EU migrants and benefits: the government continues to stifle debate by hiding the data

Two months ago the Prime Minister claimed that “around 40 percent of all recent European Economic Area migrants are supported by the UK benefits system.”  It was immediately obvious that this number was cooked up in Number 10, not by a statistician but rather by special advisers.  The UK Statistics Authority forced DWP to publish, very hastily, a deeply unconvincing post-hoc explanation.  What this made clear was that the assumptions - which DWP hinted at but didn't explain - were dodgy at best. In particular, it turns out, as Alberto Nardelli at the Guardian explains, that quite a few of the Prime Minister's supposed "benefit tourists" are actually British citizens married to EU nationals, or British-born children.

So I asked DWP some obvious questions, most quite technical, about how the data had been constructed.  The answer:

There is a public interest in greater transparency which makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust. However, there is a compelling public interest in protecting a private space in which policies can be developed without there being premature disclosure which might close off better options. Unless this private space is protected there is likely to be a negative effect on the conduct of good government.

This is nonsense. There is no "public interest" in concealing data from the public.  To repeat, there was absolutely nothing in my request about policy.  Indeed, I was not asking for any new analysis or any data DWP have not already admitted they have produced and indeed used as the basis for what they have already published. I was merely asking for details of how a number - a number already used by the Prime Minister in a very high profile speech - was calculated.  

The idea that "premature disclosure" of this data would stop the government developing policy is laughable - unless of course, the data shows that the Prime Minister's claims here and elsewhere on this topic are flawed or worse.  A consistent pattern is emerging here.  Once again, the government is concealing, not policy development, but data on European Union migrants and their propensity (or otherwise) to claim benefits, not because it does not have the data but because revealing it might cause it political embarrassment.  Whichever side of the Brexit or immigration debates you are on, this is an abuse of taxpayers' money and does a disservice to the public debate.

You can read my request and DWP's response in full here. 


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