This one is 'It's official: England is the most crowded country in Europe'. Of course, even using the Mail's own table shows that England is the second most crowded country in Europe, demonstrating yet another headline that isn't actually true.
But this story isn't one that falls completely into the category of made up nonsense. The figures really do come from the ONS, and really do appear in a House of Commons Written Answer. This story falls mainly into the categories of 'leaving out relevant information to create a false impression' and 'not actually news'. Like the stories that get repeated every three months whenever new immigration figures come out. England has always been one of the most populous countries in Europe. Pick up any encyclopaedia from the last fifty years and you'll find the same thing.
This is the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs website. On it, you can search for things like population density by country back as far as 1950. This is what the league table of countries from the Mail would have looked like back in the days the Mail treats as the best ever (with their 2005 placing in brackets):
1. (1) Malta - 987
2. (3) Belgium - 283
3. (2) Netherlands - 244
4. (4) United Kingdom - 208
5. (5) Germany - 192
6. (6) Italy - 156
7. (7) Luxembourg - 114
8. (8) Czech Republic - 113
9. (9) Denmark - 99
10. (11) Portugal - 91
11. (10) Poland - 77
12. (12) France - 76
The table is virtually identical. Population density has risen in every country in this table since 1950, which might have something to do with a little war that happened a few years before and advances in modern medicine on top of immigration. Looking at the full table in the Commons Written Answer shows that the United Kingdom held exactly the same spot in the league table in 2005 as it did back in 1950.
The only new thing is the separating out of England's population. It is possible that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland's density has stayed static or fallen while England's has shot up, but unlikely. If anyone can find the same figures for the UK separated into individual countries from 1950, let me know in the comments. *UPDATED TO ADD* It would be interesting to see London's figures split out from the rest of England, too, since about 14% of England's population lives in Greater London. According to this Wikipedia article, that makes London's population density 4,761 people per srqare kilometre, but I don't know what that does to the rest of England's density.
More important than the relative population densities are the rates they've risen by. The Mail would have us believe that immigrants have been pouring into the country, making the UK's population density grow at a much higher rate than the rest of Europe. Here are how the countries in the table stack up by the percentage their population densities have risen by since 1950 (rounded up or down to the nearest percentage point):
1. Luxembourg - 55% (114 to 177 per sq km)
2. Poland - 53% (77 to 118)
3. France - 46% (76 to 111)
4. The Netherlands - 38% (244 to 343)
5. Malta - 29% (987 to 1274)
6. Denmark - 27% (99 to 126)
7. Italy -25% (156 to 195)
7. Portugal - 25% (91 to 114)
9. Germany - 21% (192 to 232)
10. Belgium - 20% (283 to 341)
11. United Kingdom - 19% (208 to 248)
12. Czech Republic - 14% (113 to 129)
That would be the UK down at second from bottom. I haven't bothered to work out the rates for the other countries in the ONS's table so I don't know where the UK lies in the full table of European countries, but we know for sure it's not even in the top ten.
One bit of the Mail article that does fall into made up nonsense territory is this:
Its [the Netherlands'] population is growing at a much slower rate than Britain because of the higher immigration levels in this country.No it isn't. The Netherlands' population has actually risen at roughly three times the rate of the UK's between 1950 and 2005. The Dutch population has gone up from 10,114,000 to 16,328, which is a massive rise of 61%. The UK's has gone up from 50,616,000 to 60,245,000, a rise of 19%. Even in more recent years, the Netherlands' population has been growing at a higher rate that the UK's, at 9% between 1990 and 2005 and 6% between 2000 and 2005, compared to 5% and 2% in the UK in the same periods.
These are taken from the UN stats and not the ONS - but one thing that is curiously missing from the Mail story is that the ONS figures are based on UN ones. That way, its readers can blindly imagine much higher figures because the government obviously always lies about immigration.
This connection is made for them by the Mail in 'The real challenges facing Britain', which says:
The result, as today's official figures show, is that England is poised to become the most overcrowded nation in Europe. Indeed, government statistics are so notoriously unreliable that our population density may already be the highest in the EU.It does say that the source is the UN in rather big letters at the bottom of the ONS figures. I wonder how the Mail hacks missed it. And let's not mention that to be the highest in Europe, the government's estimate of England's population density would have to be out by a factor of three or four, Meaning England's population would have to be over 100,000,000 without any of us noticing.
There's a bit more oversimplified misleading in the rest of 'It's official: England is the most crowded country in Europe', with:
The figures are likely to increase concern over Labour's plans to build hundreds of thousands of homes, mainly in southern England.The growing population is only one factor in the need for building new homes. Others include people owning more than one property and the fact that some older properties become uninhabitable. Plus, there's the usual Mail tactic of adding 'there are fears that' which it could use to claim anything it liked. Like, 'there are fears that they will be made up of converted ice cream vans that play the music every time the van is empty, inviting burglars and squatters and that'.
The homes are needed to cope with the increasing population and there are fears that many will end up on green belt land that is currently protected.
The rest of the article is pretty much generic Daily Mail immigration territory, with quotes about how immigration is a Bad, Bad Thing from a Tory MP and from MigrationWatch, but one interesting thing is a new moving of goalposts that I've only noticed recently.
Now, it would seem, demonstrating that there are still vacancies in the UK is not enough to show that the dirty foreigners haven't taken all our jobs. Because some people are on benefits. There are all sorts of reasons why people might be on benefits, and the clue of why some people may be on Incapacity Benefit is in the title, but it would seem that they all pale into insignificance next to the fact that immigrants are here. Presumably, without them all the people with no GCSEs would be filling the vacancies for doctors, nurses and teachers. Or something.
So there we have it. 2008 kicked off with a by the numbers Mail scare story about immigration. The only let down is that it wasn't by James Slack but his sidekick, Steve Doughty. I have to admit that, like a lot of Mail immigration scare stories, it turned out to be more misleading than I'd originally thought when I started looking at its claims. All I suspected to start with is that the UK was probably in the same position it has always held in the league table of population density because the story didn't include any figures for comparison, but I hadn't expected the little fib about Dutch population growth rates or the fact that the UK's density had been growing at such a low rate compared to other countries in Europe.
Expect more of this sort of thing in the coming year, every time any population figures are released.