Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. That is not what I asked you. I asked you whether integrity and validity include scope.
  (Miss Johnson) I do not think so.

  61. So he will not have access on scope?
  (Miss Johnson) I think the commission will have a role in determining scope and advising on scope, but we do not foresee part of the arrangements being that the National Statistician will want to talk to the Prime Minister about scope.

  62. If a Minister in a department decides, for whatever reason, that a series of statistics should be taken out of National Statistics, irrespective of the commission's view, the National Statistician will not have access to the Prime Minister on the question of scope.
  (Miss Johnson) I am not sure under what circumstances you would see a Minister deleting a set of statistics from National Statistics. I believe any set, once in there, would be entirely free of any political interference. There would be no possibility of political interference. Indeed, the only reason why possibly something may be removed from National Statistics would be that there proved to be some concern about the quality of the statistics, which happens from time to time. The data set may need to be removed temporarily or on a more permanent basis because of professional concerns. I do not see that there is any scope for political interference in the process of whether something is removed from National Statistics.

  63. There have been examples where a series has been suspended.
  (Miss Johnson) Yes, indeed. I think that is bound to happen from time to time.

  64. It happens from time to time. The Home Office suspended a series on household earnings. You are telling us that this new National Statistician will not have access to the Prime Minister on scope?
  (Miss Johnson) On the point you are making about deletion, I would not expect a Minister to be in the position of removing a set of statistics from National Statistics on the basis of a political whim, if you will. I imagine that the only reason why statistics would come out would be as a result of statistical quality. Therefore statistical advice would be concerned with the quality of that particular data set.

Mr Cousins

  65. Dr Holt never exercised his right of access to the Prime Minister, although he presided over the Office of National Statistics through a period in which one of our major national indicators of economic performance collapsed around him. He never exercised his right to go to the Prime Minister. Has it been made clear to the new appointee that his right of access to the Prime Minister exists and that it should be used actively and properly?
  (Miss Johnson) I am sure it has, yes.

  66. You are sure?
  (Miss Johnson) Yes, I am sure it has.

  67. When you say that you are sure, do you know positively that that point has been made?
  (Miss Johnson) Indeed, yes. I have to say that in a well functioning world, just as Dr Holt has not felt the need to exercise that right, that right is to some degree a last resort and it is not something one would expect to happen on a regular basis or ever.

Mr Fallon

  68. Before turning to the commission, in relation to the National Statistician's other function of preparing an annual report to Ministers on the performance of National Statistics, will that be published?
  (Miss Johnson) It certainly will. It is our intention that all that discussion is published and carried out in the public arena. That is one of the key undertakings that we have given. It is a very important part of the provision.

  69. If he had exercised his right to see the Prime Minister during the particular event to which reference was made, you would expect that to be mentioned in the report?
  (Miss Johnson) I believe that what goes into the report will be a matter for the National Statistician. Therefore, I guess it would be up to him to make a decision about whether he wanted to do that. We have not actually said that he has to. I can imagine circumstances under which he may decide he did not wish to make that public. That would be for him to determine. I see no problem with it being put into the public domain were it to occur.

  70. You do not think he should see the Prime Minister secretly?
  (Miss Johnson) There are occasions when something tricky can occur and people have private meetings. We are all familiar with such arrangements. It may be something that is subsequently resolved in some way or another. I am speculating, or you are encouraging me to speculate. I am probably dangerously speculating in response to you. I shall indulge in speculation for one more moment and then refuse to speculate further if invited to do so. I think that there are occasions when it could be conceived that there may be something that he may decide subsequently that he did not wish to put in the public domain. However, I have no problem with matters being put in the public domain. It would be an issue for him.


  71. Retrospectively, do you regret that the person who is described as the head of the profession was not appointed after full and proper consultation with the profession and with the statistical community?
  (Miss Johnson) No, I do not. I do not believe it is possible to have a consultation about an appointment in the way that your formulation may suggest. When appointing an individual, in open competition against other individuals, it does not seem to me that you can carry out a consultation exercise about the appointment. I do not think that is compatible with the various requirements that a well run appointments procedure would indicate that one should carry out. I am not sure how that process would work.

Mr Beard

  72. The Royal Statistical Society has suggested that the recruitment process for statistics commissioners was badly planned and that that may prevent good candidates from applying. You have already said that that is not the case. How will you determine the balance between the professional statisticians and users on the commission?
  (Miss Johnson) In response to that it is fair to say that we are keen to achieve a balance. We are keen to see that some of those members of the commission will reflect the different roles in relation to engagement with statistics, to draw on the views of users and providers and to be capable of acting as a guardian of the public interest in National Statistics and in its integrity and independence. We are talking about a commission chair together with six members. We shall look across those appointments to get a balance of backgrounds and skills. It is hard to give you a ratio because it will depend on the quality of those who come forward. However, we shall try to achieve that kind of mix that I have indicated.

  73. That will include some from outside?
  (Miss Johnson) It could do. We shall certainly look for that range.

  74. The principal function of the commission is to comment on the work of other people. How can you be sure that the commission will have teeth in making such comments? For instance, when it looks at a department, or when the National Statistician has said that the scope of the statistics being gathered departmentally is not adequate in his opinion, would the Statistics Commission say that it had an opinion or would it do something about it?
  (Miss Johnson) The Commission, I think, would have a role in advising about the scope of National Statistics, but they will also provide a focus in terms of users, and, indeed, will produce a report for Parliament annually. We also see them very much as guardians of integrity, independence and professionalism and being separate, to some degree, from both National Statistics itself and, of course, from Government. So, for example, we envisage that they will be located neither in the Treasury nor within the Office for National Statistics, but we will be looking to find them some other home and they will be set up with a secretariat to support that function. We envisage about eight people to support that function. We are in the process of appointing the first person to provide that additional support. So we see them as having this guardian role, separate both from Government, obviously, crucially, but, also, to some degree, from National Statistics itself so that they can provide that separate and independent voice which will help to ensure the integrity of the arrangements we want to set up.

  75. So there will be National Statistics and then there will be departmental statistics. They will have a role in looking at the integrity, validity and scope of all that?
  (Miss Johnson) They will have a role in advising on the scope of that. We envisage all the current ONS statistics as going into National Statistics—indeed, everything also that is involved in public access datasets will go into National Statistics. Departments already produce quite a lot of statistical output and some of that is covered as ONS and GSS statistics and some of it is not. Obviously, part of the discussions which are going on about the framework is exactly what statistics will go forward into the new framework, but the Commission will certainly have a role in advising on the scope of National Statistics.

  76. One aspect of the National Statistician's work has already been covered, which is to secure the validity and the integrity of National Statistics. Would it also be true that he will be the agent of the Commission in carrying out a day-to-day review of the way things are going, and be expected to report to them if he does not feel comfortable with the way things are going?
  (Miss Johnson) I would envisage some arrangements between the two, but I think it will be like having, perhaps, a board of governors, as it were, slightly independently of the rest of the organisation, and a chief executive, or whatever, with the role within the organisation itself. Perhaps a little more separate than, perhaps, a board might be in relation to its executive, but perhaps in something of that relationship. Certainly the National Statistician, I do not think, would report to the Commission; the Commission will sit separately and have a separate role.
  (Mr Grice) One way in, I think, in this context is to regard, in one of its functions, the Commission as being a kind of external statistical auditor; so it will have the role of assuring itself that the quality assurance processes and the processes within National Statistics are up to scratch or progress has been made to bring them up to scratch, and, also, where it is dissatisfied it will have the ability to conduct its own audit, if you like—its own study—of particular areas, if it is particularly unhappy. So, in that sense, it will be at some distance, properly, because it will have this audit, this checking function. There ought to be co-operative arrangements, in one sense, but also, necessarily, some distance will be involved.

  77. Who would do the checking on its behalf? The National Statistician?
  (Mr Grice) No, it will have its own staff and it will have the ability to commission studies, to commission work in particular areas where it is unhappy—if it is unhappy.

  78. That will enable it to look both at the work of the National Statistician and the departmental chief statisticians?
  (Mr Grice) In principle, although how it operates would be for the Commission to decide.
  (Miss Johnson) I think its role, primarily, is going to be in relation to National Statistics and what is included in National Statistics. Obviously, heads of profession in departments, as they now are, are responsible for the quality of departmental statistics, and we are keen to see all statistics produced to a very high standard, wherever and by whom they are produced.

  79. For instance, if a department decides in the campaign of economies that it will cut back on its gathering of statistics to a substantial extent, who will sound the warning bells outside the department that this may not be a good idea overall?
  (Miss Johnson) The arrangements are complex and I had not appreciated, until I got involved with this, how complex the current arrangements are. There is obviously statistical work carried out by ONS itself funded by itself, there is obviously work carried out by the departments that is completely separate from any government statistics or from the ONS statistics in any way, and then there is an area which is sort of in between, which is statistics carried out by the departments' own statistical capability, on behalf of or contributing to the work that ONS do. So some version of these relatively complex arrangements will continue, because the funding is with the departments for the datasets which their own statistical services produce. There is a continuing demand for new datasets, for more information to be gathered, for different information to be gathered, and more sophisticated information to be gathered, and one of the things that will continually have to be looked at by all parties involved with this is the cost-benefit analysis on the datasets which are being collected and developments which may take place in the future. Some things will be very valuable to do, and we will want to develop them, but there is always a cost issue and there will be an issue about where that cost lies in the current arrangements, and that could be an issue in future arrangements as well.

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