End Child Poverty coalition warns that PM's use of child poverty statistics is 'selective, inaccurate and misleading'

The End Child Poverty’s coalition’s complaint about the misleading use of child poverty statistics on three separate occasions by the PM has been scrutinised by the Statistics Authority’s Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) and they have written to End Child Poverty stating they reach the same conclusion that the PM’s ‘statements are incorrect’.

However, End Child Poverty is concerned that not enough is being done to prevent the continued use of misleading statistics. In a response to the OSR, the coalition reiterates that it is not in the public interest, or that of families swept into poverty, for senior politicians at the highest levels of Government to repeatedly use inaccurate statistics.

For this reason we’ve decided to make correspondence relating to our complaint public from 00:01 on Thursday 30th July (see below for all details of correspondence).

End Child Poverty has written an open letter to the OSR questioning why they have not published a more in-depth response, or engaged with Government at a higher level, to avoid child poverty statistics being used ‘selectively, inaccurately and misleadingly’, despite the OSR stating in previous correspondence that these statistics are of ‘significant public interest’.

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.’

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said:

“The hard truth is that child poverty is growing in the UK  but the Government is in denial on this. That has to shift. If we are to make progress, the problem must be confronted, not circumvented. If the will and the focus is there, a strategy can be agreed and action taken to prevent more children from being damaged by poverty. It’s our moral responsibility to safeguard children from poverty and to invest in them. It’s also the most significant investment we as a nation can make for our future. “

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. 

“We’ve had David Cameron’s ‘Life Chances’, Theresa May’s ‘Burning Injustices’ and the PM’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – but we’re still waiting for a child poverty strategy that will make life more bearable for desperate families and give their children a safe and happy childhood.”

NOTES

About End Child Poverty

End Child Poverty is a coalition of organisations from civic society including children’s charities, child welfare organisations, social justice groups, faith groups, trade unions and others, united in our vision of a UK free of child poverty. For more details visit: www.endchildpoverty.org.uk  

CORRESPONDENCE IS DETAILED  BELOW:

1. ORIGINAL COMPLAINT

2nd July 2020

Dear Sir David,

Child Poverty statistics

I write in my capacity as chair of the End Child Poverty coalition, a coalition of civil society organisations working on UK child poverty issues.

I am concerned that the manner in which official child poverty statistics are used in high profile statements by government ministers is liable to mislead the public and undermine the integrity of official statistics.

I note that, replying to a complaint from Child Poverty Action Group that the then Prime Minister was cherry-picking which child poverty measures he was using, your accompanying note stated:

“We do, however, feel that public debate would be enhanced if the Government indicated more clearly which measure or measures it places greatest weight on and that it was consistent in reporting progress against this measure. It is unhelpful if there is regular switching between what constitutes the key measure.” (20 December, 2017)

I am mindful that the Authority does not want to become a player or referee in a political debate. However, I believe recent statements (below) by the government warrant its intervention, especially given the very clear public interest reasons in having a debate on the economy and disadvantage that is grounded in evidence.

Statement 1: “Actually there are 400,000 fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010.” Prime Minister on BBC’s Andrew Marr show, 1 December, 2019 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/01121901.pdf

This claim on a set-piece media interview during the election campaign was incorrect. When the PM made this announcement, the latest poverty figures were HBAI 2017/8. Even using the most favourable baseline year for the government, 2009/10, they showed child poverty had risen by 400,000 (BHC) and 200,000 (AHC) on the headline relative child poverty figure. On absolute child poverty, the measures showed no change (BHC) and a small fall of 100,000 (AHC) – a historically weak performance. The material deprivation figures showed a fall of 100,000 (low income) and a rise of 200,000 for severe low income since 2010/11 – when the new suite of questions was introduced.

Statement 2: “But I must say that I think he is completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolutely poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this Government and there are hundreds of thousands—I think 400,000—fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.” Prime Minister at PMQs, in response to a question about rising child poverty, 17 June 2020 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-06-17/debates/D91FE96D-8668-4B3C-AC27-A9CE9E961015/Engagements

In response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition about child poverty, in which the Social Mobility Commission claim that child poverty had risen by 600,000 since 2012 stated, the PM responded the figures quoted at him, including the Social Mobility Commission figure, were ‘completely wrong’ and, in addition, 400,000 fewer families in poverty now than in 2010.  The latest available figures for child poverty, HBAI 2018/19, had been published in late March 2020.

The 600,000 rise in child poverty since 2012, which the Social Mobility Commission sources to HBAI 2018/19, is correct.  Again, using the most favourable baseline year for the government, 2009/10, the official child poverty figures show child has risen by 200,000 (BHC) and 300,000 (AHC) on the headline relative child poverty figure. On absolute child poverty, the measures show a small fall of 100,000 (both BHC and AHC) – a weak performance compared to the sustained falls seen until the early 2000s. The material deprivation figures show a fall of 200,000 (low income) and a rise of 100,000 (severe low income) since 2010/11.

Statement 3: “I am happy to point out to m’learned friend that actually, there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.” Prime Minister at PMQs, in response to him being invited to correct the record on his use of child poverty figures, 24 June 2020.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4_ogQcSJUU (11m 51 secs)

In response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition inviting him to correct his child poverty statement from 17 June, 2020, the Prime Minister’s reply did not withdraw his claim that the Social Mobility Commission’s statement that child poverty had risen by 600,000 since 2012 was ‘completely wrong’. 

The Prime Minister instead spoke about the 100,000 fall in absolute child poverty and 500,000 children in material deprivation. The first claim is correct. The second is not. There are actually 1.5 million children classed as low income and materially deprived. It should be noted that the Hansard of this part of the debate has the PM saying “500,000 fewer children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.” The Prime Minister did not use the word ‘fewer’, as the video footage of PMQs confirms. Had he said this, it would still have been inaccurate – the fall was 200,000 since 2010/11, when the new suite of questions was introduced.

The Daily Mirror journalist Dan Bloom tweeted that day:

UPDATE: PM's Press Secretary unable immediately to say where he got his poverty stats. Told they're wrong, he says: “I don’t think that’s right, but I can try to dig out the source of the figures for you if you would like.” @Danbloom1 https://twitter.com/danbloom1/status/1275784084665532416?s=20

The child poverty debate is a matter of significant public interest. Even allowing for the cut and thrust of politics, especially at PMQs, it is misleading for the public and damaging to the integrity of official statistics if these figures are:

  • Selectively used -  with the Government not making clear which measure it is putting most weight on, and then reporting consistently on that measure;
  • Dismissed as ‘completely wrong -  when they are in fact accurate and opportunities to correct the record are not taken up;
  • Inaccurately used – when there seems no basis in official statistics for some of the claims made on child poverty levels.

An understanding of what is happening to child poverty numbers is important for its own sake and to facilitate an informed discussion about levelling up, disadvantage and social mobility and the economy. How can we level up, for example, if decision-makers are disputing basic facts about the numbers of children left behind in poverty?

While it is expected – and right - that child poverty should be the subject of robust political debate, it cannot be right that official figures on something as fundamental as how many children are in poverty continue to be used selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately, misleadingly.

We would therefore welcome your intervention on these concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Anna Feuchtwang

Chair, End Child Poverty coalition and Chief Executive, NCB

...

2. OSR RESPONSE TO ORIGINAL COMPLAINT

Office for Statistics Regulation

1 Drummond Gate

London SW1V 2QQ

T: 0845 604 1857

E: authority.enquiries@statistics.gov.uk

W: www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk

 

Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation

To: Anna Feuchtwang

Chair, End Child Poverty coalition and Chief Executive, NCB

(by email)

27 July 2020

Dear Ms Feuchtwang,

Thank you for raising your concerns regarding the use of child poverty statistics with us. Our team has investigated the statements which you highlight (and has reached the same conclusion that these statements are incorrect).

Measuring poverty is complicated and different measures tell different parts of the story. We have today published a blog, setting out the current landscape of statistics on poverty, which we will bring to the attention of the team that prepares briefing for Prime Minister’s Questions.

The blog also highlights our plan to launch a systemic review on the coherence of poverty statistics later this year. If you would be interested in contributing to this review, our team will get in touch with you nearer the time.

Yours sincerely

Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation

 

3. END CHILD POVERTY LETTER RESPONDING TO OSR RESPONSE

29 July 2020

Dear Sir David,

Child poverty statistics

I have now received a reply from Ed Humpherson (27 July, 2020) to the letter I sent to you on behalf of the End Child Poverty coalition last month expressing concern that the way official child poverty statistics are being used in high profile statements by government ministers is liable to mislead the public and undermine the integrity of official statistics.

While child poverty, and what we do about it, should be the subject of robust political debate, it cannot be right that official figures on something as fundamental as how many children are in poverty continue to be used selectively, inaccurately and misleadingly.

I therefore welcome the adjudication from the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) that the Prime Minister - on three separate occasions - used child poverty statistics incorrectly. I welcome, too, the OSR’s recognition in earlier correspondence that these statistics are of “significant public interest”. I know the OSR will not have made these judgements lightly given its recognition of the nature of political discourse and its unwillingness to referee political disputes. End Child Poverty and its members will also be keen to contribute to the forthcoming review of poverty statistics.

I am disappointed to learn the OSR is not publishing the complaint, a reasoned response to the complaint or even the brief letter sent to me from Ed Humpherson. I have the following concerns:

  • Stated OSR policy:  OSR’s vision document states: “Where the concerns are material or bear on a matter of significant public interest, we publish our conclusions.” Your website also states: “One of our key roles is to use our voice to stand up for statistics and to represent the public, monitoring and reporting publicly where we have concerns about the dissemination and use of statistics and highlighting good practice.”  Given (i) its role reporting publicly on the misuse of statistics, (ii) its recognition that child poverty statistics are of significant public interest and (iii) its finding that the PM’s use of child poverty statistics has been incorrect on three separate, high profile occasions, I cannot see a reasonable basis for the OSR’s decision not to make a specific public intervention on the PM’s incorrect claims. There can be no question that the remarks he made, and the context he made them in, undermine trust in official statistics.
  • Normal practice: Not publishing this assessment also seems to run counter to your general approach. For example, the December 2017 decision about the then PM’s use of child poverty statistics was published. Also, as I write, the OSR website has published over twenty letters in July 2020 alone, providing reasoned responses to complaints. None of these involves a finding as significant as the finding in this case: the PM misused statistics on three high profile occasions, including when challenged about the accuracy of his remarks.
  • Chair’s role:  I note, too, that the OSR’s vision document states: “OSR intervenes to protect the role of statistics in public debate when these cases come to our attention – either through complaints or when our own monitoring identifies a risk to public confidence in statistics. In high profile cases of misuse by politicians, the Authority’s chair will lead the intervention based on OSR’s”. Given that this is a high-profile case involving the most senior politician in the country, the basis for departing from this policy is not clear.
  • Explanation: I am also concerned that despite the significant public interest issues raised, the letter informing me of the OSR ruling contained a single, 20-word sentence engaging with the complaint. I do not regard this as adequate or appropriate.  
  • Response: In 2017, in response to a complaint from Child Poverty Action Group about the then PM’s use of child poverty statistics, you undertook to copy the findings to the DWP Permanent Secretary.  

Now, despite finding the PM incorrectly used child poverty statistics on three separate occasions, the OSR letter simply proposes: “We have today published a blog, setting out the current landscape of statistics on poverty, which we will bring to the attention of the team that prepares briefings for Prime Minister’s Questions.”  Even this blog does not directly address the PM’s comments. This seems a wholly inadequate and ineffectual regulatory response.

I believe the interests of transparency and promoting better use of statistics in public life require a public intervention from the OSR, setting out clearly how and why the PM’s statements on child poverty were incorrect.  

It is difficult to conceive of a more clear-cut case for such an intervention.

Given the public interest issues raised in this letter, End Child Poverty will be making the correspondence in this case public.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Anna Feuchtwang

Chair, End Child Poverty coalition