Volatile mix of jobs and race will give ministers the jitters

07:52 by Editor · 0 Post a comment on AAWR

A politically explosive mix of unemployment and immigration figures sent a shiver of apprehension through government ministers yesterday. 

With both issues right at the top of the electorate’s concerns, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) news release on levels of foreign employment was certain to raise alarm. 
Only hours after British construction workers started a wildcat strike at a Nottinghamshire power station, the ONS revealed that the number of British citizens in work had fallen by 234,000 while the number of foreign workers had risen by 175,000 during the year to December. During the same period the number of workers who were born abroad rose by 214,000 while employment of British-born workers fell by 278,000. The ONS subsequently disclosed that of the 3.8 million foreign-born workers, 40 per cent are now British citizens.

It appears easy to interpret the figures as showing that foreign workers are replacing British workers. 

The impression of foreigners taking British jobs was strengthened by the breakdown of figures into some national groups. Employment rates for British citizens, and those from most EU countries, America, South Africa and Australia, either fell or showed small increases. In contrast, employment rates for Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis rose by 5 per cent. 

However, although the figures appear startling, the total number of foreign-born workers has increased at the same rate as employment, up by 290,000 to 5.4 million. Overall, therefore, the change is zero. 

The increase in employment rates in the Pakistani-Bangladeshi communities started from a low base, with only 48 per cent now in jobs compared with almost three quarters of the population as a whole. 

Many of the new workers born in the Indian sub-continent will have grown up in Britain and attended school and university here. The figures also mask the increase in employment rates among Asian women. 

Although the Government has insisted on attracting primarily skilled workers vital to the economy, the ONS figures show that the biggest increase in foreign-born workers has been in the lowest-skilled occupations. 

Foreign-born workers accounted for a fifth of total unskilled jobs, up from a tenth in 2001. Over the same period the proportion of foreign-born workers in full-time employment across the workforce has increased from about 8 per cent to almost 14 per cent. 

Although the Government played down the significance of the foreign workers, the latest figures show that during the same period the numbers of work permits granted to people from India, Pakistan and South Africa almost doubled. 

Almost 50,000 work permits were issued to people from India compared with 26,000 in 2007, according to figures released to Parliament last month. There was also a big increases for Pakistan — up 3,270 from 1,545 — and South Africa, 4,870 compared with 2,890. 

The Home Office said last night that it was unable to explain the increase but changes to work permit regulations could account for some of the rise. 

Tim Finch, head of migration at the Institute of Public Policy Research, said: “The figures are showing a drop in UK-born people of working age in work and a rise in foreign-born people in work. But they do not explain what lies behind the figures.” 

Tony Travers, a public finance expert at the London School of Economics, said: “It is an unhelpful coincidence to publicise the statistics in this way, at this time. If it is the ONS demonstrating its new independent status it would be an awkwardly political-looking way of doing it.” 

The row over the figures reflects the birth pangs of a new system of releasing official statistics intended to separate the figures from political comment. A number of rows over the release last year of crime and immigration figures highlighted how difficult it was for Whitehall and politicians to come to terms with a regime in which figures are released free from “spin”. Sir Michael Scholar, a former permanent secretary, who is now head of the statistics watchdog, attended the weekly meeting of Whitehall permanent secretaries yesterday to discuss the importance of abiding by the new regime for releasing figures. 

The decision to publish a separate report on figures for “UK born and non-UK born employment” was taken by Karen Dunnell, the chief statistician, in the lead-up to the release of the unemployment figures. The ONS said that the decision was taken in reponse to public interest in the topic in an attempt to avoid any confusion. “We reviewed our previous practice given the topicality of the issue,” a spokesman said, adding: “We want to make sure the picture is clear from us.” 

The ONS said that in most cases, those who wanted to find out how employment among those born in the UK and overseas had changed would have to do their own sums before the ONS estimates were published alongside the population figures. A spokesman said: “Since calculations are not straightforward, we decided to publish estimates by our standard techniques. The aim is to help public information and avoid potential confusion if alternative statistics were published.” 

The ONS emphasised that the decision had not been taken lightly. “Don’t think that we did not consider very, very fully whether or not to do it,” a spokeswoman said. The ONS said that the underlying data published in the release were already published inside and outside government. 

“Given the level of interest in this aspect of the labour market, and since calculations are not straightforward, we decided to publish estimates by our standard techniques,” a spokesman said. The aim is to help public information and avoid potential confusion if alternative statistics were published.”  continues here

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