February 17, 2011 • 3:24 pm

Daily Mail: “Thousands of illegal workers claiming benefits: Loophole in the law costs taxpayers millions.”

Evening Standard: “Thousands of illegal immigrants ‘exploiting loophole’ to claim benefits”

The Daily Express: “SCANDAL OF 150,000 ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS ON BENEFITS.”

When questions were first raised about these figures on Monday we had hoped to produce a factcheck of the reports.

However we struggled to get much detail from the Department for Work and Pensions on how the numbers were arrived at. We were referred instead to research from the LSE and Institute for Public Policy Research. After Full Fact went to both sources we were still left scratching our heads.

Now, it seems, we have the answer.

Contrary to these headlines and much of the reporting, 155,000 is the estimated number of illegal workers who may have qualified for benefits – not how many were actually claiming benefits.

Even then it is still a pretty loose estimate.

The DWP statement explains: “There is no official government estimate for the number of illegal workers in the UK.

“However, based upon research by the London School of Economics and the Institute of Public Policy Research which when combined suggested that there may be around 620,000 adults who could be illegally present in the UK and who do not have a right to work.

“Although a large proportion of this number will have arrived on visitor visas, are unlikely to be working (or working more than occasionally) and will in due course leave, if we assume that half this number were employed, and half of these employed in jobs where they were paying tax and national insurance contributions, this would produce an estimate of 155,000 people (or 0.5% of the number of people working in the UK) who might be eligible to claim the range of contributory-based benefits or statutory payments despite having no entitlement to work in the UK.”

So what to make of these figures?

The LSE research did estimate that 618,000 irregular workers were in the country at the end of 2007.

The report also states: “Extrapolating these to their limit – a situation where all migrants are irregulars – suggests that 50 per cent of current irregulars who have been in the UK for five years or more might be out of work in an average week.”

So roughly halfing the 618,000 the figure comes down to 309,000.

The LSE report also refers to evidence from the US that half of irregulars in work could actually paying tax – getting the number down to 155,000 or thereabouts.

So while these are rough estimates, one of the academics involved in the LSE research told Full Fact the assumptions in the DWP analysis could be viewed as fair.

As the statement from DWP explains, these people only “might be eligible” to claim benefits. Not only may they not be eligible, but there are no figures on how many actually did claim.

Given that the number of irregular migrants not working has already been excluded from the estimate it seems a safe assumption that only a small proportion of this 155,000 would actually be receiving the benefits they “might be entitled to” – either that or most of the 155,000 would have to be pregnant or incapacitated all at the same time.

[UPDATE: Full Fact has now found, through other sources, the DWP Impact Assessment from which these figures came.

Sure enough, it states that there may be 155,000 irregular workers who could have been claiming benefits they were not entitled to, but that the number who were is likely to be far lower.

The document works on the assumption that irregular workers make up the same proportion of the caseload of the affected benefits as they do the working population (0.5 per cent).

From this, estimates are given for how many workers would be ruled out of claiming each benefit, should proof of eligibility to work in the UK be introduced as a condition for receiving these payments.

Adding up the estimates for each benefit covered in the document produces a very rough estimate that 8,570 irregular workers may be affected by the new conditions - not 155,000.] ]]]

The other point worth making is that these people are only estimated to be entitled because they are paying tax in the first place, even if they are working here illegally.

Conclusion

With the levels of margin of error involved there is nothing much to challenge in the DWP estimate for how many illegal workers may be entitled to claim certain benefits.

The problem with the figures lie in how they were reported, especially in the headlines.

Although some of the article did eventually explain this was simply an estimate of eligbility, nothing was done to make clear to readers that potentially a much smaller number would actually be receiving benefits.

Likewise the familiar problem of simplified headlines being repeated as the statistics itself has also happened, judging by this comment piece in the Daily Mail.

But the other problem is how this figure ended up in the paper.

It is only after three days looking into the figure that we have arrived at an explanation. During this time no press release or research appeared on the DWP website.

After our complaint, the Department has, in recent months, been effective at making available research and statistics produced outside of their regular bulletins.

Even if much of the work was taken from the LSE research, we see no reason why figures given to selected journalists could not also have been given to the public.

[UPDATE: Because the Impact Assessment undermines the way the figures were reported in the newspapers above, we will be seeking appropriate corrections.

Likewise questions must be asked as to why when the Impact Assessment is dated 16 February the figures appeared in the papers two days earlier.]

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