Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
THURSDAY 16 NOVEMBER 2000
180. I am very pleased to hear that. We are
told by the Government in various publications they issued with
the Pre-Budget Report that the ONS is at the forefront of trying
to work out this quality adjustment problem with the OECD and
Eurostat, could you say a little more about that and how you are
trying to push forward on an international level, because it is
international comparisons which concern me?
(Sir John Kingman) No, it would be premature for me
to give a Commission view because this is not something we have
studied. One of the traps for the Statistics Commission is to
come out with premature judgments on matters of substance. That
is a trap we shall avoid because it is important, when we do say
something on an issue such as the one you have described, it is
well-researched and well-founded, and anything I said now would
not be well-researched or well-founded.
181. I can accept the need to make sure any
statements you make in this area are of substance and are well-founded,
but clearly this is an area affecting so many aspects of economic
policy-makingthe work of the Monetary Policy Committee,
for example, as well as the setting of budgets by the Chancellorand
therefore it is fairly urgent, and very key to the work of this
Committee. Can you give us any indication of the sort of timetable
you would be looking at?
(Sir John Kingman) No, it would be wrong of me to
do so, and the more important the subject is the more crucial
it is that the Commission should not go off at half-cock.
182. Just to pursue that one a little further,
Sir John, my colleague asked you would you listen to Parliament,
and you said of course you would, and then he asked you about
hedonic pricing and you said, "Yes, we will add that to our
work programme". Is it your intention to blow in the political
wind and every time politicians try to make use of your expertise
you will jump to what they ask?
(Sir John Kingman) No, it is not, and you have misinterpreted
my answer. I did not say we would add it to the work programme,
I said we would take it very seriously. We will certainly listen
to what is said in the Adjournment Debate and what is said in
this Committee as well and we will take that very seriously, but
it is for the commissioners to make the judgment about what are
the important issues and I will bring to them any suggestions,
such as the one that has just been made, and I can promise you
they will take them seriously. I cannot promise you what priority
they will give because that obviously needs careful discussion
in the Commission.
183. Sir John, do you advise on the scope of
the National Statistics?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
184. Do you have a formal remit to do that?
(Sir John Kingman) I assume that any advice that we
give about what is in National Statistics and what is not will
be taken for what it is worth. If Ministers and Parliament and
the other people who read our reports want to take our views seriously,
they will, we cannot force them to do so but we shall report on
any issue which we think is of importance to National Statistics.
185. How would you define the scope of National
(Sir John Kingman) I would not go beyond the words
of the Framework Document which I think are quite clear in this
respect. What I do think is quite impressive is the array of official
statistics which departments have chosen to include within the
umbrella of National Statistics. I think that is a good sign.
It shows that the new structure is being taken seriously in Whitehall.
It gives us a challenge, of course, because there is a lot of
work there for us to do but I think the signs are good that our
work is being taken seriously.
186. When you say that the scope is clear, as
I understood it originally National Statistics would broadly comprise
all statistics of public interest, the Framework Document seems
to classify National Statistics as Government statistics. Do you
define National Statistics as Government statistics?
(Sir John Kingman) As I said before, you have to look
at, at least, three concentric circles. You have the output of
the Office for National Statistics, you have National Statistics
which are produced by other departments, and then outside that
you have a very wide range of work that is carried out by members
of the Government's Statistical Service, much of which is not
in any sense formal statistical output but is, for instance, advice
to Ministers, management information within departments. All of
those are in some sense official statistics, with lower case letters,
but National Statistics comprise those outputs which departments
have chosen to put within the discipline of National Statistics
and within the quality purview of the National Statistician, and
I am encouraged that there is so much meat in that category.
187. But the RPI is outside the category. That
is a statistic which seems to be relied on very heavily, the public
know it, should that not be a National Statistic?
(Sir John Kingman) The RPI is quite a complex situation
and it is one which I think the Commission will want to do some
serious work on. The relative responsibilities of the National
Statistician and of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in relation
to the RPI are a matter of proper public interest and they are
certainly a matter which the Commission will in due course take
a view on.
188. Do you see a danger here that the Government
can run out various series of statistics and classify them as
for management use? Do you accept that you have a role as the
independent watchdog in defining in some sense what are National
Statistics which may be distinct from Government statistics?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, I think we have a role in
advising Ministers in the first instance and, through them, Parliament
and the country at large about the arrangements for official statistics
broadly. We are not going to restrict ourselves to any particular
category, though of course the priorities for our investigations
will be matters for very careful consideration.
189. Do you think it is important, when surveys
are commissioned by Government departments that may lead into
a time series of statistics, that it is decided from the start
whether or not they should be within the scope or not?
(Sir John Kingman) I think it is a question which
needs to be argued, just at what point you label something as
being National Statistics. I am looking forward to seeing the
code of practice which is being produced, I have not seen a draft
of that as yet but the Commission will want to comment on the
code of practice, which I think will address issues of that sort,
issues of timing and so on as well as things like release practices
which we also regard as very important.
190. To pick up on Mr Fallon's point on the
RPI, am I right in believing that it is just the RPI that is left
to the Chancellor, for reasons that the inflation target for the
MPC is set by the Chancellor as well, but that the Statistics
Commission, ONS, could look at other measures of inflation and
develop and comment on those?
(Sir John Kingman) I would regard that whole area
as being within the sphere of proper comment by the Commission.
191. Including comment on the RPI?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, oh yes.
192. Sir John, in the Aims and Objectives in
the Framework Document it says that the first aim is, "To
inform the Parliaments and Assemblies and the citizen about the
state of the nation and provide a window on the work and performance
of Government, allowing the impact of Government polices and actions
to be assessed." There are two major Government policies
which I can identify, one is to improve productivity generally
in the economy, for which research and development and the level
of it are very important, whether it be in universities or other
institutions or in business itself, and the second one is the
general drive to equalise the performance of the National Health
Service and ensure practice is similar in different parts of the
country and being able to compare the incidence of disease. When
I look at the White Paper which is covering the scope, I can see
neither epidemiological statistics nor research and development
statistics either from the public or the private sector referred
to. Is it that they are missing? If they are not missing, how
is one to get a proper comprehensive view of what statistics are
covered as National Statistics?
(Sir John Kingman) I think that is really a question
that you ought to ask Ministers, because they approved that document
rather than the Statistics Commission, but these are certainly
issues on which the Statistics Commission may want to make comments
when it has properly examined the situation. As I have said already,
we are not going to make comments on important matters like that
without careful study.
193. So that is the sort of thing which the
Commission could do?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
194. You could say, "These aspects are
missing, Minister, what about filling them"?
(Sir John Kingman) The Commission could certainly
say that but it is not saying it at the moment because it has
not studied those questions.
Mr Beard: I understand.
195. To come back to the point I asked at the
beginning about the scope and where the responsibility ultimately
lies, you are saying it does ultimately lie with the Ministers
as to the provision of the scope?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes. The definition of National
Statistics is clearly the responsibility of Ministers. We cannot
change those decisions but we can comment on them, we can report
on them, we can advise Ministers if we think it is right to do
so that they should take different decisions from the ones they
196. Why is it, in talking about the integrity
of National Statistics, you have chosen to focus on the question
of freedom of interference, rather than on other aspects that
could be summed up in the integrity of National Statistics like
(Sir John Kingman) These are semantic questions and
one of the things I would like to do in our first annual report,
which we are aiming to produce next summer, is to try to give
some definitions so that we can have an agreed language to talk
about these things. Clearly there are a lot of aspects of National
Statistics which are very important, one of them is freedom from
political interference, another is proper statistical methodology,
which includes an indication of the accuracy of statistics, one
of them is that the systems which produce the statistics should
be robust enough that we can believe the answers, and I could
list others. Exactly what names you attach to those different
aspects is to some extent arbitrary, but I think it would be helpful
for debate in bodies like this if we had an agreed language in
which to discuss the issues, and I hope the Commission can help
in a small way to making the language more precise and acceptable.
197. So integrity will not just be focused on
that issue, it will be widened out when you have considered it?
(Sir John Kingman) I think it is worth thinking about
how useful it is to label different aspects as being integrity
rather than quality or reliability. These are all good things
but exactly what is covered by each of the names is to some extent
arbitrary. But we all agree that it is important that statistics
should be produced by good methodology and robust systems, we
all agree that it is important that the statistics should not
be distorted by political interference. What you actually call
these desirable qualities is something that I think it would be
useful for us to agree.
198. If you were told that the Minister had
directed the National Statistician on some professional issue,
what would you do?
(Sir John Kingman) We only have one power, which is
the power to report and advise, so if we thought something undesirable
was happening, the only thing we could do is to draw that to the
attention of Ministers and Parliament and the public. We have
been told to be completely transparent in our proceedings, so
that if, for instanceand I emphasise that this is "if",
I have no evidence that this is happeningsomething improper
were happening and we advised Ministers not to do that, then that
advice would be public advice, would be known to Parliament and
199. What about the more subtle forms of political
interference where, say, a department drops a whole statistical
series because they do not reflect well on what they have been
trying to do? What would be your role in that case?
(Sir John Kingman) Again, the only role we can have
is to give advice that this is a bad idea.