Social Justice

PM warned against misleading parliament over UK poverty record

The statistics regulator wrote to Downing Street after receiving complaints over Boris Johnson's "use" of UK poverty figures

Boris Johnson told parliament there were fewer children in poverty now compared to a decade ago.

Boris Johnson told parliament there were fewer children in poverty now compared to a decade ago. Image: UK Parliament/Flickr

The UK statistics watchdog has sent Boris Johnson a formal warning over misleading comments the prime minister made to parliament about UK poverty levels.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions last month, Johnson said there were “fewer households now with children in poverty” compared to a decade ago.

But the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has now written to Downing Street to warn against being selective about which figures the Prime Minister quotes, adding that ignoring some measures of poverty would stand in the way of “public understanding” of the issue.

“Over the last year, a number of concerns have been raised to us regarding the Prime Minister’s use of statistics on child poverty and in each case, we have brought this to the attention of the briefing team in No.10,” the letter from Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the OSR, read.

“Further concerns were raised to us following Prime Minister’s Questions on 26 May.

“Measuring poverty is complicated and different measures tell different parts of the story.”

Johnson was referring to the level of absolute poverty in the UK. Definitions of absolute poverty vary between institutions, but Westminster defines it as income worth less than 60 per cent of the median annual earnings in 2010-11, meaning the threshold does not fluctuate over time.

But the Department for Work and Pensions also collects figures on relative poverty, which is dependent on the state of the economy at any given time. Households in relative poverty earn 60 per cent of the current median earnings, though the figures are adjusted according to how many people are in a home since the amount of money they will need to get by will differ.

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Generally, families earning £17,760 or less are defined as living in relative poverty. A two-parent family with two children currently needs to earn around £21,000 in order to stay above the breadline.

The number of children living in absolute poverty fell slightly in 2019-20 compared to figures from ten years ago, but relative poverty among children has increased since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, including a rise of 800,000 children in working households.

“It would help aid public understanding if statements concerning child poverty were clear about which measure is being referred to, particularly where other measures present a different trend,” Humpherson said in the letter.

A government spokesperson said: “The prime minister was referring to absolute child poverty statistics between 2009/10 and 2019/20.

“These statistics show that the number of children in the UK living in poverty fell both before and after housing costs were taken into consideration.”

It is not the first time the Prime Minister has come under fire for making misleading comments about UK poverty. The OSR confirmed his statements about hardship in the country were “incorrect” in July 2020, and Johnson was blasted by Labour for being “unable to tell the truth” about his government’s “damning record” on child poverty. 

Anna Feuchtwang, chair of the End Child Poverty coalition, told Huffington Post UK the Prime Minister’s “misuse” of child poverty figures was “neither fair nor accurate” and that he was hiding ”behind different statistical measures when answering difficult questions”.

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