Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning. Despite the late sitting of the House, you look remarkably on the ball.
  (Miss Johnson) Appearances may be deceptive. I trust that some of your Members are disadvantaged likewise by the night's activities.

  2. Thank you for coming. Did you want to say anything before we start our questions?
  (Miss Johnson) No. I know that you will want to ask me various questions and in view of the late night that many of us have had, it is probably better to go straight into the questions.

  3. I begin by referring to a bit of a saga surrounding the publication of the framework for National Statistics. Do we now have a firm commitment as to when the detailed framework for National Statistics will be published?
  (Miss Johnson) We are making progress on it. It is important that we get things right before we publish it and we have been working to achieve that. It is quite a complicated thing to sort out and contributions from about 15 government departments and various other aspects need to be covered. We hope to get it out as soon as possible.

  4. So there is no commitment. I thought that it was published somewhere that you would bring it out in April.
  (Miss Johnson) We are hoping to bring it out during April or May, to link up with the arrival of the National Statistician who will commence his work with us at the end of May.

  5. Because this has been going on for so long I am bound to remind you that you told my colleague, Edward Davey, on 19 October 1999 that there would be no time for consultation on the framework for National Statistics because "we now want to move forward as quickly as we can". Can you tell us why there has been such a delay? We thought it was coming out before Christmas, then we thought it would come out last month and now we do not know whether it will come out in April or May.
  (Miss Johnson) Our intention is to get the detail right. As with all these things, one hopes that moving across all government departments will be done at a relatively rapid speed, but in the event it has taken us longer than we anticipated. However, we are still making good progress on it and we feel that in terms of the issues that need to be resolved that it will not take us much longer to resolve them and get the publication date clear.

  6. Can you give us some indication as to what is holding up the process? Is there anything specific that you can tell us about it?
  (Miss Johnson) No. It is just a question of discussions across 15 government departments. Obviously 15 government departments have to be signed up to all the details. Inevitably that is a time-consuming and complex matter. It does take time.

Mr Fallon

  7. Minister, are you aware that last night the Downing Street website on manifesto commitments said that all the arrangements for the new statistics will be in place by April?
  (Miss Johnson) I am grateful for that information. We believe that we will be on target to deliver on that kind of timetable.

  8. But your statistician will not start until May.
  (Miss Johnson) Indeed. We have been very fortunate in being able to appoint Len Cook as our National Statistician. I am mindful of the fact that a number of you contributed to the debate on the Select Committee report and made points about the importance of having the right person in the post and having someone of credibility and standing in statistical terms to head up the new service. We believe we have that person. Because he is a New Zealander he is having to relocate to the United Kingdom and there are some issues in relation to the timing. I believe that the end of May is the earliest that he can start. We would have liked him to start sooner, but the end of May is the earliest realistic date that he can join us.

  9. There are three parts to this: the publication of the White Paper, the appointment of the statistician and the appointment of the Commission. Downing Street says that all arrangements will be in place by April. That is no longer true.
  (Miss Johnson) We are making good progress on the Commission. I would have been involved with some of the arrangements to appoint the chair before now had it not been for parliamentary business intervening. We hope to appoint the chair on 14 March, and subsequently the chair will be involved with other members of the appointments committee in making the remaining six appointments as soon as possible. We anticipate being able to offer out those appointments by the end of April.

  10. So all the arrangements will not be in place by April?
  (Miss Johnson) They will be in place during the course of April.

  11. I see. You talked of the difficulty of getting the agreement of all the government departments to the arrangements. Do we take it that there is no delay in the Treasury itself?
  (Miss Johnson) No, I do not believe there is any delay in the Treasury. As I am sure you and other Members will be aware, getting responses in from the departments and sifting through them is a complicated job. Officials are busily engaged in that process. That is being co-ordinated through the Treasury and through ONS.

  12. Do you accept that three years is a rather long time to take to get all this sorted out?
  (Miss Johnson) One thing that should be said about the matter is that this is probably the biggest single move forward on national statistics for a 30 year period. We have not had such a large change in the arrangements for our national statistics within the past 30 years. We have a big change to put in place and it is important that we get it right. There have been a lot of long-standing concerns about integrity, which I know you all share strongly, as I do, and as the Government do. There have been problems with statistics and the use of statistics over a period, particularly by the previous Government. While in Opposition we made a manifesto commitment to provide a framework for delivering accurate and independent statistics and appointing a body that would ensure public trust in the statistics. Indeed, the support that was received for the Green Paper proposals for having a Statistics Commission has been impressive. We have made a huge amount of progress since we published the White Paper in terms of appointing a National Statistician, in terms of the development of the National Statistics website and in terms of the development of new planning, prioritisation and consultation structures. If you look at the package overall, given that this is the largest single change for 30 years, a substantial degree of progress is being made. It is now much more important to get things right, to move forward on the basis of taking everybody with us in a positive direction towards the goals that we have set, to which we are very committed, than to worry about a month here or there in the process. Although I appreciate that you are interested in the timetables of particular matters, overall I am sure that you are as concerned that we get it right as we are.

  13. The timetable has slipped. It has been five months since the White Paper. Is it complex or are there disagreements going on?
  (Miss Johnson) We said that we would appoint a National Statistician before 1 April. Although we will not have someone in post on that timetable, we have appointed him. Shortly we shall have the members of the Statistics Commission in place as well and we are getting ready for the launch of National Statistics. We hope we shall be able to do that very soon after the arrival of the National Statistician, hopefully in early June. We hope to launch National Statistics at that point. We think we are making good progress.

  14. In the White Paper you set out the Next Steps, the timetable, and you say that you will publish the framework, appoint the commission and then appoint the statistician. In fact you are doing it completely the other way around. You have appointed the statistician; you have not appointed the commission and you have not published the framework that will define the roles and responsibilities of the statistician and the commission. If you look at 1.9 of the White Paper—Chapter 5—the sequence is completely different. It is a mess, is it not?
  (Miss Johnson) You are quite right to draw my attention to Chapter 5 of Next Steps. There we have a statement of what the next steps will be with three bullet points. That is not prioritisation of the order in which they should be done; that is just three items to be done. I believe that we are carrying them out in a perfectly sensible order. It is particularly important to get the National Statistician in post because he will be the head of the service and a linchpin for the future of National Statistics.

  15. It is a bit odd to appoint him before you have defined his role and responsibilities.
  (Miss Johnson) Broadly speaking we have defined his role and his job. Obviously we have not appointed him without a job description and arrangements for how we see his role developing. When he arrives he will be able to resolve issues like the code of practice that will be an important part of ensuring the integrity of National Statistics. There is a current code, as you will be aware, and we want to build on that and transfer it into the new arrangements with the new code. His arrival will trigger the development of that. I think we have the timing of these matters right, starting with the National Statistician. With any of these kinds of posts or kinds of arrangements, the top person, the chief executive or whatever the role—in this case the National Statistician—is the key person who makes the new arrangements work, sets up the management arrangements and works with the new commission.


  16. On that last point, he will not arrive until May, so he will not take much interest in the development of the framework in the way that you describe if he is absent.
  (Miss Johnson) He will be in a position to be involved with the whole of the development of the code.

  17. But he is on the other side of the world.
  (Miss Johnson) He is. Hopefully, we shall have some contact with him. I believe that there is already some contact. With modern technology, communication is not as difficult to the other side of the world as it was in the past. Obviously, he cannot attend meetings in person. Popping over for a meeting is not exactly an easy option. Because he has to relocate, with his partner, to the UK, clearly in the interim we cannot do certain things with him. However, he will be increasingly involved as the time of his arrival in the UK approaches.

  18. Are there any cost implications of these delays?
  (Miss Johnson) I do not believe so, no. We have a budget for the commission and we have no reason to think that there is any problem with living within that budget.

Mr Davey

  19. When we debated this subject on the Floor of the House I expressed the concerns of the Royal Statistical Society that on the framework of National Statistics there ought to be some consultation. You replied to that debate and said that you wanted to press ahead very quickly and therefore there would not be time for consultation. Given the fact that there has been such a long delay, have you been able to consult with outside bodies like the Royal Statistical Society? Have you taken the opportunity to ensure that you receive wider input from August bodies like that society?
  (Miss Johnson) I do not think that we have consulted them particularly. Obviously the work to put that document together has been going on across Government. That work continues. When we have achieved that we shall want to get it out and get on with the next stage. Knowing the Royal Statistical Society, I am sure that if it has comments it will get them to us in any event and to the National Statistician as well. We have specifically consulted them about it. What I said to you in the debate, notwithstanding the timing, still stands about the way in which we see this as something to be progressed as rapidly as is compatible with getting the right result.

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