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1. Statistical legislation in the UK
Official statistics in the UK are produced and published in accordance with statistical legislation designed to enhance public trust and confidence in the statistics released by public bodies.
Arrangements for the governance and management of official statistics across the UK are set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 which came into effect on 1 April 2008. The Act also makes provision for ministers to extend the scope of the primary legislation by means of official statistics orders.
These orders list the names of any of the non-crown bodies sponsored by government department (known as arms-length bodies) which have been deemed to ‘producers of official statistics’.
The Act is also reinforced by secondary legislation setting out the principles and rules which govern access to official statistics in their final form before publication. The full set of ‘pre-release access’ rules are described in four Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Orders which cover, respectively, the UK Government, and the three devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
2. Governance of official statistics
The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 created the Statistics Board – subsequently renamed the UK Statistics Authority – as an independent, non-ministerial department reporting directly to Parliament with the remit to oversee, promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. The Authority has the statutory duty to monitor, and if appropriate report on, the production and publication of all official statistics, wherever they originate in the UK. This role is conducted by the Office for Statistics Regulation – the Authority’s regulatory arm. The Act also established the post of National Statistician who, as the authority’s chief executive, oversees the Authority’s Executive Office – the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
3. Scope of official statistics
The Act defines ‘official statistics’ as those statistics produced by all of the crown bodies that constitute the UK Government and devolved administrations, as well as the statistics produced by any non-crown bodies that have been named by their sponsor minister in an official statistics order. This provision was included in the Statistics Act in order to ensure a broad definition of official statistics from the start, and one that can be changed over time. In order to ensure cross-departmental consistency, the National Statistician has issued guidance on how public bodies should identify ‘official statistics’.
4. Assessment of official statistics
One of the UK Statistics Authority’s main statutory functions, conducted by the Office for Statistics Regulation, is to develop and maintain their Code of Practice for Statistics and to assess official statistics against that code. The Code of Practice was refreshed in February 2018. The first edition, The Code of Practice for Official Statistics was released in January 2009.
If the Authority judges a particular set of official statistics to be fully compliant with its code of practice it must designate those statistics as ‘National Statistics’. National Statistics are identified by the round ‘tick’ logo with the words, ‘National Statistics’.
All public bodies that produce official statistics designated as National Statistics have a statutory duty to comply with the code, as well as with the appropriate pre-release access order. Producers of statistics are also expected to ensure that all their official statistics, regardless of designation, conform to the best practice principles set out in the Code. In the case of non-designated official statistics, however, compliance is not a statutory requirement, and is not formally assessed by the Authority.
5. Pre-release access to official statistics
The Statistics Act reserved policy on ‘pre-release access’ – the process whereby ministers and their close briefing officials are given access to official statistics in the period immediately before publication – to the responsible minister in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The pre-release access arrangements that apply to each administration are set out in their respective Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order.
The main provisions of the four orders are that pre-release access should be:
- limited to the minimum necessary number of people to allow ministers or chief executives with policy or operational responsibility for the subject-matter covered by a release to be able to respond - whether in words or action – at the exact moment of release
- restricted to a maximum of 24 hours before release (or 5 days in Scotland and Wales)
- fully documented and published
- granted only if recipients meet certain conditions on access
The UK Statistics Authority is required to treat the pre-release orders applicable to each of the four administrations as an integral part of their Code of Practice for Statistics. By the same token, all producers of official statistics have a statutory duty to comply with whichever order applies to their respective administration.
6. Non-statutory arrangements for official statistics
The commencement of statistical legislation in 2008 did not alter the basic arrangements for statistical production in the UK that continues to involve a mixture of centralisation, decentralisation and devolution.
The National Statistician – the Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority – continues to preside over a system in which his own Department, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), remains the UK’s National Statistical Institute (NSI – to use European terminology)) and its central statistics producer, and where the main departments of state and their agencies, and the three devolved administrations, retain their responsibility for collecting and producing statistics covering their own areas of responsibility. Consequently, a large proportion of official statistics including those designated as code-compliant ‘national statistics’ continue to be produced by statisticians working outside the ONS in other government organisations.
The National Statistician presides over the UK statistical system through his non-statutory role as the Head of the Government Statistical Service (GSS). The GSS is an umbrella community that embraces all those statisticians and other analysts across government, as well as their support staff, who are responsible for the collection, production, analysis and dissemination of official statistics.
All government statisticians are ultimately responsible to the National Statistician, in his capacity as the Head of the GSS, either through their own departmental Head of Profession for Statistics, or through the Head of Profession in their parent or sponsor department. The GSS is one of several professional communities within the Civil Service and forms the glue that helps to bind the whole UK statistical system together.