“430,000 more in employment now than there were before the pandemic began”

Boris Johnson, House of Commons

February 22, 2022

Facts

In a letter addressed to Downing Street three weeks earlier (dated 1st February 2022), Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, had told the Prime Minister  it is “incorrect to state that there were more people in work at the end of this period than the start." 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of people in employment has actually fallen by 588,000. It was 33.1 million in December 2019 to February 2020 and by October 2021 to December 2021 it was 32.5 million (the latest data).

The number of payrolled employees in January 2022 was up by 436,000 compared to the level in February 2020, but this does not include all people “in employment”. Notably it excludes self-employed people.

The Director General of the Office for Statistics Regulation has said Mr Johnson’s repeated use of the false claim is “disappointing”. 

Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to Boris Johnson on February 24 2020, informing him that his claim was “wrong”. 

He said: “According to the latest ONS figures, it is wrong to claim that there are now more people in work than before the pandemic began”. 

He added that Johnson had relied on a “selective use of the data that is likely to give a misleading impression of trends in the labour market unless that distinction is carefully explained.” 

Other Ministers who have uttered similar false claims include Nadine Dorries, Suella Braverman and Mark Spencer.

Verdict

Johnson was not simply misleading the Commons. He was lying. Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, had written three weeks earlier to Downing Street warning it is “incorrect to state that there were more people in work at the end of this period than the start." According to the Ministerial Code,  “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.  Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

Since Johnson had already been warned by the Office for Statistics Regulation that his claim about employment levels was false, this cannot be seen as an “inadvertent error.” This is a  serious case of Boris Johnson wilfully misleading (ie lying to) parliament: a resignation offence.

We approached Mr Johnson’s office, the Cabinet Office and the No 10 Press Office to give him a chance to respond. No answer. 

Note

The full letter from Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, to Laura Gilbert in 10 Downing Street on 1st February 2022 reads as follows:

Dear Laura

Statements on the number of people in work

I know you and your colleagues responsible for briefing the Prime Minister take the accuracy of those briefings very seriously. I want to raise an issue with you related to employment. We have received correspondence from Full Fact about statements on the number of people in work now compared with before the pandemic. This includes Prime Minister’s Questions on 24 November 2021[1], 15 December 2021[2][3], 5 January 2022[4][5], 12 January 2022[6] and 19 January 2022[7].

Your colleagues told us that the Prime Minister was referring to the number of UK workers on employer payrolls. In response to a parliamentary question, the Prime Minister confirmed his statement of 5 January was referring to payroll employment from ‘Pay As You Earn Real Time Information’ published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The number of people on employer payrolls does not include everyone in work. Specifically, most of the self-employed and those whose jobs are not part of company payroll are excluded[8].

ONS publishes data on the number of people in employment. The data for January – March 2020 estimate that 33.0m people were in employment compared with 32.5m people in employment for September – November 2021[9]. It is therefore incorrect to state that there were more people in work at the end of this period than the start.

The most recent references have been clearer that they refer only to payroll employment. In this case, it was disappointing that some earlier statements continued to refer to payroll employment as if describing total employment, despite contact from our office and from others. When we spoke, you emphasised the efforts that your colleagues take to ensure that briefings are accurate. I would like to thank you and colleagues for these efforts, which recognise that it is important that statements made to inform public debate are unambiguous.

Yours sincerely Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation

 Three weeks later (24th February) Sir David Norgrove wrote another letter - this one to the Prime Minister himself - saying the same thing:

Dear Prime Minister,

You said at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that there are now more people in employment than before the pandemic began.

According to the latest ONS figures, it is wrong to claim that there are now more people in work than before the pandemic began: the increase in the number of people who are on payrolls is more than offset by the reduction in the number of people who are self-employed. The number of people in work is estimated to be around 600,000 fewer than at the start of the pandemic (comparing December 2019 – February 2020 with October – December 2021) [1]

If, as seems to be the case, your statement referred only to the increase in the number of people on payrolls, it would be a selective use of data that is likely to give a misleading impression of trends in the labour market unless that distinction is carefully explained.

The distinction has been highlighted by the ONS when they published the most recent labour market figures, as well as in the media, in Parliament, and in a letter of 1 February from the Authority’s Director General for Regulation to 10 Downing Street’s Chief Analyst.

I hope you will agree that public trust requires a complete statement of this important measure of the economy.

Yours sincerely, Sir David Norgorve

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