Following a thorough inquiry, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published its latest report this morning entitled “Governance of official statistics: redefining the dual role of the UK Statistics Authority; and re-evaluating the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007”. Our main finding is that UKSA’s dual role of both producing and regulating official statistics has compromised its ability to ensure that statistics serve the public good. We therefore recommend that UKSA is split into two separate bodies: the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Statistics Regulation.
This may seem a rather dry and obscure topic, but the reality is that pensioners, students and rail commuters pay the price of dodgy statistics. Public confidence in the Government’s policies and the political debate also suffers as a result. In 2014, when our predecessor Committee exposed how police officers were manipulating the collection and interpretation of police recorded crime to make the situation look better than it was, UKSA withdrew its “official statistics” designation of approval for police recorded crime. In 2013, UKSA did the same to the retail prices index, because it has for some time been regarded as an unreliable indicator of movements in retail prices.
RPI and UKSA’s role in the governance of statistics is used as a case study in our report. UKSA has not made itself sufficiently independent of Government, particularly from the Treasury, and is therefore shying away from its responsibility to be accountable to Parliament and the public. For almost a decade, there has been concern about the discrepancy between the consumer prices index and UKSA and the ONS’s calculation of RPI, but UKSA has refused to account for its RPI figure. As a result of overestimated RPI, commuters face higher rail fares and students have to pay higher student loan interest rates. In January 2019, the Economic Affairs Committee of the other place reported that by failing to fix RPI, UKSA risks breaching its statutory duties. The report recommends that UKSA demonstrates more proactive, quicker responses to concerns about the accuracy and misuse of statistics and should more clearly demonstrate its independence from key stakeholders, such as the Treasury, when it has significant disagreements with producers of statistics.
PACAC also expresses concern about UKSA’s openness to parliamentary and public scrutiny. The report finds that UKSA is slow to respond or take action on correspondence and reports from parliamentary Committees. PACAC therefore urges UKSA to attend an annual hearing with the Committee to improve its accountability to Parliament and make its governance more transparent, so that it can be scrutinised in public. PACAC concludes that, through its continued mishandling of RPI, UKSA has allowed what was originally a simple mistake in the collection of price inflation data to snowball into a major unresolved issue lasting for a decade.
The good news is that, on the whole, the UK has a world-class statistical system, and we should commend the statisticians and people who work in the ONS. When UKSA was first established, it was a huge step forward, but it must improve. Its governance must improve, and its board must improve. The fundamental problem of UKSA’s conflicting roles can only be resolved in the end through fresh legislation creating two separate bodies, but action can be taken immediately to improve the situation. At present, the Office for Statistics Regulation is separately identified, but is not given the autonomy and independence it needs. We question why the OSR has never called out the Government for continuing to rely on the flawed RPI. We recommend it immediately makes clear what is necessary to correct the calculation of RPI and that the non-executive directors of UKSA take charge of supervising the OSR in order to underpin its operational independence. For example, it should have separate premises.
The UK Statistics Authority was created in 2008 as a statutory body to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics, and UKSA was given the dual function of being both the main provider of national statistics and the regulator. The report recommends that the Government introduce legislation to divide UKSA into two separate bodies: one for production and one for regulation. However, the Committee recognises that early legislation is unlikely, and that other steps need to be taken.
UKSA’s statutory objective commits it to
“informing the public about social and economic matters” and
“assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy”.
However, our report finds that it should do those things much better. UKSA does not have a complete understanding of who uses statistics, what they use them for, and what statistics are in demand. Our report concludes that
“with only a modest sense of how the public uses data and no evidence of the unmet needs, UKSA is not delivering public good as required under the legislation.”
The Committee recommends that UKSA should lead cross-Government research to build an evidence base for how statistics are used in practice, taking into account the full breadth of stakeholders, not just users, and to establish where data gaps persist.
The report outlines how technology and innovation should make statistics more robust and more accessible to decision makers and the public. UKSA is doing many such things, but we want its work to accelerate. However, the Committee heard that Government progress to capitalise on data innovations has been slow and that significant work remains. The Committee also calls on UKSA to take a stronger leading role across technology, data science, data ethics and influencing improved sharing of data. I commend the report to the House.