After 12 years in government, the Tories have left the UK economy in the doldrums and pushed millions of people into poverty.
Scottish National Party (SNP) Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP claimed during Prime Minister’s Questions that the Conservatives have “pushed millions of people into poverty” after 12 years in government.
There are different ways of reading this claim. A spokesperson for the SNP told us it referred to the total number of people living in poverty, rather than a comparison between the number of people in poverty now and when the Conservatives entered government in 2010.
It is correct to say that there are millions of people living in poverty in the UK. The Government uses a number of different metrics to estimate poverty figures, and these show that between 8.8 million and 13.4 million lived in low income households in 2020/21. Some have predicted these figures will increase sharply in future years amid the cost of living crisis.
However if “pushed millions of people into poverty” is taken to mean millions of people who were not previously in poverty now are, it is a misleading claim. The total number of people in poverty has remained relatively stable since 2010, with some measures showing a drop.
What has the SNP said?
Mr Blackford didn’t provide any source or further explanation for his claim when speaking in the House of Commons, so we asked the SNP what it was based on.A spokesperson told us that it was not intended to be a comparison between the number of people in poverty in 2010 and 2022, but was instead based on “the fact that there are millions of people living in poverty in the UK” and that “the SNP believes the UK government has responsibility for the number of people living in poverty in the UK”.
He added: “It is our view that over the past twelve years, the Tory government has failed to take sufficient action to eradicate poverty despite having a duty and powers to do so. This is a political choice.”
The SNP has made similar claims before. For instance in April, commenting on food bank figures, the party’s work and pensions spokesperson Kirsty Blackman claimed “cruel and callous cuts are driving millions of families into absolute poverty”. On 20 June Ms Blackman made a slightly different claim when she said: “Millions are being pushed into, or further into, debt, poverty and destitution as the cost of living crisis continues to bite – yet the UK government refuses to lift a finger.”
The SNP spokesperson told Full Fact the party believes “certain Tory policies have been damaging to people's incomes and the resources available to tackle poverty”, including “the impact of a hard Brexit on the economy and cost of living” and “austerity policies such as the benefits freeze and cap”, as well as a list of other policy decisions.
What has happened to the number of people in poverty since 2010?
As we’ve written before, ‘poverty’ is tricky to define because it means different things to different people. This means that the statistics we have on poverty can vary significantly, depending on what measures the people collating the numbers have used.
When politicians talk about poverty statistics, they’re often referring to the government’s numbers on relative low income and absolute low income. According to the government’s measures:
- Relative low income measures the number of people in households where the income is below 60% of the national median average that year.
- Absolute low income measures the number of people in households where the income is below 60% of the average median level in 2010/11, adjusted for inflation.
The government splits both of these measures into “before housing cost” and “after housing costs” in its statistics.
As the chart below shows, the estimated number of individuals in relative low income households before housing costs in 2009/10 (the year before the Conservatives entered government as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats) was 10.4 million. It had risen by approximately 100,000 to 10.5 million individuals in 2020/21.
When housing costs are taken into account, the estimated number of people in relative low income households dropped by approximately the same amount, from 13.5 million to 13.4 million.
While there were small fluctuations, these numbers remained relatively stable over this period.
When we look at poverty as measured by absolute low income, the numbers show a bit of a drop. In 2009/10, before housing costs, there were an estimated 9.9 million people in absolute low income households. By 2020/21, this had fallen to 8.8 million people.
After housing costs, the estimated number of people in absolute low income households was 13.1 million in 2009/10, dropping to 11.1 million in 2020/21.
It’s worth noting that the numbers for 2020/21 are affected by the pandemic which meant a smaller number of participants were surveyed, there were changes to household makeup (such as young adults moving back in with their parents) and an increase in the number of people claiming Universal Credit.
This means we should be cautious about directly comparing the 2020/21 statistics with previous years. However, as we’ve already discussed, the trends in the statistics have remained relatively stable across other years too. Crucially, while these are the most recent government figures available, they only go up to 2020/21 and so may not fully reflect the true number of people actually living in poverty right now—particularly given the significant cost of living pressures in recent months. For example, the Resolution Foundation has estimated that 1.3 million more people will be in absolute poverty by 2023.
What do other poverty statistics show?
We can also look beyond the government’s statistics. For example, the Social Metrics Commission—an independent panel of experts which has developed its own measure of poverty—also found that the number of people in poverty dropped slightly between 2009/10 and 2019/20.
They estimate that in 2009/10 there were 14.2 million people in poverty, falling by around 300,000 to 13.9 million people in 2019/20 (the most recent year for which they have completed their analysis).
The SMC also publishes estimated figures of how far below the poverty line people are, which can help us understand if people are being “pushed further” into poverty.
For example, in 2009/10, 1.2 million people were estimated to be living less than 5% below the poverty line. This has fluctuated slightly, but in 2019/20, this figure remained at 1.2 million people.
However, the number of people estimated to be living more than 50% below the poverty line rose from 3.9 million in 2009/10 to 4.3 million people in 2019/20.
Image courtesy of Joel Muniz