Poverty is an issue of fundamental importance to society, but it’s also complex to measure. This can make it harder for the public to get a clear picture of what is happening to poverty in the UK. One way we might expect to improve our understanding is by looking to our political leaders, which is why it’s essential that they get their facts right.
However, as we and many others have found, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a number of incorrect or unevidenced statements about poverty over the past six months, most recently during exchanges in PMQs last month.
It’s today been widely reported that the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) came to the same conclusion - that the statements were inaccurate - when asked by the campaign group End Child Poverty to investigate the Prime Minister's use of poverty statistics.
We urge the Prime Minister to ensure that the parliamentary record (Hansard) is corrected. We understand that mistakes can be made under pressure, but it is vital that when that happens, our leaders correct the record.
The statements in question are:
- “There are 400,000 fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010.” (BBC, 1 December 2019)
- “Absolute poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this government”. (PMQs, 17 June 2020)
- "There are hundreds of thousands, I think 400,000, fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010" (PMQs, 17 June 2020)
- “There are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 fewer children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.” (PMQs, 24 June 2020)
It’s worth noting that there are a lot of different measures for poverty, which we’ve written about in detail before (for example, in September 2019 and again in June 2020). But when we investigated, we found that the main measures of poverty showed the Prime Minister’s December claim to be incorrect: they can be used to show anything from a fall of 100,000 to a rise of 500,000.
When we looked into his claims from 17 June, we found that government figures showed that relative low income was at the same level in 2018/19 as in 2009/10 and absolute low income fell by one percentage point. A different measure of relative poverty, from the independent Social Metrics Commission, shows a fall under this government. It was also unclear which poverty figures the Prime Minister was referring to when he said there were 400,000 fewer families living in poverty. We asked the government for more information, but did not receive a response.
To assess the final claim, we can look at figures from the Department for Work and Pensions, which show that there were 200,000 fewer children estimated to fall below the thresholds of low income and material deprivation in the UK in 2018/19 compared to 2010/11; not 500,000. However, his other claim that there were 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty is correct if you’re comparing since 2009/10 - but it had risen by 100,000 if you’re comparing the change since 2010/11.
The underlying problem with debates about poverty, as we have said before, is that the number of ways of measuring poverty means it’s all too easy for opponents to choose the numbers that best suit their argument. This makes for a confusing debate that often leaves all of us none the wiser.
There have been attempts to develop new ways to measure poverty, but it’s essential these don’t just add to the long list of measures we already have, from which different data can be cherry picked. Rather, we need a coherent set of benchmarks by which to judge any government’s record.
That's why we are pleased to see that the OSR has committed to launch a systemic review of the coherence of poverty statistics this autumn, and we will be submitting the evidence from our fact checks to show the level of confusion and the need for change.
As the regulator says in its own blog post that sets out the various ways in which poverty can be measured: “Poverty remains a significant issue for the UK and has the potential to be of greater importance as we adjust to life following Covid-19.”
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