See if you can work out the major statistical flaw in this Telegraph piece on marriage

It's not that hard…

It's bad stats Saturday, it seems. Before we start, see if you can work out for yourself what statistical stumble the Telegraph has made which renders this piece, headlined Almost no couples with children who stay unmarried stay together, study claims, entirely worthless. Go on, click through, we'll still be here.

Back? Hopefully you'll have been able to work out the main claim of the piece, which is that:

A study by the Marriage Foundation calculates that cohabiting couples who have children are more than twice as likely to split up as those who had tied the knot beforehand.

But of those who do not then go on to get married after having children, only a handful will still be together by the time the child is 16, it claims. [Emphasis mine]

It's a bold claim, and would certainly be a valuable fact for those who worry about the death of the "traditional" family to be able to point to. Unfortunately, it isn't true.

Further down the piece, we find the evidence behind the claim:

The report, which analyses figures from the Office for National Statistics, found that 93 per cent of couples whose relationships are still intact by the time their child is a teenager are married.

It calculated that out of a typical group of 100 16-year-olds, 45 of them would have experienced a family split, while 55 would still be living with both parents.

But only four of the 100 teenagers would have unmarried parents who are still together by the time they are 16. [Emphasis mine again]

In other words, of 100 sixteen-year-olds, only four have unmarried parents living together. That is, indeed, "only a handful" – but it is not a handful of "of those who do not go on to get married after having children". That figure is not given in the Telegraph report at all, and it's crucial. Without knowing what proportion of sixteen year olds were born to parents who were unmarried but living together, we can't know whether 4 per cent still living together is high, or low.

To find that out, we need to go to the original report, which claims that "out of the 47 per cent of children born to unmarried parents today… just 11 per cent will reach their 16th birthday with both parents intact and unmarried".

In other words, the survival rate of unmarried couples with children is over twice what the Telegraph implies; rather than 4 per cent, it is 11 per cent.

But there's something else as well. As the report says, "the rest will either marry or split up". In other words, a chunk of unmarried parents go on to marry before their child turns sixteen. That is also missed by the Telegraph's write up.

That is, where the paper writes that:

Only four of the 100 teenagers would have unmarried parents who are still together by the time they are 16.

It should actually read:

Only four of the 100 teenagers would have unmarried parents who are still together and still unmarried by the time they are 16.

And all of this stems from a report which is fundamentally based on assuming that patterns of marriage and cohabitation which were true for couples with children born in 1986 are still true for couples with children born in 2009. That's not something I'd stake money on; in case no-one noticed, we've had some pretty major changes to marriage recently.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories