Big words, small numbers: Jeremy Hunt talks tough

Tory ministers' world view seems to consist of two types of people: ‘people on benefits’ and ‘working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits’.

One wonders sometimes what the social world must look like viewed through the eyes of Conservative ministers. Often it seems to consist solely of two types of people: ‘people on benefits’ and ‘working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits’. The two don’t just form mutually exclusive social categories, they seem to belong to different conceptual universes.

‘People on benefits’ live in a world which is so different from ours that the normal relations of quantity and number we are familiar with don’t hold. It is a mistake to try to put numbers to some of the statements that ministers make about them: to understand what they are getting at you need intuition and imagination rather than evidence and arithmetic – they’ll just confuse things.

Nonetheless… here is Jeremy Hunt getting tough on Newsnight last night:

“The number of children that you have is a choice and what we’re saying is that if people are living on benefits then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices. It’s not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices.

“You can have children but if you are going to ask for support that is more than the average wage that people earn then we’re saying no, the state shouldn’t support that. That’s not fair on working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits.”

If we were to try to tie these statements to something recognisable in this universe, we’d start by noting that if their benefit receipt is equivalent to average wages, families need to be of above average size (assuming no disability payments, which are not affected by the government’s ‘cap’ on benefit claims).

At the same time most of the people on benefits with large families the minister is speaking to must be long term benefit claimants (because if people have chosen to have large families while on benefits, then barring multiple births some minimum number of years on benefits must have elapsed for the family to reach its current size). Let’s assume that  we’re talking about claims running for five or more years and families with four or more children.

These are the figures from ONS’s official labour market statistics service:


There are about 44,000 benefit claimants with four or more children who have been on benefits for five years or more. This figure gives an upper bound to the number of families with four or more children that could possibly have been formed while they were on benefits by people who have since remained on benefits. (There’s no information here on the age of the children or on the histories of claimants’ households, so even as an upper bound this is going to be an overestimate of what is already a pretty nebulous concept).

Is 44,000 a big number? It depends what you compare it with .There are 7,639,000 households with children in Great Britain, so if that’s your comparator… not really. Alternatively, there are 1,299,640 families with children in receipt of benefits: 44,000 is 3.4 per cent of that figure.

We are not even talking about a small minority here. But these comparisons are beside the point, because 44,000 is not the number of families who fit Mr Hunt’s notion, which is essentially an intuitive fantasy. It just allows us to say that the best estimate of the number that could be associated with that fantasy will be ‘not many’.

But in the world which coalition ministers think they live in, this kind of numerical quibbling just spoils the fun. Jeremy Hunt wants to talk tough on parents who won’t take responsibility for their reproductive decisions and want to leach off taxpayers in perpetuity. If you insist on dragging numbers in, his tough talking might start looking like empty posturing.

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