Peter Bye

It seems obvious that government policies should be guided by facts and numbers – evidence-based policy, in other words. Yet all too often it appears to be the other way round. Evidence is ignored or distorted unless it suits the policy. Statements may be asserted as facts when there is no real evidence to support them. In many cases, the known facts point in a different direction, sometimes flatly contradicting the assertion.

Of course, facts and numbers may be subject to interpretation and can be misused in a variety of ways. They can be a hard sell to the public, who often regard them as boring or even untrue. Stories are more immediate and persuasive, especially if they say what people want to hear. The current narrative in Britain, for instance, about the negative effects of immigration captures the public’s attention.

I’m sure it has always been thus. But that’s no excuse for avoiding the problem; respect for facts and numbers is essential for successful policy making. Even in good times, ignoring evidence leads to wrong policies, attacking problems that don’t exist while missing real concerns.

But we don’t live in good times; much of Europe is still trying to recover from serious economic difficulties. Evidence-based policy really matters if we are to solve the problems facing us. Populist parties such as UKIP in the UK are gaining attention with apparently simple solutions to difficult problems, bolstered by distorted “facts” to suit their message. Here’s a couple of examples from the UK.

“Immigrants are a fiscal burden to the UK” is asserted as fact. Something like this statement turns up in news and current affairs discussions. Yet there is clear evidence that it is not true. A report by Dustmann and Frattini (The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, The Economic Journal, Doi: 10.1111/ecoj. 12181, 2014) shows that immigrants are not an economic burden.

The following statement is made in the abstract to the paper: “For immigrants that arrived since 2000, contributions have been positive throughout, and particularly so for immigrants from EEA countries. Notable is the strong positive contribution made by immigrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004.”

Shortly after its publication, the existence of this paper was raised in an Any Questions? programme on BBC Radio 4 as providing positive evidence about immigration. The immediate reaction of a UKIP member on the panel was to question the integrity of the authors, by asking who paid for it.

The other example concerns so-called health tourism. The claim is that people are coming to the UK to take advantage of the NHS for free treatment. Yet this assertion is questionable to say the least.

A report by Hanefeld et al (Hanefeld J, Horsfall D, Lunt N, Smith R (2013) Medical Tourism: A Cost or Benefit to the NHS? PLoS ONE 8(10): e70406. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070406) suggests the opposite: “Findings demonstrate that contrary to some popular media reports, far from being a net importer of patients, the UK is now a clear net exporter of medical travellers. In 2010, an estimated 63,000 UK residents travelled for treatment, while around 52,000 patients sought treatment in the UK. Inbound medical tourists treated as private patients within NHS facilities may be especially profitable when compared to UK private patients, yielding close to a quarter of revenue from only 7% of volume in the data examined.”

I do not deny that there are concerns about immigration and not just in the UK. That people are concerned is itself a problem, regardless of whether the facts point elsewhere. Questions about housing, education and integration have to be answered. But we have to work with evidence so that we address the real concerns. The current panic about immigration could lead to the UK falling out of the EU almost by accident.

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