Single office to run Whitehall statistics

March 22, 1996

Whitehall's army of statistics collectors will be run by one organisation from April 1.

It will be headed by a former academic, Tim Holt of Southampton, and the policies and prices it sets could affect social science researchers on employment, family expenditure and household formation.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) will replace the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS). In theory, it will bring the management of much of Government's "social" data under one roof. However, Whitehall departments will retain their influence over what figures are gathered and why.

Tim Holt, formerly professor of statistics and deputy vice chancellor at the University of Southampton, has impressed researchers since he joined the civil service last July to become head of the CSO.

They have looked to him to continue retrieving the reputation of official statistics from the low point of the late 1980s when embarrassing unemployment figures were said to be delayed or massaged.

But according to some what the new Office of National Statistics needs to keep it healthy is a watchdog body outside Whitehall made up of statistics users. Janet Lewis, director of research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one of the big funders, has called for a new standing committee of statistics users. Dr Lewis welcomes the ONS if it combats the fragmentation of data gathering and analysis between different Government departments.

Robert Markless at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a spokesman for the Social Science Forum, calls the new office "a limited good thing". What is still needed is an independent watchdog to look over the work of Government data-gathering as a whole and press for more freedom of information. Social researchers have urged the establishment of a guardian of statistical probity similar, says Mr Markless, to the National Audit Office. It should report to parliament on what the Government is doing.

Professor Holt is under pressure to make significant savings from the merger of the CSO and the OPCS and further reviews of how much academics and researchers are charged for access to data bases are likely. Mr Markless would like to see greater consistency between departments on access and charges.

Professor Holt's life could alter dramatically with a change of Government. Labour front bencher Jack Straw has spoken about centralising Government statistical services much more and freeing access.

Professor Holt has described "reliable statistics" as "the cornerstone of democracy". But the opportunity ONS presents, say researchers, is about more than the quality of data. It is about interpretation and use. Professor Holt agrees: "A researcher wanting to know everything about single parents or the elderly from benefits and incomes to health and housing can find information under the same roof. Historically we have collected, designed and published our own product. Now there will be much more access to databases that allow users to design the statistical output they want."

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