• Gordon Brown knowingly misleading on child poverty

    You might think that an ex-prime minister, with a track record for concern for social issues and eye to his reputation and legacy, would keep comments he made on an issue as important as child poverty strictly in the realms of the factually accurate.  Child poverty is real for too many children and creating a distorted picture cannot help them.  Unfortunately Gordon Brown is happy to spread complete untruths about this important subject.  

    Earlier this month Gordon Brown said: “Child poverty figures have risen from three million to four million and will rise beyond five million.” This is so mathematically nonsensical as to be a lie.

    Brown and his staff know the main source of child poverty data in the UK is the DWP’s Households Below Average Income (HBAI) dataset which has the official status of a National Statistic. Within this dataset there are four main measures of child poverty – relative child poverty before and after housing costs and absolute child poverty before and after housing costs. The absolute numbers are not widely used or quoted and are slightly confected. Poverty before housing costs doesn’t mean that much as we all, on the whole, live our lives after housing costs. So the main number that everyone uses is relative child poverty after housing costs (AFC).

    Relative poverty is a useful idea as we don’t really want to measure ourselves against historical standards but it is worth understanding what it is. It is people who live in households with less than 60% of median household income. Many people will be above this line, maybe paying a lot for child care and feeling really quite poor. Others will be below it, maybe with one income, a stay at home partner and a mortgage, but feeling their children do better that way. It is an entirely arbitrary measure and does not help us to identify and eliminate material burdens from children’s lives. That is another challenge altogether. The Labour party, the child poverty advocacy industry and the Left in general like this number because it is large and dramatic.

    Which brings us back to Brown and his bent advocacy.

    He says “Child poverty figures have risen from three million to four million and will rise beyond five million.” Below I have listed 13 years of New Labour child poverty numbers and 9 subsequent years of Conservative ones so you can judge for yourself.  Note these numbers are slow to emerge and the 2019/20 data won’t come out until March next year so the latest numbers we have is for 2018/19. 

    The numbers haven’t dropped below the 3.6 million achieved in the first couple of years of the Coalition government.  And they haven’t risen above the 4.3 million they hit in the early New Labour days.  A mathematician rounding these numbers numbers down would say the number has been 4 million throughout.  A mathematician averaging across the 13 years of New Labour would come up with an average number of 3.95 million.  Across the 9 subsequent Conservative years the average is slightly lower at 3.88 million.  Yes, the numbers do fluctuate typically falling in recessions and rising thereafter.  

    Note the rise in the child population.  The relevant population rose 500,000 in the 13 New Labour years.  And by 800,000 in the next 9 years.  In fact the rise in population accounts for most of the rise is child poverty numbers from 2009/10 to 2018/19, 240,000 out of the 300,000 rise.  Note also that the Labour party, the child poverty advocacy industry and the Left in general keep trying to steal the 2010/2011 datapoint as the end of New Labour to make the jump in the numbers seem larger, 600K, not 300K.  

    This point is underlined when you look at the percentages – which is a more sensible way of looking at relative numbers in any case.  The most recent peak in relative child poverty AHC was in 2006-8 at 31%.  It was 30% for two years at the end at the end of the New Labour era, it slumped as middle earnings were hit by the effects of the financial crash and returned to 30% for the last 4 years.  You can complain that relative child poverty is fairly static if you want.  You cannot argue that it is increasing (as Gordon Brown does misleadingly).  

    Brown’s assertion that child poverty “will rise beyond five million” is almost certainly nonsense.  First of all it is a guess.  There is no research or analysis to back up this assertion.  Indeed the way the relative poverty numbers work relative poverty is likely to fall as it is almost always does in hard times.  If middle incomes are depressed in a recession then lower incomes comprising a larger share of social security payments look more generous. 

  • Ofqual, another bit of the British state that failed in a crisis

    Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents, will be hearing Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, Roger Taylor, row back on its use of an algorithm based moderation process for A levels and revert to grades assessed by teachers on news bulletins this evening. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

    Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or a place closer to their heart.

    The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. 88% of students had got their first choice university places on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high. Similarly the number of disadvantaged students.

    Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

    The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38% of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40% of exams get the tops grades next year?

    Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on Ofqual’s part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle flexing going on.

    Ofqual’s chief executive, Sally Collier, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant rather than an educationalist the right person to lead this public body? Her chairman, Roger Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes but again is not an educationalist.

    This was bound to be a political hot potato and one that got hot in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of students and their families will be happily planning for the start of term but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

    Once again we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.

  • Starmer’s lawyerly trick is lying by other means

    Labour leader Kier Starmer scored a small victory over Prime Minister Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions (PMQs) this lunch time.

    Starmer confronted the PM with the idea that only a third of those infected with Covid in the UK are being followed up in the government’s new test and trace system. Cue comments such as “forensic”, cheers all round and a nice clip for Twitter.


    Starmer’s statistics were sound, individually. He ostentatiously waved copies of government slides to make his point. The combination of the statistics was misleading though. One was an Office of National Statistics estimate of the prevalence of Covid in the poplulation based on random testing. The ONS tested 24,413 people to find just 10 cases. From this data the ONS extrapolate to make a population estimate of 33,000. The other was the number of people contacted by the government’s test and trace system, 10,192 people, only one third of those affected apparently.

    Johnson himself accused Starmer of being misleading and was upbraided by the speaker.

    But, Starmer was misleading in the way he combined these statistics. The ONS estimate of 33,000 includes a majority of people who will be asymptomatic. We could in theory find these people if we tested the entire population every week say but this is way, way beyond what any country can do now.

    Johnson got half way to rebutting this attack. He pointed out that the ONS number was an estimate. He failed though to explain the trick that Starmer was pulling.

    Starmer’s apples and oranges comparison was not made in the heat of the moment. This was a well prepared question backed up with the slides he theatrically waved in the chamber. This line must have been tested in rehearsal for PMQs. He knew what he was doing. This was a cynical ploy. His argument rests on a lie. It was prepared in advance. The elision of two different statistics was misleading.

  • Labour’s disavowed austerity – how the last Labour government planned £94 billion of cuts

    Wednesday 6th May will be the 10th anniversary of the 2010 general election which saw the formation of the coalition government by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. It went on to govern the UK for five years. Most on the left would ignore the LibDem involvement in the coalition, not least most LibDems, and blame “the Tories” for 10 years of “austerity”. Take your pick of adjectives to tag on the front:

    These left wing voices refuse to acknowledge that the Labour party, under prime minister Gordon Brown and chancellor Alistair Darling, had already put in place a comprehensive austerity regime almost as tough as that carried through by the coalition. This piece lays out the details of that regime.

    The Labour party has done a very good job of whitewashing its own record and I have to say that the Conservatives have consistently failed to nail Labour on its own policies. For ten years we have heard about austerity being a uniquely Tory vice and not the consensus response to the 2008 financial crisis that it was at the time.

    There were three main planks to the Labour austerity regime:

    • Labour cut £28 billion a year out of the capital programme (eg roads, railways, schools, etc). Net public net investment peaked at £50 billion in 2009/10. In his December 2009 pre-budget report Alistair Darling savaged the capital spending programme reducing it to £22 billion in 2013/14. £28 billion a year of spending was taken out of the economy. This was the capital programme that Labour went to the country with at the 2010 general election.
    • At that election Labour promised to carry out the Nicholson Challenge, a programme to find £20 billion a year of “savings” in the NHS by 2014. This programme was in the Labour 2010 election manifesto on page 4:3.
    • Finally, in his March 2010 budget Alistair Darling promised “we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher”. The Institue of Financial Studies calculated that the fiscal envelope set out in the budget implied real terms cuts of £46 billion a year by 2014.

    Added together these three programmes aimed to cut around £94 billion a year from government spending, the equivalent of 14% of all government spending in 2010 or 6% of 2010 GDP.

    In 2010 there was little to choose between the fiscal programmes offered by the three main parties, indeed the Institute of Fiscal Sudies quantified the difference as £10 billion (more tax for Labour, more spending cuts for the Conservatives):

    The overall picture is that, ultimately, Labour looks set to implement the largest discretionary net tax rise (1.7% of national income, or £24 billion in 2010–11 terms) and the smallest discretionary net spending cut (3.2% of national income, or £47 billion). The Conservatives look set to do the smallest discretionary net tax rise (0.9% of national income, or £14 billion) and the largest discretionary net spending cut (3.9% of national income, or £57 billion). The Liberal Democrats’ plans are in the middle: a net tax rise of 1.4% of national income and a net spending cut of 3.5% of national income (£20 billion and £51 billion, respectively).

    In the context of Labour already planning £94 billion of cuts £10 billion is not a lot. All three parties were broadly in the same place as this IFS chart shows.

    Labour’s 10 years of moral indignation is based on the notion that £94 billion of cuts is fine but if you go £10 billion further you are a monster. It is nonsense.

  • Labour’s disavowed austerity – public sector net investment slashed by £28 billion

    On 9th December 2009 Alistair Darling, the then Labour chancellor, delivered his pre-budget report. This was effectively a budget update or minibudget.

    Darling’s speech on the pre-budget report was a massive snow job. He mentioned the word investment 21 times but failed to spell out that he was more than halving net public investment. Darling talked about the 2009/10 peak in public investment but didn’t care to mention that it was about to come to a juddering halt.

    This year public sector investment reached a 30-year high and has delivered over 70 road and motorway schemes, and improved journey times across the rail network.Work is now underway on Crossrail, the Thameslink project, and from this month, the upgrade of the M1. All this work will continue.

    In a fiscal crisis capital spending programmes are always an easy target. You can make a big impression on the finances without visiting any immediate pain on electors. In order to reclaim some financial credibility Darling savaged the capital programme in the dying days of the Labour government. He failed though to identify which programmes would be trimmed or by how much.

    If you go to table B13 on page 189 of the December 2009 Pre-Budget Report you can see how public sector net investment was due to be more than halved by Darling, see below (click to enlarge). Look at the net investment line which goes from £50 billion in 2009/10 to £22 billion in 2013/14. £28 billion a year of spending is taken out of the economy. This was the equivalent of taking net public investment from 3.5% of GDP to 1.3%. This was the first, rather obscure plank, of Darling’s three point austerity plan for a 2010 Labour government.

    Darling’s cuts were so shocking that in his own budget speech in June 2010 the new Tory chancellor George Osborne said:

    We have faced many tough choices about the areas in which we should make additional savings, but I have decided that capital spending should not be one of them. There will be no further reductions in capital spending totals in this Budget.

    To give you an idea of how venal Labour was in discussing capital take this piece from the Guardian which starts “Michael Gove today cancelled Labour’s school building programme”. It confirms that the ludicrous Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was to be ended and confirmed that the overall scope of the programme was to spend a colossal £55 billion over 20 years. You can read about what a mess BSF was in the James Report. Note the quote from Ed Balls:

    Today is a black day for our country’s schools, it is a damning indictment of this new Tory/Liberal coalition’s priorities and a shameful statement from this new secretary of state.

    As the previous secretary of state and a former treasury minister he knew exactly who had savaged the capital programme and it wasn’t Michael Gove.

  • Labour’s disavowed austerity – £20 billion of NHS “cuts” as Labour likes to call them

    The second, hidden plank of Alistair Darling’s three point austerity plan for a 2010 Labour government was large savings to be found in the NHS. These would allow the service to cope with increased demand whilst its budget was constrained in real terms to very modest growth whoever came into power in the 2010 general election. After 7% a year real terms growth during the first decade of the 21st century the NHS was going to have to eat into its fat. The first publicly available evidence of Labour’s £20 billion NHS savings, or cuts as they would call them, came from Sir David Nicholson, NHS Chief Executive. In his annual report (“The Year: NHS Chief Executive’s annual report 2008/09“) he spelled out on page 47 what became known as the Nicholson Challenge.

    The Nicholson Challenge was not widely reported at the time but you can find references to it, for instance in June Nicholson was speaking to NHS finance directors and in September Andy Burnham, Labour’s secretary of state for health, was talking to the King’s Fund.

    You may say this was contingency planning. It was not. These savings were desperately needed to make Alistair Darling’s books balance. In order to ensure that Labour had political cover to make these savings they were put in its 2010 manifesto on page 4:3.

    Labour Manifesto Nicholson Challenge - close up

    After the May 2010 general election the Coalition promised to protect NHS spending and indeed this was a clause in the Coalition Agreement:

    The parties agree that funding for the NHS should increase in real terms in each year of the Parliament, while recognising the impact this decision would have on other departments.

    But the Nicholson Challenge was already built into NHS spending plans in May 2010 and Coalition was obliged to continue with them. At this point the bland, officialese “savings” used by Andy Burnham, Sir David Nicholson and the Labour mainfesto became “Tory NHS cuts”.

  • Attlee biographer’s made up quote on charity

    In the context of the BBC’s Big Night In charity show and the efforts of Captain Tom Moore to walk around his garden to fund raise for NHS charities I have been seeing a lot of people rather grumpily repeating a quote of Clement Attlee’s, the post war Labour Prime Minister. I am afraid it is made up.

    These two examples were directed at Captain Tom Moore:

    This quote is one of those quotes that circulates social media, especially the Leftie Twitter bit of social media. It is always unreferenced but sounds kind of authentic. We know Attlee was involved in social welfare as a young man and famous as the leader of the post war Labour government that put in place most of the welfare state. I say most because because various elements were put in place by the wartime coalition government and the caretaker Conservative administration that followed it.

    Where did the quote come from? It was written by Francis Beckett the author of “Clem Attlee” his 1997 biography of the same. I have a Politico’s 2007 paperback edition. On page 63, oddly half way through a paragraph describing an unemployment demonstration, Beckett starts a two page excursion on how Attlee’s ideas on charity can be divined from the book he wrote in 1920 called “The Social Worker”.

    The famous quote comes at the end. But, it is not a quote from Attlee it is a quote from Beckett. He is trying to paraphrase what he thought or hoped Attlee was saying in his book about charity. The next two pages of the book are an attempt to justify this paraphrasing. I think it is a dishonest job myself.

    I am indebted to my friend Bill Ellson (@BillEllson on Twitter) who pointed me to the Internet Archive which has an online version of Attlee’s The Social Worker which can be quickly and easily searched.

    Charity is indeed a pre-occupation of Attlee’s own book. The word appears 116 times and there is a chapter on “Charities”.

    The word “cold” appears only once in a totally different context talking about the “fluidity of labour”. On page 17:

    ….but to the man in touch with the sufferings of the unemployed this was cold comfort, for he knew that the long run was often fatal to the man with the short purse.

    The word “grey” does not appear in the main body of the book. The word “greyness is used in relation to drunkenness on page 15:

    Thus the prevalence of drunkenness would be asserted as a prime cause of poverty, without considering whether in fact drunkenness itself was not due to bad conditions of work, a degrading environment, or the general greyness of life.

    “Grey” appears in a place name in a list at the back of the book.

    The word “loveless” appears once on page 77 in a quote from an essay of Robert Louis Stevenson’s on beggars:

    We should wipe two words from our vocabulary – gratitude and charity. In real life help is given out of friendship or it is not valued; it is received from the hand of friendship or it is resented.

    Here then is the pitiful fix of the rich man; here is the needle’s eye in which he stuck already in the days of Christ and still sticks to-day, firmer, if possible,than ever: that he has the money and lacks the love which should make his money acceptable. . . .

    And yet there is one course which the unfortunate gentleman may take. He may subscribe to pay the taxes. There were the true charity, impartial and impersonal, cumbering none with obligation, helping all. There were a destination for loveless gifts; there were the way to reach the pocket of the deserving poor, and yet save the time of secretaries! But, alas! there is no colour of romance in such a course; and people nowhere demand the picturesque so much as in their virtues.

    So the word “loveless” and the sentiment that Beckett expresses in his paraphrasing is only second hand. He is paraphrasing Stevenson not Attlee and passing it off as a direct quotation of Attlee himself.

    Attlee does mention “taxes” three times.

    Attlee only mentions the word “gladly” once and the context will give the modern reader a chuckle at its condescending tone. On page 141 Attlee says:

    It is hardly necessary to add that the work of social service requires great patience and tolerance, a sense of justice, and an infinite capacity for suffering fools gladly.

    Finally, the phrase “dole out” does not appear in the book. Neither does the word “whim”.

    It is clear the quote has no relationship whatsoever to Clement Attlee. It is a paraphrasing by Francis Beckett of a quote used by Attlee from Robert Louis Stevenson. Many of the words Beckett uses come from neither Attlee nor Stevenson so the paraphrasing is of the very loosest sort.

    I think the problem for Beckett is that the Attlee book is a hard read for the modern reader. A worthwhile one certainly as it is something of a personal manifesto and gives some insight into a key figure. In keeping with Attlee’s own style though it lacks quotable quotes. In his attempt to humanise Attlee and explain the (great) man he has strayed into pious fiction.

  • Dr Miles Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, UWE Bristol – Bad acting video clipper

    On the great time sucker that is Twitter one of the viral videos of the febrile Covid-19 moment is a clip of the Prime Minister on the ITV This Morning show last Thursday talking, loosely maybe, about “taking it on the chin”. It has been viewed over 2 million times and shared by a list of people who should know better. Johnson’s rhetorical style maybe lets him down here but he was merely trying to illustrate what his government was not going to do.

    The source of this clip is a chap called Miles Thompson. He is not some spotty oik in his Mum’s back bedroom. He is somebody who knows better, a professional clinical psychologist, a PhD, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England. He has clipped the TV show to make it look like the Prime Minister was saying the opposite of what he was wanting to convey.

    In his Twitter bio Thompson calls himself a “leftie”, and certainly scrolling down his feed you get the impression of someone with a consistent, left of centre, probably far left to most people, point of view. Clearly his animus for Prime Minister Johnson has overcome his professional good sense that it is better not to spread untrue rumours when the country is facing a very large scale public health emergency.

    Thompson is patient zero for this irresponsible and mendacious piece of work. I don’t know what his university employer, UWE Bristol, or his professional body, Health and Care Professions Council, thinks about this kind of behaviour but I think it stinks.

  • The Labour manifesto and its giveaways is the real threat to the NHS

    There is no doubt that the Labour party is really pushing the “Trump: our NHS is not for sale” line at this election. But the big question is why is Labour investing so heavily in this flimsy idea? It does not survive the most cursory of inspections.


    BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle puts his finger on the issue this morning pointing out there is not much difference in the core financial offers being made by the three main parties at this election. Labour is relying on the Trump message as its own cash offer is really not so different from the Conservatives’.

    Triggle goes on to note that the gap between Labour and the Conservatives grows even smaller when you consider that the government has already promised to help with NHS pensions, and if that is included then the difference between the main parties drops to £3.5 billion or 2.3%.

    But if Nick Triggle is in the business of spotting differences he has missed some huge ones. Labour’s manifesto makes some eye catching promises to British workers. Promises that have the capacity to cut huge chunks out of NHS budgets and make the whole institution unviable.

    The first big promise is four extra bank holidays. Very nice you might think. A disaster for the NHS. NHS full time staff work just fractionally over 200 days a year. So four extra bank holidays represents a loss of 2% of staff time. With an annual pay bill of £60 billion in the NHS and assuming that the lost time has to be back filled at overtime rates or with locums the cost is going to be about £2 billion a year.  The promise would need to be enacted next year otherwise Labour would immediately lose credibility. The same promise was wheeled out in 2017. This loss of staff time in the NHS could not be replaced by productivity improvements that quickly. Already Labour’s manifesto has taken away £2 billion even assuming that you can find 2% more staff at a time when staff shortages in the NHS are widespread.

    Next Labour’s manifesto promises “year-on-year above-inflation pay rises, starting with a 5% increase” for public service workers. This must include the NHS. Currently the benchmark CPI rate of inflation is running at 1.5% so Labour is promising to increase the NHS pay bill be 3.5% in real terms in the first year and to keep on adding above inflation rises for staff. Again, this sounds wonderful for staff, but it is simply not costed into Labour’s spending plans. In the first year they are adding £2.1 billion to the pay bill with more to come.

    So our first two manifesto promises have more than wiped out Labour’s extra spending for NHS England in their first year with more damage to come with each above inflaton pay rise thereafter. It is Labour’s third promise that threatens to rip the NHS apart.

    Labour promises that:

    Within a decade we will reduce average full-time weekly working hours to 32 across the economy, with no loss of pay, funded by productivity increases.

    The NHS’s Agenda for Change terms and conditions assume a standard working week of 37.5 hours. Getting to 32 hours requires the NHS to give up 17% of its working time. If nurses and most other clinical staff in the NHS are getting 17% of their time back everyone on other contracts will expect the same. The idea that this is going to be made up with productivity in such a short period as 10 years is laughable, especially when you are trying to cover 24 hour rotas, meet safety criteria and provide service levels for different specialities.

    If you can squeeze out more productivity it is not really clear that patients will welcome the benefits being passed on to staff with no strings attached. Patients might expect the benefits to be at least shared equally. 

    17% of the NHS pay bill is £10bn.

    So in summary Labour is proposing to dispense with 19% of NHS staff time (2% for 4 bank holidays and 17% for 32 hour weeks) with a cost to replace of about £12bn (£2bn for 4 bank holidays and £10bn for 32 hour weeks). 

    The NHS is already having to run incredibly fast to recruit and retain staff. You can’t just get hold of another 19% of staff.  If Labour’s manifesto promises become the norm for British workers NHS staff shortages will be double or triple their current levels.

    Labour’s manifesto will look very attractive to NHS staff but patients should be very afraid. Labour’s election giveaways could easily make the NHS unaffordable and unviable. 

  • The Alston report is built on statistical voodoo

    On Wednesday Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published his final report.

    This Australian academic, who is based in New York, made wide ranging comments over 21 pages that essentially placed the blame for the creation of a “digital workhouse” on post 2010 austerity.  Alston built his argument on a succession of misused and garbled statistics.  He has created a misleading and nakedly political piece of work, and one that lets down struggling families by mistaking political point scoring about austerity with a forensic skewering of real problems in the benefit system.  In Alston’s view the economy is in a good place and the government simply refuses to roll back austerity because of its “ideological agenda”.

    Alston makes six howlers with his data:

    1. Wealth

    The first plank of his argument is that:

     the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy

    Well, yes, of course, but the UK is also very populous and on a measure of GDP per head at purchasing power parity the UK is listed 26th by the IMF in 2018.  So the UK is a middling wealthy country in the EU and OECD to be fair.

    2. Poverty

    He contrasts the UK’s wealth with its poverty.

    one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty

    The 14 million number comes from the Social Metrics Commission work published in September, an attempt to recast existing HBAI poverty data to come up with an agreed measure of poverty as this is a hugely contested area of public policy.

    If you scroll down to page 133 you can see their metric compared the HBAI one.  It is lower than it was before austerity in 2009 and remains pretty flat over 16 years.  Like any measure of relative poverty it slowly undulates with the overall economy.  Counter intuitively they tend to be worse in good times and get better in bad.

    If you compare relative poverty in the UK with the rest of the EU the UK comes out dead average, not much worse than Germany.

    So, Alston’s chosen measure of poverty in the UK is actually marginally better than it was pre-austerity, largely flat over time as you might expect from a relative measure and unexceptional in the wealthy EU.

    Only on Thursday of this week Philippa Stroud was promoting the work of the Social Metrics Commission on Conservativehome.  By misusing their data Alston makes it harder for them to succeed.

    3. Child poverty

    Alston mentions child poverty 5 times, citing forecasts of possible increases.  The reason he talks about forecasts rather than the actual record is that the past tells the wrong story for him.  Again the SMC data shows child poverty slightly better than in 2009 pre-austerity and an OECD comparison shows the UK in a good light not far above Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

    4. Destitution

    Alston claimed:

    1.5 million [of them] experienced destitution in 2017

    This comes from work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published in June.  This is a made up number invented by JRF themselves.   Alston did not notice or did not choose to highlight that, on a like-for-like basis, JRF “destitution” had fallen by 25% between 2015 – 2017.  An apparently miraculous positive performance that was left unremarked upon.

    The JRF exaggerate their numbers and use constructions such as:

    the number of people who were pushed into destitution during 2017

    to obfuscate the fact their headline number multiplies a short brush with hardship into a year long experience of “destitution”.  On page 13 they explain how they get from a count of 184,000 in their reference week to a number 8 times larger.

    If unemployment statistics were done like this a week of unemployment would keep you in the numbers all year.

    There is robust EU-SILC data, share of population living in severe material poverty, for which the data is collected by ONS.  They interview 15-20,000 households in the UK per annum to get this data so it is top quality.  Again on an EU comparison the UK is well below average and only marginally changed from before “austerity”.

    5. Food poverty

    Alston refers to food banks 10 times in his report.  I won’t even start on how unsound food bank counting is.  Alston says there are no UK measures of food poverty.  Maybe, but again there is robust EU-SILC data on this (data gathered by ONS remember in very large scale survey).  The series Population unable to afford a meal with meat, fish, chicken or a vegetarian equivalent every second day must be some kind of measure of food poverty.  On this measure the UK improving and better than Italy, Germany, France and Belgium.

    6. Suicide

    Finally, I wanted to mention suicide.  Alston mentions suicide 3 times, once in a frankly snide references to a minister for suicide prevention.

    In the UK suicide is historically low, 2017 was the lowest ever year for male suicide and female suicide is at recently typical levels. The UK has very low suicide rates compared to other EU countries. We have the 4th lowest suicide rate in the EU.

    Alston simply had no business raising suicide.


    There is a bone headedness about the way that Universal Credit is being implemented.  Alston might have done struggling families more of a service if he had kept his focus on specific system failings rather than having a generalised whinge that does not stand up to scrutiny.

    It is too easy for the government to dismiss Alston as someone with an agenda taking a swipe at UK government policy as a result of Alston’s active misuse of statistics.  As an Australian based in New York representing the UN Alston fails to make any international comparisons.  I assume because they would spoil his argument.

    In the process Alston has abused the good work of the Social Metrics Commission (SMC).  Alston has ensured that he will not be heard.  Hopefully he has not trashed the SMC brand too.