Select Committee on Treasury Tenth Report

9 Access to statistics

Access to administrative data for government statisticians

170. Several witnesses raised the subject of access to administrative data. Eurostat, the Statistical Office of the European Commission, defines administrative sources as "sources containing information that is not primarily collected for statistical purposes".[240] Such sources are distinct from survey sources. The Government's consultation paper acknowledges the potential benefits of allowing access by statisticians to administrative data held by departments, but balances those benefits against the need to ensure sufficient safeguards are in place to protect individuals' privacy:

Important arguments have been made against data-sharing generally; in particular, that it may breach individual privacy rights. Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights, for example, has on occasion expressed the view that sufficient safeguards should be in place to prevent sharing of data from contravening Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights respecting personal privacy. Any move to extend data access for statistical purposes would need to be accompanied by specific safeguards for privacy rights and enhanced data protection provisions.[241]

171. The ONS told us that legislation on access to administrative data was something that it was "very keen to see happen".[242] The ONS has said elsewhere that the UK has "vast data resources" which the GSS "has the professional competence and capacity to exploit", but that the lack of express statistics legislation guaranteeing statisticians access to the data resources of central and local government meant that statisticians were "obliged to work within a complex and changing legislative framework to gain access to data obtained by others in government".[243] The ONS has argued that "administrative records may be the only cost effective way of regularly obtaining information about small groups in household or business populations".[244] It has identified a number of economic and social benefits which would arise from increased data-sharing, including the production of new statistics and the reduction of the burden on respondents. It argued that data-sharing could lead to "improved statistical quality" and "much greater efficiency in terms of cost and timeliness".[245]

172. The former National Statistician, Len Cook, in his response to the Government's consultation paper, identified a number of risks associated with a lack of access to administrative data:

Unless there is access to tax records the (Allsopp[246]) proposals for regional economic statistics, and redesigning British economic statistics, will not reach their final goal. The risk of population estimates containing significant errors at a local authority level will continue without access to administrative records. Statistics about ethnic populations exist mainly through the once every ten year population census, until access to administrative records is provided to ONS.[247]

Mr Cook concluded that providing the GSS with the authority to have access to administrative records and to protect all statistical records would be "the largest possible improvement to the quality of British statistics" that could be enabled by legislation.[248]

173. Access to administrative data by statistical institutions is provided by law in many countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.[249] Responding to the Government's consultation paper, the Australian Statistician said that the Australian Bureau of Statistics' access to taxation data had enabled it to reduce "compliance cost on the business sector by over 40% over the last 10 years".[250] The Chief Statistician of Canada told us that part of the Canadian Statistics Act provided Statistics Canada with "unrestricted access" to all administrative records held by any level of government and any organisation private or public:

Of course, the other side of that coin is extremely strong confidentiality guarantees, which are spelled out and which allow no exceptions. Not even the intelligence community, not even the police, not even the courts in the course of a prosecution can have access under the Statistics Act.[251]

174. The ONS also suggested that public concerns over the sharing of data might not be insurmountable. It cited research by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, showing that the public expected data to be shared across Government, provided that those granted access to the data used them "for a purpose consistent with its original collection".[252]

175. The Minister told us that the legislation represented an opportunity to deal with some of the questions around data access, in particular access to administrative data.[253] He said that, "as a minimum", the current arrangements would need to be entrenched in legislation and told us that the Government had "clearly signalled" its interest in hearing views during the consultation process about the extent to which these arrangements could be developed further.[254] He said that the Government was also seeking views on how confidentiality, particularly of "micro data" which could identify individuals, could be safeguarded.[255]


176. There appears to be strong feeling in the statistical community about the need to provide government statisticians with access to administrative data. We accept that such access could bring about the economic and social benefits set out by the ONS and others. However, as the Government has pointed out, these benefits must be balanced against important privacy rights. We recommend that the Government use the opportunity offered by the forthcoming statistics legislation to allow government statisticians greater access to administrative data. The Government should ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place to ensure that the integrity and security of personal information is not compromised, and that access extends no further than statisticians working in specified parts of government. We refer the Government to the relevant Canadian legislation which appears to provide a useful model of appropriate safeguards.


177. The Government's consultation paper also deals with confidentiality of data in the context of the National Statistician's current obligation to protect the confidentiality of people and organisations from the unauthorised disclosure of information held about them for National Statistics or other statistical purposes. The Government proposes to maintain this obligation and set as a core objective for the new board—regardless of possible changes on data access legislation—the obligation to protect the confidentiality of data provided.[256]

178. The former National Statistician, Len Cook, raised concerns about this aspect of the Government's proposals in his response to the Government's consultation paper. Mr Cook argued that protection of household survey records not covered by the Census Acts or the Statistics of Trade Act was currently ensured only by "custom and practice, and the vigorous protection of this through the courts by ONS officers". Mr Cook commented that that the capacity to protect properly gathered information in the UK was therefore "declining" and that "solutions for the protection of records [needed] a statutory basis".[257] Mr Cook called into question the Government's proposal to make protection of confidentiality a core objective of the independent board rather than of the National Statistician:

For the board to have this responsibility … will quite wrongly remove from the National Statistician his/her authority and independence on this important matter. The future legislation must provide for the statistician to have the obligation in law to protect the confidentiality of all statistical records.[258]


179. We are concerned to hear that the previous National Statistician considers that the capacity to protect properly gathered information in the UK is declining. We recommend that the Government take this opportunity to consider whether the protection of people and organisations from the unauthorised disclosure of information held about them for National Statistics or other statistical purposes requires a statutory basis. We further recommend that the Government consider whether it is appropriate that statutory responsibility for protecting confidentiality should rest with the independent board, given the possible implications for the authority and independence of the National Statistician.

Access to government statistics for users

180. The Statistics User Forum told us that statistics derived from administrative sources were "terribly important to a lot of users".[259] The Forum raised the issue of Government agencies and departments controlling data through exclusive rights and third party contracts. It told us that "a great number of users of statistics" described the lack of access to Ordnance Survey map background data as "a matter of considerable frustration".[260] The Forum explained that Ordnance Survey, local government and the Post Office had come together in 2005 in an attempt to establish a national spatial address infrastructure, but that their attempts had foundered, not because of technical inadequacies, but because of "arguments about intellectual property rights and money".[261] The Forum told us that, from a users viewpoint, the liberal approach to data access practised in the United States had "immense attractions".[262]

181. The Forum also referred to dissatisfaction among users with the ONS website. The Forum said that even professional users did not always find it easy to find the right series and that librarians told them that non-professional users were "unable to use the website without help".[263] The Forum told us that the ONS had been informed of these problems and that it understood that the ONS was now making provision for a new website, but that progress had been "very slow".[264]

182. The ONS' website received an average of 700,000 visitors a month between April 2005 and January 2006, up from an average of 533,000 a month in the same period in the previous year.[265] The Departmental Report 2006 states that the ONS aims to further improve the website's functionality over the next year.[266]


183. We note the concerns of the Statistics User Forum regarding access to government statistics, including access to data on the ONS website. We invite the Government's comments on these concerns. The current review of the independence of statistics offers a good opportunity for the Government to consider making datasets held by government agencies and departments more freely available to third parties.

240   Eurostat, Business Register Recommendations Manual, First Publication, March 2003, Ch 20, para 20.3 Back

241   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, para 4.27 Back

242   Q 181 Back

243   Office for National Statistics, Data Sharing for Statistical Purposes: A Practitioners' Guide to the Legal Framework, September 2005, p 3 Back

244   Ibid. Back

245   Ibid. Back

246   The Chancellor of the Exchequer asked Christopher Allsopp in February 2003 to undertake a review of statistics for economic policymaking, examining the information needed to support the Government's key regional policy objectives, and whether official economic statistics had properly reflected the changing economic structure of the UK. The Review Team began its work in June 2003, published its First Report on 10 December 2003 and its final report on 31 March 2004. See Christopher Allsopp, Independent Review of Statistics for Economic Policymaking, March 2004 Back

247   Consultation response to Independence for statistics from Len Cook, 13 June 2006 Back

248   Ibid. Back

249   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, para 4.26 Back

250   Consultation response to Independence for statistics from the Australian Statistician, para 14 Back

251   Q 110 Back

252   Office for National Statistics, Data Sharing for Statistical Purposes: A Practitioners' Guide to the Legal Framework, September 2005, p 5 Back

253   Q 290 Back

254   Q 290 Back

255   Ibid. Back

256   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, para 4.28 Back

257   Consultation response to Independence for statistics from Len Cook, 13 June 2006 Back

258   Consultation response to Independence for statistics from Len Cook, 13 June 2006 Back

259   Q 68 Back

260   Q 89 Back

261   Ibid. Back

262   Q 91 Back

263   Ev 98 Back

264   Ev 98 Back

265  Back

266   Office for National Statistics, Departmental Report 2006, p 9 Back

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Prepared 26 July 2006