Feckless reporting

How big is the UK's welfare problem? According to a recent Daily Express headline, there are now four million "scrounging families" reliant on the state.

The data tells a different story. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there are 3.88 million workless households (defined as those in which no one aged 16 to 64 is in employment) - 38,000 fewer than a year ago.

Significantly, 2.92 million (75 per cent of the total) are defined as "inactive" - those households in which residents are either not looking for employment or are unable to work. Of this group, 34 per cent are inactive as a result of long-term illness or disability, and 24 per cent are retired.

Thus, unless you agree that pensioners and the sick, including those with severe illnesses, should be described as "scroungers", it is impossible to see the Express headline as anything other than misleading.

Another statistic that provoked much media interest was the rise in the number of households in which no one has ever worked, up from 352,000 last year to 370,000. Yet even here, the raw data paints a more complex picture.

Of the total, 73,000 are student households and 150,000 are led by lone parents. The latter accounted for almost all of the 18,000 increase in the number of households in which no one has ever worked.

Just 22.2 per cent of the total are couple households or "other" households (such as those with more than one family unit). Relatively few fit the image of the "feckless family" perpetuated by sections of the press.

There is no doubt that the government needs to reduce the number of those on out-of-work benefits, but exaggerating the problem won't help to solve it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires