PACAC chair Sir Bernard Jenkin
The UK Statistics Authority should be split into two distinct new bodies because tension between its core roles has “compromised” the organisation’s ability ensure official data serves the public good, an influential group of MPs has concluded.
A report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee said the UKSA needed to be more independent of government, particularly in a climate of growing concern about fake news.
The UKSA – which was created in 2008 – is both a regulator of departmental stats while also being responsible for the provision of official statistics through the Office of National Statistics. Until his retirement last month, John Pullinger was both UK national statistician and chief executive of the UKSA. Jonathan Athow is his interim successor.
Committee members said the government should bring forward legislation to divide the two core functions of the UKSA into new organisations. However it recognised that such a move may not be possible in the near future.
As an alternative they said that UKSA could make a start on introducing a clearer internal separation between its roles – in some cases physically separating staff.
PACAC’s report said the UKSA had not made itself sufficiently independent of the government, particularly the Treasury, and was “shying away” from its responsibility to be accountable to parliament and the public.
It cited the “continued mishandling” of errors with data underpinning the Retail Price Index inflation measure as evidence of the conflict between UKSA’s role as a statistics regulator and a statistics producer.
“For almost a decade now there has been concern about the discrepancy between UKSA’s calculation of RPI and the Treasury’s CPI (consumer price index), but UKSA has refused to account for its RPI figure,” MPs said.
“As a result of overestimated RPI, commuters face higher rail fares and students are dealt higher student loan interest rates. In January 2019 the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords reported that by failing to fix RPI, UKSA risks breaching its statutory duties.”
PACAC said UKSA had allowed what was “originally a simple mistake in price-collection of inflation data to snowball into a major unresolved issue for a decade”.
Committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin said the UKSA’s conflicting dual role had led to governance issues within the organisation that affected its ability to serve the public good and also led to it failing in its duty to properly to regulate national statistics.
“In a time of growing concern about disinformation, the public needs access to trustworthy national statistics,” he said.
“PACAC is calling for a fundamental restructure of UKSA into two separate bodies; one dedicated to providing robust, useful and freely accessible stats and an official statistics regulator with the capacity to monitor and challenge all official statistics.
“Our report is clear that if parliamentary time cannot be found to pass the necessary legislation for restructuring soon, then UKSA must take other steps to separate its two roles as soon as possible. UKSA must not miss the opportunity to build changes into its new five year strategy.”
A UKSA spokesperson said the organisation took its remit to promote and safeguard official statistics very seriously.
“The authority is reading the committee’s report with interest,” they said. “Today’s report contains a number of substantial and detailed recommendations which will require consideration from the authority’s board, the Office for Statistics Regulation, and the soon-to-be appointed national statistician.
“We will respond to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in full in due course.”
PACAC said UKSA should demonstrate more proactive, quicker responses to concerns about the accuracy and misuse of statistics and should “more clearly demonstrate its independence from key stakeholders”, when it had “significant disagreements” with producers of statistics.
MPs also said they were concerned over UKSA's difficulties in finding a successor to Pullinger, questioning whether the national statistician role could be split in a way that made succession planning easier.