Statistics watchdog: 'foreign' benefits data "highly vulnerable to misinterpretation"

25 January 2012

Sir Michael Scholar, the outgoing Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, has today written to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to express some concerns about figures released by his Department earlier this week on the number of 'foreigners' claiming benefits in this country.

The issue was picked up by a number of media outlets, including the Sun, the Daily Mail and the BBC's Today programme.

As we found at the time, these reports didn't always entirely reflect the statistics in the release.

For example, the Mail claimed that they had revealed the "foreigners being paid £2 billion in benefits a year," even though the DWP had stressed that "these statistics do not provide a measure of non-UK nationals currently claiming benefits."

Given this media interest in the story, Sir Michael noted his disappointment that the DWP had chosen to publish the figures as a research note in the 'ad hoc analysis' section of its website, rather than as Official Statistics.

The distinction may seem a technical one, but it has some fairly profound consequences.

Not only would it have allowed the statistics watchdog to gauge whether or not they're robust enough to be considered National Statistics, but it would also have prevented DWP Ministers from authoring a comment piece in the Telegraph before the statistics were made available for public scrutiny.

While recognising that the statistics are "highly valuable to public policy" he also warns that they could be "highly vulnerable to misinterpretation."

Sir Michael writes:

"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. This is, in our view, best done by official statisticians producing a statistical release in accordance with the Code of Practice."

Inaccuracy in the reporting of welfare issues has unfortunately marred a very important ongoing debate, and has been highlighted by the Work and Pensions Committee, academics, and the UK Statistics Authority itself.

The UKSA has taken a lead in tackling some of these issues, and we hope that Mr Duncan Smith will implement Sir Michael's suggestions. Given that "serious deficiencies" have already been found in the way that the DWP deals with the media, we hope that Lord Justice Leveson will take the opportunity to call Ministers to his Inquiry to explain under oath the Department's role in the inaccurate press covereage.

To read Sir Michael's letter in full, click here.

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