Is public money supporting crackheads, illegal immigrants and scroungers?

24 October 2013

Viral messages on social media sites are used more and more by politicians, media outlets and others to get their message across. However as we've seen in the past, the 'facts' used in these messages often leave much to be desired.

So when one Full Fact reader directed us towards a popular post doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, we were keen to see whether its claims on the number of illegal immigrants, crackheads and scroungers being supported by taxpayer money bore any resemblance to the evidence.

2.1 million illegal immigrants?

As the Immigration Minister will confirm, there is no official data on the number of migrants living in the UK illegally. By their very nature, illegal immigrants are difficult to track precisely because they are breaking the law, and therefore tend to want to avoid the attention of the authorities.

There have however been some attempts made to estimate the scale of the problem. Back in 2005, the Home Office tried to get a handle on the scale of the problem by looking at the gaps between legal migration records and the data collected in the 2001 Census, and estimated that between 310,000 and 570,000 people were in the country illegally.

Critics of this approach suggested that this might underestimate the problem, because many illegal immigrants would not have been minded to dutifully complete and return their Census forms. Furthermore, this approach might miss out any children that these people may have had since arriving in the country.

More recently, the London School of Economics (LSE) did some research for the Greater London Authority in 2009 which tried to update these figures, and adjust them to include children of immigrants, while excluding those who entered the country illegally from countries which have since acceded to the EU, and therefore now have the right to be here. This suggested that there were between 417,000 and 863,000 "irregular" migrants in the UK illegally (with a best estimate of 618,000).

(The 'Woodridge' estimate here is the 2005 publication from the Home Office.)

Some have suggested that this estimate is also too low. For example, the campaign group Migration Watch has suggested that a more reasonable figure might be 1.1 million. So while there is some disagreement about the 'true' level of illegal migration, none of the "rigorous" estimates that have been attempted put the figure anywhere near the 2.1 million mark.

1.1 million crackheads?

Data on drug use is easier to come by, as the Home Office produces its own estimates from the Crime Survey for England and Wales. According to the 2012/13 survey, 1 in 12 (8.2%) adults aged between 16 and 59 had ever taken an illicit drug (excluding mephedrone), the equivalent of 2.7 million people.

However this doesn't mean that this number could be described as "crackheads", as it doesn't reflect the frequency of drug use or which drugs have been taken.

Digging into the data however does give us some pointers. We know that 2.6% of adults in this age group have taken a Class A drug in the past year, just under 850,000 people. If we focus on crack cocaine specifically, just 2% of those to have taken an illicit drug in the past year tried the drug, approximately 18,000 people. None of the people contacted for the crime survey who described themselves as "frequent drug users" admitted to using crack cocaine, although the sample size here is very small, so we shouldn't attribute too much significance to this.

What the data suggests is that again the estimate of 1.1 million "crackheads" given in the letter seems to significantly overstate the true scale of the problem.

4.4 million scroungers?

As we've seen before, the term "scrounger" is frequently used in the welfare debate, and often inaccurately.

While there isn't official data on the numbers of people 'choosing' to claim benefits over working, Department for Work and Penions (DWP) estimates suggest that only a very small proportion of claims are made by people not entitled to support. 0.7% of claims by value were deemed to be fraudulent in 2012/13.

Again, while it might not be possible to pin down exact figures, the official data that is available suggests that the claim that there are 4.4 million "unemployable Jeremy Kyle benefit scroungers" is a gross overestimate.

There are 5.7 million working age benefit claimants in total. This figure includes both those unable to work through disability, and those who received benefits while also working.

Only 1.5 million of this age group received the main unemployment benefit, Jobseeker's Allowance. The most popular benefit claimed was Housing Benefit, which was claimed by 3.5 million working age people. However as we've seen before, at least 18% (and possibly many more) of this group are actually working.

900,000 criminals in 85 prisons?

The latest prison population statistics from the Ministry of Justice suggests that the actual figure is about a tenth of the one suggested: the most recent data from February 2013 recorded a prison population of 90,145, spread across 130 prisons.


While we haven't attempted to check on the number of "idiots" in Parliament and the European Commission - we leave that for the reader to decide - it does appear that on the matters of facts put forward in Alan from Evesham's letter, the official estimates are much lower than those he suggests.

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