Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Phil Woolas: ONS playing politics with immigration stats

My letter to Paul Dacre last week about the Daily Mail's report on immigration and citizenship, classifying British-born descendants of those born abroad as immigrants, generated a lot of interest around the internet.

Once shadow immigration minister Damian Green weighed in on ConservativeHome, I dropped immigration minister Phil Woolas a note to see whether he had any public comment to make himself. I have just received this comment from him.

"Most people believe that it is the Government who have released these figures in this way. In fact, it was the ONS with no Ministerial involvement and indeed despite my objections. What's worse is that the press release which ran to nine pages highlighted the 1 in 9 figure as the main finding. So, Government gets the blame by some for whipping up anti-foreign sentiment when it is the independent ONS who are playing politics. The justification from the ONS who had, out of schedule, highlighted the figure two weeks earlier because it was "topical" is, at best, naive or, at worst, sinister.

The fact that 1 in 9 people who are in Britain (for over a year) were born overseas is neither new nor informative. It includes around 370,000 undergraduates who will not stay in this country as well as those British nationals born overseas including around a quarter of a million born to our armed forces personnel serving overseas. The figure of twelve months is arbitrary. Surely the distinction between temporary residence and Indefinite Leave to Remain and full citizenship is more useful in framing a mature debate.

There are times in our history when the numbers of residents born overseas was higher than 1 in 9. Robert Winder's brilliant history of migration estimates that at the time of the Huguenot migration the figure could have been as high as one in three. The whole issue highlights the toxic nature of this debate".

Phil Woolas had been asked about the foreign-born statistics at a Fabian breakfast seminar on immigration and skills last Wednesday, and had become animated on the issue when speaking alongside Tim Finch who heads the ippr's migration research programme. That was a Chatham House rule event, involving a broad range of perspectives from Fabians, ippr, MigrationWatch, trade unions and practioners in employment, skills and immigration law. It is interesting that Woolas is willing to place that frustration with the dangers of the ONS media strategy on the record too.

Coincidentally, I was surprised to receive a friendly phone call from the Daily Mail this morning. They intend to print an edited version of my letter in the newspaper tomorrow. (The letter as submitted the following morning was a tiny bit more sensible - removing the pejorative reference to appeasement - and a little longer than that which I had initially published at Liberal Conspiracy).


Calix said...

Well done Sunder for standing up to the Daily Mail and provoking a minister to speak out.

Too often articles like this go unchallenged, particularly ones about immigration. In the current economic climate it is particularly important to do this.

Oh...and it was also very amusing!

Rachael Jolley said...

The Hugenot point is a good one. A linguistics historian told me that Norwich was the most multi-cultural city in the 16th century, and its market had stalls where you could go to have translations done from language to language.

Tim said...

Phil Woolas was on the Today programme last Friday insisting over half a million of Eastern European migrants have left the UK despite evidence that challenges the claim.

Whatever you think about immigration, getting your facts right is a must.

Full Fact analysed the basis for the original claims and found them wanting http://fullfact.org/?p=125