A Brief History of the ONS

The ONS evolved from the 1996 merger of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS). The CSO itself was established in 1941 by Sir Winston Churchill with the clear aim of ensuring coherence of statistical information. However, the action taken in 1941 to establish the CSO could have been achieved on a number of occasions in the preceding 100 years. The opportunity was there - indeed, a decision to create a CSO was agreed in 1880 but was never implemented. The call for a CSO on these earlier occasions stemmed from concern about both quality and coverage of economic statistics.

ONS History
1834 - 1941 The need for a Central Statistical Office
1941 The establishment of the CSO
1960s The development of the CSO
1989 The expansion of the CSO
1996 The creation of the ONS

The need for a Central Statistical Office

In 1834 George Richardson Porter was given an established position as superintendent of a statistical department in the extended Board of Trade. He instituted a type of statistical year book known as the Tables of the Revenue. Statistical societies were also being formed across Great Britain and these societies collected information on a wide range of social and economic issues and the journals they produced amply testify to an interest in the education of the poor.

In 1847 Porter was promoted to joint permanent secretary in the Board of Trade and he was replaced by Albany Fonblanque, a journalist who had no statistical experience. He felt entirely out of place as the Board of Trade's statistician and there were many reports of his incompetence. Undoubtedly it was his assistant, Richard Valpy, who took the major role in securing the output of the office. Fonblanque died in Office in 1872 and he was replaced by Valpy in 1874.

The early 1870s were a troubled time for economic statistics with great concern about their quality. Robert Giffen was appointed Head of the statistical department of the Board of Trade in 1876 and, like Fonblanque, was a journalist. He sympathised with the idea of constructing a central statistical department to service the requirements of all Departments of State. Recommendations were continually made over the years to establish a small central statistical department but they were rejected because of difficulties arising from the laws, customs and circumstances under which the different statistics were collected. In addition to the objections raised by the Board of Trade, Mr Gladstone, then the first Chancellor of the Exchequer, feared that such a central Department might extend its functions beyond the limits required by economy and expediency, and so the recommendations to form a Central Statistical Office were rejected.

In 1915 Geoffrey Drage presented a paper to the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) criticising data collectors as ill-paid, uneducated and uninterested. Drage saw the remedy as a new central authority above that of the Departments under the Prime Minister. Drage continued to petition for many years and Prime Minister David Lloyd-George put the issue before the Cabinet in 1920 who concluded that the existence of a CSO would do little to remove the conditions which at that time limited the production of national statistics.

Calls for improvements in statistical services continued throughout the 1920s and the 1930s. In April 1935 Roy Glenday severely criticised the quality of official statistics but was once again met with only a token response. The outbreak of the Second World War saw proponents for change, like Josiah Stamp and Harry Campion, brought together in the team supporting the War Cabinet.

The establishment of the CSO

The CSO was finally set up on 27 January 1941 to service the war effort and quickly established itself as a permanent feature of government. Harry Campion was engaged as its first director. After 1945 there was an expansion in the work of official statisticians. This resulted mainly from the aim to manage the economy through controlling government income and expenditure by the use of an integrated system of national accounts. The passing of the Statistics of Trade Act in 1947 made it possible to collect more information from industry on a compulsory basis.

Harold Macmillan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in his 1956 Budget speech that the figures were generally not timely and improvements needed to be made. As a result, a system of quarterly national accounts were introduced in 1958.

The development of the CSO

The late 1960s saw the performance of the statistical system again come under scrutiny. Following a report of the Estimates Committee of the House of Commons a reorganisation was effected. This reorganisation had four central elements:

  • Establishment of the Business Statistics Office (BSO) to collect statistics from businesses irrespective of the department requiring information.
  • Establishment of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys to collect information from individuals and households through programmes of censuses, surveys and registers.
  • An enhanced role for the CSO in managing government statistics.
  • Development of the Government Statistical Service (GSS), including a cadre of professional statisticians across government.

In 1967 Sir Harry Campion retired and the second director of the CSO was Claus Moser, Professor of Statistics at the London School of Economics. It was his task to introduce the improvements recommended by the Estimates Committee. As mentioned above, one recommendation was to introduce a more centralised system of collecting information from industry. Therefore the Business Statistics Office was set up in Newport under the DTI and an integrated system of short period inquiries was introduced.

The expansion of the CSO

A new, expanded CSO was established in July 1989. This brought together responsibility for collecting business statistics (previously with the BSO), responsibility for compilation of trade and financial statistics (previously with the Department of Trade and Industry) and responsibility for the retail prices index and family expenditure survey (previously with the Employment Department) with the old responsibilities of the CSO.

In early 1990 the quality of economic statistics continued to be of concern to the Treasury and to the CSO. John Major, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, indicated to Parliament his continuing concern about the statistical base. This was quickly followed by an announcement in May 1990 of a package of measures (known as the Chancellor's Initiative), backed up by substantial additional resources, to improve quality.

In November 1991 the CSO was launched as an "executive agency". Executive agency was an important development in itself in two key respects. Firstly, it put focus on the quality of service provided to customers, inside and outside government. Secondly, it gave an opportunity to restate publicly the arrangements to ensure the integrity and validity of UK official statistics.

The creation of the ONS

The CSO and the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) merged on 1 April 1996 to form the Office for National Statistics.

© Crown Copyright 1997