Sir Iain Duncan Smith is wrong to say that only 15% of people ever move above low pay

3 February 2020
What was claimed

Just 15% of people who begin low-paid work in the UK will rise out of low pay during their working lives. This is the worst rate in the developed world.

Our verdict

This claim is based on EU data from 2004-2011 showing the proportion of workers moving upwards from any skill level over four years, not in their lifetimes. The same data shows 35-40% of people rising out of low pay in the UK over a four-year period. The UK’s rate is low compared with other EU countries, but not the lowest.

“In the UK, if you start work at entry level, only 15% of those who start work at entry level will rise above entry level—that’s the lowest pay—for the rest of their working lives. This is about the worst figure in the developed world.”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, BBC Radio 4, 15 January 2020 

The Conservative MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith said during an interview on the Today programme that only 15% of people who start work at entry level rise above that level during their working life. 

He claimed this was the worst figure in the developed world. 

Both claims are incorrect. 

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What does the research show?

Sir Iain told us that his figures came from a 2017 report by the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank he chairs. This report in turn took the number from an analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) of EU data collected between 2004 and 2011.

The IPPR looked at occupational progression (movement from low-skilled to higher-skilled work) and pay progression. This is not quite the same thing as the progression from entry-level jobs that Sir Iain described, but we can use both of these measures as proxies. 

We don’t know exactly how many people move above low pay or low-skilled work at some point in their working lives, but it is much more than 15%.

15% refers to the proportion of continuously employed UK workers who moved to a higher-skilled occupation within a four-year period, not, as Sir Iain suggested, over their entire working lives. 

This also describes people moving up from any skill level, not just the lowest. The rate at which people moved out of low-skilled work is slightly higher, at just below 20% over a four-year period.

Both rates of progression are higher in the UK than in many of the other European countries studied. 

Elsewhere in the report, the IPPR looked at pay progression. It defines low pay as being below two thirds of the median annual income of full-time workers who’d been in post for at least a year, and the report found that in the UK, somewhere between 35% and 40% of these workers had moved above low pay after four years. 

That rate is low, but not the lowest on the list of countries studied.

The Centre for Social Justice also directed us to analysis of UK data by the Resolution Foundation in 2017. This found that 17% of low-paid workers had permanently moved above the low-pay threshold by the end of a ten-year period, and a further 48% spent at least one year on medium pay or higher, making a combined total of 65% moving above low pay at least once in a decade. This total has been rising gradually since the early 1990s.

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