1. ONS and Statistics

Office for National Statistics (ONS): who we are and what we do

ONS is the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority. It is the UK's largest independent producer of official statistics and the recognised national statistical institute of the UK. Familiar economic statistics we produce are the Retail Sales Index, Gross Domestic Product and the UK Balance of Payments. It also provides a wide variety of social statistics including crime, migration and demography, as well as conducting the ten-yearly population census for England and Wales.

How many business surveys does ONS conduct?

We conduct around 82 different surveys of businesses, organisations and local authorities in the UK, issuing around 1.4 million questionnaires to about 325,000 businesses out of a total of around 3 million.

We also conduct a number of other business surveys in conjunction with other government departments such as the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Who uses the data produced?

The data collected from these surveys is imperative for government, Treasury, financial institutions and other external forecasters. It informs policy-making decisions, helps to monitor the economy and is a primary measure of inflation.

The data are also used by businesses, universities, the media and the public to monitor the government's performance and gain a better understanding of the UK economy.

What are the benefits of statistics?

Statistics play a major role in monitoring the UK economy and setting interest rates. From a business perspective they provide a vital source of information for identifying trends in the market, as a benchmark for company performance and as a guide to market developments.

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2. Selection for ONS Surveys

How was my business selected?

Businesses are selected from the Inter-Departmental Business Register (IDBR), which is a register of businesses in the UK that are registered for PAYE, VAT or with Companies House.

Selection depends on several factors, for example, the number of people employed, how many other businesses are operating in the same industry and the size of those businesses. Generally, large businesses (usually defined as having 100 plus employment) will always be included in a survey sample because the information they provide can be quite significant. We select a number of medium and smaller businesses (usually on a rotational basis) because they perform differently, giving more balance and integrity to our results.

Should we be receiving ONS business surveys?

You should be receiving surveys if you are a:

  • business
  • organisation
  • local authority or local education authority
  • education establishment
  • charitable organisation
  • church

Under Section 17 of the Statistics of Trade Act 1947 anyone carrying on an undertaking, whether or not it is for profit, and including local and public authorities, is legally required to complete ONS business survey questionnaires.

What does ONS consider to be a large or small business?

As a general rule:

  • large businesses – 100 employment or more
  • medium businesses – 10 to 99 employment
  • small businesses – fewer than 10 employment

What is the difference between employment and employees?

Employment is the number of employees and working proprietors.

Employees are the number of people employed by the business.

My business employs fewer than ten people, will I get selected?

Yes, small businesses are also selected for our business surveys, as trading patterns in micro businesses can vary greatly from large businesses. Collecting their data means we achieve comprehensive and meaningful statistics which are representative of an industry.

How many businesses are in each survey sample?

This varies from survey to survey. We set the size of each survey sample at the minimum level needed to produce representative and accurate results for government and other users.

How long will I have to complete the survey?

We cannot give a definitive period of selection for any of its business surveys as this depends on a number of factors:

  • the number of businesses available in each size-band
  • changes to employment levels within individual businesses
  • how many cease to trade and how many new businesses are generated

Additional information about our business surveys can be found on the List of all business surveys page.

Why has my business been selected for more than one survey?

Our business surveys are conducted independently of each other, therefore it is possible for a business to be selected for more than one survey at a time.

Is our selection process fair?

Yes. Our sampling procedures are based on the principle that, over time, businesses of a similar size and within the same industry have the same probability of being selected.

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3. Completing your survey

Will my data be kept confidential?

ONS takes their legal obligation to protect data very seriously and we uphold this in both the staff we employ, their training, the procedures we adopt and the IT equipment we use.

Your data will be treated in strict confidence in line with the provisions of section 39 of the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007, Data Protection Legislation (including the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018) and the Code of Practice for Statistics.

The data you send to us will not be disclosed to any unauthorised personnel. It will only be seen by those who need to be aware of them for compiling statistical data. Unauthorised disclosure of data would be a disciplinary and, in some cases, a criminal offence. 

The information your business provides is regarded simply as a representation of the industry to which it belongs. The resulting analyses are used only for statistical and research purposes, and show no information to identify companies; only aggregated totals are published. No individual business data can be identified unless that business has specifically given its permission.

For further information about ONS's policy on how we store and use the data we collect please visit our website.

What if I don’t want to provide ONS information under the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?

ONS processes personal data in accordance with the GDPR. As ONS collects data from organisations for statistical purposes under the Statistics of Trade Act (STA) 1947, once an organisation is selected to complete a business survey it is legally required to provide us with the requested data. This legal requirement still applies under the GDPR. Failure to complete and return the outstanding questionnaire is a criminal offence that may result in legal action.

For further information, please visit our Data Protection page.

Why can't you get the data you need from my VAT returns?

We are continually seeking to reduce the impact of its surveys on businesses. Improving access to data to support the production of official and National Statistics, and statistical research, for better decision making is a key objective of the UK Statistics Authority and ONS. The Digital Economy Act 2017 has established a legal gateway for HMRC and other government departments to share data with ONS to support UK statistics, for example data held by HMRC on VAT, PAYE Real Time Information and Corporation Tax data. It is anticipated that once these legal gateways are operational, there should be a noticeable reduction in the burden imposed on businesses by ONS's statistical surveys.

Can I provide estimates?

Yes, we do not expect you to go to any great expense or spend an inordinate amount of time obtaining the information required. Informed estimates are sufficient for our needs since we are measuring changes in the economy using data aggregated from the information received from all businesses within that survey sample.

What if I don't have any data to report?

Reporting a genuine zero return is as valid as any other figure as we are measuring business trends.

My business is in administration or receivership – do I still need to complete the questionnaire?

Ideally yes. Businesses in administration or receivership can still trade. If you are unable to supply the information it would be helpful if you could inform us of the name and address of the administrator or receiver.

Can I send my data in via email?

ONS policy is to maintain the confidentiality of all data and emails are not always a secure form of communication.

However, we are now willing to accept data via email for surveys we conduct in paper format. This is a temporary measure because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

If you complete any ONS business surveys online and have a Secure Data Collection account this is the method that should be used to contact us.

Please be advised that any data emailed to us is done so at your own risk. If in doubt please contact us to explore other options to support your data transfer.

Can I complete the survey online?

We have developed a basic facility to allow businesses to submit data securely online, however, this is currently only in use for a very limited number of our surveys and is still in the development stages. We conduct around 82 business surveys and as a survey moves to our Secure Data Collection service, we will notify you by letter. The development of electronic questionnaires is a strategic objective for ONS and is the subject of a major programme at present.

Why have I received a reminder when I have already returned my questionnaire or data?

Reminders are created automatically at a certain point (usually the day after the return by date). If a business returns a questionnaire very near to the return by date it means that the reminder and completed questionnaire can “cross in the post”.

Using automated reminders is the most efficient way for ONS to remind a business to return their questionnaire given the number of business surveys we currently process.

Why are the return dates so early?

For some surveys, the timetable for producing data is very short to give an early indication of what is happening in the economy.

What is ONS doing to reduce the impact of its surveys on businesses?

We are committed to reducing the impact through a number of initiatives:

  • investigating data sharing with other government departments to reduce survey activity
  • consulting with the organisations that represent small businesses through the Federation of Small Businesses which provides the opportunity for business representatives to discuss issues of concern regarding ONS
  • regularly reviewing all surveys to ensure that they are still required and if so, that the demand they place on businesses is kept to the minimum necessary to maintain the quality of its outputs
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4. Do I need to complete the survey?

What authority does ONS have to conduct its business surveys?

Most ONS business surveys are conducted under Section 1 of the Statistics of Trade Act 1947, so your business is required by law to provide the information requested.

Can I be exempt from completing the survey questionnaire?

No. Once selected a business is legally obliged to complete the survey because it is conducted under the provisions of the Statistics of Trade Act 1947

Is there an appeal process?

No. There is no appeal process, nor can you be exempt from selection for ONS business surveys. However, if you think that there are circumstances that we need to be aware of, please contact us as soon as possible.

What will happen if I do not complete the questionnaire?

Failure to comply could lead to prosecution at a Magistrates Court with a fine up to a maximum of £2,500 (last up dated by section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991). If this happens you will still need to complete the questionnaire.

Will I get paid for completing an ONS business survey?

No. Although ONS appreciated the time and effort you take to complete our surveys, it is unable to offer payment as completing the survey is a legal duty and not a service.

Will I be fined if I return my questionnaire late?

All business surveys have a deadline by which data must be submitted in order for it to be used for statistical purposes. Although ONS itself does not levy fines for late receipt of data, failure to supply data in a timely way could ultimately result in court action which could result in penalties of up to £2,500.

What will happen if I provide false data?

Ultimately, ONS must rely on the integrity of its respondents to supply reliable information but to knowingly provide false information [or to provide it recklessly] is an offence under the Section 4 of the Statistics of Trade Act 1947 which can result in legal action. On conviction, penalties incurred can vary from a maximum of £4,000 and /or three months imprisonment, to an unlimited fine and two years imprisonment.

How will you know whether the data I provide is false?

For most of our surveys we have various validation checks built into the processing systems which identify any “atypical” values entered in response to a particular question. Any anomalies are queried with businesses and they are either corrected, or a note is made to explain why the anomaly has arisen.

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5. General survey information

What is the difference between “survey” and “questionnaire”?

For ONS purposes:

  • survey is a method used to collect information from a sample of individuals or businesses
  • questionnaire is the research instrument/document which gathers information

Why is my data important?

The only way to measure the economy is to ask those people who generate revenue. Therefore, as a business, the information you provide is important.

Can I give ONS feedback on the design of its questionnaires?

Yes. We appreciate the time you take to complete our questionnaires. If there is anything which you find confusing or difficult we would like to know.

Please email our Respondent Feedback Team bdd.respondent.feedback.team@ons.gov.uk

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6. Contact us

What if I wish to make a complaint?

Please write to:

Respondent Feedback Team
Office for National Statistics
Cardiff Road
NP10 8XG

or email: bdd.respondent.feedback.team@ons.gov.uk

What if I need further help and information?

If you need help with a particular business survey, please call our Respondent Relations Team. You will find the contact number on the front of your questionnaire or in the survey contact list below. Please be aware that calls may be recorded for quality and training purposes.

Alternatively, you can provide feedback by contacting the Respondent Feedback Team by emailing bdd.respondent.feedback.team@ons.gov.uk

However, if you require assistance in navigating the website or need assistance in finding a particular publication, please contact our Customer Contact Centre on 0845 601 3034 (email: info@statistics.gov.uk).

How do I change the contact within my business?

You can provide the new details in one of the following ways:

  • in the red box on the front of your survey questionnaire which you will find alongside the current address details
  • or, telephone our Respondent Relations Team using either the telephone number which appears on the front of your survey questionnaire or the number identified in the list

How can I get a duplicate copy of the questionnaire?

If you have misplaced your questionnaire you can contact the Respondent Relations Team. Table 1 provides a list of the surveys and the relevant contact numbers. Please note, if the survey is online, you will be asked to enter the three-digit survey ID. Please be aware that calls may be recorded for quality and training purposes.

If you cannot find the survey you are looking for, please see our list of all business surveys page where you will find a telephone number for each individual survey team.

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