Prime minister David Cameron, in full flight. Photo: Getty Images
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Surprise! David Cameron's grasp of welfare stats isn't too great

The prime minister's op-ed in the Telegraph made a basic numerical error in trying to rebut criticisms from the Archbishop of Westminster.

You may remember that Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, attacked the coalition government's "punitive" benefits cuts in February as "a disgrace" which had destroyed the idea of a safety net for those most at need. As usual when the Nasty Party gets called out for being nasty, it led to denials, the most prominent of which came from David Cameron himself. He penned an op-ed in the Telegraph arguing his government's case.

However, one of the key points he made was based on a false interpretation of the data. Here's the relevant section:

Third, our welfare reforms are not just right in principle, they are right in practice, too. As well as providing a safety net, a key test of a welfare system is whether it supports people into work. That simply didn’t happen under Labour. In spite of all the talk about so-called “boom years” we saw a situation where almost a million and a half people spent the last decade out of work – and the number of workless households doubled.

This isn't true, as director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research Jonathan Portes stated in his (successful) complaint to the Press Complaints Commission - which is why the article now carries this correction:

"Why the Archbishop is wrong about welfare" (Feb 18) stated that during the boom years the number of "workless households" doubled. While households where no adult had ever worked did double, the Office for National Statistics definition of "workless households" is those where all adults are unemployed or inactive; numbers of these households fell during the period. We are happy to make this clear.

The number of households where nobody has ever worked is necessarily a much smaller figure than the number of households which currently have nobody in work - after all, the sole earner in a household losing their job only adds to the second figure, it cannot add to the first. (This is also a mistake that Portes also took the Daily Mail to task for, in its baffling story about £2.7bn being spent on Jobseeker's Allowance in Birmingham, rather than the less outrageous headline-worthy figure of £173m.)

As explained over at Full Fact:

In 1997 20 per cent of ‘working-age’ households were workless. In 2008 this was down to 17.4 per cent. Even taking the figures up to 2010, the proportion is down on 1997.

[I]t’s very likely the PM meant to refer to households where no-one has ever worked (specifically, where no-one has ever had paid work: volunteering or casual work doesn’t count).

These rose under Labour, both in number and as a proportion. From 1997 to 2008, the number of these households rose from 184,000 to 346,000, and the proportion from 1 per cent of working-age households to 1.7 per cent. So not quite a doubling either, though closer to the trend the PM’s referring to.

More worrying is that nobody in Cameron's team of spinners picked up on this mistake when the op-ed was being passed around for checking before publication.

I'm a mole, innit.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.