Early election alert! Fake facts hit Ladywood
As the world now knows, ‘Brenda from Bristol’ – or #Brenda4PM or Brenda “Not another one?” to her new followers – isn’t a fan of all this voting business. Election administrators too, facing the organisation of a second election within weeks of local and mayoral polls, lost no time agreeing with her, writes Chris Game.
Every cloud, though, as the saying goes, and there are plenty of occupations and activities that will get a boost from the PM’s dramatic U-turn. Not least the fact-checking industry, already experiencing a healthy boom in this age in which fake facts have become part of not just daily political life but political strategy.
Indeed, Birmingham and the Ladywood constituency in particular were just last week at the unpleasant end of what Chicagoans might call a real lollapalooza, discourtesy of the Daily Mail – reinforced, balance requires me to add, by the rest of the red tops and at least bits of the media who ought to know better. Fortunately, though, the fact checkers, on whose work this blog is largely based, were already in training.
You may have seen the headlines, of which the following are a sample.
Both Birmingham and Ladywood, of course, have been the focus for this kind of benefit-alarm story since at least the time of the 2014 Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street. Indeed, talking of elections, I recall that in 2015 the bookies, bored with having Labour’s Shabana Mahmood at 100/1 on, made that series’ reality star, White Dee, second favourite, despite her not actually standing.
Anyway, the excitement of last week’s story derived from its apparently being handed to the journalists on a plate – Easter gift-wrapped plus choccie egg on the side. No grubby door-knocking and misquotation necessary – the Mail’s figures were, to quote, “compiled by the House of Commons Library, using last month’s data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)”.
All they had to do was reproduce the figures. Well, having read and understood them, obviously – and that unfortunately was the bit that proved too demanding.
I’ll take it a step at a time, starting with the Mail’s headline: “ONE IN TEN residents are claiming welfare in parts of the city” (my emphasis).
OK, one in ten is a lot, but then ‘welfare’, as commonly understood, covers a lot. We know that one in three of our working-age population are of state pension age, that nearly one in five of us have a disability, and so on.
Financially, the welfare budget – £218 billion and rising – accounts for 11% of our whole Gross Domestic Product: all UK expenditure on social security and tax credits, housing benefit, Universal Credit and state pensions, child benefit, and lots more. Over half of all UK families currently receive at least one of these generic welfare benefits.
Pretty obviously, then, the Mail wasn’t getting itself into a headline lather about this lot. No, as ever, it’s the allegedly scrounging unemployed – whose claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Income Support account for just over 2% of the welfare budget.
Add on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for people assessed as being too ill or disabled to work, and other incapacity benefits, and the combined total is up to 9% of total welfare spending. It’s a lot, undeniably, but much less than, say, housing benefit or HMRC tax credits.
Still, ‘welfare’, ‘unemployment benefit’ (sorry, handouts – these things are always ‘handouts’) – what’s the real difference? Why confuse readers with these minor semantic distinctions when you’re in the outrage business?
The first four sentences of the Mail’s report therefore read:
“Birmingham has been named as the benefits capital of Britain in official figures.
Four areas of the city feature among a league table of constituencies with the highest proportion of claimants.
Birmingham Ladywood topped the list – with 10.3 per cent of working age residents receiving unemployment handouts.
The neighbouring Hodge Hill seat was second on 8.9 per cent, while Perry Barr and Erdington were fifth and sixth respectively.” (my emphasis)
Oops, did you see that – how ‘residents’ in the headline suddenly metamorphosed into ‘working age residents’?
It’s quite a difference – 30% in Ladywood’s case (see Ladywood Constituency and Economic & Employment Profile, March 2015). 1 in 10 of all 127,000 residents in what happens to be the city’s largest constituency would be 12,700; 1 in 10 of its 88,000 working age residents is 8,800.
Back to elections again for a second. It’s like saying that the turnout in Shabana Mahmood’s constituency in 2015 was 28% – which it was, of the whole population – rather than 53% of the electorate.
Again, though, 8,800 is still a worryingly large number – if that’s what it is or was. But again it’s not.
Here it does get ever so slightly technical. The Office for National Statistics, concerned as they are with relatively large-scale data, do indeed show claimants as a proportion of total population aged 16-64. But they gather their data from a large annual population survey.
The House of Commons Library people serve MPs, want more constituency-specific data, and therefore use claimant counts from local administrative records. And, as they described in January (p.2), their claimant measure is of the number of claimants as a proportion of the estimated economically active population aged 16-64.
Again, the difference is considerable. ‘Economically active’ is a measure of labour supply and means being in work or actively looking for work, as opposed to ‘economically inactive’, which includes students (of which there are a great many in Ladywood), those looking after family, the long-term sick, retired, etc.
Let’s return, then, to the tabloids’ shock-horror ‘One in ten’ headlines. One in ten Ladywood residents claiming unemployment benefits – that is, Jobseeker’s Allowance plus those claiming Universal Credit who are required to seek work – would be 12,700. One in ten of working-age residents would be 8,800.
The actual figure is shown in a table that matches numbers to the percentages shown below, headed by the 10.3% on which all the newspapers based their shock stories. The population base, I trust you’ll agree, is pretty clearly indicated, and the figure is 6,125.
It is, by some way, the highest in the country and, like the Birmingham figures as a whole, is without doubt a cause for concern to local and national politicians alike, present and future. Indeed, it’s a story that really doesn’t need any exaggeration and distortion.
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