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Office for National Statistics

Office for National Statistics
(Welsh: Swyddfa Ystadegau Gwladol)
Non-ministerial government department overview
Formed 1 April 1996 (1996-04-01)
Preceding agencies Central Statistical Office
Office of Population Censuses and Surveys
Jurisdiction United Kingdom
Headquarters Government Buildings, Cardiff Road, Newport NP10 8XG
Employees 3,302 (including UK Statistics Authority)
Annual budget £206.5 million (2009–2010)[1] (including UK Statistics Authority)
Non-ministerial government department executive Glen Watson, Director General
Parent Non-ministerial government department UK Statistics Authority

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority, a non-ministerial department which reports directly to the Parliament of the United Kingdom.


  • Overview 1
  • History 2
  • Purpose and scope 3
    • Applications of data 3.1
  • Independence 4
  • Heads of the Office: National Statistician 5
  • Work of the ONS 6
    • Data collection 6.1
    • Former departments 6.2
    • The Blue Book 6.3
    • Education of Statisticians 6.4
  • Office Locations 7
    • Former Headquarters 7.1
    • Gradual move of functions to South Wales 7.2
  • Criticism of the ONS 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


It is charged with the collection and publication of statistics related to the economy, population and society of England and Wales at national, regional and local levels. It functions as the executive office of the National Statistician, who is also the UK Statistics Authority's Chief Executive and principal statistical adviser to the UK's National Statistics Institute[2] and the 'Head Office' of the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Its main office is in Newport near the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office and Tredegar House, but another significant office is in Titchfield in Hampshire, and a small office is in London. ONS co-ordinates data collection with the respective bodies in Northern Ireland and Scotland, namely NISRA and NRS.


The ONS was formed on 1 April 1996 by the merger of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS).[3] Following the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority became a non-ministerial department on 1 April 2008.[4]

Purpose and scope

ONS produces and publishes a wide range of the information about Britain that can be used for social and economic policy-making as well as painting a portrait of the country as its population evolves over time. This is often produced in ways that make comparison with other societies and economies possible. Much of the data on which policy-makers depend is produced by ONS through a combination of a decennial population census, samples and surveys and analysis of data generated by businesses and organisations such as the National Health Service and the register of births, marriages and deaths. Both its publications and its publicly available raw data, available free, are reported and discussed daily in the media as the basis for the public understanding of the country in which they live.

Applications of data

The reliance on some of these data by government (both local and national) makes ONS material central to debates about the determination of priorities, the allocation of resources and for decisions on interest rates or borrowing. The complexity and degree and speed of change in the society, combined with the challenge of measuring some of these (e.g. in relation to longevity, migration or illness patterns or fine movements in inflation or other aspects of national accounts) give rise to periodic debates about some of its indicators and portrayals. Many of these rely on sources which are outside of ONS, while some of its own sources need to be supplemented, for example between censuses, by updated but less rigorously obtained information from other sources. Consequently, unexpected or incomplete data or occasional errors or disputes about its analysis can also attract considerable attention.

ONS data can also be used in epidemiologic studies such as survival analysis.


Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced on 28 November 2005,[5] that the government intended to publish plans in early 2006 to legislate to render the ONS and the statistics it generates independent of government on a model based on the independence of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England.[6] This was originally a 1997 Labour manifesto commitment[7] and was also the policy of the Liberal Democrat[8] and Conservative[9] parties. Such independence was also sought by the Royal Statistical Society[10] and the Statistics Commission.[11] The National Statistician would be directly accountable to Parliament through a more widely constituted independent governing Statistics Board.[12] The ONS would be a non-ministerial government department so that the staff, including the Director, would remain as civil servants but without being under direct ministerial control.[13] The National Statistician, Dame Karen Dunnell, stated that legislation would help improve public trust in official statistics[14] although the ONS already acts independently according to its own published guidelines, the National Statistics Code of Practice,[15] which sets out the key principles and standards that official statisticians, including those in other parts of the government statistical service, are expected to follow and uphold.

The details of the plans for independence were considered in Parliament during the 2006/2007 session and resulted in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.[16] In July 2007, Sir Michael Scholar was nominated by the government to be the three-day-a-week non-executive chairman of the Statistics Board which, to re-establish faith in the integrity of government statistics, will take on statutory responsibility for oversight of UK statistics in April 2008 and oversee the Office for National Statistics. It will also have a duty to assess all UK government statistics. Following Gordon Brown's announcement of new constitutional arrangements for public appointments, Sir Michael also became, on 18 July, the first such nominee to appear before the House of Commons Treasury Committee and to have his nomination subject to confirmation by the House.[17] On 7 February 2008, following the first meeting of the shadow board, it was announced that it will be known as the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).

The non-executive chairman is Andrew Dilnot CBE. Six other non-executive members were appointed in open competition: Professor Sir Adrian Smith FRS, deputy chairman responsible for governance of the Office for National Statistics, Professor David Rhind CBE FRS FBA, deputy chairman with responsibility for oversight of the UK official statistics system, Dr Colette Bowe, Partha Dasgupta, Dame Moira Gibb CBE, Dr David Levy. The executive members are Jil Matheson (national statistician), Richard Alldritt (head of assessment) and Glen Watson (director general, Office for National Statistics).

Heads of the Office: National Statistician

Directors are de facto Permanent Secretaries but do not use that title. As the ONS previously incorporated the OPCS, the Director was also the Registrar General for England and Wales, although the recent changes saw the transfer of this function away from the ONS. In addition, he or she is ex officio the Head of the Government Statistical Service. The first Director of ONS was Professor Tim Holt. Subsequent Directors have had an additional title, the National Statistician. The second Director was Len Cook. He was succeeded by Karen Dunnell on 1 September 2005,[18] then Jil Matheson in September 2009. Following the implementation of the Statistics & Registration Service Act, the General Register Office continues to be part of a ministerially accountable department and became a part of the Home Office. The title of Registrar-General moved with it and is no longer held by the National Statistician.

Work of the ONS

Where data is broken down by geographical area, this is usually done by the areas defined in the ONS geographical coding system.

Data collection

The principal areas of data collection include:

  • Agriculture and Environment
  • Business and Energy
  • Children, Education and Skills
  • Crime and Justice
  • Economy
  • Government
  • Health and Social Care
  • Labour Market
  • People and Places
  • Population
  • Travel and Transport

Statisticians are also employed by many other Government departments and agencies, and these statisticians often collect and publish data. They are members of the Government Statistical Service and are the professional responsibility of the head of the service, who is also the National Statistician. Each department has a statistical service Head of Profession. For example, data on Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry comes primarily from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Along with economic data on which the Treasury and Bank of England rely for decision-making, many of the statistics that receive widespread media attention are issued by the Home Office, the Department of Health, and the Department for Education and Skills. ONS is also responsible for the maintenance of the Inter-Departmental Business Register and the Business Structure Database.[19]

Former departments

Prior to the establishment of the UK Statistics Authority, the statistical work of ONS, since June 2000, was scrutinised by the Statistics Commission, an independent body with its own chairman and small staff. This ceased to operate from 1 April 2008. The General Register Office and the post of Registrar-General for England & Wales ceased to be part of ONS from that date but remains subject to ministerial accountability within the Home Office.

The Blue Book

The annual United Kingdom National Accounts are published in an online publication (The Blue Book[20]) by the Office for National Statistics. It records and describes economic activity in the United Kingdom and as such is used by government, banks, academics and industries to formulate the economic and social policies and monitor the economic progress of the United Kingdom. It also allows international comparisons to be made. The Blue Book is published alongside the United Kingdom Balance of Payments – The Pink Book.[21]

Education of Statisticians

The Office for National Statistics collaborates with the University of Southampton in the teaching of a MSc in Official Statistics, the programme has been running since 2003.[22]

Office Locations

The ONS has a head office in the city of Newport, South Wales, and other offices in Pimlico in London and Titchfield in Hampshire.[23] The Family Records Centre in Myddelton Street in Islington, London, moved to the National Archives in Kew in 2008.[24] They also have an Archive Storage site located in Christchurch, Dorset.[25]

Former Headquarters

The London (Pimlico) office was the head office until April 2006 when the corporate headquarters was moved to Newport[26] following the Lyons Review[27] on public sector relocation. Since May 2011 the London office has been located on the 2nd floor of the former Drummond Gate headquarters and houses the methodology consultancy service, the virtual microdata laboratory and media briefings.[28]

Gradual move of functions to South Wales

The ONS asserts that recruitment and training of quality staff in South Wales, where data collection and analysis already takes place, will ensure that there is no risk to the quality of its services and that it is managing the risks associated with the changes which it is implementing in a planned and gradual way.[29] However the plan to discontinue all remaining statistical activity in London is proving controversial amid claims that the shift of functions from London and the impending closure of the London office could have serious implications for the future of certain particular sets of statistics. These include health statistics, National Accounts, Retail and Consumer Prices and Labour Market Statistics. These risks derive from the fact that few of the experienced staff working in these highly technical areas are expected to be willing to relocate to Newport, resulting in a substantial loss of expertise and a consequent threat to the continued quality of the statistics.[30] In a submission to the Parliamentary Treasury Sub Committee, the Bank of England too has expressed concern over the relocation of the ONS to Newport, saying, that "the relocation programme poses serious risks to the maintenance of the quality of macroeconomic data. If substantial numbers of ONS staff are unwilling to relocate, the loss of skilled individuals could have a severe impact on a range of statistics."[31][32] The director of ONS has vigorously defended ONS implementation of government policy on civil service relocation and the decision to concentrate staff in the three locations outside London.[33]

Criticism of the ONS

Occasional errors and revisions account for some past criticism, while the allocation of OECD and international statistical guidelines according to who carries the risk) has attracted political attention. Many of the most controversial topics for statistics issued by government do not come from the ONS though they are expected to meet National Statistics standards. Crime statistics, and other data (e.g. health and education) that could be deemed to assess the effectiveness of government policies, often attract media scepticism. The compulsory nature of the census (unlike most other surveys by academics and market researchers) differentiates the ONS from other data collectors (apart from HM Revenue and Customs).

The Office for National Statistics won the 2004 Privacy International for its Citizen Information Project. The project is one of several that lead the Information Commissioner to warn that there is a danger of the country "sleepwalking" into a surveillance society.[34]

There has also been criticism of the ONS and of the government for its pursuit of government policies for modernisation and for relocation to sites outside London. It performs most of its functions from the two sites in Newport and Titchfield while reducing its London operation to one small location.

Len Cook, one National Statistician, described himself as the country's most abused civil servant.[35]

In December 2012 the organisation's new website to provide statistics to the public was described as "a disaster" by members of parliament on the Public Administration Committee. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority said that significant improvements to the website were being made, but admitted that its state at the time made it "difficult to use, difficult to navigate and difficult to search".[36]

See also


  1. ^ UK Statistics Authority Resource Accounts 2009–2010, UK Statistics Authority, 26 July 2010, retrieved 19 December 2010 
  2. ^ 'National Statistics Institute' and NSI are a standard expression and its acronym used about statistical services in OECD & EU terminology
  3. ^ John Pullinger (1997) "The Creation of the Office for National Statistics", International Statistical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3, pp. 291–308
  4. ^ The Statistics Act: Office for National Statistics
  5. ^ Statement to the House of Commons on the review of the Framework for National Statistics, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 28 November 2005.
  6. ^ Budget Statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 22 March 2006
  7. ^ Labour Party Manifesto, General Election 1997, Keele University website.
  8. ^ Liberal Democrats Manifesto General Election 2005.
  9. ^ "Let Parliament appoint new UK statistics chief", press release from Conservative Party website.
  10. ^ "A Vision for National Statistics", Royal Statistical Society.
  11. ^ "Legislation to build trust in statistics", a report by the Statistics Commission.
  12. ^ "Statistics And Registration Service Bill", House of Commons Explanatory Note to the Bill, para. 7–8. Retrieved 10 June 2007.
  13. ^ "Statistics And Registration Service Bill", House of Commons Explanatory Note to the Bill, para. 42. Retrieved 10 June 2007.
  14. ^ "National Statistician welcomes Statistics and Registration Service Bill", news release from ONS website.
  15. ^ "National Statistics Code of Practice" ONS website
  16. ^ "Statistics and Registration Service Bill", progress of the Bill through the UK Parliament from Parliament website.
  17. ^ "Whitehall veteran in frame for statistics chief post", Financial Times, 18 July 2007.
  18. ^ "National Statistician – Director Office for National Statistics", 10 Downing Street press notice, 4 August 2005. Retrieved 9 June 2007.
  19. ^ "Executive Summary UK Company Statistics Reconciliation Project" (PDF). Retrieved 27 February 2014. 
  20. ^ "United Kingdom National Accounts – The Blue Book". 
  21. ^ "The United Kingdom Balance of Payments – The Pink Book.". 
  22. ^ "MSc in Official Statistics, University of Southampton". Retrieved 27 February 2014. 
  23. ^ Office for National Statistics: location maps, Retrieved 24 June 2011.
  24. ^ The National Archives: Closure of The National Archives' services at the Family Records Centre,, retrieved 24 June 2011.
  25. ^ UK Government properties database, Retrieved 7 June 2014
  26. ^ "Newport to be ONS headquarters", National Statistics news release, 20 September 2004. Retrieved 9 June 2007.
  27. ^ "The Lyons Review: Independent Review of public sector relocation", HM Treasury website.
  28. ^ ONS moves to new London office, ONS press release, 16 May 2011.
  29. ^ "Stats staff 'quitting' over move", news report from the BBC website, 14 May 2007.
  30. ^ Debate on the Statistics and Registration Service Bill in the House of Lords, 24 April 2007, Hansard, Column 597.
  31. ^ "Bank of England comments on recent ONS performance", a submission made by the Bank of England to the Treasury Sub-Committee inquiry into progress on the efficiency programme in the Chancellor's departments, May 2007.
  32. ^ "Bank warns on ONS move to Wales", news report from the BBC website, 10 May 2007.
  33. ^ "Statistics officers get the measure of relocation", article by Karen Dunnell, Financial Times, 4 June 2007. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  34. ^ "Beware rise of Big Brother state, warns data watchdog", The Times, 16 August 2004.
  35. ^ Minutes of evidence given before the Select Committee on Treasury, 30 October 2002.
  36. ^ Parnell, Brid-Aine (13 December 2012). "Shiny new stats website a 'disaster' – MPs". The Register. Retrieved 21 March 2013. 

External links

  • Office for National Statistics – official site
  • UK Statistics Authority
  • The National Statistics Publication Hub
  • Statistics and Registration Service Bill, Treasury website.
  • Statistics and Registration Service Bill, Parliament website.
  • Palgrave Macmillan, official publisher for the Office for National Statistics
  • A Brief History of the ONS
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