Britain’s status in the European Union will undoubtedly be a pivotal issue in next year’s general election.  UKIP now holds nearly 27% of the UK’s allocation of seats in the European Parliament, presumably because of their Eurosceptic stance.  Although the Eurozone crisis has shaken faith in the common market, the main arguments for withdrawal from the Union appear to be based less upon economic rationales and more upon the issue of immigration.  This is a contentious area that features skewed statistics and emotional rhetoric.  Whether it is right to leave the EU is a moot point; however, some observations can be made about the way that statistics have been presented.

Most recently, the EU has asked the UK to pay an additional £1.7 billion in contribution to the EU budget.  This has been described as the equivalent of hiring 60,000 nurses and paying their pensions, or an additional levy of £65 per year per family. In an economic climate that has seen the NHS struggle and unemployment rise, being billed for such a substantial sum has given rise to righteous indignation from the Prime Minister himself.  Given the anti-EU sentiments in the UK, this demand could not have come at a worse time.

Happy news relating to the EU is rare, however we were fortunate enough to learn recently that analysts have found that immigrants from the 2004 accession to the EU (sparking the largest immigration in Britain’s history) have provided £4.96 billion in tax to the UK.  As this figure is approximately three times larger than that asked for by the EU, presumably 180,000 nurses can now be hired, or every family can receive a cheque for £195? Migration Watch has taken a different view; it has been stated that £4.96 billion equates to only £1 per person per week – hardly a worthwhile increase.

Here there is a clear disparity in the way that these sums have been treated.  The money that the UK must pay to the EU is equated with hiring nurses, or potential benefits to families.  The money that the EU has provided to the UK is dismissed as being negligible if divided up between individual people.  Whatever your stance is on the membership of the EU, it cannot be denied that the figures in these cases have been given unfair treatment.  In ‘helping’ the reader to visualise the size of the sums, these statistics have been skewed in favour of a particular interpretation.

In conclusion, wherever a statistic has been provided in support of a particular political agenda, it is worth viewing it with some skepticism.  For example, UKIP’s manifesto cites health tourism as costing the UK £2 billion. Before accepting this statistic, it may well be worth wondering how someone defines a ‘health tourist’. The importance of being able to view political promises with a critical eye is vital, and all the more when it comes to issues of international prominence.  The only proper response to potentially manipulated figures is to be informed, and to go looking for answers yourself.

Image courtesy of Giampaolo Squarcina under Creative Commons licence.