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FactCheck: Does Northern Ireland really have four times more homelessness than us?

TheJournal.ie’s GE16 FactCheck tests some startling claims about Sinn Féin’s record north of the border.

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AS PART OF our GE16 FactCheck series, we’re testing the truth of claims made by candidates and parties on the campaign trail.

If you hear something that doesn’t sound quite right, or see a claim that looks great, but you want to confirm it, email factcheck@thejournal.ie.

For this go round, we’re evaluating the truth of some startling factual claims about Northern Ireland that were made earlier on this week.

CLAIM: The number of people homeless in Northern Ireland is four times higher than in the Republic – Alan Kelly
Verdict: Very likely to be entirely FALSE, compares two numbers that are very differently counted, but the reality is probably the opposite of what was claimed.

What was said:

Speaking during TV3′s Deputy Leaders’ debate on Monday night, Labour’s second-in-command stated:

Sinn Fein, who are in charge in the north, who are in government, where there is four times more people homeless in a small population, under a government which you’re part of. Four times more.

The facts

NI Executive crisis Source: PA WIRE

Note: This article will not evaluate Sinn Féin’s responsibility for any of the claimed policy outcomes throughout, whether good or bad. Neither will it present a rating of the party’s overall performance in government.

This is simply a fact-check of specific claims made, and not a political analysis.

In response to a request for supporting evidence, a spokesperson for Minister Kelly cited two sources that don’t mention Northern Ireland - this article on homelessness in England, this blog post on the situation in Great Britain – and this tweet from the Simon Community in Northern Ireland:

PastedImage-14035

The most recent official figures available for Northern Ireland are almost exactly in line with that figure, showing that 19,621 households “presented” as homeless in 2015, and 11,016 of those were “accepted.”

If those terms are unfamiliar, it’s because homelessness in the UK is measured very differently to the way it is here.

In Northern Ireland, a person “presents” herself as homeless by, in short, notifying or making a claim of homelessness to their local authority.

Again, roughly speaking, a decision is then made as to whether that claim is valid (“accepted”) and the individual is eligible for social housing and other supports.

According to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, single men and women made up 10,407 of the 19,621 households which presented as homeless last year.

Some 874 were couples, meaning 1,748 individuals, and 2,146 were pensioners.

There were 6,194 family households. The Housing Executive doesn’t track the number of children per family, but let’s assume an average family size of four.

In total, this amounts to roughly 39,000 persons officially classified as homeless.

In the Republic, the Department of the Environment only officially tracks the number of people in emergency accommodation. As of December, that number was 5,241.

So, using the implicit criteria employed by Kelly, he actually understates the reality – homelessness levels, as measured in Northern Ireland, are likely much greater than four times our level of homelessness, as measured in the Republic.

We did not receive any explanation from Labour or Alan Kelly as to their point of comparison with the Northern Ireland figure offered (i.e. by what measure there is “four times more” homelessness there).

So we can only assume that this came from a comparison of 20,000 in Northern Ireland and 5,241 in the Republic.

An entirely different way of measuring

However, included among those 19,621 households (and many more individuals) are people housed in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers, people living in insecure or “unreasonable” accommodation, under the threat of eviction or in overcrowded accommodation, and those living in women’s shelters, for example.

This chart doesn’t relate to the most recent official figures, but gives a sense of the categories included in the official count for Northern Ireland, most of which are not included in the official count for the Republic.

ethos Source: Crisis

Extending the criteria in these ways south of the border, the official number of homeless persons would increase far beyond the 5,241 individuals in emergency accommodation.

Conversely, restricting the tally for Northern Ireland to individuals in emergency accommodation would similarly lower the total significantly.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which officially tracks homelessness, does not offer such a breakdown, but the 2013 Homeless Monitor Report by the University of York gives some idea of how it maps out.

That year, the total number of households presenting as homeless was 19,354, very similar to the figure for 2015.

However, only 1,674 people were in homeless or emergency accommodation in Northern Ireland, equivalent to the measure used in the Republic, which was 5,241 as of December 2015.

So while we can’t give an entirely accurate number of those in homelessness in Northern Ireland (by our Department of the Environment criterion), we can confidently say it is not four times what it is here, and may well even be lower.

So Minister Kelly’s claim is very likely to be entirely FALSE.

CLAIM: West Belfast has the highest child poverty rate in Europe – Micheál Martin
Verdict: FALSE by a very large margin

What was said:

During RTE’s Leaders’ Debate on Monday, the Fianna Fáil leader stated:

In West Belfast, where this man [Gerry Adams] was MP for about 30 years, we’ve the highest rate of child poverty in Europe.

A similar claim was also made during the debate by the youth wing of the Labour party:

Note: This section is not going to address the issue of what responsibility or compliance Adams, as MP, may have had for West Belfast’s child poverty rate, whether good or bad.

He was Sinn Féin MP for West Belfast from 1983 to 1992, and again from 1997 until 2011. Since then, his party colleague Paul Maskey has been the constituency’s MP.

The facts

Fianna Fáil told us they based the claim on two separate pieces of research.

The first is the UK-based End Child Poverty campaign’s 2013 report, and the second is UNICEF’s 2012 report Measuring Child Poverty.

The End Child Poverty report was published in 2013, but its data were gathered in 2012.

It found that the parliamentary constituency of West Belfast had the joint second-highest rate of child poverty (43%) in the UK, along with Glasgow North East.

The UK constituency with the highest rate was Manchester Central, at 47%.

Fianna Fáil told TheJournal.ie that this was “the most recent study” on the issue.

It is not (more on that below), but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine it is, and examine the second component of the claim – the UNICEF report.

childpovertyEUR Source: UNICEF

That document gathered data from 2009 (three years prior to the End Child Poverty report), to measure child poverty rates in 35 economically advanced countries.

Child poverty was defined as the percentage of children living in a household whose disposable income was at most half the national median income.

The US topped the table, with a child poverty rate of 25.5%. The UK had a rate of 12.1%, but far from being the highest in Europe, it had a lower child poverty rate than 10 other EU member states.

It did, however, have a higher rank than France, Germany, the Nordic countries, and the Republic of Ireland, which ranked 19th in the EU, with a rate of 8.4%.

The UNICEF report does not offer a breakdown of every parliamentary constituency in every nation.

But statistically speaking, it is almost impossible that there were not very many districts, across the 10 EU nations that ranked above the UK, which had a higher child poverty rate than West Belfast.

Furthermore, data from 2012 (the End Child Poverty report) cannot be compared to data from 2009 (the UNICEF report) in coming to any sort of reliable conclusion about West Belfast’s place in the European landscape at that time.

In any case, the 2013 report relied on by Fianna Fáil is not the most recent one, despite their claim.

End Child Poverty followed up with another UK report in 2014, using data gathered in 2013.

That year’s study (which is the most recent End Child Poverty report available) found that:

  • West Belfast had a child poverty rate of 32%
  • Above the UK average of 22.4%
  • Joint 85th out of 650 UK constituencies
  • The highest rate of any Northern Ireland constituency
  • Northern Ireland had the 8th highest rate of 12 UK regions
  • Northern Ireland’s average rate was 22.1%, just below the UK average of 22.4%

So by definition, West Belfast could not have had the highest child poverty rate in Europe in 2012, even if the UK ranked first, and even if Europe-wide figures were available for that year, which they are not.

In June 2015, the UK Department for Work and Pensions found that, over the previous three years, Northern Ireland had a lower average rate of child poverty than six other UK regions, after accounting for housing costs.

childpovertyNI Source: Dept of Work & Pensions

In 2014, UNICEF reported that the UK had a child poverty rate of 25.6% in 2012, lower than nine other EU countries, including Ireland, which had a rate of 28.6%.

To conclude, the claim that West Belfast, or even Northern Ireland as whole, has the highest rate of child poverty in Europe is FALSE by any available measure, and in some cases by an extremely wide margin.

CLAIM: Sinn Féin have closed more than 100 schools in Northern Ireland, since 2011 – James Reilly

Verdict: FALSE, overstates the number significantly, although he may have been referring to an earlier period of time.

What was said:

In comparing Fine Gael’s record on education with that of Sinn Féin north of the border, during TV3′s Deputy Leaders’ debate, Reilly stated:

In the last five years Sinn Féin have closed over 100 schools in the north of Ireland.

The facts

Draft budget Martin McGuinness with Sinn Féin Education Minister John O'Dowd. Source: PA WIRE

Fine Gael told us that their source for this claim was an Irish News report from October 2014, which found that Sinn Féin education ministers had overseen 111 school closure orders between the end of 2006 and 2014.

The article stated that 123 primary, secondary and special schools were ordered to be closed during that period, almost all during the tenures of Sinn Féin Education Ministers Caitríona Ruane and John O’Dowd.

We checked the Northern Ireland Department of Education’s Schools Plus website, and found that 117 schools were closed between 2007 and 2014.

We have to allow for some differences between the number of closure orders, and the number of schools actually closed, as well as some discrepancies in the timeline.

The Irish News article relates to the period from early December 2006 to October 2014, whereas we gathered full-year figures for 2007 and 2014.

Taking these factors into account, Sinn Féin ministers undoubtedly oversaw the closure of more than 100 schools from 2007-2014. If James Reilly had made this claim, it would have been TRUE.

However, Reilly stated they had closed more than 100 “in the last five years.” So let’s test that claim.

School closures

New schools sport programme launched Former Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane. Source: PA WIRE

We have to consider two possible meanings to Reilly’s claim – that more than 100 schools were actually closed since 2011, and that more than 100 schools were ordered to be closed, since 2011.

The official record of schools closed is the Northern Ireland Department of Education’s Schools Plus website.

We checked the records, and found that a total of 73 primary, secondary and special schools (those under the department’s remit) were closed between 2011 and 2016.

That is obviously significantly short of 100, but not a million miles off.

And because Sinn Féin has held the Education portfolio since 2007, it is also reasonable to say that the party oversaw these closures.

However, this doesn’t take into account the number of schools opened. Unfortunately, the Department of Education’s website does not offer a way to count these openings that would not be time-consuming in the extreme.

So we can assume that some schools were opened between 2011 and 2016, and that the number of net closures is therefore somewhat lower than 73, although we unfortunately cannot give the exact figure.

In any case, since the actual number of closures is significantly lower than that claimed (Reilly wasn’t just rounding up from 93 to 100, for example) the claim is Mostly FALSE.

School closure orders

schoolsclosed Source: NI Dept of Education

The Northern Ireland Department of Education is the official source for these figures, which they provided to TheJournal.ie for 2011-2015.

For 2016, we used the development proposals section of the department’s website to arrive at the figure of one school closure order so far this year.

(This is the same source used by the Department in the figures they sent to us, they just happened not to include 2016 in those.)

The Department has responsibility for decisions to close, open or amalgamate primary, secondary and special schools under its remit.

In total, between 2011 and 2016, there have been 40 such closure orders.

Allowing for the possibility that Minister Reilly intended to include amalgamations in his claim, that number rises to 58.

However, this doesn’t take into account orders to open new schools, of which there have been three.

So clearly, even on the most generous interpretation, any claim that Sinn Féin has ordered the closure of more than 100 schools since 2011, is FALSE.

If we keep strictly to what he actually said (closures, not including amalgamations) it is FALSE and overstates the reality by 150%.

If we take into account school openings, net closure orders were 37 from 2011-2015, just over one-third the number claimed by Reilly.

CLAIM: Northern Ireland has a lower unemployment rate than the Republic – Mary Lou McDonald
Verdict: TRUE

What was said:

In defending Sinn Féin’s record in government in Stormont, McDonald stated:

The reality is, the level of unemployment in the North is lower than in this jurisdiction.

The facts:

According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in Northern Ireland for the final quarter of 2015 was 5.9%.

According to the CSO, the Republic’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in January was 8.6%.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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