Home Office accused of 'burying bad news' over immigration
Ministers have been accused of “burying bad news” by misleading the public over how many foreigners are coming to live and work in Britain.
By Christopher Hope
Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 11:15PM BST 17 Sep 2008
Professor David Hand, the head of the Royal Statistical Society, complained that a Home Office official had been handing out a press notice promoting Government policy at a ONS briefing on migration figures.
He said that this “succeeded in partially diverting some journalists' attention away from the comprehensive range of data being presented towards one specific issue”.
The most senior civil servant at the Home Office has issued a rare apology to Karen Dunnell, the Government's national statistician and head of the Office for National Statistics, over the affair.
The controversial press notice, headlined “Migration from Eastern Europe falls to a new low”, claimed that the ONS figures showed: “The number of Eastern European migrants coming to work in the UK has fallen to its lowest level since accession”.
The Government's line was picked up and run by at least one national newspaper, although other newspapers including The Daily Telegraph, chose to run different interpretations of the official figures.
In his letter to Sir Michal Scholar, head of the UK Statistics Authority, Prof Hand said “the press notice itself was not clearly labelled as a ministerial or policy statement… and made valid, but selective, points about immigration data.”
Prof Hand said that handing out what some would see as Government spin at a statistics briefing was “in breach of written guidance”.
He added: “While that is serious enough in itself, our concern is broader. In particular, we believe that the whole incident epitomises some of the bad practices that have helped to undermine public confidence in official statistics.
“The release of such ministerial statements alongside statistical releases can focus attention on one aspect favourable to the government, distracting from other statistics and presenting an unbalanced view. At worst this can help to 'bury' news perceived as unfavourable to the Government.”
Prof Hand added the matter was particularly important after research showed that only 16 per cent of people thought that “the Government uses figures honestly when talking about its policies”.
A new code of conduct which is likely to be published by the end of the year should ensure that there is a clear demarcation between Government policy and official statistics, he said.
The Tories' shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: “This is a damning indictment of the culture of spin under this Government.
“Instead of trying to deceive the public by fiddling the figures the Government should take action to control immigration properly. This means setting an explicit annual limit so local public services and communities can cope.”
Sir David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, said: “I regret that a Home Office press release was given to journalists at the press conference on 21 August and I have apologised to Karen Dunnell for this.”
A Home Office spokesman said: It simply is not true to say that the Home Office misled the public or presented an unbalanced picture of immigration statistics.
Like all parts of the civil service, the Home Office provides a clear picture of statistics.
That is why it published a clearly labelled and 100 per cent accurate press notice to media to coincide with the official release of Home Office statistics.