Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 1 MARCH 2000
JOHNSON MP, MR
100. Let us say there are resource constraints
(Miss Johnson) There are. Do not say "if"there
101. I am allowing you to accept that there
are these resource constraints, but surely you want to give to
the National Statistics not only the ones that can easily be handed
over from the ONS but, also, the ones which are most important
for measuring the success of Government. In other words, those
statistics which really focus in on whether policy is being effective,
such as hospital waiting lists and class sizes. Are you trying
to make it a priority that those types of statistics, which really
measure what the Government said it was going to do, are given
to National Statistics?
(Miss Johnson) It will be, of course, and it always
is with these things, a matter of considerable discussion as to
what the most important statistics and indicators actually are,
both across Government and, indeed, for individual services. I
do not see there being a known answer to that question at this
particular point. As I said, all departments are currently considering
what statistics, apart from their current ONS statistics, will
go within the initial scopeand I have to emphasise the
word "initial"of National Statistics. I do see
that as being something that is bound to evolve with the passage
102. Surely, if the Government comes to power
with a set of key targets and key measures that it wants to be
judged by, it would like to ensure that those measures and the
statistics behind them are independently validated, so everyone
can have faith in them that they can be judged properly and honestly
by those statistics? Surely, they would be your priority to give
to National Statistics, over and above everything else?
(Miss Johnson) I think our priority, at the moment,
is to make this huge change that is being made that has really
not happened over the last 30 years, and to actually put on a
firm footing the fact that we have had, as we all know, various
events in the life of statistics produced nationally (I had better
not use the word "national statistics" because that
could be a little confusing), such as the problems with the claimant
count. We saw 30 changes, I think, over a period of 18 years,
which undermined people's credibility in the statistics that had
been produced on a national basis. So our first and primary goal
is to make arrangements which will ensure the integrity, professionally,
and the independence of statistics, and restore trust in statistics
to the level that we believe it should be, and, hopefully, enhance
it for the future. Our emphasis has been to put our energies into
putting the mechanismsobviously, the Statistics Commission,
the National Statistician and, ultimately, to get the framework
published and have the code drawn upin place, which will
guarantee the new arrangements and the success of the new arrangements.
That has got to be our first and foremost priority because if
we do not achieve that overall target then issues about individual
datasets will become irrelevant, frankly, because that is the
prize to be won; it is to restore the public confidence in statistics
produced and used by government generally across the piece. It
is a very big project, and it is one, I feel, that we have made
very considerable progress on. I am very proud of the progress
we have made to date on it, and I think the indicators are that
we are going to achieve our goals over the next couple of years.
103. You say, in paragraph 4.4 of the White
Paper, under the title "Scope of National Statistics",
that your intention " ... is to begin by including all ONS
publications, public access databases and, with the agreement
of ministers, other statistics published by departments. Details
will be published with the Framework for National Statistics".
Can you tell us, when the Framework for National Statistics is
published, whether it is likely to include statistics such as
hospital waiting lists and class sizes? Is that your expectation
at this moment?
(Miss Johnson) I can tell you that we are discussing
with departments which statistics will be included and will be
published in that list with the framework.
104. Are you having discussions about
(Miss Johnson) I am not having discussions with anyone,
it is being dealt with at official level, but 4.4which
you have just read outis exactly what we will be carrying
out and is exactly what will be happening over the coming month
105. Is the Treasury trying to persuade Ministers
of the Department of Health and the Department for Education and
Employment that those sets of statistics should go to National
Statistics? Is the Treasury doing that or is it not doing that?
(Miss Johnson) We have sought the views of departments
who are considering what other statistics will be included within
the scope of National Statistics initially.
106. Let me ask you in a slightly different
way. If ministers reject recommendations from the Statistics Commission
when the Statistics Commission reviews the scope of National Statistics,
will the reasons for their decisions to reject the recommendations
of the Statistics Commission be made public?
(Miss Johnson) Recommendations or other suggestions
being made by the Commission will be, if they wish to make those
publiclyand we would expect them to normally make them
publiclymade publicly. So will ministerial responses to
any things that the Commission have made publicsuggestions,
recommendations or whatever. Public pronouncements will also be
made public. We said that, and that is exactly what we are carrying
out and intend to carry out.
107. Just pursuing this question of scope, if
the Commission, once it has got going, decides that a certain
line of statistics that is currently excluded from National Statistics
ought to be included, it will be able to publish that recommendation?
(Miss Johnson) It will certainly have a role in advising
on the scope of statistics.
108. That is not what I asked you. I asked you
whether it would be able to publish a recommendation.
(Miss Johnson) We do not envisage fettering the work
of the Commission in some way. They will be able to advise and
have a role in advising on the scope of National Statistics.
109. Will they be able to publish their advice?
(Miss Johnson) They will certainly be able to publish,
annually at leastand I do not see any other problema
report which we hope will be taken and discussed here in the House
of Commons. Indeed, we did try to entice the Treasury Select Committee
or the Sub-Committee to actually volunteer to definitely receive
and debate the annual report. I hope it is clear that I hope I
can encourage you to take up that role, and I am sure you will
be keen to do it when the time comes. We are already. We would
hope that those outputs are not only public but are publicly widely
discussed and, indeed, discussed in this building and by the House
110. You are starting to talk about the role
of the Select Committee and I am asking you about the Statistics
Commission. In the White Paper you envisaged, did you not, that
where the Commission made a recommendation about scope ministers
would then decide, but they would then publish their response
to the Commission's recommendation?
(Miss Johnson) I have said, in relation to Mr Davey's
point, that ministerial responses to something the Commission
has said publicly will, as the Commission is publicly going to
make its comments, likewise, be made public.
111. That is extremely helpful. Just to be absolutely
clear: if a minister decides that a line of statisticson
tax burden, or crime, or waiting lists, or school sizesshould
be excluded and the Commission thinks they should be included
and defined as National Statistics, they will be able to publish
(Miss Johnson) I think the exact way these arrangements
are going to work, over and above what I have said, is something
that we envisage covering in the framework document when it is
112. Which, of course, we have not got.
(Miss Johnson) You have not got it because it is not
available. Let me make that clear. Work is still continuing on
it. It is not that I have got it, either.
113. How would you define an independent service?
(Miss Johnson) I think it is one where people are
able to make comments, in relation to the remit that they have,
that are not in any way bound by any particular rules about what
they can say, and where they are free from any untoward consequencessuch
as not continuing in that role, being sacked, or whatever; that
they are free from any consequences that anybody may wish to visit
on them as a result of what they say. So that their freedom is
114. So the definition of an independent service
is one in which people are free to make comments?
(Miss Johnson) If you are talking about the Commission.
The Commission's role is an advisory role, in essence.
115. In your manifesto, Minister, you said you
are pledged to "an independent, national statistical service".
I am asking you what an independent service is, and you are telling
us that it is simply one in which people are free to make comments.
(Miss Johnson) I am sorry, I thought you were talking
about the Commission.
116. I am talking about the arrangements as
(Miss Johnson) I am sorry. I misunderstood what you
had been saying, because you had not quoted from the manifesto
at that point. If you are quoting from the manifesto, what we
believe is that we need a service which is going to provide statistics
which are of a high quality, professionally, to the highest standards
(and that will be covered by the Code of Practice, and to the
professional standards which will be laid out in that Code of
Practice) and that those statistics are able to be produced free
of political interference. That is why it is so important that
the National Statistician has a right of access, in terms of integrity,
directly to the Prime Minister; that the Commission is part of
the arrangement, because I think the Commission is an important
part of these arrangements, and that the Commission can operate
in an unfettered environment in carrying out its role as both
independent of National Statistics and independent of Government.
117. I am pressing you on this manifesto commitment
because this is what you said is all going to be in place, finally,
in April. You say you are committed to an independent statistical
service, but what has come across this morning is something rather
different, is it not? It is a National Statistician chosen by
the Permanent Secretary; a Commission which will, in fact, be
a departmental bodya creature of governmenta framework
that is not statutory, and statistics that are, in fact, defined
by yourself in the Treasury. That is not an independent service,
(Miss Johnson) No, but that is not, with respect,
an accurate summary of a number of points which I have made to
you. To say that, for example, the appointment of the National
Statistician has been made by the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury
is to forget the other members of the appointments panel. You
have not given an accurate description of the detail which I have
given you about the way all these arrangements are actually going
to work. This has been such an overriding aim for us, to ensure
the quality and the independence of official statistics. One of
the things we have always intended to do is to consult to make
sure that they had that basis. When we consulted with the Green
Paper, one of the things that came back as one of the most popular,
if you will, aspects of the suggestions that were made in the
Green Paper, was that there should be a Statistics Commission,
and that is one of the aspects which we built into the new arrangements
to help to ensure that independence. We believe we have come up
with a workable arrangement which will guarantee the standards
and the independence that we are looking for.
118. I wonder if I could ask you questions,
Minister, coming down more to the substance of the operation of
statistics. Looking at the Average Earnings Index, which has proved
such a difficult point over the last 12 months, I wonder if you,
as a Treasury Minister, are now satisfied about the reliability
of the Average Earnings Index?
(Miss Johnson) We have certainly, and ONS, taken on
very firmly the recommendation made in the Turnbull King Report
and taken forward the various implementation issues which arose
out of that. I am certainly confident about the quality of the
AEI, yes. We are continuing to make sure that we strengthen the
methodological aspects of ONS to make sure that there is sufficient
methodological capability within the organisationwhich
was one of the issues identified in relation to the indexand,
also, that we have a greater economic statistical input to the
organisation. These are all issues which are or have been addressed
and which are part of making sure that the sort of problems which
occurred over the AEI never occur again. As we all know, this
is an important economic indicator, and the consequences of it
being wrong in any way could cause alarm. As it turned out, it
was not so far off the mark, but the change and the way it was
done caused considerable alarm and concern and it, effectively,
could have had economic consequences. We are very concerned to
make sure that that does not happen. I know that ONS, as they
are currently and in future in the new arrangements, will be equally
concerned to make sure that we do not have that problem again.
119. The Governor of the Bank of England told
the main Committee in November, and the Deputy Governor reiterated
this point again yesterday in front of the main Committee, that
they were still uncertain about the reliability of the Average
Earnings Index over a 12-month period, because 12 months back
is embedded in the period of uncertainty. Is that the view from
the Treasury, too?
(Mr Grice) I think the point I would make, which I
think is relevant, is that of the recommendations made by the
Turnbull King Report and, indeed, by the Professor Chambers Report,
which ONS themselves commissioned, some of those changes could
be made very quickly (and, indeed, all of those changes have been
made) but I think we recognised from the outsetand, indeed,
said so publiclythat some of the changes, like, for example,
improving the sampling procedures, will take a period of months
to implement. On all of the recommendations ONS are up to the
timetable, which they acceptedand the Turnbull King Report
came out a year todaya year ago. However, all of those
recommendations are being taken forward, but some of them are
things which were always known to take a period of time to implement.