Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
WEDNESDAY 1 MARCH 2000
JOHNSON MP, MR
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.
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
(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.
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
(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
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
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
(Miss Johnson) The Commission, I think, would have
a role in advising about the scope of National Statistics, but
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 Statisticsindeed, 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
(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 likeits own studyof 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 unhappyif 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
(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.