In March 2006, the Government published a consultation paper, Independence for statistics, setting out its proposals to replace the current Office for National Statistics (ONS) with an independent statistics office, to be established as a non-ministerial department and governed by an independent board. In this report, we assess the Government's proposals, which the Government intends to implement by way of legislation.
We welcome the Government's recognition that greater independence in the statistical system is required, and commend it on publishing its recent consultation paper as a means of continuing the reform process which it started in 1998. We recognise that the Government's proposals are aimed at improving public confidence in official statistics, which recent figures from the ONS have shown is at a low level, but express concern about whether the proposals go far enough to improve public confidence. The principles in the Government's consultation paper do not extend beyond the ONS to the significant number of statistics produced by other government departments, and we therefore recommend that the Government examine including protocols in its forthcoming legislation applicable to all official statistics. We also express concern that the creation of National Statistics has resulted in the emergence of a two-tier system, and that the Government's proposals allow ministers to retain too much control over the designation of National Statistics within their departments.
We consider the proposed structure and responsibilities of the new independent statistics office and conclude that investing the new board with executive responsibility for the statistics office would be likely to have a negative impact on the board's perceived independence. We recommend a clear statutory separation between the role of the National Statistician in the executive delivery of statistics, on the one hand, and the board's responsibilities for the oversight and scrutiny of the statistical system as a whole, on the other. We also consider how the Government intends that the proposed independent statistics office should operate in practice, as a non-ministerial department. We highlight the lack of detail set out in the consultation paper regarding the funding arrangements of the non-ministerial department and the role which Parliament would play in scrutinising its operation, and call for the Government to clarify these points.
Finally, we discuss several issues on which the Government's consultation paper invites comment. In the interests of improving public perceptions of political involvement in the release of official statistics we recommend that the existing arrangements for pre-release access to statistics by ministers and other government officials should be tightened. With respect to the collection of UK-wide statistics and the impact of devolution, we conclude that the Concordat on National Statistics requires reviewing in the light of the devolution experience. We also call on the Government to take the opportunity offered by the forthcoming statistics legislation to allow government statisticians greater access to administrative data.