Telegraph grossly distorts migrant figures

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 13.05.2016

Today’s Telegraph front page is dominated by its coverage of a rather dry Office for National Statistics (ONS) paper on migration. “The gap between the official migrant figure and the truth is as wide as the Grand Canyon”, writes Allison Pearson. “We are owed an apology”.

An apology certainly should be forthcoming, but not from the statisticians. Pearson has distorted the ONS findings; the official figures were correct.

Pearson contrasts an “official” inflow of 0.9 million EU migrants between 2010 and 2015 with a new “real number” of 2.4 million. The front page illustration contains the two figures in huge type (bigger than The Telegraph mast-head) superimposed on a picture of the Grand Canyon. Both are misleadingly sourced to the ONS.

The ONS reported migration – under the internationally accepted definition, which counts people who stay for at least a year – at 1 million. The Telegraph has added to this figure the ONS’s estimate of EU citizens who come for less than a year to get its 2.4 million figure. But this is incoherent since people who stay for less than a year will no longer be in the UK in the longer run.

Pearson defends her statistical error by saying that, while “Piotr the plumber” might “have had no intention of staying on” beyond a year, he might change his mind and stay. This is just a factual error. The ONS statistics on long-term migration are adjusted to take account of “switchers”, people who start out as visitors but stay longer. The ONS also makes clear that the short-term data is based on people who have “actually come to and subsequently left the UK… rather than simply intending to do so”.

In other words, the survey accounts for Pearson’s long-staying Piotrs.

Pearson also claims she has found a smoking gun in the ONS’s figures on National Insurance Numbers issued to migrants. She correctly reports that 40-50 percent of these are active for over a year and declares triumphantly: “In short: every other Piotr is staying put.” But the meaning is also that every other Piotr is leaving after doing a spot of short-term work.

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    On the basis of her distorted figures, Pearson makes a string of other spurious claims: that EU migrants are responsible for kids not getting into secondary schools of their choice, pregnant women being turned away by maternity units and the inability of boys with bursting appendices to get into paediatric beds. Not only does she fail to produce any evidence to back up these inflammatory statements; it is implausible that many migrants who hop over for short-term work will put their kids into secondary schools or attend maternity units.

    Pearson claims that Britain’s elites have “played the biggest con-trick in living memory”. Politicians have decided to “underestimate, obfuscate, and… lie” about the migration data. She ends with the conclusion: “Brexit now has its best and biggest weapon. Use it well.”

    The Leave camp is, indeed, already making claims similar to Pearson’s – as have the Mail, the Sun and the Express. But it is them who are guilty of the con-trick.

    The Telegraph did not respond to queries by time of publication.

    This piece was amended shortly after publication to correct a typo in the fifth paragraph, and insert the word “also” into the sentence “But the meaning is also that every other Piotr is leaving after doing a spot of short-term work”. The spelling of Allison was also corrected.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon