Event report - Conference on poverty statistics

Written by Hetan Shah on . Posted in Features

On 29 April, the RSS, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the UK Statistics Authority held a joint conference on poverty statistics. Around 40 key figures from government, academia and civil society were invited to attend. The event was co-chaired by RSS executive director Hetan Shah, and RSS honorary officer for user engagement, Jon McGinty.



The national statistician Jil Matheson introduced the day by noting how topical the issue was and asked colleagues to think about the big picture: What data did we have and how did it all fit together? What was missing? How could we make it more accessible, especially to the non-expert?

Sharon Witherspoon, director of the Nuffield Foundation, gave an opening presentation based on her personal views. She noted that the UK had a robust range of statistics relating to poverty and inequality, but that there were a number of challenges. These included that data were split between different departments, and that accessing some data was much easier than others. She noted that data sharing in government for research purposes was important, and the case needed to be made for this by the community, not least as the care.data agenda had set back public trust. Capacity within government needed to be improved to handle statistical issues and capacity needed to be grown within the research community so that a range of social science perspectives were brought to bear on poverty statistics. Finally, poverty measures needed to be set in a wider context and it was important the community make the public interest case for maintaining key datasets such as the wealth and assets series.

Hannah Aldridge from the New Policy Institute (a research organisation) gave a practitioner’s perspective. She noted that some things were already very helpful including Nomis, access to the full datasets of key surveys, supplementing surveys with administrative data, and impact assessments which could provide a forward look. Things which caused problems for researchers included breaks in time series, the speed of publication (or lack thereof), the difficulty of research smaller groups due to limited sample sizes (e.g. ethnic groups) and the lack of data on flows (eg for housing benefit). She put forward some suggestions for changes in the near future, including ensuring Council data needing to be reported in some standard way to enable comparisons in an era of localisation, retention of time series after the introduction of Universal Credit, and if changes were made to the child poverty measures, to backdate the new measure and keep publishing the data for the old measure.

A wide range of other presentations were given throughout the day including by the Department for Work and Pensions, the government’s Child Poverty Unit, a session on EU statistics, a session on fuel poverty statistics, and one on the English Indices of Deprivation. Nick Bailey from the University of Glasgow also spoke about using administrative data to complement traditional surveys. Aleks Collingwood from JRF introduced their project to make poverty data accessible via data.jrf.org.uk

There was widespread agreement at the end of the day that some kind of ongoing poverty statistics community should be formed. It would enable information and expertise sharing, reflection on whether the current statistical infrastructure was able to answer the questions that the UK would wish to have answered about poverty in the coming decade, as well as providing a space for more technical discussions and learning. Such a community could also provide a voice for what needed to happen on poverty statistics to ensure their coherence and quality.

A virtual community is being set up on StatsUserNet which will be open to all to join. The RSS, JRF and UK Statistics Authority plan to hold a follow-up event in the autumn.


Above image (l-r): Sharon Witherspoon of the Nuffield Foundation, National Statistician Jil Matheson and Hetan Shah and Jon McGinty of the Royal Statistical Society.

UK Statistics Authority Poverty statistics Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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