Select Committee on Treasury Eleventh Report

1  Introduction

The purpose of our inquiry

1. The Treasury Sub-Committee's inquiry into Counting the Population followed the work undertaken earlier in this Parliament by the Sub-Committee on Independence for Statistics and on Preparations for the 2011 Census and the work of the Treasury Sub-Committee in the last Parliament on The 2001 Census. The inquiry was undertaken in response to concerns expressed in the House of Commons, by Local Authorities and by others about the adequacy of current population statistics. Population estimates are the core component in statistical formulae that allocate very large sums of public money to the devolved administrations, local government, the health service and public services. The Sub-Committee therefore wished to examine the current methods used to count the population and the impact of any inaccuracies or inadequacies within population estimates.

Conduct of the inquiry

2. The Treasury Sub-Committee announced its inquiry into Counting the Population in September 2007. It called for evidence on the collection of statistics by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) relating to the number, age, sex and distribution of people, the accuracy of such statistics and their role and value to the wider community. The Sub-Committee heard oral evidence in January and February 2008 from Demographic Decisions, the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society, the Bank of England, Local Government Association, Slough Borough Council, Islington Council, Manchester City Council, NHS Newham PCT, HM Treasury, Ms Karen Dunnell, the National Statistician, Sir Michael Scholar, Chairman of the Statistics Authority and Angela Eagle MP, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. The Sub-Committee received a considerable number of written submissions, most of which were published on 15 January 2008. We are grateful for all the evidence received, both written and oral.

The Statistics Authority, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office

3. In July 2006, we reported on the Government's consultation paper, Independence for statistics, which set out proposals to replace the current ONS with an independent statistics office, to be established as a non-ministerial department and governed by an independent board.[1] Following the Government's consultation and our Report, Independence for statistics, Parliament passed the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007. Prior to the commencement of the Statistics and Registration Services Act, the ONS was the central producer of statistics in the United Kingdom. The ONS was an Executive Agency accountable to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.[2] It was headed by the National Statistician who was concurrently the Registrar General for England and Wales. Therefore, the General Register Office (GRO), which administers the system for the registration of births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships in England and Wales, was also part of the ONS. The ONS was also responsible for the creation and maintenance of the National Health Service Central Register (NHSCR).

4. The Statistics and Registration Services Act provided for the creation of a new body, the UK Statistics Authority. The Act established the Statistics Authority as a Non-Ministerial Department, composed of a majority of non-executive members. As recommended in our Report, Independence for statistics, the Authority's responsibilities cover the whole UK statistical system, including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.[3] However, the Authority is not responsible for the development of future censuses in Scotland or Northern Ireland.[4]

5. The Statistics Authority is the legal successor body to the ONS. Therefore the ONS's responsibilities other than those relating to civil registration have transferred to the new Statistics Authority. The Statistics Authority also has powers to produce statistics, provide statistical services and promote statistical research. It will undertake the statistical functions of the Registrar General, including the preparation and publication of the census. The Statistics Commission closed on 31 March 2008 as the Statistics Authority became responsible to Parliament for building trust in UK statistics. The Statistics Authority Board has a statutory role replacing Ministers as the top governance layer for the ONS, as the body to whom the National Statistician will report directly. The Statistics Authority has three main functions:

  • oversight of the ONS, its executive office,
  • monitoring and reporting on all official statistics, wherever produced, and
  • independent assessment of official statistics.[5]

6. Statistics ceased to be a Treasury responsibility on 1 April 2008, when the new Statistics Authority assumed its functions and residual Ministerial responsibility passed from HM Treasury to the Cabinet Office. The new Statistics Authority was established with a "statutory objective to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good; and the quality and comprehensiveness of, and good practice in relation to, official statistics across the UK".[6]

7. Following the transfer of residual Ministerial responsibility to the Cabinet Office, the Treasury Select Committee's role in the scrutiny of statistics has passed to the Public Administration Select Committee. In our Report, Independence for statistics, we rehearsed the arguments for the transfer to the Cabinet Office.[7] Therefore this Report presents our final consideration of the work of the Office for National Statistics and its effectiveness in counting the population, except insofar as they relate to our scrutiny of economic indicators.

1   Treasury Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2005-06, Independence for statistics, HC 1111 Back

2   Office for National Statistics: Framework Document, 1996; Statistics Authority website, Back

3   HC (2005-06) 1111, para 169 Back

4   The General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) conduct censuses in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. Back

5   About the Authority, Statistics Authority website,  Back

6   Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007, section 7 Back

7   HC (2005-06) 1111, para 89 Back

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