Saturday, July 29, 2006

Better or Worse? p.54

With no columns in the Guardian this week, there has been little Polly Toynbee output to factcheck.  So I turn once again to Better or Worse? Has Labour Delivered?, the book Polly co-wrote with David Walker.  The challenge is to open it to a random page, and try to find a factual inaccuracy.

On page 54 (my edition is a Bloomsbury paperback), Polly writes:

In 2003 the child of a father in the lowest social classes was twice as likely to die within a year of birth, five times more likely to die in a road traffic accident and fifteen times more likely to die in a house fire than those in the highest social class.

The sentence bears a truly striking resemblance to one from page 9 of a 2004 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, written by Will Paxton and Mike Dixon (you can download a pdf version of the report from the Guardian's website here):

The list of disadvantages which are correlated with poverty is long, but to give just a few examples: in 2003, children of fathers in the lowest social class were twice as likely to die within one year of birth (ONS 2001), five times more likely to die in a traffic accident and 15 times more likely to die in a house fire than those from the highest social class (DoH 2003).

As I say, the similarities are startling, and for those interested in this sort of thing, the IPPR report is dated 2004; and Polly's book is dated 2005.  I'm going to assume it is Polly who was handy with the copy 'n' paste.

But the differences are striking too -- for example, I'd always assumed the absence of sources from Polly's material was just laziness, as opposed to deliberate suppression.

And, as ever, going to the original sources is revealing.

The figure about children from social class V being twice as likely to die within one year of birth than those from social class I is taken from an ONS report  called Childhood, infant and perinatal Mortality statistics - Review of the Registrar General on deaths in England and Wales, 2001 (pdf link here -- see Table 20) which was published in 2003, but actually refers to 2001. 

By the time the 2003 figures had come out in 2005 (pdf link here -- again see Table 20), the ONS had moved from a five-class categorisation of social class to an nine-class one (counting 1.1 and 1.2 as two separate classes).  As a result, the chances of dying before one in the top social class (1.1) was 0.32%, and the equivalent chance in the bottom social class (8) was 4%.  A tenfold difference and not a twofold one.

As for the figure about dying in traffic accidents and in house fires, the report that Paxton and Dixon cite, Tackling health inequalities - 2002 cross-cutting review, was actually published on 19 November 2002, according to the page on the Department of Health website from which it can be downloaded (here).  Therefore, the quality of its insights into causes of death in 2003 are likely to be limited.  In fact, the closest it comes to sourcing its claim that "[r]esidential fire deaths for children are 15 times greater for children in social class V compared to those in social class I" is on page 48, where it makes clear that the data it is using cover 1989-92.  Rather than 2003.

Friday, July 21, 2006

She would bet on it

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Cowardice often hides behind "globalisation" as an excuse for inertia. Often it is the Americans who puncture the convenient myth of the helpless nation-state. Here's the latest example: the US senate is about to outlaw online gambling by preventing credit cards and banks paying out to gaming sites...  The US shows you can just ban the banks from paying any money to online gambling sites at home or abroad, so this lethal explosion can be stopped.

Actually, it is not clear that the US senate is about to outlaw online gambling.  As this article in the Washington Post shows, there is disagreement  among Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's aides about whether this will happen before their August recess.  And, of course, it actually needs to, er, pass the vote.

And it does not show that "you can just ban the banks from paying any money to online gambling sites at home or abroad".  There are rules governing trade (that pesky "globalisation" stuff).  Appeals have already been lodged with the WTO (source), and the US does not have a 100% record with the WTO over gambling legislation (source).  It is also possible that this episode will show  that you can't just ban banks from paying out to online gambling sites at home or abroad.

And, of course, it is still too early to say what the effect of the legislation will be (if it does get passed, and it survives challenges by the WTO, that is).  It may, or may not, stop this "lethal explosion".

For someone who condemns gambling, she's taking a heck of a punt.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Still unclear

Today's Polly Toynbee column says:

The eyes of would-be nuclear builders, meanwhile, are on Areva, the French government- subsidised company building in Finland the first new nuclear station anywhere in decades.

It might be instructive to compare that with this, from a column in the Guardian from August 2004:

Nuclear has, however, found an important niche market in Asia. Of 27 stations now under construction worldwide, 16 are in China, India, Japan and South Korea. China and India both intend at least to quadruple their nuclear output and have started nine new power plants in the past four years and have 10 more under construction.


Friday, July 14, 2006

Fun ding-dong

In today's column, Polly Toynbee says:

Party fundraising did for Chancellor Kohl, the man who united East and West Germany at great political and financial risk

Actually, the scandal broke in 1999 (source), over a year after he was 'done for'.  He lost a general election in 1998, when the issue wasn't at all current (source).


Polly also says of the Tories' proposed cap on donations of £50,000 that:

The unions this week gave indignant evidence that the cap would cut their annual contribution to Labour from £8m to £800,000.

Actually, these figures refer only to affiliation fees and not the total contribution, as this article in the Guardian makes clear:

The proposals would mean the unions, Labour's chief source of funding, would only be able to provide £800,000 annually instead of the present £8m annually in affiliation fees alone.
[emphasis added]

Indeed, a bit of digging on the part Electoral Commission's website dedicated to funding (here) shows that in 2005, unions gave the Labour Party £11.8m in cash alone, of which £2.8m was in donations below the proposed cap of £50,000 (though some of these may be multiple donations from the same union).

Thursday, July 13, 2006


A little bit more on Tuesday's Polly Toynbee column.  As ever, actually taking the time to go back and read the source material has cast her gift for inaccurate précis into sharp relief.  Take this quote from her column:

Crime Concern delivers many of those designed to draw in the children regarded as at highest risk of offending. On a Rochdale estate, it achieves a 70% fall in calls to the police complaining about young people. It cost £350,000 - but researchers estimate it saves £665,000.

The £350,000 vs. £665,000 comparison comes from an evaluation of the Community Merit Awards (CMA) programme, commissioned by the Youth Justice Board (pdf link here).  The figures do not refer to Rochdale, but to all CMA programmes (see p.13 of the report referenced above), and the efforts in Rochdale include a lot more than just the CMA, as this quote from page 12 of the report illustrates:

The Langley YIP is engaged in a number of other schemes, so it is difficult to give all the credit to the CMA

In other words, the "It" in "It cost £350,000 - but researchers estimate it saves £665,000" does not refer to anything mentioned previously in the column.

As for Polly's "[o]n a Rochdale estate, it achieves a 70% fall in calls to the police complaining about young people", the report is a little more nuanced:

For example, the positive view of the young people provided by wardens in Langley, Rochdale was backed up by the estate’s housing manager. He stated that, at a recent borough-wide meeting to discuss vandalism and anti-social behaviour, his was the only estate where these issues were not seen as a problem. He also estimated that calls regarding young people being a nuisance had fallen by 70% during the CMA scheme.

In other words, an estimate of calls (not necessarily to the police) by the estate's housing manager.  For an actual figure, I commend to you the Middleton Guardian's story "‘It must be YIP’ as youth crime halves", which says:

Between April and June youth nuisance calls have fallen by 41 per cent, with criminal damage down by 60 per cent. Areas not covered by the project have not reflected the reduction in trouble.
[emphasis added]

In other words, an excellent result, and one to be praised, but not the one Polly claims.


She then goes on to say:

The youth inclusion programme identifies the 50 children most likely to become offenders locally, achieving a 65% reduction in arrest rates

The 65% reduction in arrest rates among participants needs to be compared with a 44% reduction in the control group of "top 50" children most likely to become offenders who weren't included in the program.  On page 100 of Evaluation of the Youth Inclusion Programme (pdf link here), for example, comes this quote:

There was also a decrease in the levels of offending for the top 50 who were not engaged by the projects. However, the change was substantially lower than for those engaged, at 44% compared to 65% for those that were engaged

Again, a 21% reduction is a laudable result, but not the one claimed.


Polly also writes:

Home Office research shows that every 15% increase in incarceration only prevents 1% of crime.

Of course it doesn't.  Take, for example, page 130 of the 2000 Halliday Report - 'Making Punishments Work: A Review of the Sentencing Framework for England & Wales' (pdfs downloadble from here) which says:

Home Office modelling suggests that the prison population needs to increase by around 15% to result in a short-term reduction of crime of just 1%, assuming that the extra prisoners would have committed 13 recorded offences per year, if at liberty.

Now, these figures only try to calculate the number of crimes that would have been committed by the new prisoners, or to quote Halliday:

These figures represent the avoidance of crimes, arising from just imprisoning a person. They do no [sic] estimate the effect on the propensity to commit crime after their period of imprisonment or the deterrent effect on others.
[emphasis added]

And how about the assumption that "extra prisoners would have committed 13 recorded offences per year, if at liberty"?  Well, Halliday gives this as a basis:

A survey of self reported offending among males received into prison under sentence in early 2000, suggests that they commit offences at around 140 per year in the period at liberty, before they were imprisoned.

[From the footnotes] It is estimated that the self reported offending figure of 140 is equivalent to about 13 recorded offences per year

[Back to the main text] There are substantial differences in the extent of drug related offending, ranging from 22 offences per person per year for those not taking any drugs to 257 for those who take drugs and admit to their drug taking being a problem.

Or, in other words, you can be more selective about whom you incarcerate.  To quote Halliday again:

A 1% reduction in recorded crime can be achieved by targeting particular groups, but with a smaller overall increase in the prison population. For example, by increasing by 16% the prison population of persons who admit to taking a drug and to their drug taking being a problem. This is equivalent to a 7% increase in the overall prison population.

Or a 15% increase could achieve about a 2% reduction.  So it is not true that "every 15% increase in incarceration only prevents 1% of crime." [emphasis added]


The poor "every 15% increase in incarceration only prevents 1% of crime" citation is used as evidence for this sentence:

Prison is swallowing up the cash that might stop crime - and it doesn't work.

Now, the prison population is about 76,266 (source here -- not particularly up-to-date, but good enough for a rough and ready calculation).  The research Halliday cited claimed that each prisoner would have committed or taken part in  about 140 offences a year if at liberty, thus preventing 10.6m offences from occurring.  The budget for the prison service is about £2.8bn (£2,591m of current and £209m of capital expenditures. Source: Home Office Departmental Report 2004–05, pdf link here, p.124-5), which means it costs about £264 per offence prevented.

Separately, the Home Office has estimated that the average cost of a crime to society is about £2,000 (on page 4 of Home Office Research Study 217: The economic and social costs of crime, pdf link here, they talk about "16 million crimes were estimated to be committed in this category each year, at a total cost of around £32 billion."  Note that this is for crimes against individuals and households only).  This estimate includes the costs of the Criminal Justice System, so we'll strip these out to avoid double-counting.  These amount to about 20% (see p.55 -- note this is for the entire CJS, not just the prison service, so we are being conservative in our estimates here), so say the average cost per crime is £1,600.

Now, this is a back of the envelope calculation, and certainly not rigorous to make any policy recommendations as a result (e.g. it is not clear that all 140 offences would not occur, as some of them were committed with other people), but it is not immediately apparent that "[p]rison is swallowing up the cash that might stop crime" -- it looks like it is spending cash that does stop crime -- £264 per crime prevented, which would have cost £1,600 had it occurred.  (Here is where I got the idea for the calculation).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Let me count the ways

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

The Audit Commission estimates that £42,000 on effective early interventions in children's lives from birth to adolescence spares £153,000 in incarceration.

There are a number of problems with this sentence, and here is a guide to them:

The Audit Commission estimates(1) that £42,000 on effective early interventions in children's(2) lives from birth to adolescence spares(3) £153,000(4) in incarceration(5).

(1) It should actually be "estimated", not "estimates".  When Polly first wrote about this back in March 2004, she actually had the good grace to use the past tense of "estimated".  Now, over two years later, writing about exactly the same thing, we've suddenly switched to the present tense.  Eh?

Oh, and if you doubt that it is the same thing, here is a sentence from her 2004 article [empahsis added]:

The commission estimated that spending £42,000 on early interventions from birth through adolescence would spare £153,000 on subsequent incarceration.

It is eerily familiar, isn't it?  Apart from the altered tense...

(2) "Children's lives".  Guess the sample size on which this broad generalisation isbased.  No, go on, guess.  It is one.  One!  And hardly a representative one either.  If you read the original research and their description of James (name has been changed), you'll see that:

  • James is 15.
  • He lives in his mother’s house; however, she is rarely there.
  • His older step-sister is also living there. She is a known drug user with previous convictions.
  • His father occasionally visits and is violent and disruptive when he does.
  • James has been excluded from special school.
  • He is not receiving any alternative educational provision.
  • He was ten when he received his first caution.
  • He is currently serving his second custodial sentence.

I would hesitate to draw broad conclusions about "children's lives" based on one example, and on this one in particular.  And the Audit Commission did not try to.  In fact, they speculated about the benefits of spending on early intervention in a particular child's life.

(3) The word "spares" here suggests that spending the £42,243 would automatically save the £153,687.  Of course that is not guaranteed on the basis of a counter-facutal involving one person.  Which is why in their research the Audit Commission uses phrases like:

"assuming crime route is avoided" [emhasis added]

"It is not possible to accurately estimate the costs of a young person’s involvement in crime and the impact on the lives of themselves and others."

"Had the services been available, James might have benefited from family support, pre-school education, anger management, learning support and mentoring." [emhasis added]

This is not to say that early intervention programmes don't work, but rather that the claim that they can save so much is pure conjecture.

(4) The actual figure is £153,687, so even with rounding this should be £154,000.

(5) No.  Look at the original research.  The £153,687 does not refer to incarceration alone.  It includes a special education needs assessment by the LEA, compiling an education 'package', social services undertaking a family assessment, and so on.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Hard figures

In today's column, Polly Toynbe writes:

The Work Foundation points to these hard figures: in 1980 top directors in FTSE companies were paid 10 times the average worker in their companies. By 1990 the gap had multiplied to 31.5 times. And by 2002 the top dogs were paid an enormous 75.7 times more than their average employee. It is a statistical and social impossibility to pretend that we can really abolish child poverty in a society shaped like that.

It has not been easy trying to find the source of these figures (the Work Foundation merely "points" to them).  The best I can do is an article called "Corporate governance and disappointment" in the Review of International Political Economy 11:4 October 2004.  I haven't found it on the web freely available, but you can buy a copy here.

From this, we learn that it is not all FTSE companies, it is FTSE-100 companies.  The data refer to the highest-paid individual director in each of the FTSE-100 companies.  And it is not "the average worker in their companies", rather it is the average of "full-time manual employees in the UK." [emphasis added, source is the article I mentioned above].

Now, the average of all manual workers pay is different from the average pay of people working in a FTSE-100 company, as I am sure the employees of, say, 3i or Barclays or Schroders will be able to confirm.

When Polly called these "hard figures", I initially assumed she meant tough or rigorous, rather than difficult to get right.


Even more interesting, though, is the 'why can't we be more like Sweden?' meme.  In the paragraph directly after the authors of "Corporate governance and disappointment" introduce the figures which Polly makes a half-hearted attempt at citing, they say:

The US/UK differences are interesting but it is a mistake to make too muchof them or to assume that by the late 1990s large payouts to executives were limited to Anglo-Saxon, stock market-based economies... As Messier at Vivendi or Barnevik at ABB demonstrate, greed knows no boundaries and consequently some of the most interesting examples of excessive compensation have arisen in the most unlikely places. As Business Week (19 May 2003) observed of the Swedish/Swiss ABB, ‘for a staid engineering company, they sure know how to make a golden parachute’.

Or could it be that there is scant causal link between directors' pay and child poverty?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Eh, quality?

In today's column, Polly Toynbee asks for an:

open discussion about the danger of infinite inequality escalation.

And she probably is looking for something more sophisticated than "it's OK, it is by definition finite."  So let's get into the facts.  Polly writes:

In personal property and liquid assets, the top 10% owns half of everything. The bottom 50% of the population owns just 6%. Count liquid assets alone, and the top 1% owns 63% while the bottom half owns just 1%. And this wealth inequality is growing fast, year on year.

Read that, and you might be surprised to learn that in in 1976, the most wealthy 1% owned 21% of marketable wealth, and that in 2003 that figure was, er, 21%.  In 1976, what the Inland Revenue refer to as the "most" wealthy 50% owned 92% of marketable wealth, and in 2003 that figure was 93% (source: Inland Revenue).  This is not fast growth -- in fact both figures are in decline from their peak in round about 2000.

It is true that inequality in what the Inland Revenue calls "Marketable wealth less value of dwellings" (source as above) has increased -- though it is hard to reconcile with the figures Polly cites for "liquid assets".  Strip housing out of the wealth figures and the most wealthy 1% own 34% (and not 63%).  This is indeed up from 1976 (29%) but down from its peak in 2002.  The more wealthy 50% did indeed own 99%, up from 88% in 1976.

So, if overall wealth inequality is unchanged (and not infinitely escalating) but the inequality of ownership of assets less housing is getting more unequal, this must mean that inequality of housing wealth must be decreasing.


I also have a little trouble with this statement:

nearly 70% own their own homes

Nearly 70% of what?  Surely not people.  Adults?  Possibly.  Parents?  Well, maybe.  It is difficult to tell from the context.  According to the national statistics website:

70% of GB dwellings are owner-occupied

Which is quite a different proposition, given that there are about 2.4 people per household (source: follow the links here).


Compare the headline:

Cameron's set has no clue what middle England earns

And this statement of Polly's:

Do they know the median (middle England) salary is just £21,000?

Which rather raises the old conundrum about whether it is possible to know something that is wrong.  According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings:

Median annual earnings for full-time employees for the 2004-05 tax year stood at £22,900


UPDATE: Much of what Polly writes about today, as if it were current, is in fact a couple of months out-of-date now.  So, for example:

George Osborne astonishingly claims that this modest tax change is "a wake-up call to middle England"


The Law Society had the effrontery to warn that this trust tax means 10m wills must be redrawn at a cost of £2.5bn. One insurance company said 4.5m life-assurance policies would need redrawing.

actually date from at least two months ago (source), before the government amended its proposals in June (source).  The changes tightened the scope of the proposals, thereby execluding many of the people who were so upset about the original proposals.  To claim that they are concerned about proposals which have been specifically tightened in order to reflect their concerns is at best inaccurate précis.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Unsure conclusion

A delayed post about yesterday's column -- the result of a late flight and a heavy schedule.  Others have already pointed out that:

Remember, before Labour there was no childcare, no nursery education and no Sure Start to help young families

is of course twaddle, and that the evidence on Head Start is ambiguous (with a source, unlike, of course, Polly).

It is interesting that when writing about the research into the success of Sure Start, which produced a result which Polly didn't like, she writes:

Another batch will be out soon, unless some wise minister reconfigures it to measure only what can be measured.

When you have the courage to lecture this particular government on how to fix research to produce the desired as opposed to truthful answer, then you've left any pretense at accuracy behind.

So others have fact-checked the big stuff -- here's a mere crumb.  Polly writes:

At prime minister's questions this week, Margaret Moran stepped in to urge him "to join me in congratulating staff" at the 11th Sure Start to open in her Luton constituency. It obliged him to sing its praises for once. 
[emphasis added]

Compare this to Hansard:

Q7. [80673] Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of my official engagements yesterday was the opening of the 11th children’s centre in my constituency, at a school, Dallow junior, which has received over £2 million of additional investment for new facilities? Will he join me in congratulating the staff involved in that achievement, and does he agree that it is another example of this Government tackling child poverty, which doubled under the Conservative party?
[emphasis added]

Children Centre is not synonymous with Sure Start -- it is just one of the Sure Start's mechanisms.  There is also, for example, the Early Excellence Centre.  There's one at Pastures Way Nursery in Luton, for example (source).

Doubtless this will strike many as pedantry -- this one little inaccuracy doesn't alter the broad thrust of the argument.  However, if she can't really do the simple stuff like summarising Hansard correctly, it is harder to take seriously the policy recommendations, the reporting of anecdotes that she relies on so heavily, and, of course, the ever-present criticism of others for inaccuracy and relying on anecdote.