Tuesday, February 03, 2009

That totemic figure

Lord M robustly defended his beloved EU rules yesterday, in an emergency statement to the Lords on the foreign workers' crisis. In so doing, he sought to remind us that there are "300,000 UK companies operating elsewhere in Europe".

Operating across the oggin does not, of course, mean that they are hiring British workers, or for that matter, that they are not bringing in foreign workers into the UK. The figure – even if it is accurate – is therefore pretty meaningless. It also sounds somewhat on the high side, given that there are only two million registered companies in the UK. Mandelson's figure would put it about one in six operating over there.

Mind you, Lord M is not the only one given to euro-hyperbole. In January last year, our revered leader claimed that 700,000 British companies had "trading ties to Europe" which sounds even more implausible, although I suppose it depends on what you mean by "ties".

It is interesting though how often the figure "300,000" comes up in official and semi-official statistics. According to the French embassy in 2007, an estimated 300,000 French people were living in Britain, two thirds of them in London and the south-east.

In December 2002, then trade secretary Patricia Hewitt was telling us that EU enlargement could provide up to 300,000 new jobs which could be secured by British firms. At that time, incidentally, she rejected warnings that competition from low-wage economies in the former Eastern bloc would drive out British workers. How droll!

The figure 300,000 cropped more recently, this time in January of this year when the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimated that 300,000 people could be made redundant between January and March of 2009. One wonders if those are the same people who gained jobs from EU enlargement – unless, of course, all the French persons in the southeast are now unemployed, or about to become so.

A total of 300,000 also happens to be the number of entry visas wrongly issued by UK immigration officials each year, which means that millions of illegal immigrants may have been let into the country, soaking up all those jobs that the French persons haven't snaffled, one presumes.

Entertainingly, 300,000 is the number of who will lose their existing pension scheme benefits when "planned reforms to workplace schemes come into force in 2012", given that they still have workplaces by then.

And just to show how popular this totemic figure is with government, in 1998, Lord Simon, then the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, announced that there had been 300,000 requests for "business preparations for the euro" factsheets from businesses and trade associations. The number might be somewhat less if they were re-issued today.

What we can't tell you, of course, is how many British workers, in total, are employed outside this country, or how many foreign nationals are currently working in the UK. That information would be really useful and interesting which, of course, is why we can't have it. I bet the difference is greater than 300,000 though but I'm taking no bets on which way that balance lies.