Boris Johnson repeatedly used inaccurate and misleading figures that exaggerated the government’s record on poverty, the UK statistics watchdog has confirmed.
The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) was responding to a complaint by the End Child Poverty Coalition that the prime minister had three times used official poverty data “selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately, misleadingly”.
Speaking at prime ministers’ questions and in an interview with the BBC, Johnson said the number of families or children in poverty had fallen by 400,000 since 2010. The coalition of poverty charities, campaign groups and unions said this number, along with other poverty statistics used by the PM, had no basis in fact.
In a concise reply to the coalition, the OSR said its investigation team agreed that Johnson’s statements were incorrect. Their letter states: “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).”
While it does not admonish Johnson, the letter says the OSR has published a blogpost explaining the four official measurements of poverty in the UK to “bring to the attention of the team that prepares briefing for prime minister’s questions”.
The blogpost says: “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.”
Anna Feuchtwang, the 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.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said: “It is shameful the prime minister is unable to tell the truth about the hardship faced by so many families struggling to make ends meet … The prime minister must now correct the record both publicly and in parliament, and ensure that when he next raises his government’s damning record on child poverty, he comes clean about what the stats are saying.”
The statistics watchdog has previously warned against politicians using official poverty measures selectively. In recent years the government has preferred to cite absolute measures of poverty, which show its record in a more favourable light, than relative measures, which are more commonly used by poverty campaigners.
The End Child Poverty Coalition complaint accuses Johnson of citing inaccurate poverty statistics in a way that is “liable to mislead the public and undermine the integrity of official statistics”. It has now written an open letter to the OSR questioning the brevity of its letter and its failure to publish the correspondence on its website.
Although the ORS has a duty to intervene in statistics issues of national importance – it said in previous correspondence with the coalition that poverty statistics were of “significant public interest” – it also has a policy of refusing to “become a player or a referee in political debate”.
The complaint, from Feuchtwang, highlighted three occasions when Johnson made inaccurate claims on the government’s record on poverty.
At PMQs on 17 June, Johnson told the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, he was “completely wrong” to say child poverty had risen by 600,000. Poverty had declined since 2010, the PM claimed, and there were now 400,000 fewer families in poverty. Feuchtwang wrote that the 600,000 figure was correct.
When asked by Starmer at PMQs the following week to “do the decent thing” and correct the record on child poverty, Johnson declined and said there were “100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation”.
Feuchtwang said that while the 100,000 figure was correct, the second figure was not: she pointed out that “there are actually 1.5 million children classed as low income and materially deprived”.
The third instance was when Johnson was interviewed by Andrew Marr on the BBC on 1 December during the general election campaign, when the PM claimed child poverty had fallen by 400,000 since 2010. Feuchtwang said that official statistics at the time showed the poverty rate had risen on two of the official measures, stayed the same on a third, and fallen by 100,000 on a fourth, suggesting it was unclear where Johnson had found the figure he cited.
“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,” Feuchtwang wrote.
There are four official measures of poverty: relative poverty, which records households which have less than 60% of contemporary median income, before and after housing costs; and absolute poverty, which tracks numbers in poverty against a 2010/11 baseline, also before and after housing costs.
Asked for a response to the regulator’s decision, a No 10 spokesperson instead pointed to a parliamentary written answer from the PM on 30 June. This says the number of children in workless families had fallen by 740,000 since 2010, but gives no precise source for the claim that there are 400,000 fewer children in poverty.
This is not the first time the Conservative government has been accused by watchdogs of misusing statistics:
Coronavirus testing In June, Matt Hancock was criticised for his use of Covid-19 testing figures. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, accused him of painting a picture that was “far from complete and comprehensible”. The health secretary had promised 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. To reach that target, test kits put in the post were included – even if they were never returned. Hancock’s aim, Norgrove said, seemed to have been to “show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding”.
Taking back control of £350m Boris Johnson, while serving as foreign secretary, was reprimanded for a “clear misuse of official statistics” over a Daily Telegraph article in which he repeated the debunked Brexit campaign claim that the UK would “take back control of roughly £350m per week” after Brexit. Norgrove said he was “surprised and disappointed”, while Johnson accused the statistics chief of a “wilful distortion” of the article.
Rough sleeping In April 2019, the UK Statistics Authority said government claims on rough sleeping were not to be trusted until ministers explained how some figures may have become skewed. The government boasted of cutting rough sleeping in England by 2% in 2018. But Norgrove said official figures from that year should be discounted until concerns over claims of deliberate underreporting were addressed.
School funding The Department for Education was involved in a running battle in 2018 with the UK Statistics Authority, which criticised the DfE for its “potentially misleading” claims over school funding and repeated failures to correct problems identified by the authority.
News – Boris Johnson repeatedly used inaccurate child poverty figures