Was Harriet Baldwin wrong on workless households?

24 May 2012

"With one in four adults in workless households and a doubling of the number of workless households under the previous Government I think it is incredibly important that we reform the benefit system."

Harriet Baldwin MP, Newsnight, 23 May 2012

Yesterday evening, Harriet Baldwin claimed that the number of workless households had doubled under the previous Labour government, and that one in four adults was "in a workless household".

To what extent are either (or both) of these claims correct?

Did the number of workless households double under Labour?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides data for workless households going back to 1996.

It defines a workless household as "a household that includes at least one person aged 16 to 64 where no-one aged 16 or over is in employment".

The number of workless households in 1997 was 3.7 million, in 2010 the number stood at 3.9 million.

The number certainly increased if we compare only 1997 and 2010; but as the above chart shows, we would do well to remember that the number of workless households decreased fairly steadily until the financial crisis of 2007.

It is possible that Ms Baldwin meant to point to the number of households that have never worked. If so, she would have been on firmer ground (and would not have been the first to confuse the two this week):

In 1997 136,000 households were classed as having never worked, while by 2010 this had almost doubled, rising to 269,000. However the same cannot be said of all workless households.

Is one in four adults in a workless household?

The ONS figures identify, in table G, a total of over 40 million adults living in one of three types of household: working, mixed and workless.

The number of adults in workless households comes to 5.4 million.

Putting these two figures together it would appear that the number of adults in workless households does not come to one in four, but to less that one in seven.

As we discovered earlier this week, it is true that approximately one in five households is classed as workless, although if this was the statistic that Ms Baldwin was pointing to, it wasn't very clearly articulated.


By our working, Mrs. Baldwin appears to have got both of her claims wrong, and we've contacted her office to seek a clarification. 

Workless households figures can be a problem area as we've already seen this week, and it seems likely in this instance that Ms Baldwin has misformulated her claims, as both could be substantiated with some tweaking.

In such a complex area, and in the context of a live interview, it is understandable how this could have happened. We hope Ms Baldwin will be happy to set the record straight as soon as possible.

UPDATE 25/05/12:

Ms Baldwin has confirmed to us that she had intended to say that the number of workless households where no member had ever worked had more than doubled under the previous Labour government.

She also confirmed that the one in four figure came from David Grossman's presentation earlier in the programme. The only mention of 'one in four' was this:

"At the moment, more than one in four working age adults in the UK do not work."

Mr. Grossman was most likely referring to the latest ONS Labour Market Statistics, which found that 23 per cent of 16-64 year olds were economically inactive for January-March 2012. This would suggest that true proportion is almost one in four, rather than more than one in four. Either way, it has nothing to do with workless households, the subject of Ms Baldwin's claim.

We appreciate Ms Baldwin's acknowledgement of the slip-up and clarification of what she had intended to say. 

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