Boris Johnson ‘incorrect’ on child poverty statistics says watchdog

Campaigners warn that stats mustn’t be weaponised in “Punch and Judy of PMQs” after the Prime Minister incorrectly suggested that child poverty was falling before the Covid-19 pandemic

Boris Johnson was “incorrect” several times in his use of statistics to demonstrate that child poverty has fallen while he has been in power, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OBR) has warned.

The End Child Poverty coalition wrote to the UK Statistics Authority on June 29 citing three instances where the Prime Minister had used child poverty statistics that were “misleading for the public” and damaging to the integrity of official statistics.

The campaigners highlighted Johnson’s claim that there are “400,000 fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010” on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on December 1 to the stats body.

It is deeply insulting to the children and families swept into poverty, when data about them is used selectively and misleadingly at the whim of politicians

They also pointed to two Prime Ministers Questions appearances: one on June 17 where the Prime Minister declared that “absolute poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this government” and repeated his 400,000 claim. A week later, Johnson said “there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 fewer children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation”.

Director General for Regulation Ed Humpherson from the authority’s regulatory arm the OBR responded on July 27, confirming that they had investigated the claims and “reached the same conclusion that these statements are incorrect”. He also promised to launch a systemic review on the coherence of poverty statistics later this year.

In a blog published on the same day, OBR statistician Elise Baseley highlighted the problem with poverty statistics in their current form with four income-based measures produced annually by the Department of Work and Pensions – relative poverty, absolute poverty and both measurements before and after housing costs are applied.

This leaves plenty of room for interpretation in the political arena.

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Baseley wrote: “Measuring poverty is complicated. There is no wrong measure but there is a wrong way of using the available measures – and that is to pick and choose which statistics to use based on what best suits the argument you happen to be making.”

The Social Metrics Commission has been attempting to create an alternative measurement in recent years to remove the grey areas and to better reflect the realities of poverty beyond income. They have been publishing their measure since 2018 and are working with the DWP on experimental statistics to be published later this year.

Following OBR’s conclusions, Anna Feuchtwang, Chair of End Child Poverty, said: “It is deeply insulting to the children and families swept into poverty, when data about them is used selectively and misleadingly at the whim of politicians. The simple fact is that by any measures child poverty is rising, but instead of tackling the problem the government risks obscuring the issue and misinforming the public. The lives of real people are at stake and we need consistent use of information and urgent action.”

Fellow coalition member Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “This isn’t about the Punch and Judy of PMQs. Admitting that rising numbers of ordinary families are struggling to keep their children clothed and well fed matters to good policy making.

“You can’t ‘level up’ the country if you’re sweeping under the carpet the big rises in child poverty clearly shown by the official figures. The longer we’re in denial about the scale of the problem, the harder it will be to fix it.”

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green also called for the Prime Minister to “correct the record, both publicly and in Parliament”.

In response so far, No.10 has been pointing to a written answer to a parliamentary question in which Warrington North MP Charlotte Nichols asked for the source of his 400,000 families claim. Johnson stated: “As of December, the number of workless households has fallen by one million since 2010, meaning there are over 740,000 fewer children living in a household where no one works”.

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a big impact on child poverty levels and the scale of that impact is still to be measured.

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