This is an edited version of the speech by Councillor Robert Nemeth at a Brighton and Hove City Council standards panel on Monday (21 September). He was accused of making comments that brought the council into disrepute and brought his office as a councillor into disrepute. He was also accused of failing to engage with the investigation into whether his comments breached the council’s code of conduct.
It was perfectly reasonable to claim that Brighton and Hove City Council and, in particular, the council’s lead for rough sleeping used fake figures when quoting the number of rough sleepers in 2018 and, off the back of this, suggesting that a significant drop had taken place.
Nobody has data suggesting such a drop and the experts reject the idea unequivocally.
It was reasonable to claim that councillors knew about this – as of course did the public at large.
The background to this matter was a claim that was made when Councillor Clare Moonan popped up as a substitute at a meeting of the council’s Neighbourhoods, Inclusion, Communities and Equalities Committee on Monday 3 December 2018 to make an announcement.
Councillor Moonan said the following – and I quote: “The official figure verified by the independent organisation Homeless Link is 64.
“If you remember, the official figure last November was 178. So this represents a significant drop.”
This was followed by a co-ordinated press release that same day: “The count revealed a significant drop in the number of people rough sleeping in the city this November.
“The official figure for Brighton and Hove, verified by independent organisation Homeless Link, is 64 people.”
A quote in that press release from Councillor Moonan was as follows: “There are fewer people sleeping on the streets. The count has confirmed our own local knowledge gained over the last year.”
It was also claimed, as I mentioned in a subsequent letter with two fellow councillors to the council’s Audit and Standards Committee, that “the number of people rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove is going down”.
I described two figures as fake. The first was of course the claimed 64. The second was the extrapolated “significant drop” of 114 – a drop of 64 per cent.
It’s probably worth setting the scene as to past figures to demonstrate just how unlikely it is that there were only 64 rough sleepers on the streets of Brighton and Hove in 2018.
The story kicks off with an admirable election pledge in 2015 by the Labour team to eradicate all rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove by 2020.
- The figure in 2015, later that year, was 78.
- The figure in 2016 was 144 – an 85 per cent rise.
- The figure in 2017 was 178 – a 24 per cent rise.
- The claimed figure in 2018 was of course 64 – a 64 per cent drop. This was the final statistic before the 2019 local elections.
The proper figure in 2019 was not calculated but, given that there have been over 300 rough sleepers since the beginning of lockdown, I will settle on 250 – a 291 per cent rise on the claimed 64. Does this sound realistic? No, of course it doesn’t.
In past years, the number of rough sleepers was calculated using a fairly complicated “estimate” method which combined data from many respected organisations including Brighton Housing Trust and seven other local partners including St Mungo’s and Project Antifreeze.
It is not quick to do – certainly not immediate. It’s not easy – it puts numerous groups to work. It is potentially more expensive than other metrics. But it is the closest that we can get to the actual number of rough sleepers.
There are many objective ways that one might measure the rough sleeping situation without trying to calculate the actual number of rough sleepers.
As it goes, the council has settled on the single-night headcount method as a way to do this – and I’m fine with that in principle.
The single-night headcount is very quick and features an easy methodology – essentially count everybody that you can find on a given night in central areas – not the whole city – who has the misfortune of sleeping rough.
The issue comes when it is suggested that it is possible to compare the number of rough sleepers (of course calculated in the best way that it can be – by estimate) with the number of rough sleepers spotted in central areas on one night.
Anybody with a basic grasp of maths can see this but an analogy perhaps explains it best.
Imagine that we were discussing tourist data and a local authority presented figures for visitor numbers on a given day.
As a helpful parallel, in November 2019, Brighton and Hove City Council announced visitor numbers for the year 2018 quoting data from trusted partner organisations. That data uses figures from many sources such as rail companies, hotels and restaurants.
It didn’t take weeks to calculate, as might our estimated rough sleeper numbers. It took 11 months, and does so every year.
This is because, as with rough-sleeper numbers, it is complicated to carry out. It uses a difficult methodology and is presumably expensive. But is it the best way to do it – and that’s why we are willing to wait 11 months for it.
Now imagine if somebody wanted tourist data quickly for comparison purposes only. A perfectly acceptable metric might be rail passenger numbers.
Somebody reliable could literally stand at the turnstiles at Brighton Station and count passengers on weekends quarterly. The data would be objective. The result would be instant. And the exercise would be cheap.
The issue would be if, say, an opposition councillor used passenger numbers at a turnstile to claim for political reasons that tourist numbers had fallen by directly comparing the complicated estimate with a count.
The real number of visitors is of course the estimated complicated figure. The imposter figure would of course be the station count, which doesn’t take into account those who have driven, those who have walked, those who have cycled, etc.
This is no reflection on the person who did the counting. If the station manager provided the figures, we certainly wouldn’t be questioning their integrity or professionalism. The figure represents something – something very helpful – but not the number of visitors to the whole city on a given day.
The plot thickens though … and this is where the council has behaved disgracefully.
Imagine that the station count had been carried out on the day of a rail strike or when trains had been diverted.
A parallel situation took place in Brighton and Hove when the count was carried out on a night of heavy snowfall. How often do we get heavy snowfall in Brighton and Hove?
Clearly this wasn’t planned. The date was set in advance. Clearly those participating in the count did their absolute best in awful conditions. The stated figure of those counted in the snow that night was correct.
How though was a huge caveat not placed on the figures? Would somebody claim that the number of tourists had fallen when counting on a day with reduced trains? Of course they wouldn’t. It would be a gross misrepresentation of the figures.
How then did Councillor Moonan claim, and I quote, “a significant drop” with such bad data?
Councillor Mary Mears, Councillor Nick Taylor and I wrote to the council’s Audit and Standards Committee to clear this matter up once and for all. The result was astounding.
The conclusion was as follows, and I again quote: “Both the counts and estimate single-night snapshots provide a way of indicating the number of people sleeping rough and assessing change over time.”
The language is careful in that it states that each metric is an indicator. The issue is that the estimate needs little or no manipulation to get to the number of rough sleepers. The count though perhaps needs multiplying by two or more to get to the actual number of rough sleepers.
The issue of the comparison of the different metrics was sidestepped. The issue of the snow seems to have just been skipped over. A question which hasn’t been asked was answered.
There seems to be an obsession with stating that each figure is correct on its own terms but no proper examination of the comparison – which is of course the issue, and now spelt out many times by me and many others. I simply do not understand why I am having to explain again.
The real figure for the number of rough sleepers in 2018 is not known but I suspect that it was in the region of 140 to 180. That would roughly tally with the figures that we have now and expose the quoted figure of 64 – the 64 per cent drop out of the blue – as fake.
By fake, I mean not real. I mean misleading. I mean phoney – an imitation. I mean not valid – mathematically meaningless – a small pear dressed up as an apple.
The deception is on three levels really.
- The first is that the nightly headcount was substituted for the estimated number of rough sleepers when it obviously gives a lower result.
- The second is that no caveats were made about the snow.
- The third is that a drop was claimed upon comparison.
This played out over numerous council meetings and many high-profile newspaper articles locally and even in the national press including in the Guardian. I’m not aware of anybody who disagrees with me and the professionals.
Councillor Moonan had many opportunities to rephrase but didn’t do so. Unless the panel is claiming gross incompetence, it can only be concluded that it must have been deliberate.
I fail to believe that the council is so incompetent that it could really not understand rough sleeping figures to such a degree. More to the point, I fail to believe that councillors simply walk around town without their eyes open as to what it going on around us.
It was a misleading statement and should simply have been nipped in the bud with a quick clarification and, ideally, an apology.
I, of course, stated that all councillors were aware. Saying that “everyone knows” or “everyone thinks” or “we all know that” is a fairly standard phrase which I’ve noticed many times being used after realising that I was honestly being taken to task for its use. Everyone uses such phrases, as we all know well.
I must say generally that I am perfectly happy to take a lesson in mathematics – especially from Councillor Hamilton – but I haven’t come for an English lesson and it seems incredibly petty and wasteful of public funds – presumably in the region of £10,000 again – to even bring this up.
Is the bar being set so low for “standards” intervention that a precise definition of the word “fake” is all that it takes to trigger conviction. If panel members are suggesting so, please think about what message this sends to the public who have questioned at national level what several councillors have allegedly said in relation to certain sensitive race issues in recent times.
If the bar really is that low, it’s worth considering just how many other cases might result just from the last meeting of full council, after which webcast footage had to be removed for legal reasons – or even from the council’s Planning Committee last week.
I feel a similar way about the claims about not co-operating. I passed the matter to a senior colleague in the first instance. I certainly emailed back in March 2019 and recall long telephone conversations about the matter.
It again popped up in the run up to the general election which all councillors know is fraught at the best of times, especially considering that I agreed at very short notice to stand as a candidate.
I recall having to put precious time into the matter with several conversations with the head of law during the general election period when detail about this supposedly confidential matter was magically leaked to the press just before polling day and my Labour rival was ready with a rent-a-quote about my suitability for office.
I would like to summarise now as follows.
- It was wrong of Councillor Moonan to not use a real figure for the number of rough sleepers who were present on our streets in 2018. Using a headcount on a snowy night was highly misleading. The drop in numbers is not a legitimate figure and is mathematically unsound. I am comfortable in claiming that the figures were fake.
- It was wrong for the council not to admit this at the time and not admitting it brought the council into disrepute among the public at large and throughout the rough sleeping world.
- I gave the council ample opportunity to clarify the situation but clarification was not forthcoming. I think that it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the council was deliberately misleading us all.
- I have co-operated with this investigation during a very busy period to a reasonable degree and taken time away from serving residents and spending time with my very young children as a result.
Given that there are now objectively over 300 rough sleepers in Brighton and Hove, it doesn’t take much to see that I may well have been on to something quite scandalous.
Highlighting the council’s errors was exactly the right thing to do – mathematically and morally. I sincerely hope that there will always be councillors on Brighton and Hove City Council who are ready to stand up for such causes, even if it means facing a backlash from the system which they are fighting to improve.
Councillor Robert Nemeth is a Conservative and represents Wish ward on Brighton and Hove City Council.