Boris Johnson incorrect to say Keir Starmer is “completely wrong” about past trends in child poverty

18 June 2020
What was claimed

There are 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.

Our verdict

We don’t know where this data comes from and have asked the government.

What was claimed

Absolute poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this government.

Our verdict

Government figures show that relative low income was at the same level in 2018/19 as in 2009/10 while absolute low income fell by one percentage point. Another measure of poverty, produced by the Social Metrics Commission, does show a fall under this government.

What was claimed

The government’s Social Mobility Commission said the number of children in poverty is expected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.

Our verdict

This is based on an estimate made in 2017 which estimated child poverty would be considerably higher by this point than it is. For that reason it shouldn’t be considered relevant today.

What was claimed

The government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded there are 600,000 more children living in relative poverty than in 2012.

Our verdict

Correct - this refers to the number of children living in low income households as defined by the government.

What was claimed

1.3 million children will benefit from the government’s u-turn on funding free school meals over the summer holidays.

Our verdict

Correct, this is roughly how many children receive free school meals in England.

Keir Starmer: “Can I also welcome the Prime Minister's latest U-turn. This time on free school meals. That was the right thing to do, and it is vital to the 1.3 million children who will benefit.

“A report last week from the government's Social Mobility Commission concluded that there are now 600,000 more children living in relative poverty than in 2012. The report went on to say child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.”

Boris Johnson: “He's completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolute poverty, relative poverty have both declined under this government and there are hundreds of thousands, I think 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.”

Prime Minister’s Questions, 17 June 2020

At this week’s Prime Minister's Questions, Boris Johnson and Labour leader Keir Starmer appeared to quote contradictory figures about poverty in the UK.

While it’s clear from the exchanges what source Mr Starmer was using, it’s unclear what measure of poverty the Prime Minister was referring to when he said that it was down 400,000 since 2010, or whether he was talking about child poverty—as Mr Starmer had been—or overall poverty. We’ve asked Downing Street for more information.

Keir Starmer correctly quotes poverty figures from a government report—but they don't reflect the whole picture

Mr Johnson is incorrect to say that Keir Starmer is completely wrong about poverty. Mr Starmer’s figures are taken directly from a report by the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMoC). 

The SMoC uses government data on people living in low-income households as a measure of poverty, which shows that, since 2011/12 and up to 2018/19, the number of children in relative poverty has risen by about 600,000. 

This is the number of children living in households where the income after housing costs is less than 60% of the national median average. 

It’s worth saying that there are a lot of different measures of poverty and this is not necessarily the best one. For example, it doesn’t consider costs not related to housing that might affect a household’s income, such as childcare. In other words, it’s not a definitive figure for what’s been happening to child poverty, regardless of the fact that the SMoC and Labour have chosen to highlight it.

We’ve written about the different ways you can measure poverty before.

Mr Starmer also claimed that child poverty was projected to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. This is also from the SMoC report, which seems to quote estimates based on projections made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2017. The IFS projected that child poverty would rise from 30% in 2015/16 to 37% in 2021/22. But if the projections had played out for real, then we’d expect child poverty to be at around 35% by now. Given that relative child poverty is still 30% (unchanged since 2015/16), we don’t think these projections are still valid. 

Mr Johnson’s figures don’t refute Mr Starmer’s, but there are measures which back the government up

After saying Mr Starmer was wrong, Mr Johnson said that absolute poverty and relative poverty are both down “under this government.” By this we presume the Prime Minister was either talking about the change since 2009/10 (the last year of the Labour government) or the change since 2010/11 (the first year of the Coalition government).

The exact picture depends on the measure you look at.

Government figures show that relative low income was at the same rate in 2018/19 (22% of the population) as in 2009/10 and slightly higher than it was in 2010/11. Meanwhile absolute low income fell by one percentage point (to 20%) comparing to either 2009/10 or 2010/11. All these figures are after taking housing costs into account.

In terms of numbers of people, relative low income was higher by about one million compared to 2009/10, or 1.5 million comparing to 2010/11. Absolute low income was at very similar levels.

Relative poverty as measured by the Social Metrics Commission (an independent research body set up to create a new measure of poverty, not to be confused with the Social Mobility Commission we mentioned above), shows about 600,000 fewer people are in poverty in 2017/18 (the latest year’s data) compared to 2009/10. Measuring since 2010/11, the fall is closer to 300,000.

Mr Johnson also claimed that there are 400,000 fewer families living in poverty than in 2010. The Labour shadow minister for child poverty strategy said after the session that the Prime Minister was wrong about child poverty, seemingly referring to this exchange. This is also how the Independent appeared to interpret this exchange.

Mr Johnson didn’t actually specify he was talking about “child poverty” though, even though this is what Mr Starmer had been asking about. 

We’ve already fact checked a similar claim Mr Johnson made before when he explicitly claimed that child poverty is down 400,000, and found this to be incorrect. At the moment, the main measures of child poverty or children in low income households show anything from a fall of about 100,000 to a rise of 600,000 since 2009/10 or 2010/11 (the same figure that the SMoC featured in their report).

If Mr Johnson is talking about overall poverty here, then this claim is a fair one, on balance, although it still only gives part of the picture. The figures from the Social Metrics Commission which we mentioned above roughly back him up, though the government’s low income figures don’t.

The Social Metrics Commission’s measure is probably a better measure of poverty, as we’ve discussed before.We’ve assumed Mr Johnson is talking about individuals in poverty rather than “families” as he specified during exchanges, as these are usually how poverty figures are provided.

It’s correct that at least 1.3 million children will benefit from the government’s new policy on free school meals

Keir Starmer also said during the exchanges that 1.3 million children will benefit from the government’s recent u-turn over giving free school meals to children over the summer holidays, off the back of a campaign by England footballer Marcus Rashford.

1.3 million children in England were eligible for and claiming free school meals, in 2019. Additionally the government has extended eligibility for its voucher scheme to children of groups that have “no recourse to public funds”, people in the UK with temporary immigration status. So the potential beneficiaries of the government’s decision to continue the scheme over the summer may be higher than 1.3 million.

There additionally may be some children who are eligible for free school meals but do not claim them.

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