The Central Statistics Office, or the CSO as it is commonly known, was established in 1949 as a separate office under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach. It is now time to redefine its position within the overall institutional structure of the public service, and generally to overhaul the legislation governing the compilation of official statistics in the State.
The CSO currently operates under the provisions of the Statistics Acts, 1926 and 1946. The principal 1926 Act is now almost 70 years old. It provided the statutory basis for the collection and compilation of official statistics while preserving a guarantee of confidentiality for those required to provide the information.
Statistics were, of course, collected and compiled long before the foundation of the State. These included the ten yearly censuses of population, the annual censuses of agriculture, external trade statistics and statistics on births, marriages and deaths. The range of statistics compiled increased significantly following the foundation of the State. These were mainly the responsibility of a statistics branch in the then Department of Industry and Commerce prior to the establishment of the CSO in 1949. Indeed, the 1926 Act originally vested powers in the Minister for Industry and Commerce, but these powers were transferred to the Taoiseach under a Transfer of Functions Order in 1949.
There have been many changes over the years in the collection and compilation of official statistics. Our accession to the EC in 1973 had a significant impact, as statistics had to be produced in conformity with the Community statistical system. This involved the adoption of Community classifications and the initiation of a number of new inquiries.
Another significant development was the establishment of the National Statistics Board on a non-statutory basis in 1986 with the primary function of guiding the strategic direction of the CSO. The board has produced two five year strategic plans. The first covered the period 1988-92; the second relates to the period 1993-97 and was recently accepted by the Government and will be published shortly. Progress by the CSO in implementing these plans are assessed by the board in annual reports which are presented to the Government and published.
There has also been a number of interesting recent developments for example, the completion of the EC's Internal Market at the end of last year required the introduction of a new statistical survey of traders, called Intrastat, to collect statistics on intra-EC trade, which hitherto had been based on Customs documentation; the relaxation of exchange controls and their abolition at the end of last year necessitated the introduction of a range of new sample inquiries to provide improved estimates of Balance of Payments statistics; last year, the CSO initiated a new annual industrial products inquiry, the results of which will be particularly useful because it is based on a classification of products compatible with that used for foreign trade statistics; and last month the CSO published, for the first time, the results of their series on employment in the public service. It is now working on the corresponding earnings series.
The Bill has two broad purposes: first, to update the legislative basis for the collection and compilation of official statistics and, second, to implement the provisions of the Government White Paper. "A New Institutional Structure for the Central Statistics Office", which was published in 1985. The 1985 Government White Paper took account of the views and recommendations of an advisory Statistical Council that was established under the 1926 Act. It also took account of the 1985 NESC Report, "Information for Policy".
I now propose to refer to some of the key sections of the Bill. Section 7 repeals the Statistics Acts, 1924 and 1946, and includes some consequential provisions. Section 8 states that the institutional structure shall have three components: first the CSO itself, is now being established as a statutory body, second, the Director General, shall be responsible for its management and control and third, a National Statistics Board shall guide the strategic direction of the Office. This was one of the main features of the 1985 Government White Paper. Section 10 describes the general functions of the CSO. It includes, in subsections (2) and (3), important provisions relating to the co-ordination of statistics vis-a-vis public authorities, as envisaged in the 1985 Government White Paper. The purpose of subsection (2) is to ensure general adherence to statistical standards and the consistent application of appropriate statistical classifications. Subsection (3) provides that the CSO shall 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. The purpose of this is to avoid duplicating requests for the same data and the high cost of direct statistical inquiries. Existing examples of the statistical use of administrative records include the live register and the use of birth, death and marriage registrations for compiling vital statistics.
Section 11 (2) states that the CSO shall 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 and research bodies. 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 1988-92 and 1993-97 strategic plans, involving correspondence with over 200 undertakings and individuals, as well as seminars and specialist liaison groups.
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 explicitly provided for in Section 13. This is a standard provision internationally and is in line with the 1985 Government White Paper which stated:
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.
The Act will establish the National Statistics Board on a statutory basis. Details of the composition and appointment of the National Statistics Board are given in 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 ex officio member. The functions of the board are spelt out in section 19.
Section 20 defines officers and statistics. This includes, inter alia, all staff of the CSO. Each such officer will have to sign a formal declaration — given in section 21 — binding them to the confidentiality obligations of the Act. The purpose of this is to emphasise to the staff of the office and to the public the overriding commitment of the office to statistical confidentiality. A similar declaration is signed by officers of statistics under the current legislation.
Section 24 provides for the collection of data voluntarily. Much of the information now being collected by the CSO is on a voluntary basis. Examples include price collection for compiling the consumer price index, the annual labour force survey, and the monthly and quarterly industrial inquiries.
Section 25 relates to compulsory statistical inquiries. It provides that the Taoiseach may make an order requiring persons or undertakings to provide information under the Act. Many existing inquiries are already on a statutory basis, being conducted by order under the 1926 Act. Examples include censuses of population, the annual census of industrial production and the quarterly balance of payments inquiries.
Section 30 relates to access to the records of public authorities. It provides that the Director General shall have the statutory authority to access and get copies of administrative records in order to realise their statistical potential. As I stated earlier, it is important that this potential be maximised so as to avoid duplicating requests to persons and businesses and to avoid where possible the high cost of direct statistical inquiries.
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. Conditions and exclusions on this access are set out in subsection (2). For example, the CSO will not have access to records relating to a court, the Garda Síocháana, the prison administration and the Ombudsman.
Section 31 provides for the co-operation of public authorities with the CSO, which was one of the principal features of the 1985 Government White Paper. This will have the effect of strengthening the existing links between the Office and other public authorities. Subsection (1) gives 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 which are appropriate and practicable, and that public autorities shall comply only in so far as resources permit.
Subsection (2) 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. If there is a conflict between the Director General and a public authority in relation to this co-operation, the National Statistics Board will play an arbitrating role, and, if necessary, make proposals to the Taoiseach for his decision.
Sections 32 and 35 relate to the important topic of the protection of information. The statutory guarantee 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. The public in general, and businesses in particular, have become very concerned about the confidentiality of particulars relating to them, so it is crucial that the new Act give complete assurances on this matter.
Section 33 (2) provides that business activity codes and size codes may be assigned by the CSO to listings of business maintained by other public authorities. The purpose of this is to help to ensure that undertakings in the administrative systems or data bases of public authorities are consistently classified by these characteristics, in order to maximise the value of statistics produced by such bodies or extracted by the CSO from their records.
Section 34 will allow the CSO to provide "public use data tapes" containing completely non-identifiable individual data to persons outside the CSO for the purpose of statistical analysis. This would not be possible under the 1926 Act which provides that individual data, even if non-identifiable, cannot be divulged. This is standard practice in many countries and it has often 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. The Director General will be responsible under the legislation for deciding the conditions and restrictions under which these data tapes will be provided. The main concern will be to ensure the data 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. The forms which survive from the 1901 and 1911 censuses are not governed by the Statistics Act, 1926, and are accessible to the public in the National Archives. Indeed, they are the most frequently used documents in the archives. They provide an invaluable source of information for genealogical purposes, and many people call into the archives every day to find out more about their ancestors. Public access to census of population records after a lengthy period is a common practice internationally.
The final Part of the Bill — sections 26 onwards — relates to offences and penalties. The maximum fine in the existing 1926 legislation is only £50 and has, of course, been severely eroded by inflation over the years. The CSO has not taken legal proceedings for many years because the fine is so small. Another factor here is that the CSO has a policy of seeking voluntary compliance whenever possible. Nevertheless, there is an obvious need to update the penalties. Section 44 provides for penalties of up to £1,000 for summary offences and up to £20,000 for convictions on indictment. The DPP would decide what proceedings to bring in particular instances depending on the severity of the offence. Subsection (2) provides for continuing daily fines for repeated contravention following conviction.
In summary, 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 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.
The Bill will, when enacted, increase the effectivenes of the CSO in providing for statistical information needs. This will be of considerable benefit to the Government, the EC, researchers, economists, the industrial, agricultural and service sectors of the economy, statistical users generally and the public at large.
I commend the Bill to the House.