NEWS18 November 2021

Better Statistics calls for greater coherence and transparency in UK data

Data analytics News UK

UK – A freer and more open data regime is the key to winning public confidence and reassuring people that their personal information will not be used for commercial purposes.


This was one of the main messages to come out of pressure group Better Statistics’ inaugural event held in Westminster yesterday. The point was made by speaker Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, who said that barriers between public and private statistics need to be broken down and called for “coherent statistics across the UK” to be made available.

Dr Stephen Brien of London-based think-tank the Legatum Institute echoed this sentiment when he referred to the differences in data among the country’s devolved governments, as each has its own way of breaking down and presenting information. He favoured a “cross-disciplinary” approach, stating “that is where the greatest new ideas will come from”, and appealed for “a solid effort to create [data] at the same level” throughout the country.

Meanwhile, Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and senior research fellow at the National Centre for Social Research, emphasised how vital it is to ensure the measurement of public opinion is done well and properly in order “to inform the development and evaluation of public policy”.

Since such policy needs public compliance, government has to be aware of the prevailing climate and mood. “A well-timed policy can be more effective that an ill-timed one”, commented Curtice, referencing the change in legislation that allowed for the creation of civil partnerships in 2005.

He then touched upon the intrinsic “value to society” of research data, which helps people to “have an understanding of the divisions [therein]”. Social media reinforces our innate tendency to interact with likeminded people, but individuals need to be “made aware of how attitudes vary, that there is difference of opinion and a need for compromise”.

In this instance, Curtice gave Brexit as an example: since most Remainers were educated, middle class citizens living in the Southeast, their opinion dominated media output, there was a lack of appreciation of other points of view and many people, therefore, were shocked by the outcome.

Lastly, Curtice contended that good data is a way to “keep politicians honest by testing the claims they make”, particularly during electoral campaigns. Voters, he said, need to have access to the correct information so they can “make an informed choice”.

Former politician Sir Vince Cable recalled that when he was business, innovation and skills secretary in the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, trends on crime could be “interpreted differently, depending on who was speaking.” However, he said he believed that the independence of the UK Statistics Authority has led to “happier times now” and he praised British statistics as “good, honest, professional and politically independent… we value integrity”.

Simon Briscoe, director of data science start-up T-tab, turned the audience’s attention to problems with the national census. He pointed out that over the past 15 years, the population has become “much harder to manage”, with lifestyle changes, commuting, the gig economy, students, the proliferation of second homes, asylum seekers and devolution all contributing to this.

Covid has put a spotlight on the accuracy of data, according to Briscoe, who specified the discrepancy between figures issued by the ONS and the NHS’s NIMS (national immunisation management service), which reveals a 10% gap in population estimates. This “needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency”, commented Briscoe, since it is vitally important in terms of formulating public policy on vaccination strategies.

Sir Andrew Watson, chair of CPRE, known as the countryside charity, provided another telling example of the importance of good statistics. He remarked on the ONS data which predicted that Coventry would grow twice as fast as Birmingham and Rugby –  a rate 163% higher than the average for the West Midlands region.

This directly led to a large tract of green belt being removed from the south of the city and, as a result, housing needs for neighbouring towns such as Warwick could not be met. In a similar vein, there was a gap of 1,000 in the projected birth rate between forecast and actual numbers. This resulted in several schools having to close because the estimated growth of 1,000 new pupils did not in fact materialise. Watson asked how it was possible to “effectively regulate the ONS if we can’t question its methodology or data sources”.

Better Statistics CIC is a social enterprise founded by Tony Dent, a statistician with more than 40 years of international market research experience, who is chairman of CMR Group and past chairman of both Sample Answers and the Alliance of International Market Research Institutes; Phyllis Macfarlane, who recently stepped down as chair of the Market Research Society and was previously managing director of GfK NOP; and Iain MacKay, currently a principal with X-MR and Computable Functions, having worked at organisations such as Neilsen Audio and Pulse Train Technology. The purpose of the group is to campaign for more reliable and readily accessible statistics, whether produced by private companies or public bodies.