Each month, a new Office for National Statistics (ONS) report is released, detailing the current employment scene in Britain. Like with any major reports, they are seldom without criticisms from the public.
But, before his retirement, Richard Clegg, Senior Statistician wants to set the record straight and dismiss numerous myths that circulate online about the labour market data.
He wrote in The Telegraph that despite UK surveys surveying a representative sample of the British public, it doesn’t stop keyboard warriors taking to Twitter to spread myths that the market figures are manipulated to support governmental agendas.
Below are the seven ONS statistic myths that Clegg is keen to dispel:
1. “The job figures are rigged by the government”
Clegg is quick to point out that the figures don’t come from government data or benefits. Instead, he explained that they come directly from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). “That’s us, talking directly to real people in their tens of thousands, and logging information about their own experiences. I should also take this opportunity to say thank you to the thousands of people who take time to respond to our survey,” he wrote.
2. “Employment growth is driven by people working an hour a week or on a zero-hours contract”
According to research, only a small portion of employed people work very short hours. January to March 2019 statistics found that just 1.4% of employees usually worked six hours or less. Clegg explained: “Yes, someone who only works for an hour a week is technically defined as employed because that’s the standard international definition of employment (more on that below). But the numbers of such people would seem to be vanishingly small.”
3. “The definition of employment and unemployment has been changed by the government to massage the figures, so our figures aren’t comparable with those for other countries”
Clegg writes that the definitions used to contextualise the figures such as what counts as employment and unemployment are agreed internationally at the forum of International Labour Organisation (ILO). “The reason for this is, of course, precisely to ensure that different countries’ figures are comparable. These definitions are long-standing and haven’t been altered. Because they are set internationally, they are not subject to alteration by the UK government and there have been no changes at all to these definitions since the change of government in 2010,” he added.
4. “The latest figures are not on the same basis as figures for the 1970s”
ONS employment and unemployment statistics reportedly date back to ’71 and Clegg is adamant that they have used the same ILO definitions throughout, therefore is quick to dismiss the assumption that the latest figures aren’t comparable to the early 70s.
He explained: “Our figures for the 1970s and 1980s are not the same as when those figures were originally published. That is because unemployment statistics used to be based on the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits.”
5. “ONS includes unpaid family carers in the employment figures”
Out of all of the myths, this statement is the mistake that Clegg brands understandable. The research shows that within the small sub-category of employed people, referred to as 'unpaid family workers', make up less than 0.5% of the entire employed population. He added: “However, it does not cover unpaid carers, who would not count in our employment figures if their caring responsibilities prevented them from being available for work. 'Unpaid family workers' are actually people who work in a family business without receiving a formal wage or salary but benefit from its profits instead.”
6. “Unemployment is a count of benefit claimants, and so ‘sanctioned’ claimants and those not claiming benefits are excluded from the figure”
Clegg explained that this is not at all the case. “The unemployment figure comes from the ONS survey not the DWP, which manages the benefits system. The people who are counted as unemployed are those aged 16 or over who are not working but are both looking for and are available for work, no matter what benefits they may or may not be receiving. So, having one’s benefit claim sanctioned (stopped or reduced) does not directly affect this at all.”
7. “The school leaving age has been raised to 18, so 16 and 17-year-olds have been removed from the unemployment figures”
Despite common myths, Clegg explained that the ONS doesn’t measure unemployment rates among this young age group. He wrote: “Our published figures show that in January to March 2019, there were 81,000 unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds, of whom 61,000 were still in full-time education. Of course, it is perfectly possible still to be in full-time education and count as unemployed – a student who was actively looking for a part-time job would meet the ILO definition and so would count in our numbers. Nor is it correct to say that the school leaving age has been raised to 18: while 17 to 18-year-olds are required to undertake some form of education or training, there is no requirement for them to remain at school. People in that age group can enter the labour market and some choose to do so.”