Thank you, Minister, for that welcome and your remarks. On behalf of the UK Statistics Authority may I say how pleased we are to have been invited to this event which recognises, at this early stage in our existence, the role the Authority will want, and be expected, to play in the development of official statistics in Scotland.
As our name indicates, the Authority has a UK-wide remit – and it is to be warmly welcomed that the Scottish Parliament and Government decided last year that all the provisions of the Statistics and Registration Service Act – which established the Authority – should apply in Scotland. It is the use of statistics, not the collection of them, that delivers public value; and the user would not thank us if the various collectors of statistics were unwilling to work together.
The so-called ‘four-country’ environment in which the Authority will operate is quite complex – with responsibility for many official statistics devolved, whilst responsibility for others – such as benefit statistics and some labour market statistics – are still the responsibility of Whitehall departments.
I believe that Scottish users of statistics, be they in the Parliament, Government, public services or elsewhere, need a well organised and co-ordinated service which must, of necessity, straddle administrative borders. So the public bodies that produce statistics – and there are a lot of such bodies – must work together, at least as much in the interests of supporting users and decision-making in Scotland as in supporting those whose interests are focused elsewhere.
In this respect there are no self-contained islands in the world of official statistics. We see the same argument applying at the European level. Of course each country must produce the statistics it needs; but the case for common standards and cooperation is often strong, regardless of whether ones focus is local or international.
The Authority’s objective is to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. This concept of “serving the public good” will be our guiding principle. In short, the Authority believes the public good must be defined in terms of a well-founded, well-researched understanding of the needs of users of official statistics – those people who decisions or actions will be influenced by statistical information.
Whilst some of those users of statistics will, and do, argue passionately for greater harmonisation of statistical practice across the administrations of the United Kingdom, and indeed beyond, others will, and do, argue for figures that focus on local issues and are tuned to local circumstances. The Statistics Authority will be concerned to explore with care the case for further harmonisation between the administrations, looking to achieve as much consistency and coherence between the statistics of all four countries as it is possible to achieve. Any change in this regard must be justified by clear user needs.
User needs will also be at the heart of National Statistics Assessment function (a statutory kite mark if you wish to think of it as such), which will be the Authority’s principal tool in underwriting the quality of official statistics wherever they are produced in the UK. Our assessment findings will be reported to this Parliament (Scotland) as well as the others. Our reports will not hesitate to draw attention to areas of weakness and propose improvements – but I hope we will always do so in a spirit of a shared objective for supporting good administration and public accountability. The Scottish Parliament’s role in scrutinising our findings and, where appropriate, challenging the bodies that produce the statistics, will be critical in building an ever stronger statistical service.
In fulfilling our responsibilities to statistical users, the Authority recognises that our duties are two-fold with regard to official statistics relating to Scotland.
First, we have a duty to assess the statistical outputs that are produced by Scottish bodies, to ensure they are of sufficient quality to warrant user trust.
Second we have an equal obligation to assess statistics relating to Scotland produced in Whitehall or elsewhere to ensure they meet user needs, not least the needs of users in Scotland.
To help us make this a reality, I am pleased to announce that the Authority will have an Assessment team based in Edinburgh. Their duties will not be restricted to Scottish statistical issues and neither will they be the only staff of the Authority to look at those issues, but I can say that no Scottish statistical question will be considered without their involvement.
The Statistics & Registration Services Act allows for the Scottish Government to determine its own policies with regard to such matters as pre-release access to statistics. However, while the Authority recognises the need, in certain instances, for specific local solutions to local issues we are also seeking to agree certain minimum uniform standards across the whole of UK statistics. These will be reflected in the Code of Practice for National Statistics that will be introduced in the next few months. The Authority will meet tomorrow here in Edinburgh to sign-off the consultation document on the Code of Practice which will then be published and we hope to finalise it towards the end of this year. I would encourage all who care about statistics to cast an eye over the revised Code – it is quite short – and let us know what you think. We will be very open to suggestions on how to improve it.
All the members of Statistics Authority are very aware that we have to prove that we can be a force for steadily improving the statistical service and equally, improving public trust in that service. We look forward to working with the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government and Scottish users of statistics to do precisely that.