Boris Johnson accused of ‘outrageous’ misuse of statistics following misleading figures on child poverty for second consecutive week

Keir Starmer accuses PM of ‘dodgy answers’ after children’s commissioner brands figures incorrect

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Boris Johnson has been accused of an “outrageous” misuse of statistics after he deployed misleading figures on child poverty for a second week running at prime minister’s questions.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer demanded a retraction from the PM after Mr Johnson’s claim that there are 400,000 fewer families in poverty now than in 2010 was dismissed as false by the children’s commissioner for England.

But rather than back away from the figure Mr Johnson cited two other measures under which he claimed child poverty had gone down under Tory-led governments, saying: “I’m happy to point out to my learned friend that actually there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.”

Donald Hirsch, a Loughborough University professor of social policy, told The Independent that the 100,000 figure was only correct if the current figure was compared with the figure for 2009-10, effectively taking credit for major reductions in child poverty during the last year of Gordon Brown’s Labour government. When compared with the start of Tory-led administrations in 2010-11, the figure has actually risen by around 100,000.

And Mr Johnson’s claim that the number of children currently below the low income and material deprivation level was half a million down over the decade ignored the fact that the methodology has been changed in a way which means that, according to the government’s own guidelines, the two figures are not comparable. Under the new methodology, the true fall has been 200,000 since 2010, said Prof Hirsch.

“What is really outrageous is that last week he said something and was found out for cheating by picking years which suited his argument,” said the academic. “He has now given another number which is not what he is claiming. Two weeks in a row he has made statements which can’t by any stretch of the imagination be substantiated.”

A senior Downing Street source was unable to provide any source for Mr Johnson’s figures from either last week or today, telling reporters: “The prime minister has set out today in the Commons in his answer to the leader of the opposition what the figures are.”

Today’s clash in the House of Commons was prompted by the PM’s claim last week that “absolute poverty 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”.

The claim came after Sir Keir confronted the PM with statistics showing that an additional 600,000 children now live in relative poverty compared with 2012, and that the total number of children in poverty is projected to rise to 5.2 million by 2022 on current trends.

A fact-check conducted for children’s commissioner Anne Longfield found that Sir Keir’s claims were “correct descriptions” of findings in a think-tank report, with the first based on the government’s own figures and the second on “the best available estimate”. The impact of Covid-19 meant the forecast was now likely to be optimistic, the analysis said.

By contrast, Mr Johnson’s claim about falling numbers of children in poverty was “not borne out by the government’s own figures” and were not properly substantiated by other data, the commissioner’s office found.

In testy exchanges in the House of Commons, Sir Keir demanded a retraction from the prime minister.

“He’s been found out,” Sir Keir told MPs. “He either dodges the question or he gives dodgy answers.

“Mr Speaker, no more witnesses, I rest my case. Will the prime minister do the decent thing and correct the record in relation to child poverty?”

But Mr Johnson refused to back down, responding: “I’m happy to point out to my learned friend that actually there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.

“This government is massively increasing universal credit – £7bn more to help the poorest and neediest families in our country. We’re getting on with it, we’re taking the tough decisions.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “There is no doubt we have a child poverty crisis – the evidence is all around in schools, clinics and playgrounds.

“The government has put in place some bold and innovative measures to support people’s incomes and added £20 a week to universal credit and tax credits – that’s really welcome, but there’s more to do.

“It’s hard to understand why the government won’t recognise that the problem exists while spending public money to address it – the reality is that it will take a lot more investment in the nation’s children to turn the tide and give him positive news to announce on child poverty. Adding £10 per week to child benefit would be a good place to start – that would reduce child poverty by half a million children.”

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