Gordon Brown was facing embarrassment last night after being condemned by the national statistics watchdog for quoting false figures over the number of foreigners coming to Britain.
The Prime Minister was rebuked hours after he used a major speech to try to take the heat out of immigration as a general election issue by arguing that the number of new arrivals was falling sharply.
Sir Michael Scholar, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, warned that Mr Brown had used inaccurate information in an earlier Downing Street podcast about immigration levels.
The Prime Minister claimed in the podcast that net inward migration fell from 237,000 in 2007 to 147,000 last year as evidence that the Government had a grip on the issue.
But Sir Michael said the 2009 figure was misleading as it was taken from a different set of data from the previous two years' statistics. He also said the correct number for 2007 should have been 233,000. He pointed out the mistakes in a letter to the Prime Minister and said he hoped that all parties would take care to "protect the integrity of official statistics" during the general election campaign.
Mr Brown did not repeat the mistake yesterday, quoting the correct figures as he denied accusations that immigration was out of control. "There is only one conclusion from all the published data that is available and it is this – over this period net inward migration has fallen," he said. "This does not mean immigration isn't an issue. It is. That is why I am talking about it today. But we should not allow people to scaremonger with unsubstantiated claims about rising net inward migration today."
The Prime Minister said his government had "no intention" of allowing any unskilled non-EU workers into Britain. He also announced that the numbers of migrants given visas to work in jobs that are difficult to fill would be reduced, with the door shut to non-EU chefs and care workers by the year 2014.
Mr Brown also said that tough new rules on overseas university applications would lead to 40,000 fewer students coming to Britain this year. In the speech in east London, Mr Brown promised Labour would achieve "fair and controlled" migration through its Australian-style points-based system, which has no overall limit to numbers.
He argued that Conservative proposals for an annual cap on migrants was "arbitrary and unworkable" and bad for business. Last night the Tories pounced on the Prime Minister's mistake, saying it came after he gave wrong figures about defence spending to the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war and the advertising watchdog condemned Labour claims over police numbers.
Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Gordon Brown is turning into a serial offender in misleading the British people in the run-up to the election. Britain should expect better from its Prime Minister."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Labour's shambolic mismanagement has shattered public confidence in the immigration system and undermined this country's historically liberal attitude towards immigration."Reuse content