Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  260. I want to know about the difference; that is all.
  (Miss Johnson) Obviously the Framework gives clear access to the National Statistician on questions of integrity to the Prime Minister. The National Statistician has a clearly defined role within the Framework. I do not know whether it would be helpful in terms of things like the Code of Practice if Mr Cook answered in more detail.
  (Mr Cook) My understanding of the differences from after June and before June are firstly the existence of the Statistics Commission which provides wise and insightful retrospective oversight of how decisions should have been made which, as you know, is a very powerful determinant of ensuring that decisions that are made at any particular time are made in the best possible way. The second I think is that we have always had Codes of Practice in the United Kingdom but this Code of Practice will be one which brings together in a more cohesive and comprehensive way all those issues that relate to professional matters in the broadest way. That Code of Practice again will be public and visible and it will also be something which will be clearly more accountable across the broad range of statistical agencies. The third thing is the significance of the post of National Statistician in that the framework arrangements from my understanding of the past define more clearly the explicit role of the National Statistician on professional matters. I think the obligation of that was very clear, that the National Statistician is seen as the one who must defend professional issues and professional problems. You of course as members of the Committee will determine that more effectively, will you not, in the extent to which you feel that those matters should actually be accountable politically rather than professionally? That in effect helps set that boundary.
  (Miss Johnson) Could I add one further thing to what Mr Cook has said in relation to this? The other aspects of it, which I touched on earlier, are about planning and quality across government which is explicitly provided for in all of this in a way which it was not explicitly provided for before. It will span all government departments and it will span a lot of what is done across government and obviously we are hoping therefore to have much greater coherence and a higher guaranteed quality right across the work that is done across government departments.
  (Mr Cook) Can I just make a point about the quality framework. I think the visibility of a framework in a way that is specifying the quality of United Kingdom statistics and the oversight by the Commission of that particularly is a very important element of the new arrangements.

  261. Minister, when you appeared here on 1 March I asked you about the Statistician's integrity and you said, "It is so important that the National Statistician has a right of access in terms of integrity directly to the Prime Minister." Yet when the Framework document appeared that right has been qualified. It is only access "through the head of the home Civil Service". It is indirect. You misled us.
  (Miss Johnson) I do not believe that I misled you. Obviously all the people who head up different government departments or parts of government who are effectively Permanent Secretaries as it were have an initial contact before anything else with the head of the home Civil Service, with Sir Richard Wilson, who acts as the top of the home Civil Service. I do not believe that I have in any way misled you in the remarks that I made earlier.

  262. But you said the access would be direct and it is not direct. It is through the head of the home Civil Service.
  (Miss Johnson) You are disputing it. I am saying it is direct. You are saying it is not. That is a matter of interpretation clearly.

  263. But you told us twice on 1 March in question 57 and at question 116. In question 57 you said he had a right of access in terms of integrity issues directly to the Prime Minister. The word "direct" does not appear in the Framework document. It says that the Statistician has access to the Prime Minister through the head of the home Civil Service. That is not direct.
  (Miss Johnson) It depends on how that contact is carried out and I would say that it is entirely consistent with the remarks that I made earlier.

  264. What is the Head of the Home Civil Service doing getting in between the Statistician and the Prime Minister if there is a serious issue of integrity?
  (Miss Johnson) You are constructing "in between" in a negative way. It is just a normal understanding, I believe, of direct access.

  265. "A normal understanding of direct access" that you should have to ask Sir Richard Wilson first.
  (Miss Johnson) It does not say he has to ask him. It says it is "contact via". I have not got the quote in front of me but I take it you are reading it.

  266. I am reading from your document.
  (Miss Johnson) That is what I am saying. I have not got it.

  267. "Through the Head of the Home Civil Service".
  (Miss Johnson) Yes, but it does not actually say— The contact is initially with Sir Richard Wilson, in this case, the Head of the Home Civil Service.

  268. You think that is direct?
  (Miss Johnson) I believe that gives the National Statistician a direct access under normal arrangements through to the Prime Minister, if that is what he so wishes.


  269. Would that be the same arrangement for the Home Security Service?
  (Miss Johnson) I am afraid I am not competent to comment on that.

Mrs Blackman

  270. Mr Cook, were you satisfied with the outcome of the Spending Review?
  (Mr Cook) It certainly recognised the significant areas of development in its statistics. PAT 18, for example. There is a very strong injection to the PAT 18 project. It provided an injection of capital to the organisation. Perhaps for me the most significant thing was the KPMG Review, the end goal of changing the resource base of ONS, and continuing to recognise that those changes will be channelled back into official statistics.

  271. Obviously that will be coming through but in real terms it looks as though there is going to be a cut over the next few years, given that 2001 there is a Census going on and resources being put in for that. Over the longer term you are not concerned about under-funding?
  (Mr Cook) In the medium term our activities have been focused on creating a sustainable long-term platform for United Kingdom official statistics, through redeveloping the statistical infrastructure. Now that we have created a central statistical office, essentially over a largely dispersed set of statistical activities, we are feeling the benefits of economies of scale and critical mass that have come from bringing that activity together. That has taken up a lot of my time since I first arrived but we now have a fairly clear strategy, which is consistent with the Spending Review proposals.

  272. So you are more than happy that the resources will meet the new remit of National Statistics?
  (Mr Cook) I have never met a Permanent Secretary yet who has expressed happiness or superlatives in terms of their budget, particularly in the company of the Minister!

  273. Let us move on slightly to one of the new targets, which I am extremely interested in, which is developing the neighbourhood statistics at ward level, covering a range of pre-agreed measures of social and economic deprivation, and to report annually, which I do feel is long overdue. What is that particular project going to cost?
  (Mr Cook) It is going to cost some £35 million in total, I believe, some £20 million for ONS. May I say that the important element of that project is that not only the current outputs of ONS will change, but it will be one of the significant opportunities to change the quality of the capital base of ONS. This is because it is going to have such a huge impact on the whole way we measure information in ONS. PAT 18 is going to draw on a very high proportion of the statistical data that we currently collect. Its real value is not so much that it is going to create new data, but that it will allow very much more powerful access to data, which we have locked away in systems which are rather old now and not very flexible.
  (Miss Johnson) May I just interject with the sums of money so that the Committee has them in front of it. It is £35 million under Government intervention for deprived areas, which is the total sum under the Spending Review, of which £15 million is going to the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit at DETR. Then £20 million, as Len Cook said, is going to ONS for the purpose you are talking about.

  274. How many measures in this project are you starting off with, or will they all be defined prior to the delivery of the project?
  (Mr Cook) The first stage of the project is creating a very common geography. One of the challenges, which I have discovered in five months, is the varied nature of regional geography in the United Kingdom. That is a very significant and very demanding part of the job, to retrospectively define a common geography. We are doing that at ward level from the statistical data that we already have in the United Kingdom. The first step, therefore, is to make that available around April of next year, so that all of the regional data we have is readily accessible in the United Kingdom. The first step is a very coherent database, where we expect also the quality issues that come from bringing together data from disparate sources, to be also confronted. The next most significant step will be using the 2001 Population Census data. That will be brought into that database. That will then be the very significant platform around which all the later data that we have will be put. Parallel to this, may I say, we will be beginning discussions with Agencies, whose own technology changes, allowing them to provide data that has previously been difficult to get at. Areas such as VAT. My own preference is that we ought to be using tax data, for example. It may take us five years but there is a richness of tax data that will help us immensely in this area. One of the most important databases that we have not yet quite worked through how we will use, but which brings together the economic data, is our own inter-departmental business register, which is the way in which we retrospectively provide regional classifications to administrative records from various sources, as long as we can fit them into that correctly.

  275. Minister, are you satisfied with the way that the resourcing will be rolling out over the next few years at National Statistics?
  (Miss Johnson) Yes.

  276. With the remit of a new and enhanced footing that National Statistics is on, against a background of what looks like cuts, are you happy with the chances of delivering?
  (Miss Johnson) Obviously one of the big programmes is the Census and you have remarked on the resourcing in relation to that. That is obviously—whilst perhaps not the prime focus of today's discussion—a very big programme in itself, and is going to be a very big workload for ONS over the next year or two and beyond. But in terms of other aspects of the ONS resourcing, we have identified, over the next three years or so, a £15 million sum which ought to be able to be recycled, as it were, through efficiency savings in order to help ONS to deliver improved or increased outputs in a number of areas.

  277. That is not assured?
  (Miss Johnson) That is from internal efficiency work arising out of the Efficiency Review that KPMG conducted a little while ago. May I make one further point on that. If you exclude the Census, I think you did say there were cuts. May I be clear that there are not cuts. The expenditure is increasing over the next few years.

  278. In real terms?
  (Miss Johnson) In real terms, yes.

  279. Going back to Mr Cook, compared with your previous job, how well funded do you think the ONS is?
  (Mr Cook) I think it is very difficult to make comparisons. I have had times in my previous job when we would be funded with considerable difficulty and in need of more. I would have to say that broadly there are not significant differences. I come from a very small, parsimonious, little country and I think that the basic funding of the issues are pretty much the same in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and most countries. There are a small number of countries which have relatively generously funded their statistical offices, but most countries fit within a pretty general range of funding. What we have more to do of in the United Kingdom is the effective management of the investment that we put in future activity. I think that the decentralisation of British statistics has meant that we have not got as much out of the investments that we have put into statistics, as we will do now that we have a central statistical office, simply for reasons of economies of scale.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 January 2001