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Tory misuse of figures on benefits

I made the following intervention and subsequent speech during a Home Office and Work and Pensions debate on an opposition amendment on 25 November 2009.


25 Nov 2009 : Column 574
Lynne Jones (
Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend talks about the Government's good record on getting people into work. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) recently provoked headlines such as "Benefits Britain" and "Shameless Labour" when she claimed that the number of households receiving more than £15,000 in benefits had doubled. That might be true, but when one examines the statistics on households with a member working, one finds that the numbers have not increased at all. The reason for the doubling is because the Labour Government have been far more generous to pensioners and it is they, particularly those who are in greater need, who have benefited from the increase in benefits, not those of working age.

(Hansard record): 



25 Nov 2009 : Column 627
6.10 pm

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am very glad to be following the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), as I am certainly more on his wavelength than that of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies).

One thing that has always dismayed me during my time as a Member of this House is the misuse or ignoring of evidence in order to justify unjustifiable policies. One particularly bad example involves drugs policies, and both Front Benches are guilty in that regard. That is not what I intend to talk about today, however. I want to concentrate on a particularly bad example of the misuse of statistics.

On 13 November, articles about household benefits appeared in a number of the tabloids. The Daily Express carried the headline "Shameless Labour. Toll of families on £15,000 benefits doubles to 1.2 million since Labour came to power". The article went on to say:

"Last night, critics described the massive handouts as a grim indictment of the flourishing welfare dependency culture fostered by Gordon Brown. The statistics sparked new anger about the growing burden on the working population, having to pay for claimants languishing in a lifetime of taxpayers-subsidised indolence."

In the article, housing benefit, incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance were all described as "handouts". Only at the end of the article was it mentioned that the figures included pensioners, the disabled and people caring for the elderly and infirm.

Another tabloid, the Daily Mail, had the headline "Benefits Britain". The article went on to say:

"The number of families raking in more than £12,000 a year in benefits has trebled since Labour came to power, figures showed yesterday. Britain's culture of spiralling welfare dependency means 300,000 households now receive that figure or more in benefits-up from 100,000 in 1997. A worker would have to earn £27,000 a year to take home £20,000."

The headline in The Sun was "300,000 coin £20k in benefit bonanza", with the newspaper suggesting that that was more than many workers take home. Even the Daily Mirror agreed:

"The number of families on £20,000 a year in welfare handouts has risen threefold".

The source of these stories was information obtained from a written parliamentary question from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who was extensively quoted in the aforementioned articles as saying:

"These figures show the shocking growth of a dependency culture under Labour. The Government needs to get to grips with Britain's benefit culture and radically reform our welfare system. It's hardly surprising that so many people spend their lives on benefits when in some cases they can get as much on benefits as many people earn in work."

But the figures do not show a shocking growth in dependency. They are taken from the family resources survey, and they are rounded to the nearest 100,000 of population. It is not therefore valid, for example, to describe a change from 100,000 to 200,000 as a doubling. Those figures could mask a change from 149,000 to 151,000, which is hardly a change at all. As the Library specialist told me, it is better to look at the percentage of households for which the change is less dramatic, if it exists at all.

Let us first look at the number of households that said that they receive more than £15,000. Based on rounded-up survey samples in 1997-98, there were about 600,000 such households, equating to 3 per cent. of all households, of which 500,000 had at least one member of working age. By 2007-08, the overall numbers had, indeed, doubled to 1.2 million, or 4 per cent. of households, but the figure for household members of working age had not increased significantly at all: it was still about 600,000, or 2 per cent. of households.

If there was any story from those figures, it was the large increase in the number of pensioner households that receive benefits of more than £15,000 per annum. The number had increased from 100,000 to 600,000 during the period in question. That is not a twofold or threefold increase, but a sixfold increase, so why did the right hon. Member for Maidenhead not congratulate the Government on helping the most vulnerable pensioners, those with disabilities and extensive care needs? The headline should have read "Labour pride", not "Labour shame".

On the numbers of households receiving more than £20,000, the figures are so low as to be meaningless. The table from the written answer on the number of households with persons of working age gives the following percentages: 1997-98, 1 per cent.; 1998-99, 1 per cent.; 1999-2000, 0 per cent.; 2000-01, 0 per cent.; 2001-02, 1 per cent.; 2003-04, 1 per cent.; 2004-05, 1 per cent.; 2005-06, 1 per cent.; 2006-07, 1 per cent.; and 2007-08, 1 per cent. Only if pensioner households are included does the percentage rise to 2 per cent. or 3 per cent.

There is a similar story on housing benefit. The Tories have put out scare stories about the increase in the housing benefit bill, but given that the number of social homes has decreased by 1 million since 1995, making more people dependent on the private sector, it is not surprising that the bill has gone up.

I think that I have established beyond doubt that the Opposition are not averse to misusing statistics. Their leader did so in his speech to their party conference, maligning the Labour Government on poverty while conveniently forgetting the huge rise in poverty under the Tories. Thank God they have not been in power through the recent recession.

It is particularly odious to misuse statistics in a way that pillories vulnerable people and panders to the lowest form of populism. We have seen the Tories recently put about completely unwarranted scare stories about the Government taking away disability living allowance and attendance allowance from pensioners. Then the next day, as I have shown, the same people-those pensioners-are portrayed as undeserving and a part of the dependency culture.

The Tories have tried to portray themselves as caring and honest, but in reality we see that they are still the nasty party, with the hon. Member for Monmouth being the exemplar par excellence.

6.19 pm

(Hansard record):





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