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Stats Agency savages Brown over immigration claims

Gives Tories a nasty nip too

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The UK Statistics Agency has teeth and it is prepared to use them. The latest high-profile victim of the Agency is none other than Gordon Brown, who was taken to task yesterday for misleading voters with his selective use of statistics on immigration.

Last month, the UK Statistics Agency (UKSA) warned politicians that it would be watching them during the course of the election campaign and that any politician who misused official statistics could expect to feel the agency's wrath. While sceptics pooh-poohed the idea that a government body might actually be prepared to go head to head with senior politicians on this issue, the record of the UKSA over the last few weeks has been exemplary.

At issue is the vexed question of whether immigration has been going down under the current administration, and if so by how much. In a podcast last Friday, Brown claimed that his government had presided over a significant fall in net migration to the UK, from 237,000 in 2007 to 163,000 in 2008 and provisionally 147,000 in 2009.

He was using these figures to claim that a new points system introduced in 2008 - determining which skilled workers from outside the EU can enter the country - had "radically changed the way we are dealing with immigration".

However, as critics and the UKSA were quick to point out, this was not entirely accurate, since the figure for 2009 was provisional, and also excluded asylum seekers and those who had overstayed their visas.

Sir Michael Scholar, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to the Prime Minister (pdf) yesterday explaining the error of his ways in suitably school-masterly tones. He said: "I attach a note, prepared by the ONS, on these statistics. You will see that the note points out that the podcast did not use comparable data series for 2007 to 2009, and that it did not take account of the revised estimate of long-term net immigration for 2007."

He added: "The Statistics Authority hopes that in the political debate over the coming weeks all parties will be careful in their use of statistics to protect the integrity of official statistics."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We accept that some of the statistics used in the Prime Minister's podcast were not strictly comparable and as a result were unclear."

"Unclear" in this context is possibly a euphemism for misleading and wrong.

Lest it be thought that the UKSA is only concerned with errors by the government, Scholar is even-handed in his dishing out of reprimands. In February, he tangled with the Conservative Party, accusing them of misleading the public over crime figures.

At issue was the apparent preference by Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling for using police recorded statistics as a measure of crime in the UK, rather than the British Crime Survey. The latter is generally regarded by academics in this field as providing a more accurate and more rounded picture of what is happening to crime. ®

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