Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. On this question of scope, Minister, the aims and objectives that are set out in this Framework document say that the purpose is to inform Parliament and assemblies and the citizen about the state of the nation and provide a window on the work and performance of government, allowing people to access government policies and actually to be assessed. I have looked through this list of topics and initiatives for the ONS with two policies in mind. One is the Government's urge to improve national productivity which, amongst other things, would involve particulars on investment in research and development both by Government and by the private sector, and indeed the Department of Trade and Industry has in the past published a research and development scoreboard, but also the health policy which is to try and ensure that the treatment available in different parts of the country is similar, which involves a certain amount of epidemiological statistics. I can see neither of those topics mentioned in here at all. The question really is, how are people to know what is covered by the National Statistics, what are the National Statistics, and will there be a full index published at some point saying what at any one moment are considered to be the National Statistics that people can refer to and therefore pick out what they want to look at?
  (Miss Johnson) Perhaps I could make an initial response and Mr Cook might want to come in. The research and development statistics are collected by ONS and therefore they are in the scope. Perhaps a problem that you are highlighting with the initial document is that there is a one-line entry which relates to ONS statistics which obviously does not elaborate the content of those statistics being included in the scope. We will certainly do our best to produce a comprehensive list of what is included in the scope by doing it on a line by line basis, but when the document was being published it was just not feasible to put an entire list under that ONS heading which is I think the first line on the document that you are referring to.
  (Mr Cook) Can I add that studies such as epidemiological studies, where they come from, the demographic data that is collected in ONS (and the population census of course is the key foundation for that) will themselves be part of National Statistics where they are regularly produced. There is a whole range of measures that come from statistical frameworks. The Minister referred to PAT 18. National accounts is another, balance of payments statistics, demographic statistics, where, even if all the components are not part of National Statistics, the resulting statistics will be of such importance that the components will be expected to have the qualities of National Statistics in terms of their basic statistical integrity. I think that is one of the ways that we will see National Statistics being defined in terms of the significance of those very valuable statistical outputs.

  241. This is a question for both Miss Johnson and Mr Cook. By what criteria do you develop the list of statistics that shall initially be included within National Statistics?
  (Miss Johnson) It has been a question partly for departments what they would like to see included in the scope of National Statistics. It is obviously also a question about the professional integrity and the quality of those statistics. They have to meet up with standards which the National Statistician is confident meet up with the requirements to be of a standard such as to be put into the National Statistics scope. I think that is a very important proviso. People cannot just volunteer things they would like to put in there. They have to meet up with the quality required in order to be included. I have to say that because some things are not included it does not necessarily reflect in any way on the quality of some of the things that are not presently included.
  (Mr Cook) I am not aware of any country in the world that has come up with a perfect definition of what is an official statistic and what is not. Of course National Statistics is our label for that. In essence it is the visibility, the significance and the expectation of the accountability arrangement for the quality of these statistics, because in fact National Statistics in essence are statistics that people have to trust because of the significance of the decisions that they make about them, and therefore the National Statistician has an accountability for ensuring that that trust is justified. I think that there will always be a measure of pragmatism in the boundary as to what is a National Statistic or not.

  242. Did I understand you, Minister, to say a moment ago that there is likely to be published a progressive list of the statistics available?
  (Miss Johnson) I think the line in particular in here says "all ONS statistical outputs and public access databases" which is not very explicit and I appreciate that that will cause people problems. Much of the rest of this list is pretty specific about what is included, but I think it would probably be very helpful to expand with a list that single line that was used for ONS's own contribution to the scoping exercise.

  243. Would you not agree that it would be useful to have a list of National Statistics, what is included and what is excluded, in the way, say, that the Scottish Executive have produced in Scotland?
  (Miss Johnson) We are looking at what is included in the GSS statistics, but to say all the statistics that exist that might be outside both of those would be a very difficult task for anyone to perform. For one thing many of the things that are outside are done for various purposes across government. We may not even be conceivably aware of them in some cases. There may be small things going on in departments for their own internal uses that have no major bearing on anything. It would be very difficult to produce a total list across the board of "these are in and those are out". What we can do is provide a fuller list of the GSS statistics.
  (Mr Cook) We are preparing a comprehensive list of National Statistics. We will not of course be able to produce a comprehensive list of statistics which are not National Statistics because, as the Minister has pointed out, in essence what is not a National Statistic but should be is a measure of judgement. What we will identify are significant statistics that are not National Statistics, but that, as I say, will always be a little bit debatable.

  244. Do you think that non-government statistics like house prices ought to be included in the National Statistics?
  (Mr Cook) I think we need to think of the category of statistics which are measures which we expect to have the quality of National Statistics in terms of their statistical properties because of course if they are produced for commercial reasons they cannot be expected to have the same integrity of release as we define it in terms of available to all at the same time. There are aspects simply by being commercial statistics that make it impossible for them to be National Statistics in the full sense. But certainly in terms of quality, yes, we should seek to do that. We may not of course have any influence or choice over that unless we pay.

  245. Do you as the National Statistician believe that the dividing line between those government statistics that are included in the National Statistics and those that are excluded is clear and capable of rational derivation?
  (Mr Cook) We have a very strong mix, a very broad, very comprehensive mix of statistics in National Statistics. If you went to any country in the world it would certainly be a very comprehensive and extensive mix. Where the exact boundary line is placed in some areas from something at the margin being one side or the other is debatable, but I think the value of the arrangement is that it makes it very obvious.

  246. If you were somebody in a company with a particular exercise to do and someone was interested in a particular topic, how would they know whether to look in the National Statistics for statistics of relevance or not? What is the dividing line? How do people outside the Commission and the ONS know what is in and what is out?
  (Mr Cook) Our aspiration is that the National Statistics web site will become almost the first port of call for anyone seeking good information about the United Kingdom, and of course the power of the internet, the broad accessibility of it virtually for anyone in the country who has access to the internet, all the key gatekeepers, public libraries, commercial information sources, that vehicle, as we become better at providing a web site that anyone can use will actually provide most of that fairly automatically for a user. There are also, as you know, people in the value added information industry who take official statistics, National Statistics, with commercial measures and tie them together often for particular subjects and one might want to know what is happening to the motor vehicle industry, for example. They will use the official statistical sources and qualitative information and quantitative information from other organisations, market research for example.

  247. Can you explain why the retail price index, which is fundamental to an awful lot of calculations during 12 months, is not included in the National Statistics?
  (Mr Cook) It is a National Statistic. It is one of the most important measures in the United Kingdom. Its methodology has been objectively developed by national statisticians. The scrutiny of it by the Statistics Commission in terms of an overall assessment of how objective any decisions about the RPI have been made on professional matters is very clear. The National Statistician has a very clear and unambiguous role on the methodology of the RPI. Where the Chancellor has an important role in articulating the particular importance of the RPI for government, then of course that will be very clearly transparent as well.

  248. So it will be included in the National Statistics?
  (Mr Cook) Yes.

  249. As the Government's chief professional adviser on statistical matters do you consider it will be within your responsibility to advise Ministers on the scope of National Statistics?
  (Mr Cook) I will certainly have a view and I think the arrangements make it important to define a process for me presenting that view.

  250. Minister, the National Statistics Framework document does not make any mention of the role of the National Statistician in relation to the scope of National Statistics either as an adviser or in any other way. Would you like to comment on that?
  (Miss Johnson) The document makes extensive references to the role of the National Statistician and I think it is clear that he is the top professional in the country as it were. He is responsible for the quality and the integrity of National Statistics and he is obviously able to make, as he has just said, comments about these things. We envisage primarily the role of the Statistics Commission to comment, if they wish to do so, on questions of scope and obviously we are bound to make public and transparent responses to those comments.

  251. So that you do envisage it being within the role of the National Statistician to be proactive in producing advice on scope as well the role of the Commission?
  (Miss Johnson) The Framework sets out clearly what the position is in relation to scoping matters and it says the National Statistician will take the lead in advising on methodological questions concerning the RPI, for example. But obviously the scope of that is a matter, as he has just been remarking, which rests with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

  252. But methodological questions are not scope, are they?
  (Miss Johnson) The scope is a different issue. We have said that Ministers will take those decisions about the coverage of National Statistics in the light of the costs and benefits that are involved. For the reasons that I was explaining to Sir Michael earlier on, there are very often (in fact almost always) significant resource implications to decisions about whether things will go into the scope of National Statistics or not.
  (Mr Cook) Could I make the point that the National Statistician's role on scope is as an adviser to Ministers and subject to the same obligations that an adviser to a Minister has on any other matter. On professional matters it is the National Statistician who is the lead authority and that is a very important distinction. Certainly I do not think you should assume that any national statistician will be inactive.
  (Miss Johnson) The National Statistician will provide key professional input as to whether something meets up with the quality to go into National Statistics or not.

  253. I understand that. The important question is quite clear and it is quite clear in the document. The nub of the point I am raising is whether Mr Cook sees it as part of his responsibilities to advise you where he feels that the scope is not adequate because it is not mentioned in the document in those terms. I think the outcome of this, just for the record, is to say yes, it is one of Mr Cook's responsibilities as an adviser. Is that correct?
  (Miss Johnson) I think his advice is on the professional side of things. It is quite difficult to distinguish between the sort of dialogue that often goes on about things behind the scenes as it were and the public dialogue that sometimes takes place as well, but in terms of the public dialogue it is the Statistics Commission which has a very clear public role in commenting, and I am sure the Statistics Commission as well as Ministers, obviously, is working closely with the National Statistician on occasions on these matters. Although they are providing an independent comment they will be no doubt asking questions of the National Statistician just as they may be of Ministers. You will certainly be free to ask questions of them and their comments and our responses will be a public matter.

  254. This Framework document again does not mention the role of the Commission in relation to the scope of National Statistics.
  (Miss Johnson) The Commission's role is obviously that it is independent of both Ministers and of the producers of statistics, so it has got a key role as an independent body in all these matters. It is free to comment on all the matters that pertain to its responsibilities publicly, as is set out in the Framework document. It will obviously have a role in helping Ministers to take decisions about the scope and we have always envisaged that and I believe the Statistics Commission are well aware of the fact that they do have that role.


  255. One thing was slightly unclear to me about your answer to Mr Beard on the question of the list of statistics. I think you said that you were thinking of publishing a comprehensive list, an index. I was not quite sure when you answered the question about the criteria on which that list would be based whether you would publish that as well.
  (Miss Johnson) There are two fundamental criteria. Obviously Ministers are content for any particular statistic to go into the scope. Secondly, and a very important secondly, is that it meets up with the criteria which the National Statistician has for the professional integrity and quality of the statistical set that is being added. There is not a large set of criteria for this. Obviously, the second criterion on professional integrity and quality of the statistics is something which in a sense will be unpacked in a number of ways, not least through the Code of Practice. In terms of a detailed set of criteria, it is fundamentally those two things.

  256. So it is costs and quality?
  (Miss Johnson) It is really, yes.

Mr Fallon

  257. Minister, you have described the key professional input that Mr Cook has into this system. Presumably Mr Holt, his predecessor, also had a key professional input.
  (Miss Johnson) Indeed.

  258. What is the actual difference?
  (Miss Johnson) There are a lot of differences I think. First of all, we have got a Framework for National Statistics which we never had before. We have got a set of statistics which are a long set of statistics which are included in the scope of National Statistics, which we did not have before. We have got a Statistics Commission, independent of government, independent of producers of statistics, able to comment publicly on what both Ministers and the producers of statistics are doing. We have got much greater engagement with users than we had before. I believe that it is not only a question of there being greater quality but also of there being seen to be that quality and that integrity. It has not only been a question of whether there has been interference in the past or changes to the statistics that are used for political or other purposes, but also questions about whether there is anybody there who can produce an independent view on these matters and whether the system encapsulates the kinds of qualities of transparency and openness and accountability which we believe it should. I think that the changes we put in place provide a framework within which those things can now be guaranteed and they can be seen to be guaranteed by the public, by yourselves as part of those who are scrutinising our new arrangements, both now and in the future.

  259. Sure, but I was asking you really about Mr Cook, and you replied, quite reasonably, about the Framework document and so on and the Commission. Can Mr Cook provide a more independent view than Mr Holt did?
  (Miss Johnson) I believe that he can but I would not want in any way to suggest—and I am sure you are not suggesting—that Mr Holt was not supplying an independent view at all times.

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