Statistics for a purpose

Part of the use of statistics, in the Coalition’s narrative of “broken Britain”, has been to show the social dysfunctions associated with benefits. The category of “out-of-work” benefits is one of the Coalition’s major innovations: it lumps together benefits related to unemployment, disability and caring in one undifferentiated and increasingly stigmatised category. The most recent release refers to people who claim benefits when they have not been born in the UK. There are some interesting and subtle findings, and the report is worth looking at. There are marked differences in different migrant groups – for example, people from Asia and the Middle East, who rights are often restrict by their terms of entry, made up a quarter of the job seekers, but more than half of those caring for people with disabilities. It emerges that more than half the people in this category are actually British or have indefinite rights to remain, and that overall foreign born migrants are nearly three times less likely to claim benefits than others. That didn’t stop the Daily Mail from reporting a fraud crackdown or the Daily Express referring to benefit tourism. Such a shame that the evidence ran in the opposite direction.

The hostile press was fed by the tone of the official statements. It is only a couple of weeks since a DWP and Ministry of Justice report revealed that 1.23 million claimants on out-of-work benefits have been convicted of criminal offences in the last five years. I find this more difficult to evaluate, because there were no comparators given in the report, and the English crime statistics have not been my constant study in recent years; I have a rough sense that crime figures are strongly skewed by age, and it might be expected that as more younger people are unemployed, and more younger people have committed offences, that more unemployed people will have committeed offences. As there have been some 8.7 million offences in the same period, the proportionate of benefit recipients with a criminal record seems if anything surprisingly close to what might be expected in the population as a whole. It appears again that the primary intention of the statistical release is to illustrate the moral deficiencies of benefit claimants.

Both these statistics have been produced for the first time. Both announcements were made by Chris Grayling MP. Looking back at the record, he was criticised last year for a tendentious and misleading release about the reassessment of claimants with disability. As Shadow Home Secretary he was told in February 2010 by the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority that his misuse of statistics was likely “to damage public trust in official statistics”. His response was that “As an opposition party, we don’t make the statistics.” Now he is no longer in opposition, he does make the statistics.

Additional note, 25th January: Today, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority has publicly criticised the release of the statistics on foreign claimants, and the comments of ministers. “These statistics are both highly relevant to public policy and highly vulnerable to misinterpretation.”

Leave a Reply