|Office for National Statistics
(Welsh: Swyddfa Ystadegau Gwladol)
|Non-ministerial government department overview|
|Formed||April 1, 1996)|
|Preceding agencies||Central Statistical Office
Office of Population Censuses and Surveys
|Headquarters||Government Buildings, Cardiff Road, Newport NP10 8XG
|Employees||3,302 (including UK Statistics Authority)|
|Annual budget||£206.5 million (2009–2010)  (including UK Statistics Authority)|
|Non-ministerial government department executive||Glen Watson, Director General|
|Parent Non-ministerial government department||UK Statistics Authority|
It is charged with the collection and publication of statistics related to the economy, population and society of England and Wales at national, regional and local levels. It functions as the executive office of the National Statistician, who is also the UK Statistics Authority's Chief Executive and principal statistical adviser to the UK's National Statistics Institute and the 'Head Office' of the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Its main office is in Newport near the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office and Tredegar House, but another significant office is in Titchfield in Hampshire, and a small office is in London. ONS co-ordinates data collection with the respective bodies in Northern Ireland and Scotland, namely NISRA and NRS.
The ONS was formed on 1 April 1996 by the merger of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS). Following the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority became a non-ministerial department on the 1 April 2008.
Purpose and scope
ONS produces and publishes a wide range of the information about Britain that can be used for social and economic policy-making as well as painting a portrait of the country as its population evolves over time. This is often produced in ways that make comparison with other societies and economies possible. Much of the data on which policy-makers depend is produced by ONS through a combination of a decennial population census, samples and surveys and analysis of data generated by businesses and organisations such as the National Health Service and the register of births, marriages and deaths. Both its publications and its publicly available raw data, available free, are reported and discussed daily in the media as the basis for the public understanding of the country in which they live.
Applications of data
The reliance on some of these data by government (both local and national) makes ONS material central to debates about the determination of priorities, the allocation of resources and for decisions on interest rates or borrowing. The complexity and degree and speed of change in the society, combined with the challenge of measuring some of these (e.g. in relation to longevity, migration or illness patterns or fine movements in inflation or other aspects of national accounts) give rise to periodic debates about some of its indicators and portrayals. Many of these rely on sources which are outside of ONS, while some of its own sources need to be supplemented, for example between censuses, by updated but less rigorously obtained information from other sources. Consequently, unexpected or incomplete data or occasional errors or disputes about its analysis can also attract considerable attention.
Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced on 28 November 2005, that the government intended to publish plans in early 2006 to legislate to render the ONS and the statistics it generates independent of government on a model based on the independence of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. This was originally a 1997 Labour manifesto commitment and was also the policy of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties. Such independence was also sought by the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistics Commission. The National Statistician would be directly accountable to Parliament through a more widely constituted independent governing Statistics Board. The ONS would be a non-ministerial government department so that the staff, including the Director, would remain as civil servants but without being under direct ministerial control. The National Statistician, Dame Karen Dunnell, stated that legislation would help improve public trust in official statistics although the ONS already acts independently according to its own published guidelines, the National Statistics Code of Practice, which sets out the key principles and standards that official statisticians, including those in other parts of the government statistical service, are expected to follow and uphold.
The details of the plans for independence were considered in Parliament during the 2006/2007 session and resulted in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. In July 2007, Sir Michael Scholar was nominated by the government to be the three day-a-week non-executive chairman of the Statistics Board which, to re-establish faith in the integrity of government statistics, will take on statutory responsibility for oversight of UK statistics in April 2008 and oversee the Office for National Statistics. It will also have a duty to assess all UK government statistics. Following Gordon Brown's announcement of new constitutional arrangements for public appointments, Sir Michael also became, on 18 July, the first such nominee to appear before the House of Commons Treasury Committee and to have his nomination subject to confirmation by the House. On 7 February 2008, following the first meeting of the shadow board, it was announced that it will be known as the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).
The non-executive chairman is Andrew Dilnot CBE. Six other non-executive members were appointed in open competition: Professor Sir Adrian Smith FRS, deputy chairman responsible for governance of the Office for National Statistics, Professor David Rhind CBE FRS FBA, deputy chairman with responsibility for oversight of the UK official statistics system, Dr Colette Bowe, Partha Dasgupta, Dame Moira Gibb CBE, Dr David Levy. The executive members are Jil Matheson (national statistician), Richard Alldritt (head of assessment) and Glen Watson (director general, Office for National Statistics).
Heads of the Office: National Statistician
Directors are de facto Permanent Secretaries but do not use that title. As the ONS previously incorporated the OPCS, the Director was also the Registrar General for England and Wales, although the recent changes saw the transfer of this function away from the ONS. In addition, he or she is ex officio the Head of the Government Statistical Service. The first Director of ONS was Professor Tim Holt. Subsequent Directors have had an additional title, the National Statistician. The second Director was Len Cook. He was succeeded by Karen Dunnell on 1 September 2005, then Jil Matheson in September 2009. Following the implementation of the Statistics & Registration Service Act, the General Register Office continues to be part of a ministerially accountable department and became a part of the Home Office. The title of Registrar-General moved with it and is no longer held by the National Statistician.
Work of the ONS
Where data is broken down by geographical area, this is usually done by the areas defined in the ONS geographical coding system.
The principal areas of data collection include:
- Agriculture and Environment
- Business and Energy
- Children, Education and Skills
- Crime and Justice
- Health and Social Care
- Labour Market
- People and Places
- Travel and Transport
Statisticians are also employed by many other Government departments and agencies, and these statisticians often collect and publish data. They are members of the Government Statistical Service and are the professional responsibility of the head of the service, who is also the National Statistician. Each department has a statistical service Head of Profession. For example, data on Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry comes primarily from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Along with economic data on which the Treasury and Bank of England rely for decision-making, many of the statistics that receive widespread media attention are issued by the Home Office, the Department of Health, and the Department for Education and Skills. ONS is also responsible for the maintenance of the Inter-Departmental Business Register and the Business Structure Database.
Prior to the establishment of the UK Statistics Authority, the statistical work of ONS, since June 2000, was scrutinized by the Statistics Commission, an independent body with its own chairman and small staff. This ceased to operate from 1 April 2008. The General Register Office and the post of Registrar-General for England & Wales ceased to be part of ONS from that date but remains subject to ministerial accountability within the Home Office.
The Blue Book
Annually, the Office for National Statistics publish their findings in the so-called Blue Book. It contains the estimates of the domestic and national product, income and expenditure of the United Kingdom, and is available as hardcopy, as well as a web version.
Education of Statisticians
The ONS has a head office in the city of Newport, South Wales, and other offices in Pimlico in London and Titchfield in Hampshire. The Family Records Centre in Myddelton Street in Islington, London, moved to the National Archives in Kew in 2008 
The London (Pimlico) office was the head office until April 2006 when the corporate headquarters was moved to Newport following the Lyons Review on public sector relocation. Since May 2011 the London office has been located on the 2nd floor of the former Drummond Gate headquarters and houses the methodology consultancy service, the virtual microdata laboratory and media briefings.
Gradual move of functions to South Wales
The ONS asserts that recruitment and training of quality staff in South Wales, where data collection and analysis already takes place, will ensure that there is no risk to the quality of its services and that it is managing the risks associated with the changes which it is implementing in a planned and gradual way. However the plan to discontinue all remaining statistical activity in London is proving controversial amid claims that the shift of functions from London and the impending closure of the London office could have serious implications for the future of certain particular sets of statistics. These include health statistics, National Accounts, Retail and Consumer Prices and Labour Market Statistics. These risks derive from the fact that few of the experienced staff working in these highly technical areas are expected to be willing to relocate to Newport, resulting in a substantial loss of expertise and a consequent threat to the continued quality of the statistics. In a submission to the Parliamentary Treasury Sub Committee, the Bank of England too has expressed concern over the relocation of the ONS to Newport, saying, that "the relocation programme poses serious risks to the maintenance of the quality of macroeconomic data. If substantial numbers of ONS staff are unwilling to relocate, the loss of skilled individuals could have a severe impact on a range of statistics." The director of ONS has vigorously defended ONS implementation of government policy on civil service relocation and the decision to concentrate staff in the three locations outside London.
Criticism of the ONS
Occasional errors and revisions account for some past criticism, while the allocation of Private Finance Initiative expenditure (albeit following OECD and international statistical guidelines according to who carries the risk) has attracted political attention. Many of the most controversial topics for statistics issued by government do not come from the ONS though they are expected to meet National Statistics standards. Crime statistics, and other data (e.g. health and education) that could be deemed to assess the effectiveness of government policies, often attract media scepticism. The compulsory nature of the census (unlike most other surveys by academics and market researchers) differentiates the ONS from other data collectors (apart from HM Revenue and Customs).
The Office for National Statistics won the 2004 Big Brother Award for the "Most Heinous Government Organisation" from the campaigning organisation Privacy International for its Citizen Information Project. The project is one of several that lead the Information Commissioner to warn that there is a danger of the country "sleepwalking" into a surveillance society.
There has also been criticism of the ONS and of the government for its pursuit of government policies for modernisation and for relocation to sites outside London. It will perform most of its functions from the two sites in Newport and Titchfield while reducing its London operation to one small location.
In December 2012 the organisation's new website to provide statistics to the public was described as "a disaster" by Members of Parliament on the Public Administration Committee. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority said that significant improvements to the website were being made, but admitted that its state at the time made it "difficult to use, difficult to navigate and difficult to search".
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