Homeless, poor, jobless and unhealthy: a portrait of Birmingham?

Published: 17th Oct 2013

"Why is it that nearly a third of children in [Birmingham] live in households on low incomes

"Why is it that infant mortality is almost twice the national average, worse than in Cuba and on a par with Latvia and Chile? 

"Why is it that Birmingham has some of the worst levels of statutory homelessness in the country?

"Why is it that levels of long term unemployment in the city are more than double the national average?

"These are shocking statistics and a national disgrace."

Sir Michael Wilshaw, quoted in Independent and Daily Mail, 16 October 2013

Ofsted this week released its first annual report into child social care. On the back of inspections across 152 local authorities reponsible for children in care, adoption and fostering and child protection, it provided a somewhat bleak overview. Only 4 out of 10 local authorities were judged good or outstanding for protecting children.

One of 20 authorities judged "inadequate" - Birmingham - was singled out for a stinging attack from the Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw. He called the stats referring to the city a "national disgrace" and pulled few punches when it came to highlighting what was going wrong.

All of Sir Michael's claims are accurate according to the available figures.

"Why is it that nearly a third of children in [Birmingham] live in households on low incomes?"

It's an odd claim at first, considering that the usual measure of households below average income produced by the government doesn't have any breakdowns as local as Birmingham.

However the Campaign to End Child Poverty this year published data showing that in 2012, 31% of children in Birmingham lived in households in poverty. It's based on data for households claiming tax credits for those in work, and out-of-work benefits claimants for everyone else. The data was only available for 2010, so it's also based on a projection.

The researchers admit that their measure overestimates poverty for those out-of-work and underestimates it for those in work (based on tax credits), however these purportedly balance out and the national figure is similar to that published by the Department for Work and Pensions.

So it's not a figure set in stone, but Sir Michael's claim certainly looks reasonable based on the available data.

"Why is it that infant mortality is almost twice the national average, worse than in Cuba and on a par with Latvia and Chile?"

Of every 1,000 live births in Birmingham, 8.2 result in death within a year, according to local death registrations data.

That's very high compared to elsewhere else in the UK. Only 13 local authorities have a higher rate in a list of over 350 authorities. The UK average is 4.3 per 1,000.

Obviously both the UK and Birmingham do relatively well compared with the international rankings for infant mortality, given that developing countries are in the list. The UK has the 31st lowest rate in 2012 - slightly better than Cuba in 34th - while Birmingham would come in at 57th.

It's possibly unfair to compare an inner city to an entire country though, not least because an inner city will tend have a different demographic to a country, and other countries could well have local variations of their own.

"Why is it that Birmingham has some of the worst levels of statutory homelessness in the country?"

Again, Birmingham fares badly in this measure as Sir Michael points out. It's local authorities' responsibility to accept a household as being homeless and in priority need. In Birmingham last year, 9.42 out of every 1,000 households were considered homeless in this way. Only Waltham Forest and Barking and Dagenham in London had higher rates.

Across the whole of England, 2.3 out of every 1,000 are considered homeless (53,000 over the course of last year).

"Why is it that levels of long term unemployment in the city are more than double the national average?"

Long term unemployment tends to refer to people who've been unemployed for over six or 12 months. Getting this data for local authorities is difficult, although similar figures for the claimant count - the number of people on Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) - are available on the more accessible nomis database of work stats.

The answers still chime with Sir Michael's claim. 1.6% of the UK working population have been claiming JSA for over 6 months and 1% over a year. In Birmingham, 3.6% have claimed for more than 6 months and 2.4% for over a year. 

But is this a one-sided perspective?

It's certainly far from a comprehensive set of indicators. Life expectancy is just one other that springs to mind. The average man born in Birmingham a few years ago could expect to live 77.3 years compared to 78.3 across England and Wales. Similarly the average Brummie woman could expect 82 years compared to 82.8 across England and Wales.

The Office for National Statistics's new measure of personal well-being covers a far greater variety of measures, from crime to incomes to greenhouse gas emissions. They're planning to publish local authority figures for the first time next Wednesday. So we'll get to know what many outside Manchester consider England's second city much better then.

Birmingham Council has responded to the child safety report itself, concluding: "While we can only agree with the seriousness of what Sir Michael has said with regard to children's services — indeed we have said it ourselves — we now need improvement rather than further diagnosis lacking any offer of solutions. We must work with Ofsted on this and we repeat our determination to improve the safety of children in this city as the highest priority for this council."

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