Understanding exactly how COVID-19 is affecting us is the hardest job we’ve ever had writes Sir David Norgrove

Understanding exactly how COVID-19 is affecting us is the hardest job we’ve ever had writes Sir David Norgrove

Sick people, and those who care for them, struggle with COVID-19 in a very direct way, but all of us are struggling with this pandemic in different ways – and all of us want to understand it better.

This is where statisticians come into their own. Following in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, the pioneering nurse and statistician whose 200th birthday we celebrated last week, analysts in the Office for National Statistics and across the Government Statistical Service are helping to make sense of what the virus is doing to us most directly, in terms of mortality.

This isn’t easy or as quick as we would like. The most comprehensive data on deaths come from death certificates, but deaths take an average of four days to be registered.

By linking death registrations to census data, ONS has started to provide remarkable insight into the relationship of deaths to ethnicity, occupation and deprivation. Its work is the foundation for much of the analysis considered by Sage (the group of experts advising the government), and the decisions of ministers – as well as the hours spent poring over any new information by the armchair epidemiologists we have all become.

New surveys – created very quickly – are helping our understanding of how we as individuals are coping, in terms of our physical and mental health, our wellbeing and our finances, and how businesses are responding.

Perhaps most important, ONS is also conducting a random household survey of tens of thousands of people that asks both whether people have the virus now and whether they have had it in the past. This is absolutely fundamental to understanding the pandemic, and the first estimates have now been published.

Similar efforts are being made by statisticians in government departments across the UK, highlighting impacts on areas like transport and education in England and Wales. These outputs require new, often daily, data collection, and would have seemed radical only a couple of months ago. I’m reminded (in a less martial way) of the speed with which our armed forces acquired new kit at the time of the Falklands War.

As well as new outputs, there have been significant challenges with producing more regular, but no less critical, statistics on prices, unemployment, incomes and the like at a time when people can’t go into shops to check what they are charging, and businesses may have no one to answer the phone for a survey. Since the downturn in 2008, we’ve learned just how important it is to keep track of what is happening to the economy with as little delay as possible, and ONS has developed new faster indicators to help with that too.

Access to trustworthy data really matters. To be trustworthy you have to be clear what the figures do and don’t mean, and to make sure they can be found easily, and that they are easy to understand.

The authority that I chair and its regulatory arm, the Office for Statistics Regulation, have been standing up for the public’s right to clear, objective information on the pandemic. OSR has spoken out about the quality and clarity of data available to the public. It has argued for a much clearer recognition of the uncertainty around the UK estimates of deaths associated with COVID-19. It has pushed for publication of data by DWP and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. And we have urged greater clarity about data on testing, among other things.

Our founding Act of Parliament tasks us to promote and safeguard official statistics that “serve the public good”, and it is our job, now as always, to inform the public with data equally available to all.

The value of contemporary, trustworthy information is one of the stories of this convulsive experience.

Sir David Norgrove is chair of the UK Statistics Authority

This article originally appeared online on 18 May 2020.

UK Statistics Authority statement on Homelessness Statistics

The UK Statistics Authority has received complaints about the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s use of homelessness statistics on Sky News and BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday 5 December.

In both interviews, the Chancellor stated that homelessness reached its peak in 2008, under the last Labour government, and that since then it has decreased by almost half. The Conservative Party has since said that the Chancellor misremembered the statistics.

 

So, what do official statistics tell us about homelessness?

There are a range of official statistics available, to help users understand trends in homelessness. We encourage users to take a broader view of the range of available homelessness data to appreciate the full homelessness picture in England.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) publish statutory homelessness statistics. These statistics show that statutory homelessness in England peaked in 2003 before falling to a low of around 42,000 households in 2009. Between 2009 and 2017, statutory homelessness then increased from this low point to around 58,000 households.

MHCLG’s separate statistics on homelessness prevention and relief activity undertaken by local authorities show that homelessness prevention support increased steadily between 2009/10 and 2017/18, with relief activity declining slightly over that period.

Other statistics show that there has been an increasing trend in the number of households living in temporary accommodation over the last decade, and MHCLG also publish estimates of the number of people sleeping rough.

Following recommendations made by the Authority in 2015, MHCLG have been improving the UK’s suite of homelessness statistics. However, we will continue to encourage the Department to bring together a range of statistics to provide a broader overview of homelessness.

 

Notes to Editors

  1. The UK Statistics Authority is an independent body operating at arm’s length from government as a non-ministerial department, directly accountable to Parliament. It was established on 1 April 2008 by the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.
  2. The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority. OSR provides independent regulation of all official statistics produced in the UK assessed against the Code of Practice for Statistics.
  3. Up until 31 March 2018 Statutory homelessness statistics measured households which were ‘unintentionally homeless’ and in a ‘priority need’ category (such as having dependent children), where the local authority had a ‘main duty’ to secure settled accommodation, and to ensure that suitable temporary accommodation was provided until settled accommodation is available. The definition of statutory homelessness changed from 1 April 2018, when MHCLG introduced a new data collection system to coincide with the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Users cannot make direct comparisons between years before April 2018 and years following April 2018.
  4. MHCLG also publish statistics on the number of households living in temporary accommodation and the level of rough sleeping. Rough sleeping statistics provide a snapshot estimate of the number of rough sleepers on one night between October and November each year.
  5. Prior to the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act, MHCLG had also published statistics on prevention and relief activities undertaken in local authorities.
  6. For more information please contact the Authority press office on 07810 657 788 or the OSR press office on 020 7592 8659.

UK Statistics Authority statement on school funding information in Labour and Conservative manifestos

Statistics on school funding have been a contested area over the past year and in the current general election campaign. Two party manifestos have repeated earlier claims on which the UK Statistics Authority has already commented.

The Labour Party manifesto states that “83% of schools [are] still facing cuts next year.” When the UK Statistics Authority considered an earlier version of this claim by the National Education Union we found a number of issues with its presentation. Most significantly, the calculation is a comparison between 2015/16 and 2020/21. It does not refer specifically to changes due to occur next year. Following discussion with the Office for Statistics Regulation in January, the Union made changes to their School Cuts website to explain the methodology. Without this context, the headline statement is likely to give an unclear impression of future changes in school budgets.

The Conservative Party manifesto refers to past announcements of increased funding for schools in England. The section about investing in schools includes the statement that there will be “an extra £14 billion funding for schools”.  In October 2019, the Office for Statistics Regulation pointed out in a statement that this figure is calculated by adding together and then rounding increases across three years. The figure is not adjusted for inflation and represents the total increase in expenditure in cash terms across these years. In October, we therefore emphasised the need for clarity on what the figures represent. The manifesto fails to provide this clarity. The manifesto introduction mentions a time frame when referring to this increase, however when explaining changes in school funding dates or baselines are not given. The manifesto also translates the figure into a per week basis. The basis for the per week calculation is unclear.

Following the Office for Statistics Regulation’s previous work in this area, the Authority is encouraged by the Department for Education’s announcement that it will be publishing new summary statistics on school funding in January 2020.

 

Notes to editors

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority. OSR provides independent regulation of all official statistics produced in the UK assessed against the Code of Practice for Statistics.

For more information please contact the Authority press office on 07810 657 788 or the OSR press office on 020 7592 8659.

UK Statistics Authority statement on Scottish Government’s use of the Labour Force Survey

Concerns have been raised with the Authority about the Scottish Government’s choice to highlight Labour Force Survey (LFS) estimates of the youth unemployment rate, rather than the more reliable Annual Population Survey (APS) estimates, in its recent Labour Market Key Findings report.

Data from the LFS at this level of detail are not considered reliable, and are not classed as National Statistics. The APS is the more reliable data source for estimates of youth unemployment, due to its larger sample size, particularly when considering a breakdown by age and country within the UK. It would be helpful to make this clear both in the summary published by the Scottish Government and any related use of the estimates, including on social media.

We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to working with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to improve the presentation of youth unemployment rates in Scotland, and its wish to consider whether it is appropriate to continue publishing estimates based on the LFS.

 

Notes to editors:

Official statistics assessed as fully compliant with the Code of Practice for Statistics are given National Statistics status. The National Statistics designation indicates that the statistics meet the highest standards of trustworthiness, quality and value .

The Scottish Government’s Labour Market Key Findings report is available here.

The ONS Regional Statistics release, which Scottish Government drew from in their report, can be found here. The APS data used can be found here along with the LFS official statistics data used here.

In this report, youth unemployment refers to those aged 16 to 24.

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority. We provide independent regulation of all official statistics produced in the UK assessed against the Code of Practice for Statistics.

For more information please contact the Authority press office on 07810 657 788 or the OSR press office on 020 7592 8659.

UK Statistics Authority Safeguards Statistics

The UK Statistics Authority has today published its Annual Review of Casework.

Making public statements about the dissemination and use of statistics has been an important part of the Authority’s work since it began. In this work, the Authority is guided by its statutory objective to promote and safeguard official statistics.

The Office for Statistics Regulation investigates all cases reported to the Authority by members of the public, politicians, the media and third sector-organisations, as well as issues we identify ourselves.

This year’s annual review finds:

  • Although the number of cases investigated by the Authority has risen, there have been fewer cases in which we have identified a clear misuse of statistics;
  • Across some themes, including economic statistics, we are seeing fewer concerns raised about statistics production, suggesting improving trust in official data;
  • There continues to be concern about the production of health and social care statistics; and
  • Over the course of the year we have seen an emergence in concerns raised regarding education funding data.

Commenting on the publication of this annual review Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said:

“This year the public, politicians and the media all played their part in raising cases with the UK Statistics Authority about the use and dissemination of statistics. But what we have found – and this may surprise some – is that the blatant misuse of statistics among politicians and members of the media is really quite rare.

“Of course we are looking carefully at those instances in which concerns persist. Reflecting on our casework, as well as our wider knowledge, the UK Statistics Authority will continue to think carefully about how it can improve the UK’s evidence base, including in important areas such as health and social care, and education funding.”

Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation, added:

“Casework is an extremely important element of our daily regulatory business and this report highlights the key issues we have identified proactively and reactively to independently stand up for statistics as a public asset. The Office for Statistics Regulation remains dedicated to enhancing public confidence in the trustworthiness, quality and value of statistics as set out by the Code of Practice, celebrating when the standards are upheld and challenging publicly when they are not.”

 

See also:

Annual Review of Authority Casework, 2017 to 2018

UK Statistics Authority Statement on the future of the RPI

The Advisory Panel on Consumer Prices provided advice to the National Statistician on the composition of the Retail Prices Index (RPI) in light of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report Measuring Inflation, published in January 2019.

Taking account of that advice, the then National Statistician concluded that the current position was unsatisfactory and put options for the future of the RPI to the UK Statistics Authority Board on 26 February 2019.

After receiving this advice, Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote on behalf of the Board to the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer on 4 March 2019 with the following recommendations:

  • that the publication of the RPI be stopped at a point in future; and
  • in the interim, the shortcomings of the RPI should be addressed by bringing the methods of the CPIH into it.

Today the Chancellor has announced his intention to consult on whether to bring the methods in CPIH into RPI between 2025 and 2030, effectively aligning the measures. The UK Statistics Authority will consult on the method of making this change.

Speaking today, Sir David said:

“The role of the UK Statistics Authority is to promote and safeguard official statistics.

“We have been clear that the RPI is not a good measure, at times significantly overestimating inflation and at other times underestimating it, and have consistently urged all – in Government and the private sector – to stop using it. However, the RPI is unique as we need consent from the Chancellor to make certain changes, such as the one we have proposed.

“Although we regret that no change will occur before 2025, we welcome the Chancellor’s intention to consult on resolving current issues with the RPI.

“We continue to urge the Government and others to cease to use the RPI. It would be wrong for the Government to continue to use a measure of inflation which it itself accepts is flawed, where it has the opportunity to change.”


 

Notes to Editors

  1. Under Section 21 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, before making any change to the coverage or the basic calculation of the RPI, the UK Statistics Authority must consult the Bank of England. Where proposed changes to the RPI are deemed material and detrimental to relevant gilt holders by the Bank of England, changes cannot be made without the consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
  2. Under Section 21, Sir David Norgrove wrote to the Governor of the Bank of England on 18 February and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 4 March, proposing:
    1. that the publication of the RPI be stopped at a point in future; and
    2. in the interim, that shortcomings of the RPI be addressed, by bringing the methods of the CPIH into the index.
  3. His letters drew both on the formal advice of the UK’s National Statistician, and on the advice of the National Statistician’s Advisory Panel on Consumer Prices.
  4. The Bank of England responded on 4 March to confirm changes proposed were material and detrimental to holders of relevant gilts.
  5. Following the appointment of a new Chancellor, Sir David Norgrove wrote to the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP on 30 July 2019, highlighting the importance of the issue and the need to resolve at the earliest practical occasion.
  6. The Chancellor responded to the UK Statistics Authority’s proposals on 4 September 2019. In his response, the Chancellor announced his intention to consult on the timing of when to bring the methods in CPIH into RPI, effectively aligning the measures, to give users time to prepare for the many complex effects such a change will have.
  7. Sir David has responded to the Chancellor welcoming the intention to consult, while expressing regret that no change will occur before 2025.  He has also urged users to cease using the RPI.
  8. In 2030 the requirement for the Authority to consult the Chancellor before making changes to the coverage or calculation of the RPI falls away.
  9. While the current Authority Board cannot commit its successors, the statistical weaknesses of the RPI make it unlikely that the Authority would take a different view from our recommendations in 2030
  10. The Authority has also published its response to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.

 

 

UK Statistics Authority – PACAC Report Response

Responding to the publication of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) report “Governance of official statistics: redefining the dual role of the UK Statistics Authority; and re-evaluating the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007” an Authority spokesperson said:

“The UK Statistics Authority was established as an independent body and we take very seriously our responsibility to promote and safeguard official statistics. We are pleased that the committee acknowledged the significant improvements we have made to build and maintain trust in official statistics, our unique role and the day to day challenges we face in our work.

“The Authority is reading the Committee’s report with interest. 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.”

 

Public confidence in official statistics remains high

Trust in official statistics remains high, according to the latest Public Confidence in Official Statistics report, produced by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) on behalf of the UK Statistics Authority.

The report found that 85% of people who gave a view trusted the statistics produced by ONS, with nearly three in four people agreeing they were produced without any political interference. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of respondents (24%) said they had used figures produced from the ONS.

However, while trust in the ONS and other public bodies – such as the Courts, Civil Service and Bank of England – was high, at or above 80%, trust in Parliament (46%), government (41%) and the media (19%) were all substantially lower.

In addition, the biggest reason given (by 24% of respondents) for not trusting ONS figures was that they may have been misused by politicians or the media. However, this figure has fallen from 31% in 2016.

There was also an increase in those who believe the Government and media use official figures honestly, rising from 26% in 2016 to 31% in 2018 and 18% to 23% in 2018, respectively.

 

Commenting on the findings, National Statistician John Pullinger said:

“It’s encouraging to see trust in the ONS and its statistics holding up well.

“Increased confidence in both the news media and political figures to present statistics fairly – albeit from a much lower base – also provides some grounds for optimism. We need to build on this until the misuse and distortion of trustworthy statistics becomes not only infrequent but socially unacceptable.”

 

Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation, said:

“It is incredibly important that public confidence in official statistics remains high. These statistics are part of the lifeblood of democracy.

Public confidence depends on the trustworthiness, quality and value of the statistics. That’s why OSR will continue to uphold these pillars of the Code of Practice”

 

Notes to Editors

The National Centre for Social Research, Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

The Office for National Statistics produces the numbers that matter most– on the economy and business, people, population and communities. Operating impartially and free of political control, we are mobilising the power of data to help Britain make better decisions and improve lives.

To arrange broadcast or print interviews, please contact ONS Media Relations on 0845 604 1858 or 0203 684 5070 or email Media.Relations@ons.gov.uk

Preparing the UK statistical system for a no-deal EU exit

UPDATED

A further statement was made by the National Statistician on UK Statistics as we leave the EU on 31 January 2020.

 

As a responsible body, the UK Statistics Authority is preparing the UK statistical system for a range of EU exit scenarios. As we near March 2019, we – along with many other Government departments – need to set in motion our precautionary no-deal plan.

A draft statutory instrument has now been laid before Parliament, which prepares the UK statistical system for a possible no-deal scenario. It revokes a range of EU laws relating to statistics, which currently oblige the UK to undertake specific statistical activity, and to transmit data to Europe.

We are fortunate in the UK, to have a well-established and robust legal domestic framework. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (SRSA) underpins the UK’s independent statistical system, steers and regulates the production of UK statistics, and ensures they are free from political influence and other bias. It has promoted and safeguarded the UK’s official statistics for over a decade.

Regardless of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, the UK statistical system will continue to collect, regulate and disseminate statistics under this domestic framework. The Code of Practice for Statistics will continue to safeguard the comparability and continuity of statistics, and producers will continue to work with decision-makers to make sure they have the data they need.

Furthermore, we remain strongly committed to co-operating closely with our colleagues in National Statistical Institutes and other producers of statistics across the EU and beyond to produce high-quality statistics, analysis and advice for the public good.

An Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the Instrument is available.

John Pullinger
National Statistician

Chair of UK Statistics Authority expresses concern about “widespread use” of Retail Prices Index (RPI)

Speaking today, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority Sir David Norgrove said:

“The RPI is a poor measure of inflation, and today’s publication by the ONS highlights its many problems.

“With this strong evidence for the deficiencies of the RPI, I remain concerned by its widespread use. If people want to measure changing prices they should use other indices such as the CPI or CPIH, which do not suffer the technical weaknesses of the RPI.” 

Notes for editors:

  1. Sir David is the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, a non-Ministerial Department responsible for “promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics.”
  2. Sir David’s comments follow the publication of a new report, by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the shortcomings of the RPI.
  3. For questions about Sir David’s statement, please contact the UK Statistics Authority press office, on 07818 011 583.
  4. For questions about ONS’s report, please contact ONS on 01633 456 589.