January 14, 2011 • 4:53 pm

“A staggering 99.1 per cent of working age adults who live on the grim Cottsmeadow Estate pocket some sort of benefit every week.” News of the World, 10 January 2011
Last Sunday the News of the World published statistics showing extremely localised pockets of unemployment, with figures such as the one above showing almost everyone in such places received welfare payments rather than working.
Given that the figures were, as the report stated, “staggering” several Full Fact readers got in contact to suggest we have a look at how the News of the World had arrived at the numbers.
Could the 99 per cent figure really be correct?
Analysis
Though initially we presumed the figures came from a piece of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) research, the Department told us the figures had come a “a bit of a surprise” to them.
Instead, we tried the News of the World directly and despite getting no response we have just about managed to find the numbers which tally with the report.
The paper has looked at the most localised population groupings available, known as ‘Census Output Areas’ (COA) generally comprising of just a few hundred people.
DWP publishes figures for the amount of people on certain benefits (mainly Jobseeker’s Allowance, Incapacity Benefit/Employment Support Allowance and Lone Parent) broken down into these Census Output Areas – and the West Midlands figures can be downloaded here.
Though there are more than 70 COAs within the Washwood Heath ward there is one with numbers that match up to the News of the World stats. One COA has the 50 people on JSA, 30 people on Incapacity Benefit, 20 people on Lone Parent and five people on other benefits described in the article. (See row 2967 of the table)
Sadly these figures are not accompanied by estimates for what proportion of the working age population these 105 claimants accounted for – but that didn’t stop the News of the World.
After putting in a call to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) we were able to get working age population estimates broken down into COAs. (Download a spreadsheet here)
These figures show that for the corresponding COA there were 108 people aged between 16 and 64, suggesting 97.2 per cent of the working age population were on benefits.
Not quite the figure the News of the World had, but the difference comes from our figure for the working age population being three people more than theirs.
Without a response from the News of the World, it is impossible to say for certain, but from the work we have done there appears to be a fairly fundamental flaw in the figure they have used.
The DWP data comes from May 2010, but the most recent ONS data only goes up to 2007, if the paper has used figures similar to those ones we used, they are not working with comparable data.
Given that the numbers involved are so low, it would only take some quite minor changes in the make up of the neighbourhood to have a big effect on the size of the working age population, and thus the proportion receiving benefits. Over a three year period, we were told it was perfectly possible that such changes to the population could have happened.
Likewise the figure is unrevised, so could be subject to change when the statisticians examine it, again raising questions about how accurate the News of the World’s figure is.
This is not to say that this particular part of the Washwood Heath area of Birmingham does not have a high proportion of people on benefits, just that the method apparently used by the News of the World would not produce a reliable figure for what the proportion is.
This point is only conceded by the paper in the final line of the article, which states: “Some Cottsmeadow residents with jobs may have been left out of the official figures by mistake, or have moved in at a later date.”
Given this, it is more worrying that in the Daily Express the numbers were presented as ‘official figures’ when they are not.
Rather, they seem to be an estimate produced by combining two sets of official figures that do not directly relate to each other, something the slight caveat the report places on the figures glosses over.
Conclusion
Assuming the News of the World has done what we have think they have done, their numbers while not completely wrong, are certainly not completely right.
By working out a figure from 2010 seemingly as a proportion of a number from 2007, there are bound to be problems, particularly given the very small number of people being analysed.
While there do not seem to be earlier figures for the benefit claimants number than the 2010 figure, nor have we been able to get data more recent than that for 2007 on the population size, this ‘best guess’ approach still doesn’t pass for accuracy. After all, you wouldn’t work out 2010 spending levels as a proportion of GDP for 2007 and expect a meaningful result.
Of course given that the paper went up to Birmginham to identify forklift truck driver, James Beards,33, as the “only PAYE in the village”, perhaps they have the done the field research to corroborate the out of date numbers, but no mention of this is made in the article.

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