March 31, 2016 The British public must be told the truth about migration ahead of the EU referendum, the Office for National Statistics has been warned, amid concerns official figures may be wrong.
In a development which will intensify public debate about immigration ahead of the June 23 vote, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has written to the head of the ONS pointing out â€œspeculation about the qualityâ€_x009d_ of migration figures.
The watchdog said the public must be told if official immigration data â€œfalls short of providing a full pictureâ€_x009d_, The Telegraph can disclose.
Campaigners described the watchdogâ€™s letter as â€œextraordinaryâ€_x009d_.
The letter revealed the UKSAâ€™s concerns focus on differences between ONS migration figures and data produced by other government departments – which have shown a discrepancy of more than a million EU migrants over the last five years.
Since June 2010, 904,000 EU nationals moved to Britain, according to ONS data, but in comparison the DWP issued 2.25 million National Insurance numbers â€“ a variation of 1.3 million â€“ over the same period.
In the most recent ONS migration figures, published last month, overall immigration including non-EU nationals was put at 617,000 in the 12 months to the end of September 2015.
In comparison, data from the Department for Work and Pensions showed it handed out 828,000 National Insurance Number registrations to foreign-born nationals in 2015.
Although the figures cover slightly different time periods, they showed a potential discrepancy of more than 200,000 over just one year.
The letter was sent last week by Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the UKSA which oversees the accuracy of government data, to the head of the ONS.
The two-page communiquÃ© instructs John Pullinger, the National Statistician, to examine whether migration data should carry some kind of health warning ahead of the crucial EU vote.
â€œThe lack of a clear understanding and explanation of the differences between the DWP and ONS figures has led to speculation about the quality of these National Statistics,â€_x009d_ wrote Mr Humpherson.
â€œThere is a significant risk that a lack of progress in reconciling and explaining the differences over the coming weeks could undermine public confidence in official migration estimates.â€_x009d_
He added: â€œGiven the current high level of public interest in migration, it is particularly important that the different sets of data are brought together in a coherent way, fully quality assured and published in an orderly manner, to paint as full a picture as possible of the patterns of migration.
â€œIt is also important that the strengths and limitations of all the data sources are well explained.â€_x009d_
The next set of ONS migration data will be published on May 26, just four weeks before the in-out poll.
â€œThe ONSâ€™s May publication will form part of the statistical evidence informing public debate on immigration levels ahead of the EU referendum on June 23,â€_x009d_ wrote Mr Humpherson.
â€œShould it become apparent that this publication will fall short of meeting any expectations that it will provide a full picture of the differences between migration sources (due to the relevant data from HMRC and DWP not being available for example) I would expect ONS to make this known publicly as soon as possible.â€_x009d_
Mr Pullinger was urged to provide â€œprompt reassurance on these mattersâ€_x009d_.
Crucially, the ONS migration data is based on a survey which interviews thousands of foreign nationals at ports and airports about how long they intend to stay in Britain.
Its data are estimates extrapolated from the findings of that survey rather than being based on â€œhardâ€_x009d_ numbers.
Mr Humpherson disclosed the UKSA is currently assessing the DWPâ€™s figures to see whether they meet â€œthe highest standards of trustworthiness, quality and valueâ€_x009d_.
â€œAlthough we are not currently assessing the ONS migration statistics, I would encourage you to consider these issues of comprehensiveness and reconciliation for these too,â€_x009d_ he added.
Mr Humpherson urged the ONS, the DWP, the Home Office and HM Revenue and Customs to work together to improve the clarity of immigration data.
They should â€œavoid piecemeal data emerging at different times and on different basesâ€_x009d_, he said.
The HMRC has refused to reveal how many National Insurance numbers issued to foreign nationals are active â€“ which could indicate whether large numbers of immigrants have stayed in Britain or gone home.
Lord Green of Deddington, chairman of MigrationWatch UK which campaigns for tougher border controls, said: “This is an extraordinary and very significant development.
“The Statistics Authority have clearly lost patience with HM Revenue and Customs.
“Their letter is a barely coded message to government departments which seem to have been deliberately obstructive, possibly on ministerial instructions.
“They urge them to get on and co-operate with the national statisticians so as to produce immigration figures that we can have confidence in. This is absolutely right.
“At issue is whether immigration, particularly from the EU has, in fact been significantly higher in recent years than the official immigration figures have suggested.
“Sorting this out must surely be the top priority for the ONS in the period before the referendum.â€_x009d_
Jonathan Portes, principle research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has asked the Government for more detail of the National Insurance numbers but his request was rejected on grounds it might prejudice the outcome of the referendum.
He said last month the electorate deserved to have the full facts about what he described as a â€œhuge discrepancyâ€_x009d_ and described the Governmentâ€™s refusal to provide background figures as â€œgenuinely outrageousâ€_x009d_.
Net migration figures â€“ the difference between immigration and emigration â€“ stood at 323,000 a year in latest figures published last month, far above the Governmentâ€™s target of â€œtens of thousandsâ€_x009d_.
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