Did workless households double under Labour?

Published: 19th Feb 2014

"In spite of all the talk about so-called "boom years" [under Labour] we saw a situation where almost a million and a half people spent the last decade out of work — and the number of workless households doubled ... We have started to change that."

David Cameron in the Telegraph, 19 February 2014

Over the weekend the newly-appointed Cardinal Vincent Nichols hit out at the Coalition's welfare reforms. This morning the Prime Minister hit back.

But his claims are off the mark. Workless households did not double under Labour, whatever you count as the 'boom' years. His claim is more likely to refer to households who've never worked, though these didn't quite double either.

A workless household is where no-one aged 16 or over is employed, although there has to be at least one person of working age (so pensioners won't count in this).

As of 2013, there are 20.4 million households in the UK where at least one person is of working age. Of those, 16.9 million contain at least one person who works and the other 3.5 million are entirely workless. So 17% - or one in six - of these households are workless.

The 'boom' years

If we take the 'boom' years to exclude the financial crisis after 2008, the number of workless households actually fell under Labour, both in number and as a proportion of all households containing at least one person of working age.

It's most significant to look at proportions, since the number of households is almost constantly rising. In 1997 20% of 'working-age' households were workless. In 2008 this was down to 17.4%. Even taking the figures up to 2010, the proportion is down on 1997.

While we haven't yet got confirmation, it's very likely the PM meant to refer to households where no-one has ever worked (specifically, where no-one has ever had paid work: volunteering or casual work doesn't count).

These rose under Labour, both in number and as a proportion. From 1997 to 2008, the number of these households rose from 184,000 to 346,000, and the proportion from 1% of working-age households to 1.7%. So not quite a doubling either, though closer to the trend the PM's referring to.

In any case, the trends since the election are in the direction the PM states. Workless households have fallen as a proportion from 19% to 17%, and in number from 3.9 to 3.5 million. 'Never worked' households are also down very slightly.

It's not the first time the Prime Minister has made this mistake and, like then, it needs to be corrected.



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