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Boris Johnson Is Under Fire for 'Misleading' Claims About Child Poverty in the UK

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Figures used by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to claim child poverty has been reduced in the past 10 years have been deemed “incorrect” by the country’s statistics authority.

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) responded to a complaint made on July 27 by the End Child Poverty coalition, a network of children’s charities concerned about the impact of poverty on children in Britain.

The coalition argues that numbers Johnson referred to three times — twice in answers to questions in parliament and once in a media interview — were used “selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately, misleadingly”.

The original complaint, and the letter in response from the OSR, can be found on the End Child Poverty coalition’s website.

The statistics watchdog’s reply was short and simply said: “Our team has investigated the statements which you highlight (and has reached the same conclusion that these statements are incorrect).”

They pointed to a blog that the OSR published on July 27 about the complexity of poverty statistics and why it’s so hard to land on agreed upon measures. The blog does not specically call out the prime minister, but it does call out being "selective with data to support only part of the story."

Leaders from the End Child Poverty coalition argue that not enough is done about misleading statistics in public life.

“It is deeply insulting to the children and families swept into poverty, when data about them is used selectively and misleadingly at the whim of politicians,” said Anna Feuchtwang, the chair of the coalition.

She continued: “The simple fact is that by any measures child poverty is rising, but instead of tackling the problem the government risks obscuring the issue and misinforming the public.” 

“The lives of real people are at stake and we need consistent use of information and urgent action,” she added.

The three claims under question were:

  1. A claim Johnson made in a BBC interview in December 2019 that 400,000 fewer children were in poverty than in 2010 [in the UK]. 

  2. An answer on June 17 in parliament where Johnson claimed “absolute and relative poverty have both declined under this government” and “there are hundreds of thousands, I think 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.” 

  3. An answer during Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament on June 24, when Johnson said there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 fewer children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.”

The campaigners take issue with the above because of the implication that poverty levels are falling and that hundreds of thousands are in a better position, which contradicts other signs of poverty in the UK, such as the rise in the use of food banks

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Fact-checking the PM

The claim that 400,000 fewer children are in poverty than 10 years ago has been analysed by fact-checkers before — including by academic John H. McKendrick, after Johnson used the statistic in December 2019.

McKendrick, professor of social justice at the Glasgow Caledonian University, described the claim as “a very partial truth that completely misrepresents wider realities.”

The problem is with poverty statistics in the UK that there are different ways to measure poverty, and each different measurement will come up with different conclusions.

Absolute poverty, for example, tracks whether living conditions for the most impoverished people in Britain are getting better. Relative poverty, on the other hand, tracks inequality, in terms of how many people are falling behind when compared to the majority.

There was a drop in the number of children experiencing “absolute low-income” poverty during the period 2013 to 2017, by 400,000, and McKendrick suggests this could be what the PM is referring to — although No. 10 has not provided its source.

This means people on the very lowest incomes saw their incomes improve during those four years.

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However, people on high incomes were seeing greater gains during the same period, making the equality gap wider, and life more unaffordable for families on the lower end. After 2017, the numbers fluctuate and some progress is lost, so it doesn’t make sense for Johnson to apply this statistic to the whole decade either, McKendrick adds.

The BBC has also fact-checked the various claims. Referring to official statistics, they find that “there has been a decrease between 2010-11 and 2018-19 of 200,000 children in material deprivation.”

But that is far less than the “500,000 fewer children falling below the thresholds of low income and material deprivation” in Johnson’s claim, which campaigners complain about in their letter.

Full Fact, a bipartisan fact-checking non-profit has also called out the confusing and contradictory array of statistics used by both the government and the opposition on poverty levels.

“There are good arguments that the current set of measures we regularly talk about are actually hiding real-life stories that need to be told,” fact-checker Joseph O’Leary writes.

There are also new ways we might measure poverty, he says, “including looking at the costs associated with childcare and disability” for example. 

In response to all these debates, the statistics authority announced on July 27 that it will launch a “systematic review on the coherence of poverty statistics in Autumn 2020.”

It hopes the review, and engaging with the public on the topic, will “help facilitate open and fair public debate.”