Thursday, 13 October 2011
Public Policy and Planning: Statements
This is my first visit to Seanad Éireann and I hope we will have an enlightened debate on the Central Statistics Office. I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the important role official statistics continue to play in developing public policy in Ireland and planning for the future.
As Minister of State with responsibility for the Central Statistics Office, CSO, I am keen to record the Government's appreciation of the important public service role of the office. The CSO serves Ireland well and publishes a vast range of statistics for the economy and society and on important topics. This information is used by Departments, public bodies, EU institutions, the IMF, the OECD and other international bodies. The international attention given to Ireland's statistics has increased dramatically in the past three years. Statistics are also widely used by businesses, universities, research institutes and the general public. The public is increasingly aware of statistics and indicators concerning the economic and social issues that affect our daily lives. This reflects the times in which we live.
In times of such major change it is opportune to assess the direction official statistics will take and, specifically, how official statistics can make a greater contribution to informing general public policy. The CSO is best known for conducting the census of population and I have been impressed by the professionalism of this year's census which was undertaken in April. The preliminary results, published in June, show that there are 4.58 million people in Ireland. Surprisingly, this is almost 100,000 more than had been forecast. The CSO is processing the detailed census returns and will release the detailed results during 2012, with the first report set to be published in March.
There are two important features of the work of the CSO that I am keen to emphasise: its independence and its confidentiality. Both principles are enshrined in law in the Statistics Act 1993. The Director General of the office is fully independent in regard to professional standards and the conduct, content and timing of the information published by the CSO. This independence is essential to ensure the public can have complete confidence that the statistics are impartial and it allows debate to focus on the implications for society of the numbers published. The second principle is confidentiality: all information collected by the CSO from households, individuals and businesses is treated as strictly confidential and only used for statistical purposes. These principles form part of the CSO's adherence to the highest international standards, as set out in the UN fundamental principles of official statistics and the European statistics code of practice. Ireland's membership of the European Union is one of the most important factors in determining statistical requirements. Virtually all of the statistics produced by the CSO are required by EU regulations. The CSO's involvement in the European statistical system enables us to work to common standards and produce information which is internationally comparable.
Statistical offices throughout Europe and further afield face similar challenges, including how to meet current and growing demands for information, how to become more efficient and work within budget restrictions, and how to reduce the burden on data providers. It may appear difficult to reconcile these three objectives which amount to producing more with less. The first objective is to meet current and growing demands for information. The CSO already publishes more than 300 statistical releases and publications every year. These include our most important economic indicators such as the quarterly employment and unemployment figures, the quarterly national accounts, and the monthly consumer price index and retail sales index. These figures receive close attention at all times but more so in the present climate.
One of the office's most recently introduced series, the monthly residential property price index, has generated a good deal of interest. The CSO's publications also include larger-scale projects such as the census, the household budget survey and the census of agriculture. It is collecting information for the OECD programme for assessment of adult competencies. This will be an important data source on adult literacy and numeracy.
The CSO produces a vast range of information, all of it highly relevant to current policy questions. However, it will face growing demands in the coming years.
At international level, there is an active discussion of the need to augment traditional economic indicators with supplementary information on quality of life, sustainability and the environment. The Stiglitz report on the measurement of economic performance and social progress, commissioned in 2008 by President Sarkozy of France, made recommendations that have been widely accepted by policymakers and will, in time, lead to demands for new surveys and statistics. The National Statistics Board has also identified data gaps in important policy areas, including energy and the environment, transport and travel, health, education, short-term economic indicators, and housing and construction.
The second major challenge facing statistical offices is to work within more limited budgets. I am pleased to note the Central Statistics Office has been very active in implementing structural changes to make the collection, processing and dissemination of statistics more efficient. It has fully met all savings commitments to date and I am confident it will continue to do so.
The third challenge is to reduce the burden on respondents. I am glad to report that the CSO is taking a comprehensive approach to this issue, particularly for business surveys, by redesigning questionnaires, reducing sample sizes and integrating data from existing sources, where possible. The burden of business surveys has fallen by 18% between 2008 and 2010. This is a major step by the Central Statistics Office towards meeting the 25% reduction target by 2012, which was set out in the European Commission action programme for reducing administrative burden. In this regard, I should add that statistics constitute only a small part of the total administrative burden facing businesses. Further reductions in burden are under way this year in the annual services inquiry and the June and December agricultural surveys. In both cases, the CSO is making greater use of existing administrative data to compile the necessary information.
Administrative records are also a valuable resource for new statistical analysis. The CSO release "Foreign Nationals' PPSN Allocations, Employment and Social Welfare Activity" is compiled from administrative data, as is the "Job Churn" analysis. This illustrates the dynamics of the changing level of employment in each sector. Both releases are highly topical and have direct relevance to policy. They demonstrate the statistical potential of administrative data. The National Statistics Board has made the realisation of this potential its primary strategic objective over the past decade. This has led to many improvements and will continue to be a priority so that the Central Statistics Office can meet new information needs as efficiently as possible. This will require not only increased analysis of the available files but a fundamental rethink of how we organise and structure administrative processes and information.
There is a clear synergy between the better use of data and the Government's reform programme for the public sector. The reform programme emphasises accountability and the measurement of performance. Statistics provide sound evidence for this to inform decision making and monitor policy outcomes. A central part of reform is the need to move towards a more joined up Government administration, eliminating policy and operational silos by making policy and practice more focused and integrated across Departments and agencies.
The Central Statistics Office and broader statistical system have a significant part to play in this reform. I recently met officials of the National Statistics Board to discuss the board's priorities for statistics and I am working with my colleagues in government to advance a co-ordinated approach to official statistics. The rationale is clear - joined up government needs joined up data. For the CSO, this involves three major technical issues which have a bearing on the capacity to use administrative data to produce statistics, namely, the manner in which personal data is organised to enable linkage and analysis of information for statistical purposes; the manner in which business data is organised for statistical use; and geographical classifications, including, in particular, the need to introduce a standard post code system. These are key issues in enabling the CSO to compile statistics more efficiently, while respecting individual confidentiality. They are also key issues for public administration in general which, if addressed centrally, can contribute to more efficient and customer focused public services.
Other countries make extensive use of registers in their administration and statistical systems. Ireland does not have a tradition of official registers, for example, registers of persons, businesses or buildings. Addressing these gaps in what one could describe as the "national data infrastructure" would be of long-term benefit to the country.
I have focused until now on the work of the CSO. This is fitting as the office has the primary role in producing official statistics in Ireland. However, the National Statistics Board has recognised that, for the long-term objectives for official statistics to be met in full, it will be necessary for other public bodies, notably larger Departments, to engage actively and effectively in statistical production. In response to this, all Departments are now required to prepare data strategies and a number of Departments and offices have established statistical units staffed by professional statisticians on secondment from the Central Statistics Office. In short, an embryonic Irish statistical system has emerged which can play an increasingly important role in supporting the production and use of high quality official statistics throughout the system.
I stress the critical importance of having good quality statistics to inform policy making and planning. There is a greater than ever focus on statistical information and we are fortunate in having a highly professional and independent Central Statistics Office to meet Ireland's statistical needs. The demand for statistics continues to increase, while resources are constrained. Accordingly, we must find better ways to meet demand. In this regard, the effective use of administrative records for statistical purposes is the highest priority. The Government is fully committed to supporting the Central Statistics Office and wider statistical system in its endeavours, which benefit all of us.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State is particularly welcome given that this is the first time he has addressed the House. I wish him well in dealing with his onerous responsibilities in the Department of the Taoiseach and not least in his role as Government Chief Whip. I echo the Leas-Chathaoirleach's comments in expressing the hope that the Minister of State will visit the House on many occasions during the five year term of the Government. I hope today's discussion offers him an insight into the effective working of the Seanad, notwithstanding the Government's pledge to hold a referendum on the abolition of the House.
I am impressed with the Minister of State's strong defence of and support for the Central Statistics Office and its work. I will declare a minor interest arising from the fact that my wife's first job in the Civil Service was in the Central Statistics Office. She later moved to the Departments of Defence, Agriculture and Social Welfare, as that Department was then known.
I will cut to the chase. The Minister of State referred several times to the high level of professionalism of the Central Statistics Office. In light of his stout defence of the CSO, I note also the following comments, which highlight the difficulty facing the office:
The second major challenge facing statistical offices is to work within more limited budgets. I am pleased to note the Central Statistics Office has been very active in implementing structural changes to make the collection, processing and dissemination of statistics more efficient. It has fully met all savings commitments to date and I am confident it will continue to do so.
I fully understand the difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves and the need to secure savings across all Departments. This is an agenda that was first pursued by the previous Government when the banking crisis struck in 2008. Its purpose was to ensure we obtain more efficient use of increasingly limited resources. The Government has inherited this legacy and is doing the best job it can in the circumstances. The Minister of State correctly noted the importance of statistics and it is clear that no government, business or administration can work without accurate and up-to-date statistics. He noted also that joined up government needs joined up data. The major difficulty is that the Central Statistics Office is having a serious staffing problem and has suffered under the Government moratorium on recruitment.
This is having a detrimental effect in ensuring there are up-to-date data, especially in the area of tourism. I had the opportunity of addressing this issue with the Minister of State's colleague in Government, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, who conceded there was a difficulty in this regard. Specific tourism statistics are vital, particularly given that tourism is our second most successful indigenous industry. I compliment the Government on the initiatives it took during the summer of lowering VAT and stimulating what has so far been a reasonably good year for tourism, with an increase of 245,000 in visitor numbers in the second quarter.
The problem is that tourism is seasonal. It is vital, therefore, not only for the industry but for Government, in particular the relevant line Departments, to have up-to-date statistics. Those currently being processed are at least three months, and in some instances six months, out of date. I understand this is because the number of staff available to process the statistics has been reduced. As the Minister of State repeatedly signalled, it is vital to have up-to-date statistics. Perhaps he might address the staffing issue in the context of his remarks about savings. I wonder if the savings are not counter-productive. Although a relatively small amount of money may be saved, the lack of up-to-date statistics may not only inhibit outside businesses such as those involved in tourism but also restrict actual Government in terms of dealing with policy issues that must be addressed in the short term rather than in the medium or long term. I fully accept the Minister of State's position and he will obviously hold the line as per the moratorium. However, I am sure he will agree that in certain key Departments there have been breaches of the moratorium for very good reasons. As the Minister of State correctly identified, the CSO is a vital arm of State, not only for the proper and efficient functioning of Government but also for business and for people operating outside Government. He might address that issue.
The Minister of State referred to the fact that we do not have a tradition of official registers, for example, of persons, businesses or buildings. He believes that addressing these gaps by what one might term a national data infrastructure would be of long-term benefit to the country. Perhaps he might expand on that. Are there plans for an introduction of such an infrastructure? There have been calls, for example, for a national register of buildings. There have also been calls in the real estate area for a national register of pricing or prices. As the Minister of State will know, the current state of the housing market is based very much on anecdotal evidence and evidence provided by what can loosely be termed vested interests, namely, those in the real estate industry. They are the people on whom we rely to a large extent to establish the current level of the housing market. Such information is based very much on the experiences of those companies. I do not for one moment cast aspersions on them but one of the key criticisms of the bubble period was that real estate companies talked up the property market through their advertising . They spent lavishly on advertising and as a result the media, in particular the printed media, were compliant in keeping the property bubble going because it was in their financial interest so to do. When the bubble burst, there was a considerable loss of advertising revenue to the national media, especially print media.
It would be important for the Minister of State to address this gap in the statistics in order that there might be an independent national assessment of the housing market in terms of pricing and a universal assessment rather than the sectional one we have at present. That might give us some indication. As the Minister of State and I know, and as most of us know, there are people who are waiting for further decline in the housing market. There is an indication it may have another 10% or 15% to fall in spite of the fact that first-time buyers in particular are having a great deal of difficulty in getting mortgages. It seems that the banking sector has dried up in that regard. One need only look at the statistics published by the CSO which show some 13,000 mortgages issued this year, a figure that hearkens back to the 1970s. Even given the limited resources of the CSO, it would be helpful to know if the Minister of State has a view on whether it is important to have this assessment. It would be vital information to give to people throughout the country because it would give some sense of the national figures, be independently based and be arrived at professionally. I single out that point because the Minister of State raised the issue of a national register. In the current climate such nationally based statistics, if available, might help to stimulate the market. People would have more confidence if they realised the market had actually bottomed out. As of now, we do not know whether it has done so.
Overall, I am delighted the Minister of State attended the House to discuss what may be an underestimated and yet is a vital arm of Government which impacts on people's lives every day, although they may not realise it. The Minister of State set out his stall admirably within the budgetary constraints imposed on him and the Government. In the current spending review he must fight for and be more specific about an increase in resources for the CSO to ensure we have proper statistics, particularly those relating to tourism, in which area I have an interest. That is vital. Industry leaders have pointed out, as have Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland, the need to have further up-to-date statistics.
I shall offer a final example. If one is in business in the tourism industry and has figures that are up to date, then one can take marketing decisions that will ensure one's business is kept afloat or can be improved. However, if one bases one's actions on figures that are six months out of date, it will be very difficult to make a value decision that will be of help, not only to one's personal business but to the national economy.
I again commend the Minister of State's presentation and wish him continued success in this role and in the much wider role of ensuring we get our country back into a stable, economic and more prosperous environment.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on his appointment as Government Chief Whip. The word "gentleman" is often used and abused on the corridors of this House but Deputy Kehoe is a gentleman to his fingertips. I am delighted at his appointment.
His presentation today was very enlightening. We all know the importance of gathering accurate information. The Central Statistics Office has done a very good job over the years. The 1901 and 1911 censuses were posted on the Internet and had a an amazing number of hits. This information is of great interest. The latest census, carried out earlier this year, was the most comprehensive ever undertaken in this country. It may have been cumbersome and it took time to complete but the usefulness of the exercise, the information that will be gathered as a result and the knowledge base that will be developed will be most beneficial to this country.
I agree, too, with much of what Senator Mooney said. In this House we have discussed the importance of having up-to-date statistics. Senator Mooney mentioned tourism figures that do not emerge as quickly and efficiently as they should. I agree that monthly tourism figures should be released. Let us suppose one has a certain marketing budget and one is trying to decide how to spend it. If monthly figures were released quickly, at least one could redirect or divert resources where, for example, a particular area was not the subject of sufficient focus or another area deserved more attention because it was successful.
In all aspects of business, matters of social equality and life in general, statistics are very important. We often hear estimates given in presentations of, for example, so many hundreds of thousands of empty houses in the country or 10% of the population having a declared disability. It is not good enough to estimate. We need facts. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, outlined the clear determination of Government to try to create a statistical framework in this country that will deal specifically with facts. When one has facts, one can look one's European partners in the eye. One can also operate internationally because one knows that one has access to the best knowledge available and that this is backed up by properly compiled and collated records. People may not immediately see the value of spending money on collating statistics and carrying out research. However, it is money that is extremely well spent.
Will the Minister of State comment on the links we have with the Northern Ireland Assembly and with those who are responsible for compiling statistics in that jurisdiction? It would be much more beneficial if we could operate on an all-island basis when it comes to statistics. I imagine that good work is being done in this regard.
In the past, the National Statistics Board has published a number of surveys which contain some very interesting recommendations. Based on what the Minister of State said earlier, many of those recommendations are going to be taken on board. We can move forward by having access to the facts and by dealing in those facts.
In the context of the social agenda, we are facing into a budget in respect of which difficult decisions are going to have to be made. If one has accurate statistics, it is easier for one to make such decisions because one knows in advance exactly how people are going to be affected. Let us consider the position with regard to education. The information relating to people with disabilities, minority groups, etc., within the education sector could be better. It will certainly be better when what is proposed is put in place. As the Minister of State quite rightly indicated, all Government Departments have a responsibility to up their game in the context of ensuring that the data they collect is of good quality. He pointed out that some Departments are probably better than others in this regard. However, we need to establish best practice throughout the public service in respect of the collation and assessment of data.
Our record in respect of this matter compares quite well with other jurisdictions. Despite the fact that it was probably not provided with the resources it required in the past, the Central Statistics Office is performing extremely well. I am of the view that the framework it uses should be adopted across the board in the future. I look forward to 2012, when the full and final results of the recent census of population will be published. It will be interesting to see the answers that were provided in respect of questions that were asked on this occasion but not on previous ones in respect of education, culture, etc. We have a responsibility to the next generation to ensure that facts relating to our era are properly collated and assessed. There may be a great many aspects of society about which we are not happy but if we are able to place a true and accurate account into the history books, we will have achieved a great deal.
I am sure other Senators wish to contribute so I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. I thank the Minister of State for his very fine and enlightening presentation. As Senator Mooney correctly stated, this is an area of government which too often goes unnoticed. Perhaps there is a need for us, as public representatives, to highlight the valuable work that is being done. I regularly visit the Central Statistics Office's website in order to browse its most recent publications. That website is extremely informative and up to date and one can obtain from it statistics relating to many matters. I have a particular interest in tourism and it is intriguing to monitor the various trends relating to the number of visitors who are coming here from abroad, the number of Irish people travelling abroad, etc. Having access to such information helps one formulate one's thinking.
There is a need for us, as public representatives, to highlight the positive work being done by the Central Statistics Office and also that being done by business groups and individuals, on a private basis, in respect of collecting and collating information. The Vintners Federation of Ireland has worked closely with a number of researchers to collect accurate data in respect of the type of products on sale and so forth. Perhaps there might be an opportunity to work jointly with some of the private research companies in order to ensure that overlaps do not occur and that all the facts collected are drawn together in a comprehensive manner.
I wish the Minister of State well with his brief. I have no doubt that in four years' time we will have a much more advanced programme of statistical collection.
I join Senators Conway and Mooney in welcoming and praising the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. It is extremely important to have a strong Central Statistics Office, CSO. It is also important to recognise its great level of expertise and its many achievements worldwide. The person missing from this debate - I am sure he is looking on from some vantage point - is the late Garrett FitzGerald, who was the leading customer of the CSO for many years. He is now frequenting another CSO, namely, the celestial statistics office, and I do not doubt that he is pestering St. Peter and others to ensure that they submit their data on time.
The Minister of State indicated that:
The director general of the office is fully independent in regard to professional standards and the content and timing of the information published by CSO. This independence is essential to ensuring that the public can have complete confidence that the statistics are impartial; and it allows debate to focus on the implications for society of the numbers published.
This is most important and it has been a feature of the Central Statistics Office during its lifetime. The first director, Dr. Roy Geary, was absolutely eminent in the sphere of international statistics and he published hundreds of journal articles. He used to write such articles in the evenings have spent all day carrying out his work on statistics. Dr. Geary was one of the leading innovators in his field. His successor, Dr. Donal McCarthy, became the president of University College Cork, UCC. This is, therefore, an area in which there is massive expertise and the latter has been built upon the independence to which the Minister of State referred. I ask that he bring back to the Cabinet the message that we should have an economic service, for want of a better term, which is similar to and as independent and professional as the CSO. The Wright report highlighted the serious deficiencies that exist in the level of economic expertise available to the Government.
Sir Gus O'Donnell, secretary to the British Cabinet, joined the UK Civil Service as an economist and perfected a system to facilitate information flows from other economists throughout that service. He is due to retire soon and with a name like his I am sure he would make himself available to advise the Government - perhaps he could speak in the Seanad - on how to encourage greater professionalism. I am of the view that the CSO provides the model in the context of what constitutes a successfully operating public agency.
The Minister of State also indicated that "all Departments are now required to prepare data strategies and a number of Departments and offices have established statistical units staffed by professional statisticians on secondment from the Central Statistics Office." On several occasions, particularly in the presence of the Minister of State at the Department of at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sherlock, the House has discussed the problems that exist in the context of quantification, statistics, etc. The CSO has an international reputation and perhaps some of its staff could come to the Houses to explain to Members - perhaps in the audio-visual room - the position with regard to newly emerging statistics and so on. The staff on secondment to whom the Minister of State referred could also spend time bringing Members up to date on statistics and quantitative methods. In view of the fact that a large group of students were present in the Gallery until a moment ago, perhaps the staff in question could also visit schools in order to educate students on this subject. There is a need to overcome Irish people's fear of quantification and statistics. The CSO could lead the way in this regard.
When Lord Beveridge retired from his position as director of the London School of Economics, he stated in his farewell address that "economic and political theorising not based on facts and not controlled by facts assuredly does lead nowhere". There is no question but that we need the facts. Lord Beveridge also stated that it "matters little how wrong we are with our existing theories if we are honest and careful with our observations". The information the Minister of State has brought before the House today is extremely important and I am of the opinion that all discussions on public policy in Ireland should be informed by far more quantification and data than is currently the case.
There is a long and honourable tradition of work in the sphere of statistics and quantification in this country. We have neglected this in a way and pretended that we are backward when it comes to quantification. Some 38 years before the American Economics Association was established and 44 years before the Royal Economic Society in the UK, undergraduates in Trinity College Dublin founded the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, with the great John Kells Ingram one of the founders. The importance of statistics is illustrated in that regard. That learned society, with very close links to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, is one of the oldest learned societies in the world. Ingram would also have been known for his patriotic poetry about 1798 but the society was set up during the Great Famine to illustrate how important it was to have statistics.
The pressure of social problems demanding attention led the society's youthful founders to attempt the establishment of such an institution. It has not occupied itself with dilettante statistics collected with no special purpose or tending to no definite conclusion but has from the first applied itself in the spirit of earnest inquiry to the most important questions affecting the condition of the country. An extract from its journal reads:
Our business is to discover and demonstrate, by the application of scientific principles, the legislative action appropriate to each phase of society and each group of economic conditions. At what precise time, and in what particular form, our conclusions should be adopted in practice, is a question of political expediency, which those who are acquainted with the varying exigencies of public life can determine better than we. But it is encouraging to know that in endeavouring, by our researches and discussions, to overthrow error and to establish truth, we are labouring at no unpractical - no hopeless- task; that any wise suggestion developed here may one day become a beneficent reality; a living agency for good; and that thus, without sitting in the councils of the State, or mingling in the strife of parties, we may, each of us, do something towards the improvement of the institutions of our country.
Patriotism shines through that and there was a practicality in getting the society up and running, which led to a statistics office. It is an inspiration.
Another aspect mentioned by my colleague, Senator Conway, should see the CSO commended. For years, the statistical abstract had a Northern Ireland supplement. Unfortunately, after 1922 the two parts of Ireland did not have a dialogue for about 40 or 50 years but the CSO was a terrific exception with a statistical abstract for Northern Ireland as a precedent we have happily followed to the present harmonious state of North-South relations.
The Central Statistics Office is a model in professionalism and how bodies can reach to other Departments in order to overcome quantitative deficiencies. That should be extended to our schools and education and there is much expertise in Cork and its university's department of statistics. It has been a very valuable national asset and people like Messrs. Roy Geary and Michael McCarthy have had an international reputation. I would commend this body at all times, nearly as strongly as Dr. Garrett FitzGerald used to. I wish it well in development.
Perhaps we could get data earlier? We had all the necessary data to indicate that the banking system was about to implode but so many mountains of data come to us that we may have taken our eye off the ball. Every time we get important CSO data perhaps we could use the audio-visual room to view it, and perhaps personnel in Cork could explain data to Deputies and Senators. That would be another improvement on what is already a terrific record.
I join colleagues in welcoming the Minister of State to the House. I echo Senator Barrett's sentiments about the model of excellence that is the CSO. For years it has worked tirelessly and without enormous recognition for what it does. In many ways statistics are like the glue and we do not think of that; if we did not have statistics we would rapidly fall apart.
I will concentrate on specific examples. I went on a tour of the websites of statistics offices in other countries, and specifically the Office for National Statistics in the UK. It had a figure for the deaths of elderly people attributable to the winter but I could not find the same figure in the Irish context, although I may not have been looking in the right place. Between 2009 and 2010, 25,400 elderly people in the UK died in the winter due to the conditions, and we can see in that one figure how straight away one could start arming doctors, hospitals and social services. With one vital piece of information policy can be built, which is what is being discussed, and this would take into account issues such as winter fuel payments and flu vaccine stocks. Without even discussing it further, the great reach of the figure is enormous.
There is no argument and everybody understands and agrees with this process; everybody knows that with statistics we can build public policy. The Minister of State has given a great explanation of what is happening behind the scenes and I am heartened to hear that. A complete industry is now building around statistics and analysis, and statisticians may become household names in future in the way that economists, unfortunately, have become household names and the new commentators in modern Ireland.
The Minister of State and we as Senators acknowledge that in the Irish context we have a way to go and the work is very much in progress. It is good to hear that Departments will now build their own statistical units and enhance the statistical base. That is supported by European requirements. One may consider the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the US in this regard, which does exactly what it says on the tin, offering an array of statistics and analysis relating to trade, tourism, income and spending that are in some ways unimaginable. The figures are analysed to give an enormous amount of data.
Many bodies in Ireland offer statistical information, including Forfás, the ESRI and the Western Development Commission, all slowly feeding into what is becoming a more evidence-based policy decision making process. This is at the heart of the matter, as policy makers and politicians will become more informed, or at least have no excuse if they are not. Statistics are one of the strongest weapons against clientelism, favouritism and political strokes. If that is at the heart of what we are investing in, it is a strong reason to concentrate on the value of statistics.
As the industry becomes more refined and targeted, informed decisions must be taken to decide what information must be gathered, how often and in what ways it can be employed. There should also be consideration of how to be more economical in gathering information. We know people do not like filling in forms and providing small detail, and constantly we hear that gardaí, teachers, paramedics and doctors deal with endless paperwork. In such cases paperwork is the provision of data that can be useful. It is good to hear from the Minister of State that the burden, particularly on business, is being reduced. Perhaps it is up to us to find ways to find another label for paperwork and understand it as statistical information that is of benefit to the community in a wider context. We have never done this and I do not know where the responsibility lies; it may not be with the CSO. It could be up to us to stop it being called paperwork and remaining a tedious task.
Technology and the development of appropriate software for analysing data has a significant role to play in this area. I trust that in the building of further statistical bases in the country, the most appropriate and cost-efficient software will be used to support and encourage the work. We should not find ourselves in the midst of an argument down the road because software suites in different Departments cannot communicate with each other. I know the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has spoken about some of the difficulties in her Department relating to gathering data and various parts of the organisation where the computer systems cannot speak to each other. It would be unfortunate if that happened when the Minister of State is driving an initiative to make more statistics available.
Statistics can also have a dark side when we have information but do not act on it. Every day figures are introduced to support an argument and in this House we regularly hear all kinds of statistics relating to banks, social welfare, housing, agriculture and so on. I take this opportunity to provide an example of how we might not translate statistical information correctly.
I will move shamelessly to consider the north west, a part of the country, it could be argued, where it has been found to be harder than anywhere else for statistical information and evidence to break through into policy. The Look West programme encouraged people to move to or to move back to the west to repopulate it and to create a more energetic society, yet that was not accompanied by good policy on, say, public transport. There is no railway line there. From Galway travelling north on the west coast there is no rail line and there is none from Dublin to Donegal. The map I am displaying is clear evidence of the large hole that is the north west. There are tremendous roads, all of which have been built using statistical information, which demonstrates public policy.
I apologise. I did not realise that. The visual impact of a map helps us to understand that when we have such information it is our duty to convert it into policy. There were good statistical outcomes from surgery for cancer patients in Sligo General Hospital, yet as we all know, and I will not revisit the argument, the policy ended up with there not being cancer services available in that area.
However, if we look specifically at the Western Development Commission and consider some of the statistics it has gathered, the rural population of the region in the north west is 68% compared with a State average of 39%. On that basis, we can safely say it is a rural community. If one then notes that in all counties that come under the remit of the Western Development Commission one-third of the population is under the age of 24; people routinely understand that a rural population means an aging community, but that is not the case. The average statistic of one-third of the population in those counties being under the age of 24 is the same average as for rest of Ireland. That means the region is rural but it also has a young community. With only those two items of information, one could transform the way in which we appreciate that part of the country. It could be said that one-third of the population under the age of 24 in the north west are routinely ignored by policy.
If we consider the share of tourism for the north west or the western region, it is roughly around 18% of the tourism business for the country, with Galway accounting for 9% of that. These figures cover tourism and the rural community of the region, both elements that present enormous potential as drivers of the economy. We need policy to encourage, support and drive such development. The statistics are there to support it but where is the policy that needs to go with it?
Practical steps were taken by the IT in Sligo to build a centre of excellence for sustainable development in which areas such as renewable fuels, wastewater treatment and bog rehabilitation - buzz words for a green future and job creation that we talk about a good deal - were examined. Yet I am not aware of there being a supporting economic policy along with the statistics that Sligo IT can produce about what it can provide by way of qualified people. We need to use the statistics we have to build policy.
There is one area in which we could take the advice of the Western Development Commission. Its recent research into the creative sector, already employing 11,000 people, took one single factor into account. It noted that two thirds of the businesses already based in the region did not export any of their goods and services. It has done further research and stated that if there was proper intervention driven by policy, it could generate an additional 17,000 jobs in that western region. That is a single concentrated item of statistical analysis that could provide jobs in an area where they are needed.
Now the Western Development Commission has got funding from INTERREG from Europe along with NUI Galway to develop an export platform to drive exports in this area and that is a good thing. It achieved that by providing the statistical evidence required for that application and it is then up to the Government to support that work and to specifically encourage creation of those jobs.
I want to believe that today, having a Minister in the House and discussing the value of statistics, marks a departure in that the Government accepts that statistics can and do, and must, drive public policy. They can and do mean that we can have more appropriate and more efficient spending of the funds that are not exactly in great amounts, that we can target them effectively with better statistical information, and that statistics can and do improve our lives, but that any investment in statistical gathering, analysis or interpretation must be accompanied by the appropriate political will.
I welcome the Minister of State. I trust the work the CSO does will continue and that over the lifetime of this Government we will make a conscious effort to use those statistics much more effectively to drive policy specifically where it is needed.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to have this discussion. The area of statistics and data is one of the least glamorous of Government but it is one of the most important. It is vital when one considers that service provision is often based on information, population figures, and other data much of which comes from the Central Statistics Office. It is disappointing that there are not more Senators here to discuss these issues because it is important in the context of a range of discussions we have had in this House in recent months.
To take the example of children's rights, we had a discussion on it recently and different figures were given for the number of children who had gone missing in this State. Advocate organisations had one view, the Minister concerned has a different view and the Department has a different figure, so the figures did not stack up and there was a contradiction in many of the figures that were given. We had a good discussion on the sex trade - although I do not like to use those words - last night but again the figures were disputed in terms of how many women were working in that sector. Advocate organisations represented in the Visitors' Gallery had one set of figures and the Minister concerned had a different set of figures. We had a discussion about the Swedish model of criminalising prostitution and facts and figures were presented where some people used figures for one set of purposes and other people used them for a different purpose. It shows that figures are important.
Senator Barrett made a telling point about the information that was available to the then Minister for Finance, the Taoiseach and the Government at the time of the bank guarantee when critical decisions were being made by the then Government in regard to the banks. A mountain of evidence and data was available that it would be a bad decision and that billions of euros of taxpayers' money potentially could be wasted if the wrong decision was made. Despite the mountain of data that was available, it is interesting that it was the Financial Regulator and the banks that provided misinformation to the Government and to those who were making the decisions. That led to the catastrophe we now have and we are all living with the consequences of that. That more than anything in the history of this State shows up the importance of information and statistics.
There is also an important point to make about Government policy. Statistics underpin almost everything a Government does and every decision made by politicians, law makers, those in Departments and Governments. Senators have given recent examples but I will give a number of further examples. A debate on decisions to amalgamate the VECs made by the Minister for Education and Skills is ongoing. The criteria used to arrive at decisions include the distance staff have to travel, the number of students who come through the VECs and the number of schools in a catchment area. We have the amalgamated VEC of Waterford and Wexford in the south east. One of the main criteria it seems the Government used to decide that the headquarters should be based in Wexford was that people from Wexford, if they had to travel to Waterford city or county, would have to travel longer than 45 km, which would be in breach of the Croke Park agreement, but people from west Waterford and Waterford city would have to travel to Wexford. It shows that the statistics can be used in different ways to justify what many would see as a political decision. That was the point being made by a number of Senators, namely, that it is important when we have accurate data that they are used in a fair way to underpin policy and decision making.
A previous Senator mentioned cancer care. I cite the example of the south east which, with a population of 460,000, has the critical mass. I recall meeting a delegation of councillors from Waterford city who had met Deputy Micheál Martin when he was Minister for Health and Children. He was opposed to the notion that the south east region should have its own centre of excellence for cancer care because he felt there was not the critical mass to justify it. It was only on closer inspection when we examined international best practice that the Government changed its mind and decided there is a case for the south east and for proper cancer services for Waterford. That led the Government to changing its mind.
I will give some more examples. In a recent discussion at the Joint Committee on Health and Children committee I raised the issue of the dependency many people have on prescription drugs, Benzos in particular. It is important that we are informed as to what is happening, and the Minister must be informed as to what is happening. I asked the Minister if there were data on the patterns of prescriptions in this area. The Minister agreed it was a problem and that it needed to be resolved but the way to resolve it was to know where the problems are with over-prescription to ensure the Department is in a position to deal with it but the information was not available. That highlights the need for all Ministers and Departments to be properly informed because if we do not have those patterns the Government and the Minister is not in a position to comprehensively deal with what is a complex issue.
A Senator mentioned the need for co-operation North and South. That is critical because for me the Border is a line on the map. Mention was made earlier of the north west region but it is critical that we have information that is being gathered by the Assembly and that the Assembly has information gathered and available from this State. If we consider transport, for example, a good deal of cross-Border work has been done in that area. The same applies to the area of health where there is co-operation between the respective health departments to ensure people have the best services. That applies not just in health but in education or whatever.
I support the call for a stronger link between the Central Statistics Office and its counterpart in the North. That is important. It is important also that we pay tribute not just to the staff of the Central Statistics Office, which I agree with previous speakers is a very professional service that does a great service for this State in that it allows all of us to have access to information which empowers us and enables us to have more informed debates in this House, in the Lower House and in council chambers across the State as well as in general discussions, but there is also a wealth of civil and advocate organisations that do research and make data available. Those data are as important as the information we get from the Central Statistics Office.
It is interesting that when we had discussions on a range of issues, and I gave a number of examples of the discussions we had recently, the wealth of information given to us by those advocate organisations was incredible and allowed us to be better informed in terms of the decisions we make.
I do not single out any political party either in this Government or the previous one but it was a member of the Government party who made this point already. It is important that decisions made by Government are made on the basis of information, data, what is right and not political decisions. We have seen far too many political decisions made where, if there is a Minister in the constituency, he or she might be better placed to get funding for transport, a health or education service. That should not be the case. It should be based on criteria, equality and what is right for all the people of this country. That is reason we have a national spatial strategy and such policies are in place but often, and I gave the example of the decision on the VECs, those policies, spatial strategies, facts and information which are available to Ministers are put to one side and political decisions then made which is wrong. It does not matter which party is in government. All parties should make sure that when decisions are made they are based on criteria, fact and on wanting to deliver for citizens on the basis of equality and not on whether there is a Minister in a constituency.
Ba mhaith liom ar dtús failte a chur riomh an tAire isteach sa teach seo. I agree with my colleague, Senator Cullinane, that decisions should be based on the criteria he outlined. I do not want to make a party political point but I stated here last week, or even yesterday - the iron chains of memory are failing me - when Senators said that jobs would be lost here and there as a result of the barracks closures, that the relevant Minister should take into account the fact that the provision of the service is the requirement. That may sound callous but I agree with the Senator that as we come to have new politics involving all parties that will be the basis of our decisions and statistics become even more important in that regard.
Regarding my own area, that of education, the programme for Government makes clear that the Government is determined that all young people will leave school able to read, communicate orally, in writing and in digital media, and be able to understand the use of mathematics in their everyday lives and in further learning. In the foreword of the national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy among children and young people the Minister, Deputy Quinn, states:
... we know that some children are not developing these skills as they should. Information from national assessments of reading and mathematics, from inspections in schools and from international studies have shown that many students in Irish schools are not developing literacy and numeracy skills to the best of their abilities.
That gives the lie to the idea that we have the best education system in the world. One cannot argue with the facts. We cannot allow that to continue.
On the general issue of statistics, I cite the great nurse, Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, who was portrayed in Hollywood film as a sentimental character but who was in reality as formidable as any Blackpool landlady, as anyone who has been to Blackpool for their holidays would know. She said:
I collected my figures with a purpose in mind, with the idea that they could be used to argue for change. Of what use are statistics if we do not know what to make of them? What we wanted at that time was not so much an accumulation of facts, as to teach the men who are to govern the country the use of statistical facts.
These words are as relevant to the development of public policy today as they were 150 years ago when Ms Nightingale uttered them in support of her campaign to improve the appalling sanitary conditions in military hospitals. Measuring Up to the Measurement Problem states:
By carefully collecting and analysing mortality statistics of men [They were all men at that time.] admitted to the field hospital of Scutari during the Crimean War, she was able to show that injured soldiers were seven times more likely to die from diseases contracted in the hospital, such as cholera and typhus, than from wounds received on the battlefield. On returning to England, she found that 20-30 year old soldiers living in army barracks during peacetime were twice as likely to die as men in the same age group in the general population. She used these figures to launch a campaign which revolutionised sanitary conditions in military establishments, helped transform the career of nursing and secured her election as the first female Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.
Our Minister for Education and Skills knew what to do with the statistics gathered from information from national assessments of reading and mathematics based on inspections in schools and international studies. Consequently, the Government has identified a serious weakness that will, if action is not taken, affect the future of many of our children. As a result, the national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy among children and young people has clearly identified the action required.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to the House. The significance of statistics in shaping public policy is often overlooked. Often when we think of statistical information, we think of the work of the Central Statistics Office. However, we generally only think of the Central Statistics Office when there is a census and forget about the important work it does between censuses. The Minister of State outlined the manner in which the office serves the State through the provision of economic and social information, which in turn informs public policy of Departments. This is very important. I acknowledge the work of the Central Statistics Office on the census this year. Its work ran parallel with the general election campaign and its officers were calling to people's doors at the same time as politicians.
Statistics comprise an intriguing area. Many university professors provide information on the manner in which public policy should be built on statistics. I agree with this in general but with reservations. Senator O'Keeffe referred to the manner in which the national cancer care strategy was built upon statistical information. The information suggested centres of excellence should be located in areas with a high population density. Perhaps the model is more suited to other countries than to Ireland. In England, for example, the cities are the centres of population. Manchester, Birmingham and London have huge populations and the policy of having centres of excellence works in them. However, in areas such as the north west of Ireland, in respect of which statistical information is only being taken from the Republic's side of the Border, one must include Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Mayo before having a critical mass sufficient to justify a centre of excellence. Some of that area is being served by facilities in the east. There was a breakdown in the terms and the manner in which the centres of excellence were rolled out. This is now being addressed through the centre in Derry.
We must be careful about the manner in which public information is used to inform public policy. Issues such as rural population must be taken into account. Often, however, policy is not rural-proofed. This is done in other jurisdictions such that those living in rural, isolated areas are given consideration over people who live in urban areas where facilities and services are economically viable to the extent that they can be provided by the private sector in addition to the public sector. This should be taken into consideration in the formulation of public policy based on statistics, particularly in countries such as Ireland.
I read some of the Keane report. The information and recommendations in it were formed on the basis of statistical information on mortgage holders and the fact that there are 45,000 mortgage holders in arrears. While I am not advocating that the Keane report should be supported – it has many flaws – I believe it indicates a number of areas that may merit consideration by the Government. These include the circumstances of the almost 60,000 households with restructured loans and the 45,000 who have fallen into arrears of 18 months or more.
The report outlined that the Central Bank does not have access to mortgage holders' current income levels so it is impossible, therefore, to tell whether the 88% of people who are currently paying their mortgages could absorb further tax increases by the Government or interest rate increases by the ECB. It would be worth following up on that and identifying, through the ECB or by giving a role in this regard to the CSO, whether the people who are continuing to pay their mortgages would go into arrears if they were faced with tax increases, new levies or additional hikes to mortgage interest rates. It is important to obtain this information because we must try to ensure those who are paying their mortgages are supported and do not face additional costs or charges that would militate against their being able to continue to pay their mortgages.
With regard to pre-budget planning, in which every Department is engaged, the Fiscal Advisory Council outlined yesterday that to meet the deficit target for 2012 of 8.6%, there would be a need for an additional adjustment of the order of €400 million to the proposed cut in spending to €4 billion for next year. If this is required, it will be far in excess of and in stark contrast to the sum being sought by the troika. It recommends a reduction next year of €3.6 billion, yet the Central Bank and the Fiscal Advisory Council are now recommending, on the basis of the information available to them, that we should go further than that.
The Minister for Finance indicated yesterday that the statistical unit in his Department would consider all these suggestions and carry out its own analysis and make its determination based on the advice and information available to it. This shows the disparity in regard to information. While the European Union and IMF are saying Ireland is doing well and meeting all its targets which warrants a reduction of €3.6 billion next year, the new advisory council is saying we need to go further and should consider a reduction of €4.4 billion and an additional €1 billion each year thereafter until 2015. Both groups are using the same information but the manner in which they are deciphering it is leading to differences. We should not go further than a €3.6 billion adjustment next year because the people simply could not handle it. As the Minister of State is aware, people are struggling, at least in my constituency, and if we go further than what was proposed under the agreement with the troika, we will enter dangerous territory.
It is an indication of how the gathering of statistics can be highly beneficial. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, almost 3,000 ghost estates have been found and 179,000 units are lying empty. This information is of critical importance, as a database now is available of what works must be done and how this can be got on target. The only thing not available is the money to do it but at least the information is available. Statistical information is hugely important and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has an important responsibility in government at present in pulling together all that information and making it available to all the different Departments and to the Department of Finance in particular. I am sure he will use his influence to go with the IMF, rather than the recommendations of the advisory council.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his great contribution at the outset of this debate. It was most enlightening and Members are delighted to have him here. I wish him the best of luck in his role as Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and as Government Chief Whip and I look forward to seeing him in the Chamber again in the coming years. I also welcome the opportunity to speak today on the importance of statistics in developing public policy and planning for Ireland's future. It is clear that policies to deal with problems must be produced which are forward-looking and which tackle causes rather than symptoms. This provides a clear perspective on the vital role statistics can play in the political process. Very often, there is disconnection between public policy and the citizens of the State. People view public policy as merely a product of Government, rather than as an expression of the democratic process. Moreover, they view it as something that is delivered to them rather than emanating from them. This issue must be addressed during the present Administration's term in government.
However, it is undeniable that the proper and efficient use of statistics leads to better policy outcomes and the Government must be mindful of this. I am a great advocate of the old adage that if one cannot measure it, one cannot manage it and it is imperative to formulate a national strategy for the development of statistics that must be fully integrated into the national policy-making processes. Policy decisions must be based on careful and rigorous analysis using sound and accurate data to ensure that Government policies are effective, which in turn will improve development outcomes for society as a whole. Some might ask what makes statistics important in policy-making but their use is the only singular way of making public policy decisions that are fully consistent with the democratic political process. The two brothers of transparency and accountability are an integral part of this and it constitutes an essential part of good governance. It ensures that sectional interests and, for want of a better word, cronies, do not control decision-making processes. It ensures that civil servants are accountable to Ministers and that in turn, Ministers are accountable to the public, whereby the latter can monitor whether a policy has been effective or otherwise. Members must be mindful that statistics help to identify issues such as poverty, inflation, air pollution, unemployment or the number of graduates in Ireland. Statistics also help to shape the design and choice of policy. They help to forecast the future, monitor policy implementation and evaluate policy impact. If policy cannot be measured, it is not good policy, plain and simple.
Good statistics provide a basis for good decision-making. They help governments to identify the best courses of action in addressing complex problems, are essential to manage the effective delivery of basic services and are an indispensable core requirement for accountability and transparency. Good statistics create an environment for development. They measure inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact, thereby providing reliable assessments of key economic and social indicators covering all aspects of development from measures of economic output and price inflation to the well-being of individuals. The litmus test of good statistics is their quality and accessibility and the efficiency with which they are produced. Good official statistics must have many characteristics. They are good only to the extent that they meet the needs of users. Official statistics must be available to a broad range of public and private users and must be trusted to be objective and reliable. Good statistics must also have the breadth and depth of coverage to meet all policy needs and to inform the public so that people may evaluate the effectiveness of Government actions.
In Ireland, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, is the main national statistical service. All censuses and surveys conducted on a nationwide basis are the responsibility of the CSO and to be fair, it does a great job. However, to make use of the findings of the CSO, it now is necessary to establish a type of steering committee with a view to determining guidelines, policy and priorities in statistical activities. Such a strategic approach would help to make available statistics for the formulation of national development policies and to align resources to improve statistical capacity at the point of priority needs. The Government and society need good statistics. Proper use of good statistics leads to better policy and development outcomes. The public wishes to have available facts and figures, as do the bodies that are consulted in respect of new policy initiatives or legislative proposals. Furthermore, whatever form one's initiatives take, such as, for example, grant schemes or regulations, one must ensure they are systematically reviewed to check that they are achieving their desired outcomes. The added value of a steering committee would be that it would provide strategic planning and priority setting within the context of new policies. As the World Bank noted in 2000, statistics:
help to identify needs, set goals and monitor progress. Without good statistics, the development process is blind - policy-makers cannot learn from their mistakes, and the public cannot hold them accountable.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit chuig an Teach. To make informed decisions, one must have ongoing information on public policy and the most important tool in gathering such information is statistics. To have a complete understanding of the issues, be they social, economic, environmental or otherwise, it is essential to have accurate information so that measures introduced accurately match the people's needs. It is the people that statistics must serve and not anything else. They fulfil a vital role in shaping our economic, social and educational policies and otherwise. The undertaking of Census 2011 by the CSO displays our strong commitment to producing factual information relevant to our country. I cannot speak about statistics without mentioning our great statistician, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, who died in the past year. He stated that he frightened his wife from flying because he used to bring the Aer Lingus statistics to bed with him as reading material. Members are aware of how he served this country in the production of statistics. Recognition of our immigrant population was strengthened this year by the availability of the census form in 22 most-spoken languages in the State. This ensured inclusiveness and that no one was excluded in gathering those statistics.
Many Members spoke of the necessity for accuracy in statistics. In this context, I will go back to the 1800s and a quote attributed to Mr. Benjamin Disraeli, albeit one not found in his literature thereafter, namely, "lies, damn lies and statistics". In the present day, it is not as easy to assert that lies, damn lies and statistics may be massaged in the manner that was possible long ago. At that time, people dealt in paper management and did not have linked-up thinking and while more such linked-up thinking is required, the advent of information technology provides greater access to it. Although I agree with Senator Ó Domhnaill that more such thinking is required, it is not as easy to massage the figures as it was long ago. On foot of the advent of computerisation, it no longer is as easy to request X result from a statistic.
More than ever, one must turn to statistics and gathering of information to direct Ireland out of its current economic crisis. Statistics are not new in Ireland and it has been mooted that the prosperity experienced by some in the 1990s was generated from the creative and innovative responses arising from research carried out by the ESRI. That institution should be mentioned today because of the volume of research it conducts in Ireland. I acknowledge that some speakers have suggested that had better use been made of that research, we might not be in the fix in which we now find ourselves but that said, statistics are important. Increasingly, we are faced with complex questions to answer and decisions to make and we need to know exactly what is going on in the economy and in society.
The current situation is somewhat more challenging in that our loss of sovereignty means we depend a great deal on the European Union. European statistics are a major factor for Ireland and our statistics play a big part in the European context, especially whether the economy is growing.
At a conference in Brussels last March, entitled Statistics for Policymaking: Europe 2020, the importance of official statistics was made clear by many of the speakers. It was stated that Europe's overall response to the crisis will require sound, high quality data and statistical analysis on which sound decisions can be made.
Statistics are crucial when setting targets and using indicators for monitoring and evaluation purposes. In particular, statistics are essential in measuring trends in competitiveness and following economic developments, particularly imbalances. It is most important that statistics are up to date. I will not go into any more detail on that because many Senators have spoken about the importance of up-to-date statistics.
A scoreboard of economic indicators, which now could be produced weekly, would inform us about the progress we are making as well as signalling areas that need more attention. If we had had that in 2009 and 2010, there would have been red flags flying, signalling areas that needed attention.
Many Senators spoke about the dearth of statistics between North and South. I bring to the attention of the House that valuable information is being provided under the All-Island Research Observatory, AIRS, and the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, NIRSA, under the tutorship of NUI Maynooth. This involves linked statistics with the Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland, OSNI, the All-Island Research Observatory, AIRO, NIRSA and the CSO. We have mentioned the importance of the CSO, but work is also being done in all those five bodies. They are starting to link data using co-ordinates on maps and GSO filing. I thank the Minister of State for the work he has done with those organisations. We are moving forward but more needs to be done. With computerisation, we will be able to do much more in that regard.
Turning the focus away from the national statistics, I want to bring statistics back to the county level. I am indebted to the manager of South Dublin County Council, the local authority of which I am a former member, who, when he came to the authority, set up the county statistics office, which is doing a valuable job. As the Minister of State will be aware, it is expensive to keep a county statistics office but with the advent of technology, it is possible to merge it into other departments and that is being done. That local authority and two or three others have been chosen to be part of a pilot project in conjunction with NISRA to keep valuable statistics on a county-wide basis. With the breakdown of the constituencies and the work that is being done, it is hoped it will be possible in the next couple of months to bring the level to that of 50 or more households where one will get accurate information on those, perhaps on medical cards and social order.
I will finish by addressing the approach to IT in the Department and gathering statistics. I read an article recently by Mr. David McWilliams in which he stated that many indigenous companies were debarred from tendering for IT or business with the Government owing to legislation. There are many small indigenous IT companies that could help the Government if the tenders were broken down into small elements, which is what we need the statistics on. If tenders were broken down into smaller components, we would not have to wait forever or it would not cost what the Garda system or medical systems cost to put into action.
There can be no denying that statistics are our signpost for recovery. It is only when one understands a problem fully that one can solve it effectively.
I welcome the Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach to the Seanad today and thank him for coming to speak to us on the matter of the importance of statistics in developing public policy and planning for the future. Statistics are used in every part of life. Most people associate statistics with watching a match on television and what comes up at the end of the match, for example, how long a team was in possession, how many wides they hit, how many points were scored and red cards. The Minister of State is used to seeing such statistics when Kilkenny play Wexford in hurling.
The title of the debate is indicative of the professional approach that underpins the policy formulation of the new Government. As the Minister of State has said, "joined up government needs joined up data".
I agree with the previous speakers who all stated that statistics must be used in delivering Government policy. Too often in the past decade, decisions were made based on back-of-an-envelope planning to facilitate jobs for the boys or for political gain. We are paying the price now for that approach or attitude to public policy and planning, most notably with the serious problems with the oversupply of housing in many counties and the spectre of so-called ghost estates.
Statistics are one vital aspect of public policy formulation. I commend the Central Statistics Office on its invaluable work in providing statistical information on a range of matters of public importance. The work of the CSO is a vital aid to legislators such as ourselves. Politicians are fond of referring to anecdotal evidence, meaning the feedback we get from people on the ground, and it is always helpful when the CSO comes up with a finding that confirms that anecdotal evidence and gives it greater legitimacy.
As the Fine Gael spokesperson on transport, I am particularly interested in the role of statistics in formulating transport policy. Recently, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, came to the Upper House to debate the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill. In his Second Stage speech, the Minister referred to a number of statistics and translated the impact of legislative change in the road safety area in a statistical analysis. For example, he told us that in 1972 there were 640 deaths on Irish roads equating to more than 50 deaths per month. He then referred to a number of significant pieces of legislation in the area of road safety, particularly in the area of drink driving and penalty points, and noted that in the period coinciding with the raft of road safety legislation, 2001 to 2010, the number of fatalities on Irish roads fell by 48%. However, the statistics used by the Minister only present part of the story and the statistics alone are not enough. They need to be supplemented. For example, a large range of factors are likely to have contributed to the fall in road deaths, including safer cars, better roads, changes to the driving test, etc., and it is always important to use statistics in conjunction with other research when formulating public policy.
None the less, in some cases the figures can speak for themselves. The number of persons using a particular train at a particular time, for example, makes clear the need to increase or reduce the service. The number of accidents at a particular accident blackspot makes clear the need to improve the safety of the road at that location. Deputy Varadkar is facing into many difficult decisions in the budget and I am sure that statistical information can help identify priority areas but, equally, I hope the statistics will not be the only factor at play.
I thank Senator O'Neill for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well in his job. I hope he is not too busy as Government Chief Whip as that would be a bad political sign for us, but I hope he is busy in these less politically dramatic parts of his portfolio.
It is an interesting discussion on the CSO and statistics in general. Obviously, I agree with virtually everything said but there are a few brief points I want to present.
While the Minister of State and his colleagues in the CSO, with their base of statistics, can be of considerable help to his Government colleagues, it will be up to each of them across their Departments to lead the policy. Statistics are necessary and they are fine, but we cannot be led entirely from a statistical base. Whether it is housing, education or transport planning, a certain degree of political decision making must occur and we should then use the statistics to assist the implementation of those decisions.
In the fiasco of the housing market which we have endured over the past decade, one can argue that if the people had observed the statistics, we would not have ended up with the current housing crisis, but it is equally fair to say that neither a Minister with responsibility for housing nor the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government ever took the political decision to build up the small villages, preserve the rural towns, and allow or not allow rural planning. These types of political decisions need to be made by the various Ministers and we can use the statistical base to push them through. As the Minister of State will be aware, we are commencing an important national debate on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy. We can either decide to consider the issues arising purely from a statistical basis and decide there will always be X number of big farmers and Y number of small farmers or take the political decision that we want to maintain rural Ireland and the maximum number of farming families. A combination of political decisions and statistics must be applied to turn the economy around.
The Minister of State's contribution indicates that joined up thinking is now being practised. I commend all involved in this, whether the head of the CSO or the person who recorded the census. All are playing a key role in giving us a base of information. It is up to us to use this information politically by making decisions across Departments for the good of society.
I thank Senators for the positive contributions they made to this debate. This discussion reveals the high level of interest in this House and in society in general in official statistics and the CSO. For good reason, people are more aware than ever of statistical facts and figures. The CSO publishes a vast amount of information on economic and social issues that affect each and every one of us. At a time of great change and difficult decisions, this statistical information is needed more than ever. We can plan for a better future and progress in building our economic well-being with this information.
The Government's programme for public service reform and its emphasis on greater accountability will make greater use of statistics to inform policy. The statistical system needs to be responsive to policy makers while also maintaining its independent voice. I am impressed by the CSO's professional approach and its ability to provide an independent and impartial service. The census of population is one of our most important information sources for planning. The preliminary headcount figures have already been published and detailed reports will issue in March 2012.
Senator Mooney spoke about staffing problems in the CSO. Like every Government agency, the CSO is committed to making structural changes, including in the area of staffing. I assure the Senator, however, that the professional work it has carried out since its foundation continues. More is being done with less at all levels of government.
Several Senators spoke about the importance of collecting data for the tourism sector. I have spoken with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ring, and their officials on this issue. The CSO makes available a considerable range of information they can use to improve tourism. The CSO board encourages Ministers to find out what types of information are available and some have already met the board. This useful information can be brought to the Cabinet and used to develop policy by various Departments.
As Senators will be aware, there is a strong relationship among North-South bodies and Departments and meetings are held regularly between Ministers from the North and the South. Like other Government agencies, the CSO has a close working relationship with its Northern counterpart and the two agencies are planning to publish a special census 2011 report on Ireland North and South in late 2012 or some time in 2013.
Reference was made to the various ways that census data can be used. Senator Ó Domhnaill spoke about the housing market, which is a welcome addition to the CSO's research functions. We have come through turbulent economic times over the past several years but the CSO has reacted by producing research that will be useful to the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. It also collects a significant amount of data on businesses and industry, particularly in respect of small and medium-sized enterprises. If we are to address our current economic problems, small and medium enterprises-sized will be vital to our recovery. I have encouraged the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Perry, to find out from the CSO what information it can supply.
I have learned a great deal from today's debate. The CSO continues to face significant challenges but I have no doubt it will continue its great work over the next several years. The census 2011 figures will be released early next year. Many people are afraid to fill out the census form because they thought it might be used against them. Last night, I received a telephone call from an individual who blamed the CSO for a social welfare payment being stopped. I assure the House that the CSO is completely independent and the information collected in the census is absolutely confidential. I stand over that as Minister of State with responsibility for the CSO. Its staff, from chairman down, work in a professional manner and treat all information received with confidentiality.
I thank Senators for their contributions and appreciate the input of Deirdre Cullen, the CSO official who accompanied me to this debate. This was my first opportunity to address the Seanad but I hope I will have further opportunities to discuss matters with Senators. As Government Chief Whip I was accused this morning of preventing legislation from coming before the Seanad. I was surprised at this because the last Seanad was adjourned on numerous occasions.
I assure Senators that the Leader of the House, Senator Cummins, is putting me under extreme pressure to have business come into the Seanad which has a very important role to play. I have a very good working relationship with Senator Cummins and if anyone on the other side of the House has any problems with the way the Government Whip's office works I can sit down with him or her and go through how legislation works and how it is introduced into the Seanad.