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Woolas accuses ONS of “playing politics”

MigrationWatch: “To imply that there is some sinister motive in simply telling the truth is astonishing”
4th March 2009: There is an apparent feud between the Government and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) over the way ONS handled recent release of immigration data.

ONS recently released data showing that the number of foreign workers increased by 175,000 to 2.4 million last year while that of British fell by 234,000 to 27 million.

It was suggested privately that this was an attempt to embarrass Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the height of the Lyndsey oil refinery dispute over his call for "British jobs for British workers."

Immigration Minister Phil Woolas has accused ONS of "playing politics" with population figures. He has also questioned the motives of ONS in publishing figures that showed one in nine UK residents was born abroad.

In a letter to Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the left-wing Fabian Society, Mr. Woolas said: "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.”

Mr. Woolas said that the way the immigration data was released made the Government get “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 minister went on to say that there is nothing new or informative in the fact that “one in nine people who are in Britain (for over a year) were born overseas.”

He said this “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.”

Mr. Woolas also pointed out that there have been moments in UK’s history when the numbers of residents born overseas was higher than one in nine.

He cited Robert Winder’s history of migration which 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," the minister said.

The minister’s reaction to the way ONS handled the release of immigration data has been strongly criticised by Sir Andrew Green, head of the MigrationWatch think tank. “It’s extremely unfortunate if a Minister gives an impression of bullying the official statisticians for doing no more than setting out the facts, however inconvenient they may be for the Government of the day.

“To imply that there is some sinister motive in simply telling the truth is astonishing,” The Daily Mail quoted Sir Green to have said.

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: “The way Ministers are behaving over both crime and immigration figures is little short of a disgrace.

“When they can, they manipulate the figures for their own political purposes and when they can’t they launch hysterical rants at the independent statistics office. It’s just not good enough,” The Daily Mail reported.

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