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Improving Official Statistics

Obituary: Tim Holt (1943-2022)

Tim Holt, the first director of the Office of National Statistics in the UK, died suddenly on 15 November 2022.

Tim was well known in his long role as Professor of Statistics at the University of Southampton, and made a huge contribution to sample survey methodology, both personally and through his internationally recognized contributions with Alistair Scott, Fred Smith, Gad Nathan and John Rao. Tim was an active contributor to British, European and international forums, and well known in the antipodes and North America. He was not only an internationally important academic social statistician whose research and teaching influenced many people across the world, but he made major contributions to official statistics internationally. As a professional colleague it is hard to find many who were more available to discuss statistical issues with, and his wise advice usually provoked deeper thinking. In this way, Tim’s  real impact on the world of statistics was much greater than any impact metrics might suggest.

Tim had a long and distinguished career in official statistics, beginning in 1970 at Statistics Canada. He returned to the UK in 1973 to take up a lectureship at the University of Southampton. He was later appointed Leverhulme Professor of Social Statistics, a post he held from 1980-1995, and was Deputy Vice Chancellor from 1990-1995.

In 1995 Tim led the merger of the Central Statistical Office and Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, to form the Office for National Statistics (ONS), providing a more integrated and comprehensive service to Government and the wider community. During the foundation of the ONS Tim argued strongly for greater professional independence for the Office, which helped to lay the groundwork for the Statistics and Registration Services Act of 2007. Some of Tim’s other major contributions at the ONS were to begin the build up of a central methodological capability, undoubtedly influenced by his time in Statistics Canada, and to expand the British engagement in European statistics through Eurostat. He led the development of the “one number census” for 2001 which was a trail blazer for testing the power of post enumeration surveys as a counter to declining census response rates.  

On his retirement from the ONS in 2000 Tim was made Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). He then returned to a Chair in Social Statistics at the University of Southampton, later to become Emeritus Professor. After retiring from Southampton, he continued to be active within official statistics, through consultancy work and other activities such as chairing the UNSC Friends of Chair meetings on Statistical Indicators. He was also President of the Royal Statistical Society during 2005-2007.

Tim and his wife, Jill, lived on the edge of the New Forest, and were often kind hosts to visiting statistical colleagues from other countries. Having Tim as your host might require running shorts to be donned. He thoroughly enjoyed jogging, orienteering and golf. He also had a great interest in the arts and wrote several Christmas pantomimes for their local village.

Our sincerest condolences go out to Tim’s family, friends and colleagues at this time.

Our thanks also to Len Cook, Dennis Trewin and Stephen Penneck for their contributions to this obituary.