Is Parliament quietly watering down the independence of the Government Statistician?

By Len Cook
Former New Zealand Government Statistician

The Data and Statistics Bill presented to Parliament by the Minister of Statistics David Clark, waters down the role of the Government Statistician through the simple means of enabling the role to be delegated to unspecified persons or organisations without any further legislative oversight or qualification. 

There are serious risks from giving others the special powers of the Government Statistician but these risks have been obscured by weak and irrelevant arguments given for the Bill by the Minister of Statistics.

In effect, the Data and Statistics Bill uses the role and authority of the Government Statistician to provide an umbrella for extended data sharing across the entire range of government agencies, and unspecified non-government entities. Long-standing obligations to protect confidentiality appear to have been watered down.

The Bill has been presented to Parliament by the Minister of Statistics as a modernising, ”future-proofing” change which will improve all aspects of trust. There are improvements needed now in research access and responsiveness to Māori, but these do not require opening up the authority and powers of the Government Statistician in this way. Nowhere else in the world have changes of this sort been made in this manner. To do so without a specific consultative process with Māori is surprising, in 2022.

After enactment, the Data and Statistics Bill will bring the Government Statistician into the fold of the policy, enforcement and operational agencies of government through permitting data sharing on an unknown scale. This would make unavoidable a reversal in the long-standing constitutional checks on involvement by the Government Statistician in policy advocacy or justifying the operational delivery of policies. It establishes the opportunity for agencies to obtain confidential personal information beyond that needed for the functioning of their statutory roles.

About the Author

Len Cook was Government Statistician of New Zealand from 1992 to 2000. He was the National Statistician of the United Kingdom and Registrar-General of England and Wales from 2000-2005. He remains active in the use and analysis of official statistics.

For more in depth analysis, please see Len's report Guarding the Independence of the Government Statistician.

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