Why ‘England and Wales’ statistics are a problem and how we should address it

The flags of Wales and England

Dr Carl Iwan Clowes

The corridors of the London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicine provided a hugely stimulating environment for this Master’s student, fresh and somewhat green from a medical practice in the Llŷn peninsula in the late 1970s.

The London School, an internationally renowned centre for Public Health, has provided authoritative advice to policy makers for well over a century, and continues to do so during the current pandemic.

With its reputation, it was surprising then that I found myself questioning how so many prominent and distinguished lecturers were able to misconstrue statistics relating to the ‘British Isles’?

Factors that influenced health such as unemployment or housing were invariably presented as figures for ‘’England and Wales’’. Remarkably, the statistical profile for ‘’England and Wales’’ was often used interchangeably with Great Britain and the United Kingdom with no explanation or caveats.

This was not only confusing but misleading with potentially serious consequences. As an example, Wales with its higher percentage of population working on land-related industries than in England, would expect to manifest a different profile for accidents. This massaging of the figures had implications for the health of the population and preventative action in the community.

At the time there was a Registrar General for ‘’England and Wales’’. A little research elicited that Scotland had its own Registrar General as did Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and even the Channel Islands. Why not Wales?

The general responsibility for Registration  in Wales should be transferred from the Westminster Government to the Senedd.

Until 1st April 2008, the General Register Office and the post of Registrar-General for ‘’England & Wales’’ was part of the Office for National Statistics established in 1996.

‘Inequitable’ 

Whilst there have been changes in the structures in the interim, the ‘registration’ function remains as inequitable as previously. So, whilst the post of Registrar-General for ‘’England & Wales’’ remains, it is subject to Ministerial accountability in the Home Office in Westminster.

Records for Northern Ireland, on the other hand are the responsibility of the General Register Office for Northern Ireland whilst, in Scotland, they come under the National Records Office of Scotland.

The Office for National Statistics [ONS] is the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority, a non-ministerial department which reports directly to Westminster.

The ONS designs and runs the census in ‘’England and Wales’’ every 10 years and a ‘National’ Census is scheduled for March 21st this year.

The ONS also works with the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Scotland to carry out their population censuses. The information gleaned is hugely important as the ONS provides government with reports which ultimately inform policy decisions and resource allocations for years to come.

The Census will be administered by the Office for National Statistics in ‘’England and Wales’’, by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency in Northern Ireland, and by the General Register Office in Scotland.

Readers may rightly feel confused at this point – the relationship between the Registrar General’s Office and the ONS?

One feature is clear however – that the Registrar General function for Wales is part of an ‘’England and Wales’’ structure and for the National Census, the administration is also on an ‘’England and Wales’’ basis.

As the General Register Office holds records of births, deaths, marriages, civil partnerships, stillbirths and adoptions in ‘’England and Wales’’, the information that the Office collects feeds the population denominator for many of the ONS Reports.

‘Covid’

The ONS has had a particularly high profile during the Covid outbreak and the casual observer can’t but help have noticed that a large number of reports in the media looking at trends refer to the population of ‘’England and Wales’’. This pattern is seen for much of the work that flows from the ONS.

This can impact not only decisions taken in the area of agriculture as seen above but also a whole raft of other policy options in areas as diverse as business, education and skills, crime and justice and travel and transport.

The imbalance in populations between England and Wales means that any picture produced on a combined basis results in a clouding of the true picture for Wales.

To put the case in perspective, in 2019 a Report considered the extremely worrying situation of “Housing Affordability in England and Wales”. With the increased tensions on the issue, there was a need for a dedicated profile on the situation in Wales.

On a somewhat different note, according to the ONS, the top 100 most popular boys’ names in ‘’England and Wales’’ included Alfred, Chester, Hudson, and Oakley for the first time. Am I really to believe that is the picture in my country?

On an annual basis there are a multiplicity of reports where Wales, to all intents and purposes, is lost in a wider picture.

Keep on an eye on up-coming reports for the evidence. We deserve better.

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