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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.

Prime minister David Cameron, in full flight. Photo: Getty Images
Prime minister David Cameron, in full flight. Photo: Getty Images

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.