Minister rebuked over immigration statistics

 
Sir Michael Scholar, the statistics watchdog Sir Michael Scholar: Another letter to ministers

The UK's statistics watchdog has rebuked a minister over his handling of controversial figures on benefits claimed by immigrants.

Sir Michael Scholar, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has written to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, questioning the way he released the figures almost a week ago.

Mr Duncan Smith has already responded, defending how the figures were presented and saying he didn't break any rules.

The rebuke relates to a report published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) last Friday which was the first ever stab by a government at calculating how many foreign nationals claim some benefits.

The report would inevitably trigger public debate - and the Daily Telegraph published a comment piece by ministers hours before the figures were released.

Start Quote

These statistics are both highly relevant to public policy and highly vulnerable to misinterpretation. There are some important caveats and weaknesses that need to be explained carefully and objectively”

End Quote Sir Michael Scholar

In the article Chris Grayling and Damian Green, ministers for employment and immigration respectively, referred to figures in the report. They said there were 371,000 people who were foreign nationals when they entered Britain who were today claiming benefits.

Referring to a portion of those, they added: "We've already identified some with serious question marks over both their right to benefits and their immigration status. Investigators are calling to see them.

"We're also working on urgent plans to streamline the rules so that we can stop benefits immediately. Under the regulations we inherited, it takes nearly three months in a case like this. That has to stop. All of this represents an almighty mess [inherited from Labour]."

The story was immediately picked up by other national newsrooms and it was briefly a lead item on the BBC. Chris Grayling came on to the News Channel to give his take on what it all meant.

Chris Grayling: ''I do not want to be paying benefits to those who should not be receiving them''

The DWP figures were published as a "research report" rather than as a release of "official statistics". Does that matter? Yes it does, say Sir Michael.

Official stats are numbers that have been tested, and tested again, by professionals who work within strict rules. Their reports are presented independently of ministers, the opposition, policymakers or anyone else for that matter. If it's an official stat, then it's a fact.

In his letter, Sir Michael says the numbers should have been prepared as official statistics because of the obvious public interest.

And that basically means that ministers should not have had their say before the figures had been tested and published for all to see.

Sir Michael said: "Many users have treated them as official statistics, and have assumed that they should have been published in accordance with the Code of Practice, which would, amongst other things, have prevented government ministers from issuing a political commentary on the statistics ahead of their publication. The Statistics Authority shares that view.

"These statistics are both highly relevant to public policy and highly vulnerable to misinterpretation.

"There are some important caveats and weaknesses that need to be explained carefully and objectively to Parliament and the news media at the time of publication.

"This is, in our view, best done by official statisticians producing a statistical release in accordance with the Code of Practice."

So what were those weaknesses? Well one point that wasn't apparent the night before, but became clear once the full data was studied the following morning, was that foreign nationals may be less likely to claim benefits than British born workers.

Sir Michael Scholar now wants the DWP to agree that future figures on benefits and foreign workers should be handled as official statistics so that they can be presented in a factual, politically neutral way.

He also wants the raw data published so that experts outside government can do their own number-crunching.

In his response, Iain Duncan Smith has defended the quality of the statistics, noting that he has not been accused of a breach of the code of practice.

He said: "The release… was prepared by the department's statisticians to appropriate professional standards. The report includes all relevant information about the sources of the data and any caveats or limitations.

"I note your point that if the exercise were to be repeated then it would be appropriate for subsequent releases to be as official statistics, however, we have no plans at present to repeat this analysis."

 
Dominic Casciani Article written by Dominic Casciani Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent

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  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 19.

    Even one foreign national claiming benefits here is one too many. They should return to their own country if they are unable to procure work. To protect our nation from overwhelming cultural invasion from outsiders it is necessary to spend limited resources training our own people.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 18.

    16.ChrisofBristol
    3 Minutes ago
    never mind the squabbles, remember the fact:

    "371,000 people who were foreign nationals when they entered Britain who were today claiming benefits"

    The point of the article is that we don't know that this is a fact yet.

  • rate this
    +21

    Comment number 17.

    I would like to know how many UK nationals claim welfare payments in other European countries, you know, just for the sake of balance.

  • rate this
    +14

    Comment number 16.

    never mind the squabbles, remember the fact:

    "371,000 people who were foreign nationals when they entered Britain who were today claiming benefits"

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 15.

    Chris Grayling, Ian Duncan-Smith and Damian Green are all a disgrace and should resign immediately. Demonizing immigrants and benefit claimants is nothing but a distraction to hide the failings of their own party/government and the Capitalist system. Blame the poor and vulnerable who have no voice. That's just dirty dishonest politics and we the people are sick to death of it. We want HONESTY!

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 14.

    "So what were those weaknesses? Well one point that wasn't apparent the night before, but became clear once the full data was studied the following morning, was that foreign nationals may be less likely to claim benefits than British born workers."

    NOT TRUE. The foreign national claimant rate is lower because many CAN'T claim, not because they won't start claiming as soon as they're eligible.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 13.

    Manipulated of statistics or -for that matter- the news, impacts in no way my own experience and perceptions. Frankly, I don't trust the BBC!

  • rate this
    +14

    Comment number 12.

    "It doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always get in"
    And when the government is there, you can rest assured that they will produce report after report that "prove" that their point of view is correct.

    I've never trusted a single word they've said and I never will, regardless of their political leanings.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    Happened then, happened now, happen in the future - the only people that should publish stats are the NAO when asked by the Government of the day - and only when the Govt. ask a specific question - all requested should be listed to the House.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 10.

    Bahh! the civil service have had their nose put out of joint and are having a hissy.

    A paperclip is still a paperclip regardless of who has the keys to the stationary cupboard.

  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 9.

    I'm surprised at how little coverage this is getting - not because it's about immigration, because the BBC never discusses that. I AM, however, surprised they haven't given more attention to a potential abuse of statistics by a cabinet minister. I think this is a bigger issue within Britain than Egypt's first anniversary of the uprising, and would have expected BBC to prioritise a little better.

  • rate this
    -10

    Comment number 8.

    Teacup storm

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 7.

    friendlyonewhocares

    So what is the big problem to you? Government abuse of statistics or those pesky immigrants who come over here and...claim benefits less than people you think have more right?

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 6.

    The UK's statistics watchdog always complains when it gets bypassed by Ministers, whether by this Government or the previous one.

    Storm in a teacup.

  • rate this
    +17

    Comment number 5.

    Its good to see an independant watchdog do its job right for a change.This shows that unlike the Press Complaints charade and the recent self regulated banking sector independant watchdogs do a good job.Time for other so called monitors/watchers to follow the Statistics watchdogs example.

  • rate this
    +26

    Comment number 4.

    Really,regardless who is right or wrong,the BBC reporter was wrong to insist that it is a minor problem.
    To many people including me it is a BIG problem that needs sorting quicker than quick.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 3.

    I doubt Iain Duncan Smith and Christopher Grayling will lose much sleep over this 'rebuke'. It is standard procedure for them. Misuse figures for a crude political advantage and disappear. How many will have read and believed the nonsense they spouted compared to the numbers that will note the way they abused the statistics?

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 2.

    Unfortunately there are lies, damned lies and statistics and to be honest I never trust any of them. The amount of accuracy will depend upon whether it puts the governement or opposition in a good or bad light. THe fact is right or wrong we know there many people receiving benefits to which they are not entitled and our system allows it then we wonder why we are turning dishonest.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 1.

    Government minister spins a set of figures, pretending these figures are verified by the professionals. Hides aspects of the figures that don't suit goverment's narrative. Gets found out.

    No surprises there- throw fake meat to the attack dogs. Standard practice to feed the press, whoever is in power.

    In the USA its called dog-whistle politics. And it lacks integrity there too.

 

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