18 August 2011

Harriet Sergeant's Spectator front-cover article “These rioters are Tony Blair's children” is riven with inaccurate statistics and ill-founded claims

Spectator magazine - child unfriendly

Adding little but more tinder to the bonfire of ill considered comment about recent events, Sergeant (a fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies [CPS]) uses her article to gives her opinion that the riots were “not about poverty or race” and also to state that “unless we understand the causes of this anarchy and the role that government has played, how can we put it right?” 

But the dubious ‘facts’ throughout her article mean anyone using it to try to understand the riots will be chasing phantoms and not provided with any ideas to 'put anything right'. 

1. The source for her claim that “A full 63 per cent of white working class boys, and just over half of black Caribbean boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below” is presumably what she wrote in her own CPS publication of 2009, ‘WASTED’ [i]

In this, she stated “63% of 14 year old white working class boys have a reading ability of half their age. Over half, 54% of 14 year old black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven” but also that “White working class boys are most at risk of under-performing with 63 per cent unable to read and write properly at 14 compared to 43 per cent of white girls from a similar background. Black working class boys do not do much better. Just over half of them, 54 per cent, can not read or write properly at 14”. 

Note “have a reading age of seven or below” only appears in the first of the two passages quoted above from ‘WASTED’. 

‘WASTED’ gives the source of the second these claims as a report in the Daily Mail [ii] on 13 August 2007. The Daily Mail article refers to an unnamed Bow Group report but makes no mention of comparison to seven year olds just stating, as in the latter passage in WASTED, that “White working-class boys were found to be most at risk of under-performing, with 63 per cent unable to read and write properly at 14.” 

Indeed elsewhere in the Mail article, it is reported that it is just “one in five (14 year old) boys has a reading ability of a pupil half his age.”  

I have no idea about the veracity or not of the claim in the Spectator article about so many boys having a reading age half their actual age but I note that a report in the (London) Evening Standard [iii] on 13 August 2008 about the last SATS results for 14 year olds (which were a way of measuring literacy and which were abolished for that age in 2008) that states that “More than one in five (of 14 year old) boys - 21 per cent - have a reading age of nine.” 

2. I think Ms Sergeant must have been very unfortunate that the 14 year old boys that she interviewed, and who had dropped out or had been excluded from school’ “only turn(ed) up to school to sell drugs or stolen goods.” Never turn up  to do things like meet their siblings there or their friends still attending their school?

3. Her claim, possibly originally known from late 90s research, that “half of the prison population has a reading age below that of an 11-year-old” has been displaced by a more authoritative statistic from 2008, given by Edward Leigh MP, as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, who reported that “nearly 40 per cent (of those in custody) have a reading age lower than that of a competent 11- year old.”[iv] [v] 

4. Between 2001 and 2009, 12 teachers were ‘struck off’ from teaching for incompetence, not just “suspended”. Being stuck off can be permanent, or for a fixed period.[vi]  

5. Sergeant wrongly states “of the 1.8 million new jobs created over the Labour years, 99 per cent went to immigrants”. Rather the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad was equivalent to 88 per cent of the number of extra workers that there were in 2010, compared with 1997 [vii].  

6. The unemployed get money designated for council tax and other things such as rent but they don't get money for “utility payments” as the author appears to be stating. If in arrears with the utilities, small sums may be taken directly from benefits to pay towards gas and electricty bills but this isn’t any extra money. [viii]  

7. I wonder how current is her claim that “the catering trade alone has recruited 10,000 workers from outside Europe to work in kitchens or as porters or back of house staff”? Sergeant also uses this statistic in her CPS publication WASTED but I see the same statistic was used in the Daily Telegraph [ix] on 14 February 2005.  

I thought that Labour’s ‘get tough on immigration’ persona, in its latter years in government, had meant the end of some working visas for such workers and so there may well have been a reduction from the reported 10,000 non-European catering workers, but I do not know the current number of such workers (or how European is defined here: EEA +CH + ?)  

8. I would be interested in the source of her statistic that “49 per cent of British parents did not know where their children were in the evenings or with whom. Some 45 per cent of 15 year old boys spent four or more evening a week hanging about ‘with friends’ compared to just 17 per cent in France.”  

Certainly if boys are out so often hanging around, I would have thought they must be doing a lot of revision with their friends during this time because 65.4 per cent of boys obtained Grades A* to C in the GSCEs in 2010 [x] 

9. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe, not Europe.[xi]  

10. I do not know if “Since 1997, a single mother of two children has seen her benefits increase by a staggering 85 per cent”, as Sergeant writes, but I do know that inflation between 1997 and 2010 was 41 per cent.[xii]


1. From the discussion about this article at Liberal Conspiracy:

a)  I agree with Damon (5) that lists of facts and figures (as in my article) are dry to read but I also wish that more articles were the result of research and referenced the source of their facts and figures. Opinion pieces can be good to read when well-written, but I’m tired of the multitude of blogs that are just venting.

The author of the Spectator article is a regular talking head and is widely published in the conservative media. She is also a fellow of The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS).

The CPS describe themselves as “one of Britain’s leading think tanks” and with “an outstanding record of influencing government policy”. They claim a whole list of measures that they proposed and which the Coalition government have enacted including “Abolition of school quangos”,” Reform of the Children’s Plan” and “Abolition of the Serious Organised Crime Agency” all of which is stated “have their roots in papers published by the CPS.” 

It is such a CPS paper, WASTED, by Sergeant, that forms the basis of some of her incorrect facts in the Spectator article. A paper that also has insufficient sources, like simply “The Daily Mail” of a certain date’. It is alarming if such research really does help determine government policy. 

A few years ago I was impressed with the fact-checking of the Economist, when one of their journalists came back to me checking a couple of figures, amongst a lot of information that I had given for his research for an article. These figures were not quite as robust as others, but also very obscure, and it reflected well on that publication that they discovered this and wanted other sources – they did not run with those figures in the end.

As a subscriber to the Spectator, I will be writing to the editor asking him why they do not appear to fact-check and why I should believe anything they write which make uses of statistics or similar in its analysis or arguments.

Clive Power, 19 August 2011

b) Mr Power writes:

“Sergeant wrongly states “of the 1.8 million new jobs created over the Labour years, 99 per cent went to immigrants”. Rather the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad was equivalent to 88 per cent of the number of extra workers that there were in 2010, compared with 1997 [vii].”

Quickly read, this might suggest that Sergeant had written 99 where she should have written 88. That would be a serious mistake but not a significant one. I assume that the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad includes many who were already in work in 1997?

George Brennan, 21 August 2011

c) Yes, she has converged two figures and also done this inaccurately. The workforce increased by more than two million between 1997 and 2010 and it so happens that 88 per cent of that figure (not 99 per cent) happens to be the number of “non-UK born” workers in Britain in 2010. 

As well as getting the percentage incorrect, it’s also completely wrong for her to state that either 99 per cent or 88 per cent of the “jobs created over the Labour years… went to immigrants” because, as George Brennan states,“ the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad includes many who were already in work in 1997”.

Sergeant’s error with the percentage may relate to her saying the workforce increased by 1.8 million jobs (not 2 million) between 1997 to 2010. It could be that the percentage error is “a serious mistake but not a significant one”, as George states, but to write (as she does) that just about all new jobs between 1997 and 2010 were taken by immigrants is both a serious and significant error.

Thinking it through – how likely is it that 99 per cent (or 88 per cent) of workers at Sure Start centres throughout the country in 2010, as an example of new jobs created during the Labour government, came from abroad? 

Unusually the Daily Mail gives the relevant figures but again with the same ‘misunderstanding’ (being generous) about the migrant part of the workforce summed up in their provocative and wrong headline “Migrants took 9 out of 10 jobs created under Labour.”

Clive Power, 21 August 2011

2. Further and excellent analysis of the fake “A full 63 per cent of white working class boys, and just over half of black Caribbean boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below.” 'stat' by PaulB in A made-up statistic.

3. Compare tone of Harriet Sergeant 2011 Spectator article comments about employment with:

"Today's immigrants are not taking jobs from British workers but rather doing jobs that otherwise would stay vacant: between the spring of 2002 and 2006, migrant workers found 740,000 jobs, while the number of jobs taken by British-born workers remained steady." (Leading article, Spectator, 5 April 2008).   


[iv] Edward Leigh MP - Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice: Publication of the Committee's 47th Report, Session 2007-08 http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-archive/committee-of-public-accounts/pacpn081030/ 

[v] Half of the prison population has a reading age below that of an 11-year-old’ is often accredited to ‘The Moser Report’ [A Fresh Start - improving literacy and numeracy] [DfEE 1999, ref: CMBS 1 http://www.lifelonglearning.co.uk/mosergroup/] although that report contains no such claim. 

[vi] “In rare move, GTC orders two-year ban for humanities specialist…Only 11 other teachers have been struck off for incompetence from a workforce of around 500,000 since the GTC was formed in 2001” Times Educational Supplement 16 October, 2009. http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6025119

[vii] The Office for National Statistics ’Labour Force Survey’ http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/Source.asp?vlnk=358&More=Y as quoted in a written parliamentary answer to Tory MP James Clappison on 12 October 2010 (Hansard: HC Deb, 12 October 2010, c286W) and as reported in the Daily Mail on 29 October 2010 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1325013/Migrants-took-9-10-jobs-created-Labour.html

[viii] My questions to those receiving Job Seekers Allowance and to those receiving benefits paid to those unable to work because of illness or disability.

[xi] From FPA factsheet (http://www.fpa.org.uk/professionals/factsheets/teenagepregnancy) quoting United Nations Statistics Division, ‘Statistics and Indicators on Women and Men, Table 2b- Indicators on Childbearing’, as accessed by FPA on 3 March 2009.

[xii] Bank of England Inflation Calculator http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/inflation/calculator/flash/index.htm

(photo - Clive Power. Some rights reserved, see www.flickr.com/photos/clivepower/128058660)