We all deserve a better debate on poverty

3rd Jul 2020

What's happening to poverty in the UK is one of the big questions facing the country. It is essential for governments and political leaders to make informed decisions about policy responses and for the public to understand the communities they live in. But the range of ways of measuring poverty means that too often, those who talk about it pick and choose the ones which best suit their arguments. As a result, debates about poverty can end up being confusing, with each side talking past the other.

Full Fact has been checking poverty claims since we first began fact checking. Over the years, one issue we’ve returned to constantly are media outlets or politicians clashing over what’s happening to poverty in the UK. One of the main stages for these clashes has been the weekly exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).

Watching poverty being talked about at PMQs is like watching Groundhog Day on repeat, only not funny.

Both the government and the opposition regularly quote seemingly contradictory stories on poverty, which almost always turn out to be down to a choice of which measure they’re looking at.

Two recent question sessions between Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson have been no different. Two weeks ago the Prime Minister wrongly accused Mr Starmer of using inaccurate figures on poverty, while quoting figures on a different measure in response. We weren’t even able to back Mr Johnson’s specific figures up, although we found some that tell broadly the same story. 

Last week was similar—Mr Starmer called for the Prime Minister to correct the record, and was met with figures on various measures of poverty that weren’t originally asked about.

There’s a wider problem that needs to be addressed here. This is not about the difficulties fact checkers face in handling these constant clashes. The exchanges do little to serve anyone who wants to learn about what’s happening to poverty in the UK, or anyone who wants to see the government’s record scrutinised and debated.

It’s not all relative

As we’ve set out in detail, poverty is not one thing that everyone will recognise in the same way—it can’t be neatly boxed into a number and tracked over time. There’s a lot we don’t know about it, and there are a lot of choices on offer for how to tell stories about it.

Probably the biggest point of confusion is that no one can seem to agree on how to measure it.

In recent years, the government has tended to quote figures for falls in absolute poverty at PMQs, while the opposition has quoted rising trends in relative poverty. Absolute poverty tracks whether people’s living standards at the bottom end of the scale are improving or not, using a set year as a benchmark, while relative poverty tracks inequality: how many people are falling behind compared to everyone else in any given year.

Sure enough, it’s not difficult to find figures which superficially back up either side’s argument at PMQs.

But go back to 2015 and 2016, when David Cameron faced Jeremy Corbyn over the despatch boxes, and the choices were reversed. Labour attacked the government on its record on rising absolute poverty, while the Prime Minister quoted back figures on falls in relative poverty. Again, we had little trouble in finding figures which told both stories.

The issue here isn’t especially over which measure either side chooses. There are arguments that support using either relative or absolute poverty figures. The problem is in choosing one in isolation, or blandly quoting the alternative measure back when challenged.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies puts it

“Relative measures do not reveal what has happened to absolute living standards … But absolute measures cannot reveal whether there is a group towards the bottom of the distribution falling further and further behind everyone else over time, which is also a perfectly legitimate concern.

“But more generally the measures simply provide different information, and there is nothing to be gained from ignoring some of this information.”

But too often, this is the basis on which exchanges at PMQs are conducted, as we’ve had cause to point out many times

The debate has been happening on different terms since 2016, when parts of the Child Poverty Act 2010 were repealed by the government.

The 2010 Act set targets for the government to reduce child poverty, and defined the measures against which it would be judged. This set targets in relation to both relative and absolute poverty, and in relation to children living in households with “low income or material deprivation”. Similar targets were brought back in legislation for Scotland in 2017.

Whose line is it anyway?

There’s also a surprising gap in accountability when it comes to measuring the government’s record: no one completely agrees on when governments’ records begin.

Our figures on poverty in the UK—like those on many other topics—aren’t purpose-built for holding administrations to account. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition entered office in May 2010, with the Conservatives taking over completely following the general election in 2015 and changing Prime Ministers twice since. Most poverty figures are measured by financial years, so 2009/10 ends in March 2010, just before the Coalition, while 2010/11 covers most of their first full year in office. 

This may seem like splitting hairs, but it can have a big impact on the debate. Right now the choice of starting point is the difference between child poverty (measured by household income) being higher or lower under the Conservatives in government.

As we’ve found when it comes to checking claims about nurse or police numbers, if you want to hold a government to account, you can’t always just start from the moment a new administration enters office. Nurses and police officers, for example, take years to recruit and train, so many of those who begin working during the first few years of a new administration are there because of the actions of the previous government.

Similarly, while the Coalition brought in its first Spending Review in June 2010, setting out changes to taxes and benefits which would have impacts on poverty, many of the changes would not take effect until April 2011. So it’s reasonable to take a number of different starting points when you’re trying to assess their record. 

It’s also worth remembering that we’re always debating recent history, rather than the present. Government figures can be up to two years out of date—if normal routines persist, in March next year we’ll still only have figures as recent as 2018/19 available. That means a lot of recent changes in the economy still don’t show up in our poverty figures, which could be hiding expected rises in the next few years.

Again, without agreement on who is accountable and for what, it’s difficult to see these exchanges becoming more meaningful anytime soon.

We might even be debating the wrong things

There are good arguments that the current set of measures we regularly talk about are actually hiding real-life stories that need to be told.

One big problem is that the figures people are most commonly using about poverty—whether absolute or relative—are probably wrong, and may in fact by underplaying the extent to which it is rising. 

Income poverty figures are based on a survey of households which, in part, measures how much they’re getting in benefits. But analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank suggests people may be under-reporting the true level of benefits they’re receiving. 

Adam Corlett, Senior Economist at the Resolution Foundation, told us that: "We know that around £40 billion a year of benefit spending is missing from official income statistics. This error is bound to have a big impact on our understanding of how many people are living in poverty; who is most likely to be in poverty; and how poverty rates have changed over time. 

“The Department for Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics are aware of this issue, and of the potential to fix it, so hopefully we will see changes in the next few years to ensure that debates about poverty are rooted in the best possible data.”

Another issue is where you draw the poverty line. It’s established practice (including in the Child Poverty Act) to draw the relative poverty line as anyone who lives in a household with less than 60% of the median household income in the UK. 

But that’s essentially an arbitrary choice: it gives us a fixed standard to compare people to each other and over time, but it doesn’t capture the difference between families struggling to live compared to those who are managing to get by.

In recent years the Social Metrics Commission, an independent body of experts, has started to experiment with measuring people depending on how deeply in poverty they are, and how persistently they find themselves struggling over several years. 

As we’ve said before, there are also new ways we might measure poverty which look further than just households’ incomes and housing costs, including looking at the costs associated with childcare and disability.

In the longer term, moving over to some of these approaches could give us a fuller understanding of the realities of poverty in the UK. The downside is that right now, without a coherent set of benchmarks by which to judge the government’s record, they add to the menu of possible measures politicians can cherry pick from.

It’s too demanding to expect a comprehensive briefing of the whole issue during weekly exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions. But having agreed and consistent benchmarks when debating an important story can be the difference between a meaningful exchange of facts and a confusing mess of numbers.

We’ll always be there, in any case, to check the numbers being used. But as long as both sides keep talking past each other, they’re talking past all of us.