ONS moves to end misreporting of foreign worker job statistics

12 July 2011

For many months now Full Fact has complained about a frequent misrepresentation of statistics relating to foreign workers.

Time and again, when the monthly labour market statistics bulletin was published newspapers would look at the change in employment levels broken down by country of birth.

This led to headlines about how many 'new jobs' had been taken by foreigners. As was the case last month.

What the figures did show was, breaking down the rise in overall employment levels, that more of this rise was accounted for by people born abroad than in the UK.

This is not the same as the proportion of 'new jobs' taken by foreigners, for the simple reason than that a job is not the same as a person in employment. Someone could have more than one job, for instance.

Since this presentation of the figures cropped up time and again, and is at least open to being misconstrued, we repeatedly asked the Office for National Statistics (ONS) whether any clarification or guidance could be added to the figures to improve understanding of them.

Despite its stated role of developing understanding of the UK through trusted statistics, the ONS refused to take the opportunity to help set this pervasive misinterpretation straight. However after Full Fact raised the issue with the UK Statistics Authority, we have been told that the ONS has agreed to include clarification on the foreign worker statistics in future bulletins.

The move is an extremely welcome one. As the next bulletin comes out tomorrow, we look forward to reading the updated version.

This is also an important precedent establishing that where statistical releases are widely misinterpreted the ONS has the remit and the responsibility to step in to improve public understanding.

No one is pretending that this change will eradicate this particular problem overnight, but with the ONS putting something about it on record it should be easier to direct journalists, politicians and regulators to the relevant passage in the bulletin—rather than asking people to take Full Fact's word for it.

So in time, we hope that when these statistics are quoted in articles—as surely they will—they are at least presented in the proper way, to better inform the heated debate about immigration and the labour market.

Update: The Labour Market Statistical Bulletin has now been published. On page four it states: " The estimates relate to the number of people in employment rather than the number of jobs. These statistics have sometimes been incorrectly interpreted as indicating the proportion of new jobs that are taken by foreign migrants. "

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