Bringing order to statistics: Local Government Chronicle

Posted on July 24, 2008 · Posted in Local Government Chronicle

The creation of the UK Statistics Authority aims to put an end to controversy surrounding statistics. By Paul Gosling

A new body is bringing a breath of fresh air to the often fusty atmosphere of national statistics. Gone is the discredited ministerial oversight of national statistics. In its place, a new and more independent body has been created, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).

Distrust of official statistics had been so bad that only one person in five believed they were compiled without political interference and the UK’s statistics had the lowest level of trust of 27 countries surveyed. So, will the new arrangements restore faith and bring order to the way the government collects this vital information?

Fundamental reform

Councils were at the forefront in demanding fundamental reform of the old system — hardly surprising given the controversy over poor statistical data and the loss or shortfalls in vital grants.

The Local Government Association strongly influenced the setting up of the UKSA. Through its lobbying of MPs and peers it helped shape the legislation to create an independent and respected body overseeing official statistics.

Richard Alldritt, the UKSA’s head of assessment and effectively chief officer, says a solid start has been made. “The authority is getting into its stride,” he says. Appointments are being made to all three of its offices in Newport, London and Edinburgh and he expects the key posts will be filled by October. “But,” he points out, “we don’t have to be fully staffed to make progress.”

External expertise

UKSA will be drawing on external expertise to help it with its four priorities — population, crime, inflation and other official figures that are not the responsibility of the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Mr Alldritt recognises local government’s importance as a user of statistics. “Our priorities include whatever the broad users of statistics want,” he explains, “including across local government — which is in a very prominent position. It is a very important sector of the user community.”

But he argues that reform to statistical output is not merely a response to criticisms of often-misleading official statistics. “The service was historically driven by what is possible,” he says. “As systems got more sophisticated over the years, it created an opportunity to focus more sharply on what people really find useful.”

Population data essential

Inevitably for the local government audience, the most useful information relates to population levels, distribution and movement. While it is now generally accepted that helpful data is held across much of government, it will not be easy to have this released in a form that produces more robust statistics.

The LGA is impressed with the UKSA — so far. “It is too early to say how effective the authority will be,” explains Tim Allen, the LGA’s programme director for research and analysis. “That is not a criticism of the board. Early indications are promising and they seem to be going about things in the right way. We are happy that the population and crime statistics are early items on the board’s agenda.”

With the support of a recent report from the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, the LGA is calling for a wider range of information sources to be brought together to create more reliable population and migration statistics. The LGA says these additional sources should include the Department for Work & Pensions, National Insurance data and registration records for GPs and schools. “This would give you some sort of handle on how the population is changing,” says Mr Allen.

The LGA stresses that information on population and migration is essential for councils, but not merely to correct errors in grant distribution. It is equally important that local authorities have high-quality information to plan service provision. For example, they have worked on population projections that suggested a declining birth rate. Yet, partly because of recent inward migration, it is now clear that fertility rates have increased in many places. This, Mr Allen points out, will have a profound impact on the planning of future schooling and means, in some cases, that schools intended for closure will have to be kept open or replaced.

“This is core intelligence you need if you are to effectively run public services,” he argues. Councils similarly need access to the latest and most accurate information
on crime statistics — for example, to take action to reduce and prevent knife attacks.

The UKSA will formally respond to the Treasury committee’s recommendation on information sharing over the next month. Mr Alldritt stresses that data sharing across government departments for statistical purposes is a priority and what he calls “substantive discussions” are taking place between the UKSA and government departments. The same legislation that created the UKSA provides the legal basis for such data sharing to take place. “We will be carrying out an independent review under our assessment function,” says Mr Alldritt.

However, work on bringing together data to create robust population and migration figures will have to be conducted carefully in the light of concerns around data protection concerns and legislation. Information commissioner Richard Thomas recently indicated that he was unhappy at the growth of government data sharing. “We will have to be extremely careful,” responds Mr Alldritt.

Overall, he adds, local authorities should not expect a quick fix from the new authority. “I don’t know how long it will take,” says Mr Alldritt. “Very little in my experience
of statistics can be put in place in a few months — it is usually measured in years for substantive changes to happen.”

The UK Statistics Authority

The UKSA was established by the Statistics & Registration Services Act, 2007 and was launched in April as an independent body to oversee the production of official statistics, including those from the Central Office of Information. The UKSA replaced the Statistics Commission and its creation means that the chancellor of the exchequer and other ministers are no longer in charge of economic and social statistics. The new arrangements are intended to create a more transparent, respected and accountable system for the production of official statistics. The UKSA reports to Parliament, not to ministers. It has an independent board, chaired by former permanent secretary Sir Michael Scholar, whose members include Moira Gibb, chief executive of Camden LBC, and Sir Alan Langlands, a former NHS chief executive.

Counting the cost

The LGA is unsure about the effect on councils’ grant of the flawed population statistics. It is, says programme director for research and analysis Tim Allen, “quite conceivable” that the population in England is between a million and a million-and-a-half more than the government recognises. As a result grant distribution is wrong — as is the total amount of grant.

Brent LBC is one of many authorities that believes it has lost out because of the effect on grant distribution. Duncan McLeod, director of finance and corporate resources, says: “The council commissioned an independent report into this issue that stated: ‘The confirmed population [of Brent] was 289,100 at 31 March 2007, as compared with the 2006 ONS mid-year estimate of 271,400 — giving a difference of 17,700. The Greater London Authority, using a different methodology from ONS, gives a count of 279,200 for 2007, but rising to 290,000 by 2011.’

“As so much of local government funding is driven by population figures, Brent believes it is seriously losing out because of the flaws in the system. We welcome the review to improve the methodology, but are concerned that changes will not be introduced by the next comprehensive spending review and the under-enumeration will continue to short-change Brent,” he adds.