Today marked Nick Clegg’s first appearance filling in for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Defending the actions of the coalition Government across a range of issues, Mr Clegg hit back against opposition MPs by pointing to the legacy bequeathed by Labour.
In additional to the budget deficit, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed the evidence showed Labour had left the country in a “social crisis”.
He said: “As well as having to deal with a fiscal crisis—which has been handed over to us by the Labour party—there is also a social crisis: social mobility has gone down; inequality has gone up; the gap between rich and poor has increased; and child poverty has increased by 100,000 since 2004 alone.”
So how accurate is this picture of a social crisis?
While there have been persistent concerns about limited social mobility in the UK the question of whether it has decreased is far more contentious than Mr Clegg’s sweeping statement would suggest.
Research such as that for the National Equality Panel or the OECD have suggested that family background plays a significant role in determining life outcomes.
Indeed this was the finding of a Social Mobility Commission set up by Mr Clegg shortly after he became Lib Dem leader.
But is there any evidence in such snapshots that suggests social mobility is declining?
Barnado’s Chief Executive, Martin Narey, who led Mr Clegg’s Social Mobility Commission reportedly warned the Lib Dem leader that little conclusive evidence could be found for declining social mobility – and the report did not focus on this specific point.
However, a key report produced by academics at the London School of Economics suggested that social mobility had declined for children born in 1970 compared to those born in 1958, with little signs to suggest improvement for those born since 1970.
This would appear to undermine the Deputy Prime Minister’s claim that social mobility has declined, even if the was no suggestion of an improvement.
Yet a recent report for the thinktank Civitas labelled the notion that social mobility was declining in the UK as a ‘myth’.
The report’s author, Peter Saunders, points to studies by sociologists such as John Goldthorpe which looked at mobility by social class rather than income group which suggested any decline were far less marked.
Given both the long term view required, and the extremely contentious academic debate, it is hard to say with any certainty that Mr Clegg’s statement checks out.
While there appears to be a degree of consensus among politicians that more action needs to be taken on social mobility, short term data on whether it is going up or down has been used by both sides.
For instance, research published by the last Government suggested rising social mobility since 2000, based on figures pointing to a weakening link between parental income and academic achievement.
However the Conservatives, when in opposition, pointed to data showing that a far higher proportion of students from better off backgrounds attend university than poorer students.
Clearly, the statement made by Nick Clegg ignores a much wider debate in a very contentious area.
Following a Full Fact investigation into similar claims by David Cameron a fortnight ago, we were well versed in the figures when Nick Clegg made similar comments today.
Unlike the Prime Minister, Mr Clegg gave a specific date range, which is backed up by the figures.
In 2004/5 there were 2.7 million children in poverty, and in 2008/9 this had risen to 2.8 million.
However as Full Fact pointed out in our earlier article, this is a somewhat selective approach to the issue.
Even taking account the rise highlighted by Mr Clegg, this did not completely reverse the reduction in child poverty seen in the early years of the Labour Government.
Gap between rich and poor
On this claim the statistics back up the Deputy Prime Minister, but not by much.
Taking the gap between rich and poor as the level of income inequality in the UK, this graph from the Office of National Statistics shows that in reality it has changed little over the years of the Labour Government.
The Department for Work and Pensions also provides figures for income inequality using the Gini coefficient.
Figures show that from 1997/8 to 2008/9 the Gini coefficient rose from 34 to 36, suggesting a slight widening of the gap between rich and poor.
However it is worth putting this in the context of longer term trends in income inequality. In an excellent piece on the Straight Statistics site, Nigel Hawkes, shows that the rise under Labour was part of a much longer term increase in income inequality, as well as providing further breakdowns of the fate of incomes for different groups during the Labour years.
Nick Clegg’s comments are largely backed up by the facts, with the exception of his remarks on social mobility.
Without any clarification of what exactly he was referring to it is impossible to class it as right or wrong. However this analysis shows there is a much wider debate beyond the somewhat sweeping nature of the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement.
On the other two points, this analysis has shown that while there are numbers to back his claim, there is context to both figures that Mr Clegg was perhaps to quick to gloss over in the heat of a Commons debate.