Office for National Statistics Special Licence Review

Article dated: 21 October 2016

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Approved Researcher Scheme is the legal gateway used to grant access to potentially disclosive microdata such as those made available under a Special Licence, for statistical research purposes. As a recent review of the scheme concluded that Approved Researchers should only access legally protected data in a secure environment, ONS is stopping the distribution of Special Licence data. As a result, new orders and applications for ONS Special Licence datasets submitted after 4 November 2016 will not be considered.

Existing research projects using ONS Special Licence data will be allowed to continue and conclude under the agreements already in place. However, if additional Special Licence data are required for these projects after 4 November 2016, researchers will need to apply for the Secure Access versions of the data which contain all the variables in the Special Licence version, but with more detail. No other ONS data available from the UK Data Service (i.e., End User Licence and Secure Access versions) will be affected.

As part of these changes, ONS and the UK Data Service will be working together on a review of all data collections hosted by the UK Data Service currently made available through the ONS Special Licence. The purpose of the joint review is to determine whether these data could be made available under an End User Licence. This would be determined by the level of detail of particular variables and whether or not they were considered to be disclosive. To inform the review, we welcome feedback on why researchers use or consider Special Licence data as opposed to those available under an End User Licence or in the ONS VML or UK Data Service Secure Lab.

The UK Data Service recognises that these data are an important resource for researchers and ONS remains committed to giving the UK Data Service permission to provide access to a wide range of research data where it is used for the public benefit.  UK Data Service Functional Director of Access, Katherine McNeill explains,

“The UK Data Service supports the Special Licence Review and is working closely with ONS to minimise disruption for researchers. We recognise that there will be a period of adjustment during and after the review as the new scheme takes effect and will be doing all we can to support researchers through this process.”

If you have concerns about the impact of the ONS Special Licence review on your own research, please contact either ONS ( or the UK Data Service for advice. The outcome of the review will be shared with data users upon its conclusion next year.

If you would like more information about the new Approved Researcher Scheme please see the Approved researcher pages on the ONS website.

For additional information, see the UK Data Service data access policy.

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