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Woolas: the Minister for Invertebrates

3:30 pm - March 4th 2009

by Unity    

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Phil Woolas yesterday responded to the recent Daily Mail article in which the paper suggested that British-born descendants of relatively recent immigrants shouldn’t be classified as British, an article that Sunder delightfully skewered only a week or so ago.

Woolas’ full statement can be usefully summarised as ‘nothing to do with me, guv‘ followed by a stream of complaints which amount to the suggestion that the Office of National Statistics is actively politicking on the issue of migration, hence the claim that the statistical data is released on the 24 Feb, on which the Mail’s story appears to have been based, was accompanied by a nine page press release which ‘highlighted the 1 in 9 figure as the main finding’.

Woolas’ unusually strong assertions, set my ‘there’s-something-not-quite-right bump’ itching, for no better reason than the fact that I simply cannot recall a single instance in which the ONS have ever come within a country mile of behaving in the manner that Woolas claims – and when a politician starts claiming that an independent civil service agency is acting in manner that’s completely out of character then I, for one, start looking around for signs of small furry mammals of the genus ‘Rattus‘.

So, off we go to the ONS website to track down this nine page press release that Woolas claims the ONS released out of schedule, a full two weeks before the Mail published its story, and here it is – ppmg0209.pdf–  dated 24 Feb 2009 but released, according to the ONS website, on 10 Feb 2009. It’s actually only six pages long, and most of it simply provides advance notice of a clutch of population estimates and related documents that the ONS was, at the time, due to release on the 24th Feb. As for highlighting the 1 in 9 figure as its main finding, this is what the ONS release actually says:

The latest migration statistics, published today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show that 6.5 million people born overseas were resident in the UK in the year to June 2008, an increase of 290,000 on the year to June 2007. The Annual Population Survey also provides population estimates by nationality, showing 4.1 million foreign nationals resident in the UK in the year to June 2008, compared with 3.8 million in the year to June 2007.

A new analysis of the characteristics of people born overseas and now living in the UK in the period April to June 2008 is published today by the ONS. This analysis, which supplements the Labour Market release issued by the ONS on 11 February, shows that 68 per cent of those born in the A8 EU Accession countries and now resident in the UK moved here for work purposes, compared with 31 per cent of all people born overseas.

Where all this actually leads, in terms of actual data, is to a zipped Excel spreadsheet, also released on 24 Feb, which provides a total of eight worksheets containing a range of national, regional and local authority population estimates broken down by country of birth and nationality, the value of which, in research terms, is that collating data of this kind allows for distinctions to be drawn between transient economic migration (foreign nationals who work in the UK but retain their original citizenship and who will, at some time, return to live and work in their country of origin) and settlement (i.e. migrants who take up permanent residence and become British citizens). Visit the ‘product page’ from which this data can be downloaded and the first, and most obvious, thing you’ll notice is that the ONS have been publishing this same statistical report, annually, since 2004, without this having previously attracted any complaints from government ministers.

By now you should have come to the same conclusion that I did, within a couple of minutes of starting to poke around the ONS website, looking at the source documents relating to this story. There is nothing the slightest bit unusual or out of the ordinary in anything the ONS did in releasing this information.

The advance notice, given two weeks prior to the release of the data, is simply a practice that ONS have adopted over the last 2-3 years in order to improve public access to official statistical information by making people aware of what’s available, and due to be available in the near future.

Woolas’s complaint is the worst kind of tendentious drivelling nonsense, the equivalent of James Purnell complaining that undue prominence is given to the headline figure of the number of jobless individuals claiming benefits when releasing the monthly unemployment statistics. For Woolas to then go on and suggest that this amounts to the ONS acting in a manner that is ‘at best, naive or, at worst, sinister’ merely illustrates the utter contempt that he has for the intelligence not only of the public at large, but for members of his own party.

For fuck’s sake, Sunder’s the General Secretary of the Fabian Society, one of the oldest – if not the oldest – active socialist society in the UK, a society that was present at the very formation of the Labour Party, that sent a delegate to Labour’s founding conference. In fact much of the Labour Party’s founding constitution was drafted by a Fabian, Sydney Webb, and cribbed from the Fabian’s Society’s own constitution…

…and here we have Labour minister blowing off a genuine inquiry as if Sunder were nothing more than some lowlife twat of a staff writer chasing down a nothing story for one of the ‘Red Tops’.

Yes, this does very nicely illustrate the ‘toxic’ nature of this issue, the only problem being that the toxic issue in this case is the manifest inability of a government minister to grow a pair and take the Daily Mail – and its bosom buddies, MigrationWatch – to task for pulling its usual trick of fabricating a bunch of overwrought xenophobic sub-BNP nonsense out of a routine statistical release and then having the nerve to try and blame civil servants for the whole farrago in the sure and certain knowledge that the Civil Service Code means that the ONS cannot publicly fight back.

Inevitably, this has all backfired on Woolas in typical fashion…

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was today urged to sack a minister who accused Britain’s statistics body of ‘sinister’ motives over immigration.

Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, claimed that the independent Office for National Statistics had been ‘playing politics’ by releasing figures showing that one in nine UK residents was born overseas during a dispute over the use of foreign workers.

The immigration minister revealed that he had tried to prevent the organisation publishing the data and accused it of ‘playing politics’.

…which only serves to compound his error and he’s not only handed the Mail an easy way out when he should have been demanding that the paper deliver Paul Dacre’s head for mounting on a spike on Westminster bridge, but he also managed to turn himself into the focal point of the Mail’s escape plan and get laid into by the Tories after admitting, publicly, that he tried to stop the figures being released.

What is the world coming to when you can’t even publicly slag off a bunch of civil servants without a newspaper running to the Tories for a few juicy quotes and a demand for your sacking? Who’d-a-thunk-it?

And it that were not reason enough to hand Woolas a well-deserved P45, he goes on to offer the Mail this comment:

Last night, Mr Woolas was unrepentant saying: ‘The ONS need to be aware that they are entering shark-infested waters. It’s not the role of the ONS to dictate the debate.’

Who the fuck is running this guy’s press office? Laurel and Hardy?

I might conceivably suggest that Woolas should resign, but frankly such a suggestion presupposes a level of competence and self-awareness for which there’s scant, if any, evidence in his comments on this issue. Consequently, it seems that the only viable solution would be to move him sideways to a ministerial role more suited to his abilities.

Anyone know if we’ve ever had a Minister for Invertebrates?

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Media ,Race relations

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Reader comments

‘Miister for Invertebrates’ ? Of course, you mean a Governemnt Whip. Perfect; and he would have to keep his mouth shut in public. And be no threat to earthworms.

I thought it was unlikely that the ONS were engaged in a war against immigration in cahoots with the Daily Mail but I cannot entirely work out what Wally Woollass was up to. I would guess he thought that Sunder was accusing New Labour of creating anti immigrant feeling as they did in Crewe or by the “British Jobs….” lie . Sunder`s name spooked him and he cast around for anyone to blame .
As I understand it he was being asked to condemn the Daily Mail and thats all he had to do . All of this makes it look as though New Labour have beaucoup to hide on immigration. Of course , we know they do . It is a testimony to the febrile atmosphere of blame and panic amongst the soon to be unemployed Labour yes men

3. Alisdair Cameron

He is a tw*t, isn’t he?
“The ONS need to be aware that they are entering shark-infested waters”. Is that an admission that he and his political ilk are sharks?
Too cowed by fear of possible outcomes to the scare-mongering twisted tales of some newspapers.

Is that an admission that he and his political ilk are sharks?

Only in the Viz sense.

oh come on. Let’s go back and read Woolas’ “statement”. Its a chatty letter to a friend, a note to a trusted colleague. Sunder, I am sorry but I doubt he expected it to be published. I am no fan of Woolas but this is hardly a scandal.

I don’t see Jacqui Smith sacking anyone – she has her own issues.

I don’t see anyone getting sacked either. The Daily Mail is making a big hoo-haa over this, only because the scumbags were embarrassed they (well, Slack did anyway) made the insinuation that we weren’t British.

Some idiot Tory MP gave a nasty comment to the quote, as did those we’re-not-racist-we’re-just-scared-of-brown-people idiots from MigrationWatch. No big deal to be honest. Though, its true that Woolas is being dishonest about this all, its relatively a lesser crime than the amount of twisting and bullshitting the Daily Mail is doing.

Am in Brussels so have missed some of the excitement around this.

(5) John H – Of course, I wouldn’t bash a piece of private correspondence up on the website. He was responding to my request for a public comment. Its his judgment about what he wants to say.

I wrote to Woolas thanking him for taking part in a Fabian seminar, sending him a copy of my letter to Dacre and wrote “This has had very good play around the blogosphere … Damian Green went so far as to issue a short statement to ConservativeHome last night … Given that, the Fabians and the Liberal Conspiracy website (where I published this) thought we should also offer you the chance to say something about what you think we should take from these confusions about immigration and citizenship”.

(2) Newmania – “Sunder’s name spooked him”. Please rethink such comments. They are offensive. As the MP for Oldham, he has met Asian people. He does not have to infer my views on immigration from my name (and nor should you) because I am perfectly capable of telling him what they are. So, for example, are the IPPR, who also took part in our recent seminar: that isn’t based on the ethnic origin of their staff either.

6.5 million is, of course, 1 in 9 of the UK population of 60.1 million.

While he may have overstated his case, it looks to me like Woolas has a point. From the massed spreadsheets, someone at the ONS chose to extract a measure of immigration that is rising, and highlight that as the first sentence of the press release. Do what 99% of journalists would never do and flip over the page, and you will find the caveats about the headline figure (‘number of peaks and troughs within a time series’, ‘care should be taken when interpreting changes over time’), as well as several other measures that are falling.

I don’t see how spinning the figures that way is not ‘playing politics’.

When politicians spin, you can account for the fact they will be spinning it in predictable ways, and dig down to the real story. When some anonymous bureaucrat does it, it is much more insidious, as you can’t know what their agenda is. Are they an Immigration Watch mole, a free marketeer, a trade unionist, a Guardianista, or what? Are they reluctantly letting facts overcome their prejudgement, or selecting the facts that confirm it? Is the whole thing some inter-agency turf war?

Thanks Sunder for the clarification. Apologies for any offence.

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