I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The main purposes of the Bill are to implement the new institutional structure of the CSO, including putting both the CSO and the National Statistics Board on a statutory basis; to give the office new co-ordination powers in relation to the statistics of public authorities; to provide for the voluntary and compulsory collection of data; to reinforce the confidentiality provisions while allowing access to non-identifiable data for research purposes; to allow public access to census of population records after 100 years, and to increase the existing penalties to more realistic levels.
I am confident that this Bill will provide the appropriate legislative basis for the collection and compilation of official statistics. The Bill will, when enacted, increase the effectiveness of the CSO in providing for statistical information needs. This will be of considerable benefit to the Government, the EC, researchers, economists, to the industrial, agricultural and service sectors of the economy, to statistical users generally, and to the public at large.
I am sure we all appreciate the important role that statistics play in the democratic process. Our society is becoming increasingly complex, both from the social and from the economic perspectives. In the information age in which we live, it is more important than ever that the Government, the EC, the Oireachtas, businesses, trade unions and other representative bodies, researchers, the media and the public at large have access to accurate, comprehensive and timely data. This information is crucial in particular for policy makers at all levels to enable them to discharge their functions.
The main source of official statistics in this country is the Central Statistics Office, or CSO, which was established in 1949 as a separate office under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach. It currently operates under the provisions of the Statistics Acts, 1926 and 1946.
When the public think of the CSO, they usually associate it with the census of population, the consumer price index or the live register. However, the office produces a much wider range of statistics on most aspects of economic and social life, including agriculture, transport, industry, building and construction, the public sector, trade, tourism, health and social conditions. The information is regularly disseminated in releases and publications, and increasingly in electronic form, such as on diskettes, magnetic tapes and Minitel.
There have been changes over the years in the methods of processing statistics. The CSO was one of the first users of computers in this country, having been involved with information technology for over 30 years. The use of this technology has increased considerably, particularly in 1986 when the CSO's extensive on-line computer network was developed. All of the office's surveys are now processed with the aid of computers. This has resulted in savings and improvements in the processing, tabulation and dissemination of statistics. The office will, as a central objective, continue to keep abreast of the latest developments in information technology.
Since 1973, the CSO has been part of the EC statistical system and is required to compile statistics to the same standard, timeliness and detail as other member states. Increased EC integration, following from the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, are resulting in further expansions in Community statistical requirements.
I will now refer briefly to the important provisions in the Bill. Section 12 provides for the appointment of the director general by the President on the nomination of the Taoiseach. The purpose of this is to reinforce the statistical independence and objectivity of the post. This independence is a standard provision internationally, and is in line with the 1985 Government White Paper which stated that:
The full independence and objectivity of the office in the compilation and publication of statistics will be maintained, made more explicit and further protected by statute.
This legislation will establish the National Statistics Board on a statutory basis in accordance with the provisions of section 18. There will be eight members in all: five members of proven ability and experience in relevant fields, one of whom shall chair the board; an assistant secretary or higher grade from each of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance, and the director general who shall be a member ex officio.
The National Statistics Board was, in fact, established on an interim non-statutory basis in 1986 with the primary function of guiding the strategic direction of the office. The functions set out in the Bill have, indeed, already been fulfilled by the board since its inception.
The CSO will, together with the board, maintain close and regular contact with the users and suppliers of statistics. The office already keeps in close contact with the principal users of statistics, such as Government Departments, the EC, research bodies and economists. It is also in direct contact with the large number of business firms that provide data on a regular basis. There were also intensive consultations with the main statistical users and data providers for the preparation of the National Statistics Board's strategic plans, involving correspondence with over 200 undertakings and individuals, as well as seminars and specialist liaison groups.
The board has produced two five-year strategic plans. The first covered the period 1988-92 and has been successfully completed. The second relates to the period 1993-97, which was recently accepted by the Government and will be published shortly. It is designed to meet statistical priorities for the next five years, and was prepared after very detailed consultation with the principal users and suppliers of statistics.
The Bill, in setting out the functions of the CSO, includes provisions relating to the co-ordination of statistics vis-á-vis public authorities. This co-ordination role is a particularly important aspect of the Bill, and was one of the principal features of the Government White Paper.
With increasing computerisation, many public authorities now have comprehensive data bases which are potentially rich sources of statistical information. In addition, the use of such sources for statistical purposes would avoid duplicating requests for the same data and the high cost of direct statistical inquiries. It is one of the principal objectives of this Bill that such sources are fully utilised.
The CSO already extensively uses data from administrative sources. This occurs, for example, in the case of national accounts, external trade, registered unemployment — the live register, motor registrations, planning permissions and in the use of birth, death and marriage registrations for compiling vital statistics. It is quite clear, however, that much more can be achieved in this area.
The CSO will have the authority to assess the statistical potential of administrative records and to ensure that this potential is realised in collaboration with the responsible authorities. This is a priority objective of all national statistical services and is in line with the Government policy of reducing the data demands on businesses.
The co-operation provisions of the Bill will have the effect of strengthening the existing links between the office and other public authorities. In giving the director general the statutory authority for assessing and developing the statistical potential of administrative records, the Bill explicitly recognises that this authority relates only to developments that are appropriate and practicable, and that public authorities shall comply only in so far as resources permit. The section also places an onus on public authorities to consult the director general when they propose to conduct a statistical survey or to introduce, revise or expand an administrative data base. This is important because the statistical dimension must be taken into account at the design stage of any new or revised computerised administrative system.
An important part of the Bill relates to the protection of information. The Bill defines the term "Officer of Statistics" to include, inter alia, all staff of the CSO. Each such officer will have to sign a formal declaration binding him or her to the confidentiality obligations in this legislation. The statutory guarantee in the Bill that all data obtained by the CSO will be used solely for statistical purposes and be treated as strictly confidential is essential to ensure high response rates and the provision of accurate details. This is standard practice internationally, and the existing national statistical legislation is also very strict in this regard.
An important change to existing legislation is provided for in section 34. This will allow the CSO to provide "public use data tapes" containing completely non-identifiable individual data to persons outside the CSO for the purposes of statistical analysis. This is not possible under the 1926 Act which provides that individual data, even if non-identifiable, cannot be divulged. This is a standard practice in many countries, and it has frequently been requested by Irish research workers. Research workers understandably wish to work independently on the raw data. This will now be permissible provided that the units to which the data relate cannot be identified.
Another major change to existing legislation is provided for in section 35. This will allow public access to the forms completed in the censuses of population since 1926, but only 100 years after the date of the relevant census. These forms will be valuable for genealogical and social research. Public access to census of population records after a lengthy period is the practice in a number of countries; in the UK, for example, the 100-year rule also applies. The lengthy period is required to protect the confidentiality of particulars provided by people while they are still living, and to ensure the continued very high response by the public to censuses of population in this country.
In conclusion, the purpose of the Bill is to implement the provisions of the Government White Paper A New Institutional Structure for the Central Statistics Office, which was published in 1985, and to update the legislative basis for the collection and compilation of official statistics. I commend this Bill to the House.