Reports on employment figures are accurate, but not the whole picture

Published: 16th Feb 2017

In brief


There are another 431,000 foreign born workers in the UK.


That’s correct. The ONS’ best estimate for the number of non-UK born workers rose by 431,000 between the end of 2015 and the end of 2016.


The number of British-born workers has fallen.


The estimates suggest this happened, but it’s uncertain. The changes in the ONS’ best estimates weren’t big enough for us to be sure there was any real change.

Claim 1 of 2

“Another 431,000 migrants working in Britain”

Daily Express, paper edition, 16 February 2017

“British-born workers PLUNGE as foreign workers RISE by 431,000”

Daily Express, online edition, 16 February 2017

Several media outlets reported the most recent set of employment figures this morning, and the Daily Express featured the story on its front page. The figures reported are correct, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around some of the latest changes.

The good news is we haven’t seen anyone make the kind of mistakes we’ve seen in the past when it comes to reporting employment figures.

As the Office for National Statistics says prominently, these statistics don’t tell us how many people have lost jobs or how many people have got a new one, they just tell us the final change in the headcount of people who have jobs.

These estimates are very uncertain

The UK had 431,000 more foreign-born workers at the end of 2016 than it had a year beforehand, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Meanwhile, its estimate for the number of workers born inside the UK dropped by 120,000.

So foreign-born workers rose in number while British born workers fell? Not quite.

The difference between these two changes is that the first is big enough for us to be confident it’s genuine, the second isn’t.

The estimates are based on a survey, so there’s a grey area around the ONS’ best estimate for the numbers of different groups of workers.

The estimate for UK-born workers and UK nationals in work would have to change by more than 200,000 for us to be reasonably confident that we were seeing a genuine change in the real world.

That may sound like a surprisingly big margin. But remember: there are an estimated 26 million UK-born workers or 28 million UK citizens in work. A change of less than 200,000 is difficult to detect with a lot of confidence, based on these figures.

There’s more than one definition of ‘foreigner’

The Office for National Statistics puts out employment figures for two groups which you might associate with the word, ‘foreigner’:

  • People born inside / outside the UK
  • UK / non-UK nationals

The estimated number of British-born workers didn’t ‘plunge’ on both definitions.

The best estimate for the number of UK-born workers fell by 120,000, and rose by 70,000 for UK nationals. Like before, these changes are too small for us to be confident they’ve actually happened.



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