Migration Statistics - Public Administration Committee Contents

5  Communicating migration statistics

64. In May 2013, we published a report into communicating statistics. In that report, we concluded that significant improvements can be made to the ease of access to, presentation and explanation of government statistics.[58] This section builds on that work and examines specific issues with the presentation and dissemination of migration statistics in particular.

65. Respondents to the Committee's call for evidence welcomed recent improvements in the reporting of migration statistics, including in the ONS Migration Statistics Quarterly Report and the increasing breadth of migration statistics published by the Home Office.[59] Users of migration statistics also said the ONS and Home Office engaged positively with users: they were responsive to feedback and generally implemented users' suggestions where they could.[60]

66. However, several users expressed concern that, despite improvements in the communication of migration statistics, there remained a considerable lack of understanding of migration statistics among the general public.[61] They noted that, in the public debate about levels of migration, people frequently confused immigration with net migration and did not understand the role of emigration in population change.[62]

67. The Government's policy places all its emphasis on reducing net migration. Research on public attitudes to migration suggests the public is most concerned about immigration rather than the level of net migration.[63] It also suggests that members of the public identify "immigrants" using a different definition than that used in official statistics.[64]

68. The net migration target can disguise the nature of actual population change in the terms which concern many members of the public. Members of the public do not always understand the distinction between immigration and net migration, and many are more concerned by some types of immigration than others. The Government should do more to enable better public understanding of migration, in order for the net migration target to be meaningful to, and understood by, the public.

69. Users of migration statistics also felt the public did not appreciate the degree of uncertainty surrounding migration estimates and thought it could be given greater prominence in official releases.[65] The British Society of Population Studies told us:

    While the ONS website provides clear guidance on the degree of uncertainty that is attached to its estimates of international migration, this is not nearly so evident in the summary publications that are most accessible to the media and the public at large. If it were, then surely there would have been greater pressure placed by the electorate on government to improve the quality of the statistics on international migration.[66]

70. Some users said that while the reporting of migration statistics was effective for expert users, it was ineffective for non-expert and occasional users of the data, such as journalists and members of the public.[67] Users complained that the ONS and Home Office websites were difficult to navigate. The Oxford Migration Observatory wrote:

    At the Migration Observatory we get calls and emails regularly from migration statistics users who are looking for specific migration statistics on the websites of the Office for National Statistics or the Home Office and are unable to find what they are looking for. Often these data are simply not available, but on many occasions the data are available on the ONS or HO websites, but it is difficult for the "casual" user (e.g. NGO, journalist, council employee, academic, etc.) to find the information. In particular, it is easy to reach the migration statistics page. However, once there the user is presented with hundreds of Excel files with limited explanation of which data they contain and it is challenging for non-experts to make sense of all the information available and find a specific series.[68]

71. The British Geographical Society echoed this criticism and noted that: "The LTIM estimates are difficult to locate on the ONS website and it is difficult to switch between the data, methodology and interpretation".[69]

72. The ONS and Home Office have both taken steps to improve the presentation of migration statistics online. The ONS recently added a new topic page on migration to its website, which summarises the most recent headline migration estimates and includes links to relevant statistical releases. The Home Office website recently moved to Gov.uk, a new website for government departments that is designed to make it easier for users to find the information they need. The Home Office also publishes an Immigration Statistics User Guide as part of its quarterly immigration statistics, which provides table by table guidance on the available data.

73. Public understanding of migration statistics is poor. This is partly because migration is a complex phenomenon, but also because official migration statistics do not present a full and accurate picture of migration to and from the UK. As a consequence, the public debate about migration has too often focussed on the headline measure of net migration, without considering the size and composition of its component flows, the range of behaviour it summarises, and the different types of people it covers.

74. We welcome improvements in the reporting of migration statistics by the Home Office. The Home Office has substantially increased the range of data it publishes on immigration control. The Home Office Immigration Statistics User Guide is an effective summary and explanation of the available statistics. We also welcome the new Home Office website at Gov.uk, which addresses some of the criticisms of the Home Office website made in evidence to this inquiry.

75. We welcome improvements in the reporting of migration statistics by the ONS, including the Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, which summarises the most recent migration statistics, and the new topic page for migration on the ONS website. However, the clarity and accessibility of the information that the ONS provides on migration statistics could still be improved. The ONS has improved the presentation of the material it publishes on migration statistics but it should also consider the content of this material, and the way it is explained and presented. The aim should be that a non-expert user should be able to develop an understanding of migration statistics with no prior knowledge or experience. Migration statistics should be presented alongside related guidance on their sources, methodology, use and interpretation.

76. The ONS should produce a user guide to ONS migration statistics similar to the Home Office's Immigration Statistics User Guide. This should explain what migration statistics measure, how they are produced, and what data are available—including table by table guidance. It should be honest and open about the weaknesses of the data.

58   Public Administration Select Committee, First Report of Session 2013-14, Communicating statistics: Not just true but also fair, HC 190 Back

59   Ev w2, Ev w8, Ev w8, Ev w18 Back

60   Ev w2, Ev w8, Ev w8, Ev w18, Ev w22 Back

61   Ev w2, Ev w10, Ev w18, Ev w22, Ev w27 Back

62   Ev w2, Q 2 Back

63   Oxford Migration Observatory, Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain, October 2011 Back

64   As above Back

65   Ev w2, Ev w10, Ev w18 Back

66   Ev w2 Back

67   Ev w2, Ev w8, Ev w10, Ev w18 Back

68   Ev w10 Back

69   Ev w1 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 28 July 2013