“Whether it’s cancer survival rates, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries.”
David Cameron, The Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2011
With the Big Society enjoying a resurgence in terms of newspaper column inches, the Prime Minister explained to readers of the Daily Telegraph it encompassed more than just volunteering.
In fact, Mr Cameron asserted, the Big Society was part of a wider mission to devolve decision making on public services from Whitehall to citizens. This was necessary, the argument ran, as the established method of service management had failed to deliver results.
But do the examples the PM gives of a relative decline in standards on cancer survival, education and crime stand up to scrutiny?
The claim that cancer survival rates in the UK are poor when compared to our international peers is one that Mr Cameron has been making for some time.
During the election campaign last year, Full Fact factchecked his assertion that the UK had a higher “death rate” for cancer than Bulgaria.
When we looked at the issue in more depth, we quickly found that there were a number of problems associated with the sort of international comparisons that the Prime Minister apparently favours.
Firstly, the most widely-used dataset available on international cancer survival rates is the EUROCARE series, the most recent study from which is EUROCARE-4. However as this covers patients diagnosed in 1995-99 and 2000-02, its findings are now slightly dated, and cover only the first five years of the previous Government.
Furthermore, the dataset has large divergences in the response rate for different countries, which has led some to raise concerns about the validity of the type of comparison made by Mr Cameron.
For example, Robert Souhami, emeritus professor of medicine at University College London and former director of clinical research at Cancer Research UK told Full Fact that the fact that the UK accounted for 40 per cent of the total data gathered should “set alarm bells ringing.” He said: “How can you determine the survival rate in Germany if you only know about 1 per cent of cases? We have no idea if that is representative of the country as a whole.”
These reservations were shared by the Head of Policy at Cancer Research UK Sarah Woolnaugh, who told The Lancet last year that: “On the face of it, the UK has poorer outcomes than say France or Germany, but cancer registration data only cover 17% and 1%, respectively, of those countries, making comparisons difficult.”
So whilst the UK may nominally lag behind other comparable nations in terms of the cancer survival rate, the age and limitations of this data might undermine the strength of the Prime Minister’s conclusions.
A similar problem emerges when we take a closer look at the UK’s international performance in the classroom.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) carries out standardised testing of the academic levels of students in its member countries as part of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study.
This has found that between 2006 and 2009, the UK slipped down the international league table from 17th to 25th in reading, from 25th and 27th in maths and from 14th to 16th in science.
Whilst the significance of the move is complicated slightly by the fact that the 2009 table included eight more countries than the 2006 study, on this basis Mr Cameron’s claim is reasonably sound.
However Education Secretary Michael Gove has taken this a step further by using the 2000 PISA data to claim that the UK has fallen from 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science.
As Full Fact found when we factchecked the issue, the comparisons made between the 2000 and 2006/09 rankings are specifically warned against by the OECD, due to the incompatibility of the datasets.
The Prime Minister can legitimately point to a slight decline in standards, but the drop may not be as sharp as the Government suggests.
International crime rates are notoriously treacherous waters, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Mr Cameron’s claim runs into the greatest difficulty on this subject.
The first problem encountered with measuring crime against international benchmarks is that in the UK the dataset most commonly used for measuring the crime rate – the British Crime Survey – doesn’t have comparable studies overseas.
To make these sorts of comparisons, we therefore have to use the recorded crime rate. Straight off the bat, this raises a few concerns, as in the UK the methodology has been changed on several occasions, notably in 2002 and 1997. This has meant that the Home Office has warned that trend analysis shouldn’t be undertaken across these divides. It is likely that similar changes will have been made in other country’s data too.
Yet even using this limited dataset, Mr Cameron’s claim that the UK has fared worse than other countries runs into difficulties. Using Eurostat data for the decade between 1998 and 2008, recorded crime fell in England and Wales by 8.6 per cent. Yet it rose in France, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, to name a few. Crime in Germany fell by 5.6 per cent, with only the US and Canada enjoying a larger drop of around 12 per cent.
What this data tells us about the success of Government in tackling crime, if indeed it tells us anything at all, is something of a moot point. However there seems to be little evidence that the UK has fared worse than its peers, and indeed a certain amount that might indicate that the contrary is the case.
On all three points, the data that the Prime Minister’s claims rests upon is fraught with problems. However whilst on education and cancer survival a case can be made for Mr Cameron’s interpretation of the evidence (with some significant caveats), on crime the picture seems more mixed, and may actually indicate that the reverse is true.