Matter of fact? Cameron cites ‘questionable’ migrant benefits data

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron © Toby Melville
The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has lashed out at Downing Street over Prime Minister David Cameron’s citation of “questionable” figures, which were used show how many European Union migrants rely on welfare benefits in the UK.

During a speech on Wednesday, the PM launched “formal negotiations” on the UK’s future in the EU. He claimed that 43 percent of EU migrants are supported by the UK’s benefits system within four years of arrival.

The PM said each family was claiming around £6,000 (US$9,100) a year worth of in-working benefits, and more than 10,000 recently arrived families claimed more than £10,000 a year.

However, he failed to provide a published explanation as to how officials calculated the findings.

Cameron has since been criticized by the UKSA for presenting “unsatisfactory” data which was not accompanied by a report to show how it was calculated.

In a letter to the UK’s independent fact checking firm Full Fact, UKSA’s chair Sir Andrew Dilnot described the PM’s handling of the release of the figures as “disappointing.”

It is disappointing that this was not available at the same time as the figures were released,” it said.

The Code of Practice for Official Statistics expects that ‘Statistical reports should be released into the public domain in an orderly manner that promotes public confidence and gives equal access to all’ and that producers should ‘publish details of the methods adopted.

The release of these statistics without the subsequent accompanying background material explaining the methodology used made it hard for those interested to understand and scrutinize the statistics, which was clearly unsatisfactory.”

In response, Full Fact said the public has been “shut out of the debate” by the government’s vague explanation.

As the Prime Minister was about to begin his speech at 9.15am, the statistics had still not appeared. We rang the Department to ask where we could find the statistics—we and others need them to assess the Prime Minister’s claims,” it said in a statement.

UKSA and Full Fact are not the only firms to cast doubt on the figures’ validity.

National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) Director Jonathan Porter told the Times: “They appear to have taken the number of EU/EEA migrants claiming benefits from DWP data, made some ‘adjustments’, and divided by the number of EU/EEA migrants here for less than four years according to the LFS.”

Some aspects of Cameron’s findings are “very suspicious,” he added.

In a statement, Downing Street said: “We have noted the UK Statistics Authority’s letter, which focuses on the publication process rather than the statistics themselves.”