Journalistic sleight of hand was at work today once more on the issue of immigration. Following a National Audit Office report that calls for increased checking and management information, a figure mentioned fleetingly in the report – that over 180,000 migrants "could be in Britain illegally", as the Telegraph put it – has hit the headlines.
To quote the report (PDF) at length, something that the media are failing to do, we see that:
The Agency estimates there may be up to 181,000 migrants in total (not just entering through the system) in the UK whose permission to remain has expired since December 2008. It expects to revise this estimate downwards, however, following matching with new data being provided by its e-Borders project.
A sober look at the actual words of the National Audit Office gives a very different understanding from the hysteria of the press. At no point is the figure 181,000 presented as either realistic, or even probable. To say that a figure, preceded by the two provisos "may be" and "up to" – and followed by an expectation of a downwards revision – is circumspect would be an understatement.
But that hasn't prevented headlines like the Telegraph's appearing across the media: "181,000 migrants 'in UK illegally'," said the Daily Star, Express and Evening Standard. Even the Independent, which really should know better, went for "Report claims 181,000 migrants 'in UK illegally'".
As the Home Secretary and her immigration minister Damian Green will benefit from poor information that will make their attacks on immigration more palatable to the populace, it's worth taking a closer look at the figures. Even if "181,000" was a reliable statistic and not an inflated figure, it accounts for just 0.0029 of the population. To get a sense of scale, 181,000 is about a third of the total number of people working in the care industry in the UK.
Still, it's more fuel for the anti-immigration lobby, and there remains little opposition from the Labour benches, seemingly cowed by the issue. Far from confronting the lies, myths and misinformation, the Labour front bench are operating a policy of see-no-evil-speak-no-evil on immigration. They are most likely hoping the matter will abate as a result of the Tory crackdown.
That's no way for Labour to win respect, nor does it work in the interests of the country. The opposition needs to be presenting a policy that would lead to a flexible, demand-based immigration system that would bolster the economy and fill vacancies.
Guy Taylor is campaigns and communications officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.