Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. Would it be public advice? Would you be issuing a press release saying the Government are being challenged, or the Minister is being challenged, on this, that and the next thing?
  (Sir John Kingman) Any advice we give is necessarily public because Ministers have told us that we have to be transparent in our proceedings. Whether we do it by press release or on our website or by whatever means, that is a matter of tactics, but the substance is that if we give advice to Ministers then that advice will be public.

  201. What will the Commission be able to do to challenge the use of statistics by Government if it does not think they are being used appropriately?
  (Sir John Kingman) Our first priority is to ensure that the statistical output that bears the brand of National Statistics is something that we can all trust. It is inevitable that statistics will be misused, if not by politicians then certainly by journalists, and we may well find ourselves commenting on the misuse of statistics but that is not our prime focus. Our prime focus is that when something comes out with the brand of the National Statistician on it, this is something that we can all believe. What use we all make of it is more difficult to control and we certainly have no power to control anyone. All we can do is to report and advise, and that we shall do.

  202. But if it were a blatant abuse, you would speak up?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think we might well.

  203. What would happen if a department decided to engage in some survey to determine its policy priorities which might be considered a dubious survey, it might be one which was answered before it began? Is there any proposal for the Commission to give a sort of quality standard mark on these sort of exercises?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think you are asking very hypothetical questions now.

  204. It is not all that hypothetical.
  (Sir John Kingman) I have not had any evidence presented to me that anything like that is going on. If it happened, we would have to consider what our response would be.

  205. Can I press you on that point because I do not think it is enough for you to say that it is hypothetical? There will be departments who will initiate polls and surveys of different kinds as the monitoring of different policies. Now I am not suggesting any malfeasance but they may not have the best statistical background, they may not have used the best methodology. Would you not have a role in scrutinising those to ensure that the statistics which were then being produced by the Government as a result of this conformed with the highest standards?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think the primary role in that respect lies with the National Statistician because the National Statistician has been given a responsibility for the quality of the whole of National Statistics and a professional responsibility for the working of the whole Government's statistical service. It might well be a situation where we might want to comment, positively or negatively, on the working of the National Statistician in that regard, but I think you are leading me into areas where as far as I can see at the moment it is not clear there is a problem. Of course there always may be a problem but I do not think you should start from the assumption that there are going to be problems of the sort you are describing.

Mr Davey

  206. Her Majesty's Treasury stopped publishing a series on the tax burden earlier in this Parliament. Could you envisage the Commission looking retrospectively at such decisions and giving advice to Ministers on whether they could reinstate such a series and publishing that advice?
  (Sir John Kingman) I could imagine a situation in which we might offer such advice, yes.

Mr Kidney

  207. Could I ask you to briefly describe to us how you will carry out your auditing work, perhaps by reference to your plan to audit the adequacy of the National Statistics to monitor the Government's National Cancer Plan?
  (Sir John Kingman) Obviously the Cancer Plan is a particular study which may well throw up general questions that we will want to address in a more general context. We will want to try to assess the systems by which the various statistical series are produced and that means that we need to study the workings of the Office for National Statistics and the various statistical groups in the other departments and try to assess whether the systems they are using are robust, whether the methodology they are using is the best methodology available, whether they have taken advantage of outside statistical advice and help, for instance from professional bodies, whether the statisticians who are doing the work are appropriately qualified and so on. Those will all be factors that we will take into account in coming to a view about whether the systems are reliable. Clearly there will always be risk of failure in any system, just as when one is auditing a company's accounts one wants to look into whether there are appropriate precautions in place to manage the risks of failure or distortion or whatever. That is clearly a demanding agenda. It is one which we shall carry out to the best of our ability and we will hope to come to conclusions where we can assure the public that they can rely on the statistics that are being produced.

  208. Do you see any danger of unnecessary duplication or even harmful duplication in the work that you do and the work that the National Statistician's Office is doing anyway?
  (Sir John Kingman) We shall obviously depend on the work that the National Statistician is doing both in the Office for National Statistics and more widely, but we shall have to form independent judgements on that. We clearly are not going to look at the detailed calculations of every series. We are going to look at the systems and try and assess the adequacy of the systems. That will inevitably be to some extent on a sampling basis.

  209. When statistics go out under the National Statistics brand is it your view that they should always carry a "health warning" about their accuracy or the limitations on their use?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think I have already answered that question by saying that we have already talked to the National Statistician and asked him to think about ways in which the accuracy and reliability of the statistics can be signalled in the publications. This is something which is going to be done in different ways depending on the sort of statistics that are being considered and the sorts of uses to which they are put. For example, with something like the average earnings index, clearly the Monetary Policy Committee and other bodies that use those figures need to know just how accurate it is. Is it to one decimal place or two decimal places or no decimal places, for instance, whereas with a lot of the social statistics that are produced it is much more important to know whether the trends that are apparent in the statistics are real trends, whether if something is increasing and then starts to level off, that levelling off is a real effect or is some statistical blip. That may be expressed in a quite different way from the way in which you express the accuracy of one of the key economic indicators. That is something we will want to discuss with Len Cook and his colleagues to find a way forward which gives the best information to the users, both the professional users who may understand some deep statistical statement and the more general user who will want something much more general and much more easily understood without the benefit of a statistical education.

  210. So to my question, is it your view that they should always carry a "health warning", is your answer, "It is a matter of horses for courses. Some do require some help and some do not"?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think my answer is yes, but the sort of "health warning" will depend on the sort of output and that is something we shall want to discuss.

  211. In a submission we had from the Society of Business Economists they commented that with the exception of the financial sector the membership of the Commission does not include representation from business and so they were worried you would not have a sufficiently high consciousness of the needs of business and the kinds of statistics that they make use of in their businesses.
  (Sir John Kingman) The White Paper made it very clear that the Government had opted for a Commission which was not representative but was a small Commission of people who had the ability to carry out the functions required of Commissioners. Therefore the Commission is not actually representative of anyone and is not intended to be. There are only eight of us all told but the Commissioners do have a very wide variety of experience and in my view the Commission is a very strong one in terms of the personal qualities of the Commissioners. The fact that we are not representative means that we have to listen very carefully to the views that are expressed by the sort of body you are now quoting, the various user groups, but also groups that do not think of themselves as statistical users at all but really are.

  212. The Monetary Policy Committee faces similar criticisms from time to time and does its best to overcome the criticisms by going out and talking to businesses. Is that part of your plan?
  (Sir John Kingman) We shall certainly want to be sensitive to the views of businesses. The exact mechanisms by which we do this are still under consideration and we are very open to suggestions from anyone who is interested in our work.

  213. I suggest you go out and meet them.
  (Sir John Kingman) Thank you.

  214. Finally, on the question of wider public opinion about statistics and whether there is confidence in them, are there any plans for the Commission to try to measure public confidence in official statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes. This is one of the most interesting questions that we face and it is something that we are discussing with the National Statistician and his colleagues because they have a similar interest in measuring the public confidence and trying to get a feeling of how it changes over time. It is not an easy problem. As measurement problems go it is a very complex one and the last thing we want to do is to have unreliable statistics about the public confidence in statistics and getting into a rather ridiculous logical conundrum if you are not careful. It is very important that we do it and we have this very high on our agenda, to find a way which can be relied upon to measure the public confidence. There are certain anecdotal indicators. When people quote what is supposed to have been said by Disraeli that is a negative sign of public confidence in statistics, but we need something much more reliable as a measure of that confidence and whether we are managing to improve the confidence over time.

Mrs Blackman

  215. Sir John, are there circumstances when you might wish to comment on the adequacy of the resources in the ONS?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, I think it is quite likely that we will find ourselves commenting on resources both for ONS and more widely for the production of National Statistics, and we may well want to comment on the cost effectiveness of statistical activity and on the priorities that are being set. I do not think we will necessarily always be arguing for spending more money. We may be arguing for targeting the available resources more effectively but we have not yet reached the stage where we have substantive comments to make on resources.

  216. Have you had some discussions on the impacts of the Spending Review on ONS?
  (Sir John Kingman) When we look at the systems within ONS one of the aspects that of course will inevitably arise is whether the systems are being starved of resources or whether the money that is available is going in the right way in the right places.

  217. So you have had some initial discussions?
  (Sir John Kingman) We have had some initial discussions on that and it is clear that there are very difficult issues, for instance, around the provision of proper IT support for National Statistics. These are certainly issues on which I would not want to make comment without a lot more study but it is certainly within the purview of the Commission.

  218. So that is a priority?
  (Sir John Kingman) It must be a priority to look at the way the systems are working and if, when we look at the systems, we think that there are resource problems we shall say so.

  219. Back in March the Minister described the Commission as guardians of integrity, independence and professionalism, so should the Commission be auditing and commenting on the quality of professionalism of the staff at the ONS and government statisticians?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think that is certainly a material factor. I have already included that in the factors we will be looking at when we look at the systems in ONS and more widely in the departments that produce National Statistics.

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