around £11bn.

They write:

In yet another shocking admission which won’t make the BBC news, the EU has again revealed that the figure for the United Kingdom’s net contributions is significantly higher than the British public were told.

This is based on a speech made by Günther Oettinger, the EU Commissioner for Budget and Resources.

The transcript in the article reads:

The hole on the revenue side is because of net contributor the United Kingdom which sadly is going to leave us following a transitional period which is being negotiated by Michel Barnier at present, we’re helping him with that, and at the end of that we’ll be short of €12–13 billion annually, on a structural basis.

Since this is approximately £11bn (based on the exchange rate at the time of their publication), the article heralds confirmation that the Remain campaign “lied” during the 2016 referendum.

The article then lists a series of organisation which they believe are wrong about this statistic:

The figure used by the Remain campaign, and by BBC Reality Check, and by the ONS, and by the Treasury, and by the House of Commons Library, and by David Cameron and George Osborne, was £8.4 billion per year.

It is worth noting that the Treasury does not state that the net contribution is £8.4bn, and uses the higher net figure of £9.8bn, as they only deduct public sector receipts.

The House of Commons Library follows the same method as the Treasury.

Like the BBC, the Office for National Statistics typically states both the net contribution with and without private sector receipts.

Why are Oettinger’s figures higher?

The UK has not left the European Union yet, and did not do so in 2014.

The Commissioner’s figures (“€12–13 billion”) refers to the future, after the UK has exited the EU.

This is the Commissioner’s quote again, with added ellipses and emphasis for clarity:

The hole on the revenue side is because… the United Kingdom… is going to leave us following a transitional period…, and at the end of that we’ll be short of €12–13 billion annually.

The Office for Budget Responsibility's forecasts for the UK net contribution — in cash terms, less public sector receipts — are over £10.5bn annually, from 2018/19 onward. The forecasts in real terms are lower, due to expected inflation, are shown below:

There may be other reasons as to why this figure is higher, such as accounting for potential losses due to slower growth, but it is clear the Commissioner’s statement does not refer to the UK’s net contribution in past years.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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