Serious doubts about the reliability of Belgian statistics

  • Should we be wary of official statistics?
  • There are sometimes substantial differences between figures from different institutes
  • Lack of resources is a key issue

Can we trust official statistics? According to the economist Philippe Defeyt, director of the Institute for Sustainable Development, our system is no longer fit for its purpose. Defeyt, from Namur, has listed a variety of official statistics, highlighting sometimes striking differences between them.

There are also some gaps. For example, no one knows the number of evictions from domestic premises in Belgium. Average household taxable income and average household electricity consumption in kilowatt hours are also unavailable. The figure of 10 % illiteracy in Belgium is often quoted, but there is no research to back it up. “SPF Economie [the Federal Public Service for the Economy] can publish a list of the most popular given names in Belgium but has nothing to say on issues such as the rate of illiteracy in our country.” Mr. Defeyt also questions whether confidence can be placed in statistics relating to the employment of young people and older workers, or in the figures for people employed in “titres-services,” the state subsidized domestic services sector. “The Minister for Employment estimated it as 170,000. But this figure relates to people who have worked in the sector for at least one day. The reality is that the total, at the end of 2012, was 120,000 people.”

Defeyt considers that there is no real political will to improve the quality and quantity of socially valuable statistical information. “Society has a greater need than ever before for indicators, for markers, in order to understand what is happening and to guide collective and individual action.”

He is calling for more work to combine statistics collected by public services with those based on surveys, and for the use of a wider range of statistical sources, such as comparison of land registry figures on housing stock with statistics on changes in the numbers of households, which would improve understanding of the dynamics of residential construction. He also questions why the production of statistics on VAT totals by sector has ceased, when they are essential for the analysis of economic trends.

In response to press enquiries, a spokesperson for the National Institute for Statistics (INS) brushed aside the criticism of a lack of coordination between different offices for statistics. “We are in daily contact with the Belgian National Bank and the federal Bureau du Plan. And also with the Banque Carrefour de la Securité Sociale [responsible for social security statistics]. But some projects take time. Some of the criticisms are baseless – let’s take unemployment statistics as an example. We do not use the same methodology as the Bureau du Plan. We use the International Labor Office (ILO) definition and we carry out a large-scale survey of thousands of people, including unemployed young people who are actively seeking work. The Bureau du Plan, on the other hand, uses Onem [National Office for Employment] figures. It is not the same approach. We recognize that we need to improve the quality of our statistics. But our human and financial resources are very limited. Clearly, many other European countries are doing better than we are. The complexity of our administrative structures doesn’t help: elsewhere in Europe there is a single institute for statistics in each country.”

DIRK VANOVERBEKE

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