Ministers rapped for “benefit tourist” claims

Last week’s output of “statistics-lite” by the Department of Work and Pensions ought to have been issued as official statistics, which would have prevented ministers jumping gleefully all over them and leaving a false impression – or so (in slightly more temperate words) argues the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar.

The release led to headlines last Friday proclaiming “370,000 migrants on the dole” and to a tendentious article in The Daily Telegraph the same day by Chris Grayling and Damian Green, ministers for employment and immigration respectively. I wrote an article for The Independent the next day pointing out that, in contrast to what was implied by the two ministers, the figures show that “migrants” so defined represent a much smaller share of working-age benefit recipients than do those born here, and half of these migrants are naturalised British anyway.

All this was in the report produced by the DWP, but was hardly very prominent in the Telegraph articles.The impression left, as was undoubtedly intended, was that people arrive here uninvited and go straight on the dole. One may argue about the number of foreign-born workers in the UK but not, on the basis of these figures, that they are “benefit tourists” or scroungers.

Sir Michael has today written to Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, saying that most people would have assumed these were official statistics and not, as the DWP says, a research report. As official statistics they would have been accompanied by proper statistical commentary and the Code of Practice would have prevented ministers issuing a political commentary on them in advance of publication.

These statistics, he says, “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.

He seeks Mr Duncan Smith’s agreement that any further publication of these, or of any such statistics, be handled as an official statistics release (my italics).

This looks like an attempt by UKSA to exert some control over “ad hoc” statistics which have been used since the election by DWP and recently by the Home Office as a way of bypassing the code. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.