Town halls demand correct migrant figures

3 Aug 06
Councils are warning that they are being starved of vital resources to fund basic services because of the government's inability to produce accurate immigration figures.

04 August 2006

Councils are warning that they are being starved of vital resources to fund basic services because of the government's inability to produce accurate immigration figures.

Public Finance has learned that the Local Government Association is poised to throw its weight behind the campaign by 25 local authorities that claim they are losing millions of pounds in central government grant because of flawed mid-year population estimates.

Slough Borough Council, which is spearheading the intensive lobbying effort, is to lead a delegation to the LGA next week to agree a plan of action, reflecting the level of concern in the sector at the scale of the problem.

The authorities, including large city councils such as Birmingham and Sheffield and 14 London boroughs, are calling for the Department for Communities and Local Government to give a special grant in this year's financial settlement to close the funding gap.

Click here for a full list of authorities (this will open up a new browser window)

LGA chair Sandy Bruce-Lockhart is giving his personal backing to the councils, which say that inaccurate international immigration and UK migration figures mean their populations are deemed to be falling when their own data show that they are rising.

'It is essential that the government gets the figures right on migration. That is currently not happening and local authorities are suffering as a consequence,' he said.

'Councils are finding it difficult to provide services to growing populations that are not recognised by government statistics. If funding is not provided to cope with migration, the ultimate consequence will be a deterioration in services.'

Slough's chief executive Cheryl Coppell said her authority had gone from having the ninth fastest growing population in the country, at 120,600, in the 2001 census, to the second fastest declining, in the 2004 mid-year estimates, at 117,600.

But Slough's own data sources suggested the population was growing, she said, boosted by a large influx of migrants from eastern Europe.

Coppell, stressing that immigrants benefited the local economy, citing as an example the 9,000 new national insurance numbers issued in the town over 18 months during 2004 and 2005, of which just 150 went to UK citizens.

An external study Slough commissioned concluded that its population has been underestimated by 7,000. Coppell said this would cost Slough £15m in lost grant between this year and the 2011 census, equating to a 6% annual increase on council tax.

'Current government statistics suggest our population is falling when, in fact, the opposite is true. This means Slough does not receive the funding it needs to provide adequate services to all our communities,' she said.

'We have an invisible population whose children need school places, who need to be housed appropriately and in some cases need social services, but official statistics means we have a dwindling pot of money.'

The Office for National Statistics, which calculates the migration figures and feeds them into the mid-year population statistics, admits its methodology is flawed.

It has warned the DCLG that the data sources used, such as GP registrations and international passenger surveys at points of entry, are not precise enough to capture accurately the migration flows into and between local authority areas. It is advising the department to 'reconsider' the role of the mid-year estimates in grant allocation.

National Statistician Karen Dunnell has also convened an urgent cross-government taskforce, comprising senior analysts from the ONS, the Home Office and the health, education and work and pensions departments, to find ways of improving the migration figures. She will then make recommendations to ministers.

PF understands this may report back as early as the end of this month, reflecting the level of concern over the issue.

In a letter to the four departments asking for their co-operation, Dunnell said: 'There is now broad recognition that available estimates of migration numbers are inadequate for managing the economy, policies and services. They are the weakest component in the estimates and projections of population needed for these purposes, for resource allocation and in the calculation of many Public Service Agreement targets.'

Professor David Rhind, chair of ONS watchdog the Statistics Commission, has also weighed into the controversy. 'This is not a problem that can simply be left at the door of the Office for National Statistics,' he said. 'The answer is much more likely to come from the effective exploitation of administrative information systems across government departments.'

But the DCLG is standing firm. A spokesman told PF: 'The government distributes formula grant to local authorities using the best statistics available on a consistent basis across all authorities. These are the ONS statistics.'


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