David Cameron EU migrant benefits figures blasted by UK Statistics Authority watchdog

The UK Statistics Authority said the way in which the figures were disclosed was 'unsatisfactory' and prevented effective scrutiny

Jon Stone
Wednesday 11 November 2015 17:30 GMT
David Cameron delivers his speech on Tuesday
David Cameron delivers his speech on Tuesday

Britain's official statistics watchdog has castigated the Government over David Cameron’s citation of questionable figures purporting to show how many European Union migrants claim benefits in the UK.

The UK Statistics Authority accused the Government of avoiding scrutiny by withholding key sources and calculations that could have led to the figures being debunked before yesterday’s headlines were written.

David Cameron yesterday claimed in a speech that 43 per cent of EU migrants claimed benefits in the UK within four years of arrival – but provided no source or visible working for his claim.

Some statisticians cast doubt on the figures’ provenance and validity and suggested the real figure could be significantly lower than claimed.

Fact-checkers made an official complaint to the stats watchdog, who responded in record time on Wednesday.

In a strongly-worded letter seen by the Independent, Sir Andrew Dilnot, the authority’s chair, described the Government’s handling of the release of the figures as “disappointing” and “unsatisfactory” and said officials had been “spoken with”.

The Government published a belated synopsis of the figures on Monday afternoon, well after Mr Cameron’s speech – but had briefed the initial claims to selected journalists as early as the night before.

“It is disappointing that this [summary] was not available at the same time as the figures were released,” Sir Andrew wrote in response to the complaint by the fact-checking website Full Fact.

“The Code of Practice for Official Statistics expects that ‘Statistical reports should be released into the public domain in an orderly manner that promotes public confidence and gives equal access to all’ and that producers should ‘publish details of the methods adopted'.

“The release of these statistics without the subsequent accompanying background material explaining the methodology used made it hard for those interested to understand and scrutinise the statistics, which was clearly unsatisfactory.

“UK Statistics Authority officials will have further discussions with those involved to avoid the recurrence of such problems.”

Full Fact said that the public had been shut out of the debate by Downing Street's vague explanation of the figures.

Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, was among those treating the 43 per cent figure with incredulity on Tuesday.

“They appear to have taken the number of EU/EEA migrants claiming benefits from DWP data, made some ‘adjustments’, and divided by the number of EU/EEA migrants here for less than four years according to the LFS,” the Times newspaper quoted him as saying on Tuesday.

Mr Portes described some aspects of the figures as “very suspicious” and contrary to statistical “common sense”.

The Government has previously been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for its use of statistics around welfare benefits.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was admonished in 2013 for claims about the benefit cap the watchdog said were “unsupported by official statistics”.

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