UPDATE: We are pleased to note that since being alerted to this erroneous claim by Full Fact, Iain Duncan Smith has corrected the Commons record. It now correctly states that Britain has “one of the highest rates of jobless households in Europe’s major economies.”
“Britain has the highest rate of jobless households in Europe.” Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, House of Commons 11 October 2010.
Full Fact pointed out in yesterday’s blog that a statistic suggesting high numbers of workless households in Britain had been abbreviated to the point of inaccuracy.
We were concerned that following a headline in the Telegraph erroneously proclaiming that Britain has “the highest number of workless households in Europe” was in danger of diffusing unscrutinised into the public debate.
Sure enough, the claim has already popped up in no less an arena than the House of Commons.
It was the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) that brought Eurostat’s comparison of European jobless household rates into the UK’s political dialogue.
The CPS report ‘More Producers Needed’ points to data suggesting that the UK has “one of the highest ratios of workless households in the EU”, and “the highest incidence of adults in workless households of the six largest EU economies.”
But nowhere do the CPS claim that Britain actually tops this ignomonious league table, for the simple reason that we don’t.
The Eurostat data has four EU member-states – Belgium, Ireland, Hungary and Lithuania – performing worse than Britain, along with several other non-EU countries in Europe.
Britain does have the highest rate of workless households of Europe’s six largest national economies – but extend the elite to allow a seventh into the fold, and the UK is pipped by Belgium.
Even if Mr Duncan Smith had couched his statistic in the same terms as the CPS, there would be reasons to treat such a claim with caution.
“Jobless households” often means a different thing to statisticians than it does in political debate, as Declan Gaffney points out at Left Foot Forward: not all are families in long-term “socialised” unemployment.
Changes in the number of workless households may reflect changes in living arrangements rather than a rise in long-term unemployment.
And measures of households between European countries where the most prevalent living arrangements vary may curb the meaningfulness of comparisons.
With such warnings attached, the original claim would nonetheless pass the Full Fact test. In its truncated form, it emphatically does not.
Unearthing some of these qualifications should not be such a strenuous task even for those reading the newspapers where we first spotted them.
Those persevering only as far as the introductory paragraph of the Telegraph’s coverage would discover that their “Europe” extended only to “major EU countries”.
But who knows how many readers may have taken in the title without reading the main text?
Perhaps not even all fellow journalists and politicians did so, judging by the uncritical adoption of the simplified claim in the Evening Standard, which Full Fact highlighted yesterday.
Mr Duncan Smith was justified in raising the point that a relatively high proportion of UK households are workless. But his claim was clearly an exaggeration.
When the shorthand of a reasonable claim is mistakenly adopted as a fact, the fault lies with both the abbreviators and those who failed to read the small print.
In a time when welfare reform is at the forefront of political discourse, it is important that such faulty statements are not perpetuated.
Full Fact will be seeking corrections from the media, pressing the Work and Pensions Secretary for a correction of the record and keeping an eye out for repetitions of the faulty fact.