Country Profile of United Kingdom
Main statistical agency
Main statistical agency name
Office for National Statistics
UK Statistics Authority
Office for National Statistics
About the Office for National Statistics
Position in the government
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority - a Non-Ministerial Department (NMD) of the UK Government which reports directly to Parliament. The Authority was established on April 1st 2008 when the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 came into force. The ONS is the UK Government's single largest statistical producer. It also functions as:
• the office of the National Statistician, who is also the UK Statistics Authority's Chief Executive and principal statistical adviser
• the UK's National Statistics Institute (NSI), and
• the 'Head Office' of the Government Statistical Service (GSS)
Although the ONS is the UK's largest survey house and its main producer of official statistics, it operates within a highly decentralised and devolved statistical system. Official statistics in the UK are produced not only in the ONS but also by statisticians and their staff working in over 30 separate UK Government Departments and Agencies. Where appropriate, responsibility for the production of official statistics is also devolved to statistical staff working in each of the three Devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Apart from Northen Ireland, the statistical staff in each of these organisations , together with those in the ONS, constitute the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Statistical staff in Northen Ireland are not members of the GSS but maintain a close professional association with it.
The National Statistician is the Head of the GSS. GSS staff who work outide the ONS - either in other UK Government Departments or in each of the two Devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales - are normally managed by their own Head of Profession for Statistics (HoP), or equivalent. Heads of Profession form a network of senior statisticians across government who are both managerially accountable to their own Department as well as professionally accountable to the National Statistician acting in her capacity as the Head of the GSS.
Organizational structure and finance
The task of producing official statistics in the UK is decentralised and devolved amongst (a) the 30 Government Departments and Agencies which are affiliated to the GSS, (b) a range of other Crown Bodies, and (c) a range of Non-Crown Bodies which have been identified as statistical producers in secondary legislation (namely, 'Official Statistics' Orders). All key official statistics and a wide range of other economic and social statistics are produced by a body of professional statisticians and their staff known as the Government Statistical Service (GSS). A further range of official statistics are produced by officials within government but outside the GSS management framework.
The Government Statistical Service (GSS) comprises about 6,500 civil servants whose primary function is to collect, analyse and disseminate official statistics. It is also the Civil Service group which produces the bulk of:
• all those official statistics which have been designated as National Statistics - defined as 'official statistics' which are deemed to be compliant with the UK Statistic Authority's Code of Practice for Official Statistics
• other official statistics, analysis, interpretation and advice to the UK Government and Devolved Administrations.
Coordination arrangements between the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are set out in the Statistics Concordat attached to the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The principles of coherence and harmonisation are also emphasised in the Authority's Code of Practice and further guidance is given in underlying guidance.
Governance of the ONS is effected through two high-level committees:
• The UK Statistics Authority's own Board provides the top level of governance for the ONS, overseeing its strategic direction, providing leadership and establishing the overall policy framework in which ONS can operate. The Board is comprised of the chair of the Statistics Authority, its seven non-executive members, the UK Statistics Authority's chief executive and two other senior Authority/ONS officials. The Board has two sub-committees, one of which oversees the ONS (the ONS Board), whilst the other (the Committee on Official Statistics) monitors the UK statistical system as a whole
• The ONS Executive Management Group (EMG) is responsible for overseeing and directing the day-to-day management of the office. It is comprised of ONS's Director General, and the Directors responsible for each of the Office's main workstreams. It meets on a monthly basis.
The senior management of ONS comprises.
(i) The National Statistician who is the Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority and who oversees the work of the Director of Policy and International Relations.
(ii) The Director General for ONS who reports to the National Statistician and has overall responsibility for all ONS's statistical outputs, and who oversees the work of:
the Director of Economic, Labour and Social Analysis
the Director of Surveys and Administrative Sources
the Director of Population, Health and Regional Analysis
the Director of Census
the Director of Corporate Services
the Director of Information Management
the Director of Methodology
the Deputy Directors responsible for Business Change and Communication
Governance of the GSS is effected on a non-managerial and more consensual basis via the network of GSS Heads of Profession. The UK Statistics Authority's Committee on Official Statistics (COS) provides strategic oversight of the GSS and is supported in this role by the National Statistician's UK Statistics Strategy and Planning Committee. Governance of the relationship between the UK Governments Departments and the Devolved Administrations is effected through the Inter-Administration Committee.
The UK Statistics Authority and the ONS are funded jointly by Her Majesty's Treasury (HMT) on a five-yearly basis. Funding for statistics produced by the rest of the GSS comes from each of the responsible Departmens which are, themselves, funded by HMT on a three-yearly basis.
Multi-annual or annual work program
The ONS publishes, annually, a 3-Year Work Plan covering its own areas of statistical responsibility
Traditionally, the ONS has also published a regular 3-Year Work Programme covering all UK statistics - including those produced by other UK Government Departments and the three Devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In the main, this tended to focus on those official statistics designated as 'National Statistics'. The term 'National Statistics' covers a specified set of statistics which are produced in accordance with the UK Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Statistics and supporting guidance on standards.
In the past, the National Statistics Work Programme for the forthcoming three years has included: an outline of the strategic direction for National Statistics; a description of some of the major cross-cutting developments; and individual chapters covering proposed developments within each of 12 'National Statistics Themes' - each of which describes distinct areas of national life such as 'The Labour Market', 'Crime and Justice', 'Health and Care', etc.
The arrangements for co-ordinated statistical work-planning across the UK are currently subject to a far-reaching review.
Primary Statistical Legislation
On 1 April 2008 the UK statistical system entered a new era based on statistical legislation. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 established the UK Statistics Board (subsequently renamed the UK Statistics Authority) as an independent body operating at arm's length from government in the form of a Non-Ministerial Department (NMD) directly accountable to the UK Parliament and, in addition, and where appropriate, to the Parliaments/Assemblies in the three Devolved Administrations.
The Authority's overall objective is to promote and safeguard the production of official statistics that serve the public good. It is also required to safeguard the quality and comprehensiveness of official statistics, and ensure good practice in relation to official statistics.
The UK Statistics Authority has three main functions:
• strategic oversight of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) - its executive office
• monitoring and reporting on all UK official statistics, wherever produced, and
• independent assessment of official statistics against its Code of Practice
Membership of the Authority's Board comprises the Chair of the Authority, seven other non-executive members, and three executive members.
On the same date, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was abolished as a Department of Her Majesty's Treasury and an executive agency, and instead became the 'executive office' of the newly-formed UK Statistics Authority.
Secondary Legislation - Pre-release Access Orders
On December 1st 2008 the UK Government implemented secondary and supporting legislation (in the form of a Statutory Instrument) which sets out tighter rules governing the granting of pre-release access to official statistics - a matter specifically excluded from the main Statistics Act. The UK Government's Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008 is complemented by similar Orders introduced by each of the three devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these Orders describes which persons are entitled to have early access to statistics in their final form before release, and for how long. The UK Government's Order restricts pre-release access to 24 hours before release.
Secondary Legislation - Official Statistics Orders
The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 departed from historical precedent by expanding the boundaries of the ‘UK statistical system’ well beyond its traditional borders. Firstly, the Act extended the system to embrace all of the statistical work of Crown Bodies even if those statistics are not produced under the professional management of statisticians in the GSS or by professionals working in the government's other analytical communities. Secondly, it gave Government Ministers the option to extend the definition of ‘official statistics’ to embrace the statistical work of any of the various arms-length bodies that operate under their jurisdiction, or are linked to their Department in some way. Ministers can exercise this option through secondary legislation i.e. through an Order in Parliament. In so doing, the Act provided a definition of the word 'official', but made no attempt to define the word 'statistics'.
Other UK legislation relevant to statistics exists in the form of Acts of Parliament which cater for the collection of specific data, such as the 1920 Census Act and the Population (Statistics) Act.
The 1947 Statistics of Trade Act also instructs the Chancellor of the Exchequer to collect data on the economy through the Office for National Statistics.
Other Acts which impact upon statistics data are the 1999 Data Protection Act, and the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, both of which influence how statistical data held on individuals can be stored and used.
Other producers of official statistics
Other producers of official statistics
The Statistics Act gives Government Ministers the right to designate as producers of official statistics, and as appropriate, any of the Non Crown Bodies affiliated to their Department - again by means of a Statutory Instrument. To date, two such Ministerial Orders have been introduced - one approved by the UK Parliament, the other by the Scottish Parliament. Together, these two Orders have expanded the UK statistical system to cover an extra 60 or so producers of official statistics.
Statistical advisory bodies
Statistical advisory bodies
The Statistics User Forum acts as the voice of users of official statistics. It succeeded the long-established Statistics Users' Council and operates independently of the GSS. It provides a forum for the exchange of information, ideas, expertise and views between official statisticians in the GSS, users of statistics, and other stakeholders such as the Royal Statistical Society (RSS).
The Forum meets several times a year and its main roles include: organising an annual conference on a different aspect of statistics; arranging special seminars to draw attention to significant developments; co-ordinating 15 separate User Groups covering such areas as business statistics, health statistics, the National Accounts, etc; ensuring full user participation in the development of official statistics; and providing a channel for the promotion and representation of users' views. All of the main User Groups are represented on the Forum, together with a few interested 'observer' organisations. The Forum maintains its own pages on the RSS website:
Most recent population census
29 April 2001
Access to administrative data
The Office for National Statistics is the main government agency concerned with the collection and processing of statistical data. Much of our data is gathered directly from individuals and businesses through purpose-designed surveys. Official statisticians in other government departments also run statistical surveys but, in addition, have access to administrative sources within their Department.
The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 incorporates specific provisions which encourage other government departments to share their data with the ONS more freely, and vice versa. Within this context, a key part of the ONS strategy is to make more extensive use, for statistical purposes, of the data available from the government's administative and management systems and also to bring together administrative data from different sources in order to create more wide-ranging datasets. This requires government-wide initiatives, and will deliver significant benefits (e.g. a reduction in the burden of surveys on businesses and individuals, and an improvement in the richness of data for analytical purposes).
Specific standards for the prevention of disclosure of confidential statistical information are set out in Principle 5 of the UK Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Official Statistics. More extensive guidance has been made available in a booklet on 'Confidentiality' which is one of several guidance documents issued by the National Statistician which provide officials with practical adviceon how they should implement the Authority’s Code.
ONS has the following framework for protecting confidentiality in micro-data :
- a user describes their need for micro-data to the appropriate ONS data custodian,
- the custodian describes the purpose, physical security standard, and risks of the release to a dedicated senior management committee,
- if approval is granted, the details are recorded in a central log and the conditions of access followed up by a support team.
For aggregated and tabulated data ONS has a statistical disclosure control centre of expertise within its Methodology Group. The centre provides standards and guidance for all work areas, including a checklist for identifying potentially disclosive data.
(b) A very firm line is taken on the disclosure of individual information for non-statistical purposes. The Code of Practice requires that where it appears the law requires statistical information to be used for non-statistical purposes (for example, as evidence in a court of law) the release of data will only be on the explicit direction and personal responsibility of the National Statistician. To date no identifiable data has been supplied despite court orders, pleading the confidentiality guarantee and the special nature and significance of individual statistical records.
Release calendar (existence, when and how published)
The Office for National Statistics maintains and publishes an electronic year-ahead Release Calendar on behalf of the GSS which provides the titles and publication dates of all GSS statistics which are due to be released over the following 12 month period. Amendments are highlighted and the diary is updated as soon as new information is received.This central ONS-managed release calendar is supplemented by release calendars published by a number of other GSS Departments.
The Release Calendar is made available via an ONS-administered Publication Hub - a portal website which provides links to all GSS releases which have been designated as 'National Statistics' - thereby ensuring a suitable distance between purely statistical releases (produced by professionals) and any accompanying Ministerial Statements about those statistics.
Information about all the GSS's key statistical outputs, and their formats, can be found on the Publication Hub as well as on the ONS's statistical websites, and on the statistical websites maintained by each of the organisations producing official statistics.
Languages of main publications
English (and Welsh on the ONS website)
How are data disseminated (Paper, CD Rom, Website, online databases, databanks)?
Many different formats.
Availability of microdata for research purposes
Within the ONS, access to microdata can only be granted with the approval of, and under the conditions set by, the Microdata Release Panel, as described above.
ONS places non-disclosive versions of underlying micro-data from social surveys and censuses with Economic and Social Research Council funded academic data archives. These archives provide a service to the academic community. The archives satisfy the great majority of academic research needs. Where for a specific statistical purpose it is necessary to access identifiable micro-data, then the users can apply to ONS and the Micro-data Release Panel will consider and approve the access.
Most access is through release to the users' sites. As the data is sometimes disclosive, protection is through careful study of the conditions under which the data will be kept, and through data access agreements and/or contracts. ONS has very limited remote access facilities. For sensitive data sources such as some business data, and longitudinal study data, an on-site controlled access facility is offered.
ONS has a long and successful history is putting a very large amount of micro-data into the research community, either directly or through respected data archives.