Select Committee on Treasury Tenth Report

8 Devolution and UK-wide statistics

Concordat on Statistics

146. Statistical work in devolved policy areas is the responsibility of the chief statisticians in the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales, and the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency. The Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, published in 2001, includes an appended Concordat on Statistics setting out the arrangements for UK statistical work.[206]

147. The Government's consultation paper proposes that the Concordat and existing arrangements will be retained and that it will be a matter for the devolved administrations to decide what measures, if any, are necessary for them to implement in order to take account of the Government's proposed reforms.[207]

Coherence of UK-wide statistics


148. We heard from many witnesses who told us that the UK-wide statistical system was fragmented and that there was a lack of consistency and coherence in the provision of UK-wide statistics. Simon Briscoe observed that the ONS had:

put out one release which had a total for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland together, which is a very unusual combination of countries.[208]

He said that the lack of coherence was "bad from the national point of view" and he questioned the quality of the figures sent by the UK to international bodies "when often we know that such figures do not exist".[209] The RSS told us that while "it was hoped at the outset that UK statistics would not be jeopardised by devolution" this had "not been borne out in practice"[210]. It said that the UK statistical system as a whole did not "support the legitimate needs of users in devolved territories by providing consistent, comparable statistics across the UK" and that the Concordat was "not clear and practical enough".[211]

149. The Statistics User Forum provided us with examples from both the commercial world and public services of users being disadvantaged by the lack of comparable data in different regions of the UK. It told us that there were "quite a lot of organisations" who were interested in making comparisons within the UK:

They want to look across the whole of the UK as to which parts of the UK they might invest in and in practical terms if it is terribly easy to get data for England but pretty difficult to get it for Scotland and Northern Ireland, the analysts will sometimes just turn a blind eye and focus on the areas where it is easier to get data for […]

If we look at neighbourhood statistics and the idea of targeting investment in areas of neighbourhood renewal, at the moment we are in a situation where we have different analyses of indices of deprivation in different countries of the UK and one cannot get a consistent measure of whether parts of Glasgow are worse than parts of the East End of London.[212]

150. Simon Briscoe described the absence of comparable UK-wide data as "unfortunate" for the devolved assemblies:

Where there are policy areas that a devolved assembly has decided to take a different policy stance, say Scotland from England, I think it is a shame that we do not have harmonised data so that we can actually see what the impact of the different policies are. If we cannot see the results of that little bit of experimentation, then nobody is going to be any the wiser about which policies were best.[213]

151. The RSS argued that there was an "urgent need to engage the devolved administrations" in recognising the failures of the present arrangements, both in terms of producing consistent, coherent UK-wide statistics and in terms of allowing the devolved administrations to compare themselves with other parts of the UK.[214]

152. We discussed this issue of fragmentation with the Chief Statistician of the Scottish Executive, Rob Wishart. Mr Wishart explained that, as Chief Statistician in Scotland, his primary focus was on meeting the needs of users in Scotland rather than on ensuring that Scottish statistical series dovetailed with series produced by other UK administrations:

Users of Scottish information have a set of needs, some of which will be the same as users in other parts of the country. Since devolution, in particular, we have done a huge amount of work to improve the range and quality of statistics for Scotland on issues like education, and that is about meeting the needs of people in Scotland and, indeed, any clearly identified needs from elsewhere in the world for that matter, but it is very much about understanding and responding to the needs of users for better statistics on Scotland.[215]


153. As an example of the problems associated with compiling UK-wide statistics, Simon Briscoe pointed to differences across the different administrations in the compilation of the 2001 Census. He told us that the ONS had been "enfeebled" by the 2001 process and had only managed to produce a limited set of UK-wide figures.[216] He said that for other census data, users had to "fumble around on three different websites to try and cobble together a figure for the UK".[217]

154. The ONS website indicates that, in the 2001 Census, different versions of the religious identity question and the ethnic group question were asked in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland "to reflect local differences in the requirement for information".[218] John Pullinger, Chair of the National Statistics Working Party at the RSS, was involved in the production of the 2001 Census. He told us that he believed that the project had encountered difficulties because of a lack of codification of what was required at the UK level. He said that those involved had "started off with the best of intentions to produce the book of United Kingdom statistics" but that a census was "clearly a very sensitive topic":

The Scottish Parliament decided to make some changes. That was not in itself a problem, but when the Welsh Assembly saw that the Scottish Parliament had made some changes, they wanted some changes, and the thing began to fragment because the forces pulling it apart were stronger than Pullinger sitting in a room in Whitehall with his counterparts. They were stronger than we were … so in fact we had three different censuses.[219]

155. Mr Pullinger felt that the "lack of the codification in a formal sense" did not enable officials at the UK level to ensure that the production of UK-wide figures was a priority for officials in each of the administrations:

my counterpart in Scotland … ultimately his leadership was coming from the Executive and from the Scottish Parliament, rightly, and there was no counterweight saying, "Actually, there is a UK dimension to this as well".[220]

Mr Pullinger's suggestion seemed to be that legislation was required to provide such a "counterweight".

156. Since the 2001 Census, the three Registrars General of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have signed an agreement with respect to the 2011 Census which includes a commitment that:

Common questions should be agreed wherever possible, diverging only in response to clear user needs, with such divergences minimised and the scope for cross-comparison maximised.[221]

However, the progress report on the agreement, issued by the ONS in April 2006, noted that commonality on the 'ethnicity' question set had so far "been hard to achieve because of apparent differences in the composition and views of the minority ethnic populations in Scotland and England".[222]

157. The National Statistician told us that the ONS was working with the different administrations to achieve "a consistent set of UK outputs" which would be disaggregated by the four devolved administrations in the 2011 Census.[223] However, she considered that there was no necessity for "all the methods and questionnaires to be exactly the same" because of the need to be "sensitive to the different requirements in different countries".[224]


158. We discussed with witnesses various mechanisms for improving the co-ordination of UK-wide statistics or, indeed, for ensuring that current levels of co-ordination will not decline if the Government's proposals were introduced.

159. The Statistics Commission told us that, although there were a number of "informal internal working groups" that considered aspects of UK-wide statistics and their harmonisation, the Commission was currently the only pan-UK body overseeing the UK statistical system.[225] The Government's proposals envisage transferring the auditing and scrutiny function of the Statistics Commission to the independent governing board and winding up the Commission.[226] The Commission emphasised the importance of the new board having "some kind of similar function [to the Commission] across the piece".[227] Rob Wishart told us that the amount of work the Statistics Commission had been able to do in Scotland had been "fairly limited".[228] He said that the Scottish Executive would be "very keen" to discuss the implications of the winding up of the Statistics Commission and the role of the Government's proposed new independent board in relation to Scotland, and that there were "clearly benefits" in having a common scrutiny arrangement across the UK.[229]

160. The RSS outlined the approach taken in Australia, where crime statistics had previously been collected differently across individual police jurisdictions:

They have come up with effectively a Concordat, but it is an agreement signed up to by the various jurisdictions. In this case it is the legislative [branches] of the various states in Australia and the National Statistician of Australia which say, "We agree that the National Statistician will chair a committee, coordinate and make sure the results are right for Australia as a whole, and these are the terms in which we make that agreement. These are what we will do as individual police commissioners and as individual state authorities".[230]

The RSS suggested that a similar, "formal and precise agreement" could be a way forward in the UK. Such an agreement could set out what it is that the senior statisticians of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are prepared to work on with the National Statistician, so that "everyone is clear what they will do and what they will not do".[231]

161. Simon Briscoe suggested that the new independent statistics office should have "a much stronger coordinating role" than the ONS currently has.[232] Ruth Lea agreed, and suggested that the National Statistician should be given enhanced powers:

If we are to maintain, or indeed even create the integrity of the United Kingdom statistics, then you are going to have to say to the National Statistician at the ONS, "You are going to have some overall powers for this", otherwise it simply will not work.[233]

162. A number of witnesses believed that the Concordat needed reviewing in the light of experience. Rob Wishart said that there was "no doubt" that the Concordat and framework needed some updating, "both in the light of devolution, the experience over the last period, but also the current issues".[234]


163. We discussed with the Minister the apparent lack of coherence in UK-wide statistics. He felt that this was "not a new problem" but accepted that the problem was "perhaps … being emphasised by statistics being part of the devolution settlement".[235] He argued that, despite the Concordat, there would be inevitable variations across the administrations:

The Scottish law, health and education systems are different. Some of their outputs are different. Some of the information, monitoring and statistical requirements will therefore be different, and that is a consequence of the devolved function and the differential decisions that are made.[236]

164. The Minister nevertheless agreed that it was important to try to maintain compatible datasets and comparability and that, to this end, the Government would be "very keen" to "look at renewing and perhaps reforming and strengthening the concordat", although only to the degree that the devolved administrations were willing to do likewise.[237] He made clear that the Government did not wish to "interfere with the devolution settlement" and that "fundamentally", therefore, the devolved administrations had "the responsibility and the scope to develop and run their statistical system as they choose".[238]

165. The Minister told us that, if the Government's proposals were implemented, the National Statistician would continue to be responsible for the production of the majority of UK economic statistics as well as a number of statistical series for which the ONS was currently responsible—either because the statistics were required under international obligations or because they covered areas that were not currently devolved. However, the National Statistician would have direct authority for only those statistics relating to England:

The area where clearly there are the differences and the difficulties are those devolved policy areas where the activities [undertaken] may be different according to the devolved administration and, therefore, the statistics and data available or collected. Here, the role the Chief Statistician for England will have, dealing with her counterparts—as she does at the ONS at the moment, to try to make sure that we secure as great a degree of comparability, where that seems necessary—would also continue.[239]


166. The benefits of having coherent UK-wide statistics are self-evident. It is of course right that each UK administration should produce statistics which reflect its local circumstances and meet the needs of local users. Equally important, however, is that the basic data which is needed at UK level is capable of being compiled in a coherent form across the administrations, in order to ensure that there is a set of UK-wide numbers, that this allows users to compare and contrast the impact of policies in different parts of the UK and that the UK is able to provide accurate figures in accordance with its international obligations.

167. Based on the evidence we have received, there are clearly problems with gathering comparable UK-wide statistics. For example, variations in the data collected as part of the 2001 Census resulted in what one witness described as "three different censuses". Such problems undermine any meaningful assessment of the success of devolution because they make it difficult to measure the impact of differing government policies implemented across the administrations—in the fields of health and education, for instance.

168. We are concerned by the apparent fragmentation of some statistics across the UK. We recommend that the Government use the opportunity offered by its present consultation process to examine what it can do, both unilaterally and in co-operation with the devolved administrations, to improve co-ordination of the collection and production of statistics across the UK's different administrations. One step which the Government could clearly initiate is a review of the 2001 Concordat on Statistics, which sets out arrangements for the UK statistical work agreed between the devolved administrations. We therefore welcome the Minister's commitment, on behalf of the Government, to review the Concordat on Statistics, particularly in light of his suggestion that, while this fragmentation has been an issue for some time because of differing local circumstances and requirements, devolution has led to an inevitable intensification of the problem. We recommend that the Government negotiate a revised Concordat with the devolved administrations, that the National Statistician, in consultation with the chief statisticians for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, be given responsibility for drafting a revised Concordat and that the new independent board be given responsibility for monitoring the implementation of the revised Concordat. In this context, we are encouraged by the 2011 Census agreement signed by the three Registrars General of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

169. Finally, it is important that the UK-wide scrutiny and audit function currently undertaken by the Statistics Commission is adequately replicated under the Government's proposals. We recommend that the new independent board be given responsibility for oversight of the statistical system throughout the United Kingdom.

206   Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements, Cm 5420, December 2001 Back

207   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, paras 4.46-4.47 Back

208   Q 23 Back

209   Ibid. Back

210   Ev 75 Back

211   Ev 75; Q 49 Back

212   Qq 84-85 Back

213   Q 23 Back

214   Ev 75 Back

215   Q 160 Back

216   Q 24 Back

217   Ibid. Back

218   Office for National Statistics website,  Back

219   Q 51 Back

220   Ibid. Back

221   The Conduct of the 2011 Censuses in the UK: Statement of Agreement between the Registrars General, February 2005 Back

222   The Conduct of the 2011 Censuses in the UK: Statement of Agreement between the Registrars General - Progress report, April 2006 Back

223   Q 191 Back

224   Ibid. Back

225   Q 135 Back

226   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, para 4.48 Back

227   Q 135 Back

228   Q 155 Back

229   Ibid. Back

230   Q 49 Back

231   Ibid. Back

232   Q 25 Back

233   Q 29 Back

234   Q 161 Back

235   Q 281 Back

236   Ibid. Back

237   Ibid. Back

238   Q 283 Back

239   Q 282 Back

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