ONS calls on departments to help identify gaps in data on inequality

Official statistics body launches audit of inequalities data and signals desire to work closely with rest of government and civil society

The ONS says just 36% of the difference in earnings between men and women can be explained with existing data. Credit: Fotolia

By Tamsin Rutter

18 Jan 2018

The Office for National Statistics has launched an audit of UK inequalities data and asked 400 stakeholders across government to help it identify existing gaps in information.

In a callout across the Government Statistical Service, a community for all civil servants working with official stats, the ONS has asked for suggested improvements to the information available on inequalities in areas such as housing, education and health.

Emma Rourke, director of public policy analysis at the ONS, said that the non-ministerial department recognises it does not have enough data on equality and that it needs the support of the rest of government and civil society to build a more accurate picture on which to base policy decisions.


The inequalities audit so far lists more than 250 datasets, including, for example, the Cabinet Office’s recent Race Disparity Audit, the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s English Housing Survey and the 2011 Census.

It lists the source, frequency and sample size of the data, and whether it can be broken down by each of the nine protected characteristics of the 2010 Equality Act, including age, sex, race and disability.

At an event exploring the gender data gap held yesterday by the ONS and the Royal Statistical Society, Rourke said the statistical landscape around inequalities was neither coherent nor easy to navigate.

On the gender pay gap, for example, which the ONS explored in a report published on Wednesday, she said just 36% of the difference between men’s and women’s earnings can be explained by existing data – primarily on occupation and full-time versus part-time working.

The bulk of the gap is unexplained, and would benefit from information on family structures, education and career breaks, the ONS explains in its report.

Rourke said the ONS had gone out to 400 stakeholders across government to help it with its analysis of inequalities data, and that the stats body would review progress at the end of January and report its findings in March.

“We do want to do this in collaboration,” she said. “This is a team effort. This is not ONS’ problem to solve, nor is it any single institution’s problem to solve.”

Also speaking at the event yesterday, Maria Miller, a Conservative MP and chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, welcomed the audit. She said the UK had very well-developed equalities laws, but without better data she couldn’t be confident that policies to address inequalities were having their intended impact.

“What has become obvious to us as a committee as we wade through the plethora of issues covered by the Equality Act, is that gaps in equality data lie across the board,” she said.

Miller cited particularly poor data in the areas of pregnancy and paternity, the sexual harassment data collected by schools and data on homicides related to domestic violence, which cannot be broken down by race.

The government has committed to implementing the fifth sustainable development goal – to achieve gender equality by 2030 – by embedding it into single departmental plans. But Miller pointed out that many aspects of the goal require departments to work together, and she has previously called on the Government Equalities Office to establish a “mechanism for partnership between government and civil society”.

Some sensitive data “cannot be collected through institutional means”, she explained, adding that departments need to work with third parties who have closer links with particular community groups.

Miller also said being able to properly disaggregate data is crucial and that the “lack of consistency with data recorded across devolved administrations” is a particular problem that needs to be addressed.

Dr Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust, also welcomed the audit, but cautioned against relying too heavily on statistics at the expense of understanding more about the narratives, the people and their lived experiences that lie behind the stats.

She said she’d like to see a cross-government inequalities reduction strategy implemented, with all departments to look at what they can do to reduce disparities.

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