What’s in a number?

More than 100 years ago Mark Twain commented that “facts are stubborn things but statistics are pliable”. Add a layer of media manipulation, public affairs spin and the tweet and retweet culture of social media and that observation is more astute than ever.

The press, official reports, policy papers, manifestos and well….pretty much everything we read is awash with carefully selected statistics.

The welfare reforms are an excellent case in point where the gap between ‘stats’ and fiction seem to be increasing.

The Coalition Government has done a quite brilliant job of convincing the British public that benefits claimants are all crooks and bandits and that there are hundreds of thousands of them fraudulently stealing the righteous taxpayers’ money.

The truth is far less appealing to the tabloids and yet the public remain obstinately drawn to the ‘benefits culture’ spin.

According to DWP figures, fraudulent benefit claims cost in the region of £1.2bn a year. Yes, a huge amount of money and fraud should be stamped out wherever it occurs.  But put another way, that means that only 0.7% of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while public perception believes it to be 27%.

A figure that is less often touted in the media is that ‘official error’ costs the DWP a fairly hefty £0.7bn a year. Or (at the other end of the fraud spectrum) that the government conservatively estimate in the region of £30bn is lost to the economy through tax avoidance.

At the same time as demonising benefits claimants and ‘poor people’ at large, it comes as no surprise to find out that child poverty in Scotland’s biggest city costs Glasgow City Council £395m a year. It is estimated that 150,000 children are living in poverty across Scotland and that average incomes and benefit payments have gone down. In the interest of stats purity, it should be pointed out that this 150,000 is actually a fall of 12% on the previous year. But that still means that child poverty is at a higher rate in Glasgow than in London.

So charities like Shelter Scotland face an increasingly uphill battle fighting for vulnerable people and families who are getting lost amongst the headlines.

Last week we saw Scottish Government figures reporting a 13% drop in formal homelessness applications. This is good news. The fewer people who have to go through the trauma of homelessness, the better.

It doesn’t change that fact however, that calls to the Shelter Scotland free housing advice helpline have gone up by 43% in the past 2 years. That from the 39,827 applications made last year, a staggering 31% were from people aged between 16-24 years. Or that statutory homelessness is still 6 times higher in Scotland than England. Or that in 8% of homeless applications the person had just been in the care system, prison or hospital – so going directly from one expensive public service to another with no chance to move out of crisis.  What’s the cost of that to the public purse? And how are we still failing this group of people so terrifically?

Twain was right, statistics are infinitely pliable. We’re all guilty of using the stats that suit our purpose or to emphasize a specific point. And this is exactly why we must try to wrestle them from the hands of the wrong people. At an organisational level we’re doing it all the time, on an individual level people must question what they read and challenge even the most authoritative stats.

About the author

Fiona King

Fiona King

I’m Campaigns & Public Affairs Manager at Shelter Scotland and have been part of the team since 2010, previously having been a policy nerd. Our campaigning work takes me all over Scotland and beyond and I work closely with politicians and stakeholders across Scotland to get housing up the agenda. Outside the world of policy I like to eat and drink, ideally by the seaside and I am an office sweepstake enthusiast.

  • I looked at the figures and it occurs to me that 0.7%, or £1.2bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud does not tell us the proportion of individuals who claim fraudulently.

    It might be that there is a small number of people who claim large sums fraudulently and who represent far fewer that 0.7% of claimants.

    It could be that good analysts could spot the fraudulent claims easily and that the reason the figure is 0.7% of benefit expenditure is because of poor or slow follow-up.

    Without knowing those numbers, the figures given are limited, at best.

    Also, I see from the figures that 0.6%, or £0.9bn, of total benefit expenditure is underpaid due to claimant error.