Restructure body tasked with protecting statistics for public good, urges Committee

18 Jul 2019 02:47 PM

In a report on the governance of official statistics, PACAC argues that the dual role of the UK Statistics Authority in both producing and regulating official statistics has compromised its ability to ensure statistics serve the public good and recommends it is split into two separate bodies.

Governance failings

In a critical report, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) recommends that UKSA should be more independent of Government, and should do more to hold the statistical system to account to ensure it serves the public good. The Committee stresses that UKSA’s handling of miscalculated RPI (retail prices index) figures shows governance failings and is indicative of its failure to provide and protect statistics and ensure the public can have confidence in official measures of inflation.

The report also recommends that, with public concern about fake news growing, the UK Statistics Authority needs to be fundamentally restructured to ensure official statistics serve the public good. The report outlines that the ‘misconceived’ decision to give the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) the dual role of both national provider and regulator of official statistics has created a conflict, and that it should now be split into a separate regulatory body and a dedicated provider of official statistics.

The Committee stresses that governance changes must be made quickly and UKSA’s upcoming five year strategy is the chance to fundamentally change its approach to become proactive and forward thinking.

The Committee also recommends that UKSA:

Chair's comments

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Committee Sir Bernard Jenkin MP yesterday said:

“UKSA’S conflicting dual role has led to governance issues within the organisation affecting its ability to serve the public good and failing in its duty properly to regulate national statistics. This has been exemplified by UKSA’s poor handling of RPI since 2010, which it continues to fail to account for.

In a time of growing concern about disinformation, the public needs access to trustworthy national statistics. PACAC is calling for a fundamental restructure of UKSA into two separate bodies; one dedicated to providing robust, useful and freely accessible stats and an official statistics regulator with the capacity to monitor and challenge all official statistics.

Our report is clear that if parliamentary time cannot be found to pass the necessary legislation for restructuring soon, then UKSA must take other steps to separate its two roles as soon as possible.  UKSA must not miss the opportunity to build changes into its new five year strategy.”

Key conclusions

Independence and accountability

The report argues that UKSA has not made itself sufficiently independent of the Government, particularly the Treasury, and is therefore shying away from its responsibility to be accountable to Parliament and the public. For almost a decade now there has been concern about the discrepancy between UKSA’s calculation of RPI and CPI (consumer prices index), but UKSA has refused to account for its RPI figure.

As a result of overestimated RPI, commuters face higher rail fares and students are dealt higher student loan interest rates. In January 2019 the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords reported that by failing to fix RPI, UKSA risks breaching its statutory duties. PACAC concludes that through its continued mishandling of RPI UKSA has allowed what was “originally a simple mistake in price collection of inflation data to snowball into a major unresolved issue for a decade.”

The report recommends that UKSA demonstrate more proactive, quicker responses to concerns about the accuracy and misuse of statistics and should more clearly demonstrate its independence from key stakeholders, when it has significant disagreements with producers of statistics.

The Committee also expresses concern about UKSA’s openness to parliamentary and public scrutiny. The report finds that UKSA is slow to respond to, 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 it can be scrutinised by the public.

Dividing the role of UK Statistics Authority

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) was created in 2008 as a statutory body to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. UKSA was given the dual function of being both the main provider of national statistics (through the Office for National Statistics) and the sole regulator of UK statistics. In its report, PACAC found that this dual role has led to a conflict and as a result UKSA is performing neither role adequately.

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 bringing forward legislation may not be immediately possible and so recommends a series of steps UKSA can take to separate its responsibilities including physically dividing the offices of staff responsible for regulation and production of statistics.

Availability and usefulness of statistics

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 the report finds that UKSA’s governance of statistics does not always serve the public good. UKSA does not have a complete understanding of who uses statistics, what for, and what statistics are in demand. The report concludes that “with only a modest sense of how the public uses data and no evidence of the unmet needs, UKSA is unable to work towards delivering public good as required under the legislation.”

The Committee recommends that UKSA should lead cross-government research to build an evidence base of how statistics are used in practice, taking into account the full breadth of stakeholders (not just users) and to investigate where data gaps persist.

Challenging disinformation and data concerns

The report outlines that technology and innovation can make statistics more robust and also more accessible to decision makers and the public. However, the Committee heard that Government progress to capitalise on data innovations has been slow and there remains significant work to do. There is also work to do on reassuring citizens about the use of their data, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The report recommends that UKSA should request data sets so that it can take a lead in using the potential of data to transform government, at the same time demonstrating how the public will be protected from misuse of data. The Committee also calls on UKSA to take a stronger leading role across technology, data science, data ethics and influencing improved sharing of data. 

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