UK Statistics Authority criticises manner of release of statistics that are “highly vulnerable to misinterpretation”

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The UK Statistics Authority has criticised the way that the government’s work and pensions ministry released statistics on welfare claimants published in a report by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) (pdf format, opens in new window).
Some of the DWP statistics were cited in an article Labour didn’t care who landed in Britain, written by minister employment Chris Grayling and immigration minister Damian Green, published in the Daily Telegraph a few hours before the report was released.
Grayling and Green’s article said that 371,00 people currently claiming benefit had originally entered the UK as foreign nationals and that cases whose legitimacy was questionable had been identified. Their article described further work taken with a sample group of 9,000 of these, three quarters of whom had been traced; of these, they noted, most were rightfully receiving benefits.
Sir Michael gave four reasons for this conclusion:
  • The DWP website refers to the research as ‘publication of ad-hoc statistics’, indicating that DWP itself considers the statistics to be official. 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 have prevented government ministers from issuing a political commentary on the statistics ahead of their publication.
  • because of the political and media interest in the results, the UK Statistics Authority expects there will be demand for these statistics to be published in future as a series.
  • As the DWP report explains, the number of people claiming working age benefits is a regular National Statistics release; so too are the numbers of National Insurance Numbers registered to non-UK nationals entering the UK. The cross-analysis of these sets of data, which gave rise to the statistics in the current report, is a new statistical analysis, and should be seen as augmenting the existing statistical releases.
  • As the DWP recognises, the 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. The UK Statistics Authority’s view is that this is best done by official statisticians producing a statistical release in accordance with the Code of Practice.
He sought Mr Duncan Smith’s agreement that any further publication of such statistics would be handled as an official statistics release, but the minister responded very quickly saying “there are no plans at present to repeat the analysis” (pdf format, opens in new window).
The UK Statistics Authority’s intervention came after opposition MP Chris Bryant wrote to complain (pdf format, opens in new window) that Grayling and Green’s article in the Telegraph used the statistics “in a way that misrepresents the reality of the Department for Work and Pensions research, misleading the public, in order to score political points at the expense of the previous government and distracting from the policy failures of the current government.
“As you will be aware, both Ministers have previously been found to use statistics in a misleading fashion … it seems that they continue to do so.
“It is my belief that today’s figures have been used in a similar fashion- presenting a picture that settled immigrants are disproportionately abusing the welfare system and implying that those settled here legally, are claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.”
Bryant’s letter pointed out that Grayling and Green’s Telegraph article failed  to reveal the DWP’s finding that 16.6% of working age UK nationals were claiming a DWP working age benefit compared to 6.6% of working age non-UK nations (at the time they registered for a National Insurance Number), which he said demonstrates “that migrant workers in the UK are considerably more likely, to be working and supporting themselves than their UK-born counterparts”.
In his letter responding to Mr Bryant (pdf format, opens in new window), Sir Michael confirmed the view of the Authority that the figures should be treated as “statistics subject to the Code of Practice” and that “it is clearly contrary to good practice if, as in the present case, the political comment on the figures is in the news media before the public have access to the statistical report.” He noted that “The statistical report published by DWP on this occasion was, as far as we can ascertain, professional and impartial. We would therefore suggest that all parties to the public debate should pay close attention to the findings, explanations and cautionary comments that the DWP report contains.”

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