PM warned over ninth misleading unemployment claim

Stats watchdog criticises Boris Johnson as he continues to incorrectly state there are more people in employment than before the pandemic
Boris Johnson waving as he enters No.10 Downing Street. Photo: No.10/Flickr

By Tevye Markson

17 May 2022

The UK Statistics Authority has warned Boris Johnson once again over his use of statistics after he made a false claim about employment levels in parliament for the ninth time. 

The prime minister said at Prime Minister’s Questions on 27 April that there were 500,000 more people in paid employment than before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, there were 588,000 fewer people in employment in the UK compared to two years ago, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures.

Johnson made the comments in the House of Commons before the ONS published updated employment stats today showing the unemployment rate had fallen slightly between January and March to hit a nearly 50-year low. However, total employment nevertheless remains lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The latest ONS data shows that there were 32.569 million people in employment across the UK in January to March this year, compared to 33.073 million in December 2019 to February 2020.

While there are now more people on payrolls than before the pandemic, this increase is more than offset by the reduction in the number of people who are self-employed.

Sian Jones, interim chair of UKSA, said: “The prime minister should be clearer in his claims around employment now compared to before the pandemic began."

The PM has previously made eight similar incorrect claims on employment figures at PMQs since November, according to fact checking charity Full Fact.

Jones addressed Johnson’s latest comments in a letter to Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine, who had written to the authority to ask what can be done to prevent the PM from repeating the claim again in future.

“The UK Statistics Authority seeks to protect the role of statistics in public debate; we want to see statistics used and interpreted appropriately,” Jones said.

“We will continue to emphasise the importance of accuracy and clarity with Number 10, and work with producers to present statistics in ways which minimise the risk of misuse,” she added.

UKSA has already warned Johnson over his use of statistics several times this year, including over the same false claim.

Former UKSA chair Sir David Norgrove wrote to Johnson on 24 February, reproaching him for his “selective” use of unemployment statistics at PMQs three weeks earlier.

Norgrove also criticised the PM in January for stating that crime had gone down by 14% when it had actually risen by 14%. Johnson omitted fraud and computer use from the figures to get the “misleading” figure.

Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, has also previously raised concerns about Johnson’s “disappointing” use of statistics, writing to Laura Gilbert, No.10’s director of data science, on 1 February.

And Jones said her office has also been in touch with the No.10 briefing team on “a number of occasions” over the false statements.

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