Ministers 'fizzing' over early release of immigration data
Government accuses statistics office of playing sinister game of politics
It is meant to be an independent body charged with publishing number sets and statistical analyses of trends. But the Office for National Statistics has found itself accused of "playing politics".
The Government said yesterday the ONS was "at best naïve or at worst sinister" after it released figures about foreign nationals living in Britain.
The Immigration minister Phil Woolas said the ONS had brought forward the release of figures showing the number of British-born workers had fallen while the number of foreign-born staff had grown.
He said departing from the scheduled publication date because the information was topical meant the ONS had used "political" reasoning.
The UK Statistics Authority, which oversees the ONS, said it would not be "pilloried" for releasing figures. Opposition MPs said the Government was more concerned with ensuring that figures told a good story rather than addressing problems with immigration.
The row is the latest spat between the Government and the newly-independent ONS, which released the figures in question during the "foreign jobs for foreign workers" dispute last month.
On 11 February, the ONS decided to bring forward the release of statistics showing employment of British-born workers had fallen by 278,000 last year while the employment of foreign-born staff had risen by 214,000.
Ministers were said to be "fizzing" with anger at the release, which came at the height of wildcat strikes at oil refineries in protest at the employment of foreigners.
Then last week, the ONS published routine population statistics which included the fact that one in nine British residents was born overseas.
Mr Woolas told the BBC: "The ONS said they released the figures because they said they were topical. They have got to be very careful, in my view, that they don't enter what is the most inflamed debate in British politics. Releasing figures outside of the schedule because of the topicality may be interpreted as influencing the political debate.
"This is not a black and white area, the idea that there are figures that won't be used and abused by people is naïve and I think the ONS should not release figures because they are topical. They should release them on the schedule."
The UK Statistics Authority defended the early release and a spokesman said last month's population statistics were issued on schedule and did not mention the one-in-nine figure.
Sir Michael Scholar, the authority's chairman, said the National Statistician, Karen Dunnell, had judged that it was in the public interest to bring forward the release date of the "neutral and objective" employment figures.
"Whether you call it naïvety or openness, statisticians must be encouraged to publish independent and objective statistics, not pilloried for doing so," he said. "The Statistics Authority will not only defend them in doing this, it will continue to require it of them."
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