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Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Volume 663: debated on Thursday 18 July 2019

Select Committee statement

In a moment, Sir Bernard Jenkin will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes—there is absolutely no obligation on him to take the full 10—during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Sir Bernard Jenkin to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Members of the Front-Bench teams may take part in questioning. As signalled earlier, I intend that we move on to the next business no later than 12.30 pm.

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 the 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, 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”


“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.

Statistics are obviously absolutely vital if this country is to develop good policy on a whole range of different subjects, not least medicine. However, statistics are sometimes used by scurrilous politicians trying to purvey a particular version of events that is a long way away from the official version of the UK Statistics Authority, and we have seen recent instances in which it has told off Ministers and others. Did the Committee consider any means of punishing offenders who have tried to muddy the waters with false facts?

It is difficult to envisage how that could be done without conflicting with the right of free speech. After the referendum, there was a discussion about whether there should be some regulation of what official campaigns actually say, for example, but that is difficult to do in the rough and tumble of politics, elections and referendums. Calling people out in public and being ready to do so is an important power that UKSA has through the Office for Statistics Regulation, but the Committee thinks that it could do that much more readily and proactively. Indeed, I have been personally critical of it for not doing so; it sometimes seems rather capricious in the targets it selects. This all suggests that the OSR should be a separate body with a far greater sense of its own purpose, rather than being part of the organisation that also produces all the statistics.

As a member of the Select Committee, I was very pleased to participate in the production of this report and to heartily support its conclusions and recommendations. I also support the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Committee, whose strong leadership on this and other reports has made a mark for our Committee. My concern all along has been rather wider than the report—the level of statistical understanding of the general public. As someone who formerly taught statistics, I suggest to Ministers, particularly in the Department for Education, that we ought to address the poor level of statistical understanding among the general populace and the poor levels of numeracy, so that the public are less prone to being bamboozled and manipulated by the dodgy statistics that the Chair so eloquently spoke about.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the Committee; as our resident statistician, he contributes greatly to our scrutiny of statistics. I agree that we need a higher level of debate about statistics. UKSA has made big strides in how it presents statistics online, but we still think that the website could improve. His question underlines how important it is that there is commentary and explanation of statistics so that people understand, and indeed, that the media understand what they are reporting when they report statistics. That is a very important part of what the UK Statistics Authority should be doing.

I suspect that a number of my constituents will be very interested in the Select Committee’s report, not least because each recent census has significantly under-reported those of the Jain or Zoroastrian faith in the UK, making it harder for both faith groups to win recognition for their communities both in Whitehall and across key public services, from the NHS to the BBC. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in urging the Office for National Statistics to review its decision not to allow a clearer opportunity in the 2021 census for Jains and Zoroastrians to register their faith adherence?

I am sure that the powers that be who design the census will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s question. We have not started scrutinising preparations for the next national census, but I will bear his point in mind.

I do not have any indication that the Front Benchers wish to participate in the questioning on this matter—I do not think they do. Sir Bernard, we are deeply grateful to you.