Governance of official statistics: redefining the dual role of the UK Statistics Authority; and re-evaluating the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 Contents

1Introduction

The UK’s statistical system

1.Official statistics are produced by public bodies to inform a variety of users about many aspects of public life. Statistics, such as inflation measures and unemployment figures, crime levels and hospital waiting times build a picture of the UK’s economy and social context. Official statistics often determine policy. Policy-makers in government depend upon these figures to design and evaluate policy; others use the figures in research, planning and decision-making; citizens draw on official statistics to understand the world and the society that they live in.

2.The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) is a statutory body which is the UK’s largest single producer of official statistics, through its executive office, the Office for National Statistics (ONS). There are over 150 other producers of official statistics,1 including central government departments and their agencies, non-departmental public bodies and devolved governments so that much of the statistical system is disaggregated. UKSA was established to regulate both ONS statistics and the wider statistical community, which it currently does through its Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR).

Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007

3.UKSA was established by the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (“the Act”). The Act was the first major statistical legislation for 60 years. It provided for the creation of a new body, “the Statistics Board”, and this was subsequently given the working name of “the UK Statistics Authority”, with the statutory objective of “promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good”.2 The Act established “the Board” as a non-ministerial department, with a majority of non-executive members.3 The Board is set up to act as an arm’s length public body. However, the Minister for the Cabinet Office appoints the non-executive members of the Board.4 The Board’s responsibilities cover the whole of the UK, including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even though many statistics are produced by devolved authorities.5

4.The Act defines two executive roles within UKSA; the “National Statistician” and the “Head of Assessment”.6 The National Statistician is “principal adviser” to the Board on the “quality”, “good practice” and “comprehensiveness” of official statistics; is head of ONS, UKSA’s executive office, responsible for producing statistics; and sits on the Board as UKSA’s Chief Executive.7 The National Statistician is a civil servant and appointed in the same way as other permanent secretaries. The Head of Assessment is appointed by the Board and is its “principal adviser”8 on the assessment of official statistics against the Code of Practice.9 The Head of Assessment leads the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR). Official statistics that comply with the Code of Practice are designated National Statistics.10 The Act describes the separation of these two roles11 and states that the UKSA Board should have a chair and at least five other non-executive members (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. The UK’s statistical system as described by the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007

5.The Act was limited to the governance of its executive office (ONS) and replacing the Statistics Commission with the assessment function (in OSR). Other aspects of the statistical system were unchanged by the Act, including the Government Statistical Service (GSS), led by the National Statistician.12 The GSS is a cross-government, multi-disciplinary network of over 8,000 people, working together to provide the UK’s official statistical evidence base; in 2018 there were 1,810 statisticians in the Civil Service.13 Government departments have Heads of Profession for Statistics whose primary duty is to “safeguard the professional integrity of the ‘National Statistics’ and other ‘official statistics’ produced by their own organisation.”14 The departmental reporting lines for Heads of Profession lie within their own organisations, but they have a professional reporting line to the National Statistician.15

Current UKSA roles

6.The occupants of the key roles are as follows. The role of National Statistician is currently vacant, since John Pullinger ended his term at the end of June 2019. At the time of agreeing this report, UKSA has not found a replacement. The Deputy National Statistician for Economic Statistics, Jonathan Athow, is interim National Statistician. Ed Humpherson is the Head of Assessment and is operationally known as the Director General for Regulation, heading up OSR. The current Chair of the UKSA Board is Sir David Norgrove who was appointed in 2017 for a five-year term.16 UKSA had total resource expenditure of £305.6m in 2018/19 and its total staff FTE as at 31st March 2019 was 3,953.17 It is worth noting that the increase in expenditure from £279.3m in 2017/18 is mostly due to activity preparing for the census in 2021.18

Figure 2. The current UK statistical system

Statistics in a changing world

7.In July 2015, Professor Sir Charles Bean, former Deputy Governor at the Bank of England, was commissioned by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon George Osborne, and the then Minister for the Cabinet Office, Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, to undertake an independent review of UK economic statistics (the Bean Review).19 Sir Charles stated that “The review was prompted by concerns that the UK’s economic statistics were failing to keep up with developments in the modern economy and that the Office for National Statistics was not operating as effectively as it should.”20 The Bean Review was published in March 2016, its report containing 24 specific recommendations for improvement in the three areas described by Sir Charles as: measuring the economy; ONS capability and performance; and governance of statistics.21

8.Official statistics derived from surveys and registers were once the dominant sources of data but now there are many new and alternative sources. The Digital Economy Act 2017 sought to facilitate the sharing of the increasing amount of data held in government departments for statistical purposes.22 The intention was for traditional statistics to be supplemented, and in some cases replaced, by administrative data to provide more timely, accurate and detailed statistics. Additionally, in the private sector, companies formed on the foundation of digital technologies have created new data sources, and new techniques have made it possible to analyse such examples of ‘big data’. Meanwhile the spread of ‘fake news’ and misuse of data have highlighted the need for official statistics that give the public information they can trust.23 Since 1 April 2018, the Government has transferred the responsibility for data policy for both government and the wider economy from Cabinet Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.24

9.In December 2016, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) published its Generic Law on Official Statistics (GLOS), based on the UN’s Fundamental Principles of Statistics.25 It is the first internationally agreed generic statistical legislation. A number of countries have already indicated they will implement GLOS when updating their statistical legislation.26 The UK’s current statistical legislation which predates GLOS, differs from it in a number of ways. However, the UK is one of 60 UNECE countries to adopt the guidance on the Generic Law that UNECE has subsequently developed.27

Figure 3. Official Statistics timeline since 2000

Year

Activity

2000

Framework for National Statistics - creation of the Statistics Commission

2007

Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007

2008

UK Statistics Authority established

2009

Code of Practice for Official Statistics published by UKSA

2012

Public Administration Select Committee commences range of sector-specific statistics inquiries, including on migration and crime

2015

Paul Johnson publishes “UK Consumer Price Statistics: A Review”

2015

UKSA publishes “Better statistics, better decisions”, its 5 year strategy

2016

Sir Charles Bean publishes independent review of economic statistics (Bean Review)

2016

UNECE publishes Generic Law on Official Statistics

2016

Creation of Office for Statistics Regulation

2017

Digital Economy Act gives powers to share and link data across government

The Committee’s inquiry

10.We have focussed our inquiry, and this report, on the governance of official statistics. By this, we intend to cover the governance of the statistical system, as well as the governance of UKSA itself. The term governance is often used interchangeably with matters concerned with regulation, or compliance with codes, oversight, or accountability. They are all important aspects of governance, but effective governance is so much more than these things. The term ‘governance’ covers leadership, values and the instilling of public and stakeholder confidence. This reflects the Committee’s core purpose, which is “to conduct robust and effective scrutiny in order to help create conditions where the public can have justified confidence in public services/ government”.28 This inquiry has been preoccupied with factors that indicate the vulnerability of the governance of the statistical system and of UKSA itself.

11.This inquiry assesses how successful UKSA has been in fulfilling the intention of the Act to ensure an effective statistical system for the UK. It considers what led to the serious issues that the office has faced surrounding, among other things, economic statistics, inflation and student loans, and what it has changed in response to the recommendations of our predecessor committee, the Public Administration and Select Committee (PASC) which reported on statistics between 2012 and 2014. Also, given the changes in technology and availability of data over the last 12 years and the new standards set out by the UNECE, the inquiry explores whether the Act sets the right statutory framework to underpin the UK’s statistical and data needs for the future.

12.PASC conducted a programme of studies on statistics from 2012 to 2014.29 The inquiries covered a wide range of data-related issues and showed that the Government had much to do to deliver statistics for the public good, as set out in the 2007 Act. Since the creation of PACAC, we have held a pre-appointment hearing with the Chair of UKSA in January 2017,30 conducted a brief inquiry into the work of UKSA in November 201731 and announced this inquiry in December 2018.32

13.We launched this inquiry on 18 December 2018 and received 33 submissions of written evidence and we held five evidence sessions. We would like to thank all those who gave evidence to our inquiry.

14.Chapter 2 of this report looks at who uses statistics and whether official statistics are meeting their needs. Chapter 3 examines how effectively UKSA is providing governance to the statistical system. Chapter 4 explores more specifically the governance of UKSA itself and how it is held to account for its role. Chapter 5 looks at UKSA’s governance of the Retail Prices Index (RPI) as a case study of the governance of official statistics. Finally, Chapter 6 explores UKSA’s role in providing governance to the statistical system in order that it meets future needs and challenges.


19 Independent review of UK economic statistics: final report, Professor Sir Charles Bean, 11 March 2016.

20 Sir Charles Bean (GOS0012)

21 Recommendations can be found on pages 8–15 of the Independent Review of UK Economic Statistics, Professor Sir Charles Bean, 11 March 2016.

23 Royal Statistical Society (GOS0013)

26 Mr Mike Hughes (GOS0027)

27 Mr Mike Hughes (GOS0027)

29 See Annex 1 and the Committee’s archived website for more details of its work: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-administration-select-committee/




Published: 18 July 2019