Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the body charged with upholding the quality of the UK's Official Statistics - the UK Statistics Authority - has today written to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to ask that he and the Conservative Party "clarify" claims both made about increases to the NHS budget since the Coalition took office.
In October Mr Hunt told the House of Commons that:
"real-terms spending on the NHS has increased across the country."
Meanwhile the Conservative Party website stated that:
"we have increased the NHS budget in real terms in each of the last two years."
However the Statistics Authority isn't so sure. According to Mr Dilnot, on the strength of "the most authoritative source of Official Statistics on the subject", the Treasury's Public Spending Statistics, the Authority:
"would conclude that expenditure on the NHS in real terms was lower in 2011-12 than it was in 2009-10."
Sure enough this is what the figures show:
As Mr Dilnot notes, there are some complexities here: there are other sources for health spending figures, including the Department of Health's own accounts. Even the Treasury's Public Spending Statistics cause problems, as while more recent data than the July 2012 estimates given in the table above are available, they don't provide the real terms breakdown needed for this analysis.
What the October 2012 figures do provide instead is the nominal spending recorded on health, and the GDP deflators needed to adjust these for inflation (giving a real terms figure). If you run this calculation, then you can trace a slight year-on-year rise in 2011-12, although this followed a larger fall in the previous year. However even this may owe more to changes in the GDP deflator itself than any underlying increase in funding:
For this reason, Mr Dilnot writes that:
"Given the small size of the changes and the uncertainties associated with them, it might also be fair to say that real terms expenditure had changed little over this period. In light of this, I should be grateful if the Department of Health could clarify the statements made."
So while it's clear that the claim of a rise in NHS spending can't be sustained, there is some scope for interpretation over precisely how the NHS budget has changed over the past two years. We look forward to reading the clarifications offered by the Department and the Conservatives.