Graphic: imported labour
The UK’s official statistician weighed into the debate about foreign workers yesterday by highlighting the growing numbers of immigrants getting jobs while the British workforce declines.
On the day that figures showed the number of people unemployed at a 12-year high, the Office for National Statistics chose to reveal that the number of foreign workers increased by 175,000 to 2.4 million last year while the number of British workers fell by 234,000 to 27 million.
Karen Dunnell, the National Statistician, sought to focus public attention on the contrasting fortunes of foreign and British workers as the country slipped into recession. Her intervention came as construction workers took part in wildcat strikes at power stations in Nottinghamshire and Kent, angry about jobs going to foreigners.
The ONS, which is charged with collecting data and providing impartial analysis, said that it made the unprecedented release because of the “topicality of the issue”.
Whitehall sources told The Times that ministers were “fizzing” with anger, accusing the ONS of a political act designed to embarrass Gordon Brown over his “British jobs for British workers” soundbite.
MPs warned that the statistics were open to misinterpretation and risked inflaming tensions in many British workplaces.
In January, 73,800 people signed on for jobless benefits, bringing the claimant total to 1.23 million. The number of people out of work reached 1.97 million between October and December, the highest level since August 1997. Jobs were also lost at a record rate. Yesterday the cash-and-carry chain Makro said that 400 workers faced redundancy. The ONS has for years collected details on the origin of those working in Britain. The figures are usually included in the pages of data making up the monthly jobless totals, which yesterday ran to 24 tables. They are also included in quarterly population and migration figures, due out at the end of this month.
Yesterday was the first time that the ONS had highlighted the employment fortunes of foreigners in a separate press release, and the first time it had issued more than one release on unemployment. MPs said that the release, headed “UK-born and non-UK-born employment”, was misleading because many of those born outside the country had since become UK citizens.
The row is the latest dispute between the ONS and the Government over the release of official data. The ONS won independence from the Government last year after claims that ministers were manipulating figures for political advantage.
The figures showed that since the beginning of 1997, the year Labour came to power, the number of foreign-born workers has almost doubled. Over the same period, the number of British-born workers has risen by just 5 per cent to 25.58 million.
However, ministers believe that the figures are meaningless because they fail to distinguish between temporary workers, Europeans and those on indefinite leave to remain.
A senior government source said: “The fact that they highlighted this in this way, in a press release, looks like they are trying to embarrass the Government over the slogan ‘British Jobs for British workers’.”
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said that he would raise concerns about the release of the figures with the Prime Minister today. “The danger is that such information could be misconstrued or misused by those who do not support the view that Britain should be a diverse and multicultural society,” he said.