Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Royal Statistical Society


  1.1  The Royal Statistical Society has, since 1990, argued that a national statistical service, free from political interference, is vital to the maintenance of a healthy democracy. The appointment of a National Statistician, the appointment of a Statistics Commission, and finally the publication of the Framework for National Statistics and the accompanying Initial Scope of National Statistics in June 2000 are the first steps towards establishing such a national statistical service. However, there is much work still to be done to provide government, Parliament, researchers, the general public, and other users of statistics with a comprehensive range of statistics about the UK which are of an appropriate quality and fit for purpose.

  1.2  The Royal Statistical Society takes heart that the Framework for National Statistics document is a "first edition", and hopes for further editions, clarifying and improving the framework for National Statistics. Similarly, the title of its accompanying document—Initial Scope of National Statistics—is absolutely crucial. The present scope of National Statistics should be considered only as a starting point for the much-needed further expansion of the arrangements.

  1.3  This evidence is therefore shaped by the Royal Statistical Society's definition of National Statistics, as set forth in its response to the 1998 Green Paper Statistics: A Matter of Trust:

    "The scope of National Statistics should be inclusive of all statistics of public interest at the national, regional and local levels, whether they are produced by government departments, agencies, regional or local governing bodies, or any other public sector body. The needs of users, as well as producers, should inform the scope of National Statistics."

  1.4  The general rule for inclusion within the Initial Scope has been one of existing Government Statistical Service (GSS) products. This is acceptable as a starting point, but it does not support the concept of National Statistics as a service which provides the full range of data which allow the citizen to judge the state of the nation, as there are too many high profile omissions.


2.1  What is a National Statistic?

  The Initial Scope of National Statistics is defined primarily in terms of publications. Publications may have aspects of their content changed, but still remain the same publication. If the content of a database is changed, then it is no longer the same database. If publications, rather than databases, are included, will it be possible to alter the content of publications while keeping them within National Statistics? There are no clear rules. The Royal Statistical Society would argue for a more holistic approach which relates to data systems rather than publications, particularly as publications policy is likely to change. The Department for Education and Employment has included both databases and publications within National Statistics, and this is something which we would support.

2.2  Management data and statistics

  One area of ambiguity that hampers a clear definition of National Statistics is the vague borderline between management data and statistics. For example, it might be argued that monthly hospital waiting list figures are data which allow managers to audit and improve the performance of various systems. On the other hand, members of the general public, the media, and other interested parties might argue that they would use monthly waiting list figures to judge the effectiveness of government measures to reduce hospital waiting lists. Given the fact that they are the subject of high profile media releases, there might be no doubt in the mind of this latter group that monthly hospital waiting list figures are used to determine the state of the nation and are, therefore "National Statistics", yet they have been excluded from the initial scope.

2.3  Public use of National Statistics

  It is not unreasonable to define National Statistics as data which are used by stakeholders, including the public, to judge the state of the nation and the performance of government. In that case, another important topic to consider would be how should public use be defined?

  2.4  It is, of course, beyond the power of the producer to limit the uses to which statistics are put. For example, league tables may be used by politicians, the media and members of the public, despite any caveats placed upon them by the producer of the underlying data, because they appear to aid the decision making process. League tables[2] are excluded from National Statistics—rightly so at the present time, given that they can be very misleading and, as they are based on small numbers of data items, they can exclude a wealth of additional information.

  2.5  One of the aims of National Statistics listed in the Framework Document is:

  "To inform . . . the citizen about the state of the nation and provide a window on the work and performance of government allowing the impact of government policies and actions to be assessed". This is a positive step away from the ethos that official statistics are produced for the use of government alone. However, if apparently useful datasets are excluded from National Statistics, what is the citizen to make of the role and use of National Statistics? The Royal Statistical Society would advocate a systematic examination of statistics against clear criteria to see which should, in principle, be included as part of National Statistics, subject to matters such as quality. This would hopefully lead to the elimination of inconsistencies where high quality data from some major surveys has been excluded. The underlying concepts behind National Statistics could be strengthened by a full and open debate about how and why the public uses statistics, perhaps leading to greater resources being devoted to bringing statistics currently excluded on the grounds of poor quality, such as league tables, up to the standard required for National Statistics.

2.6  Government targets

  The Government is keen to publish targets against which the effectiveness of its policy initiatives may be assessed. For one high profile target—to reduce class sizes—the data to monitor it are included within National Statistics. Will there be an undertaking from the Government that it will automatically place data which will be used to measure all its targets within National Statistics?


3.1  Retail Price Index (RPI)

  The Royal Statistical Society reiterates its dismay that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister for National Statistics, has kept the RPI out of National Statistics. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury herself described the RPI as "of special importance to the UK economy"[3]. The exclusion of the RPI weakens the image and standing of National Statistics as a service which informs the Parliaments and Assemblies and the citizen about the state of the nation.

3.2  Surveys

  There is considerable inconsistency over inclusion of surveys. Outputs from the programme of National Surveys of NHS Patients, funded by the Department of Health, are not included within the Initial Scope, whereas the Health Survey for England is. It is not clear why one survey has been included and the other not, when they seem to have the same characteristics—both being large scale, and funded by the Department of Health on a regular basis.

  3.3  Other surveys done regularly but not annually, such as the five-yearly Infant Feeding Survey[4] and the 10 yearly Survey of Adults and Children's Health, have been excluded.

  3.4  The consistent line across all departments has been that only regular time series were included in the Initial Scope. No department has been brave enough to make a statement in the Initial Scope to the effect that any future survey or other statistical work undertaken to research an issue of national concern, even if it is a one-off project, will be included within National Statistics. The Royal Statistical Society would like to seek assurances that decisions about the inclusion of survey results in National Statistics will be made at the time of commissioning each survey.

  3.5  This patchy coverage of National Statistics does not add weight to the Government's commitment to evidence-based policy. Statistics about new policy initiatives will be published. For those statistics to be outside the scope of National Statistics will undermine both the standing of National Statistics and the Government's claim to have removed the potential for political interference.

3.6  Monthly Hospital Waiting List Figures

  Quarterly hospital waiting list figures are included in the Initial Scope, while monthly waiting list figures are not. Monthly waiting list figures have been classified, it would seem, as management data. A possible reason for the exclusion of the monthly figures would be concern that they contain too much measurement error, and that they have too high a political profile, to allow them to be included within National Statistics. The very fact that they have a high profile lends support to the need to ensure that they are of a good standard.

  3.7  The National Statistics code of practice will include guidance on release arrangements. Statistics should be released at a pre-announced time, which is not varied for political advantage. Ministers should not comment until the statistics are released and in the public domain, creating a level playing field for all users. If, in two months out of three, these practices do not apply, and in particular ministers leak the waiting list statistics or comment in advance of the release, then public confidence in National Statistics will be undermined. The public will not distinguish the one month in three when the release is a National Statistic from the two months in three when it is not. Poor release practices in this case will undermine confidence in National Statistics.

3.8  Statistics relating to areas of public concern

  The first edition of the Framework Document has appeared to define National Statistics as the outputs of the Government Statistical Service (GSS) This is far narrower than "all statistics of public interest". There are many areas of public concern which fall outside the remit of the GSS. The Royal Statistical Society believes that the future scope of National Statistics should not be restricted by perceptions of what work the GSS performs, or has performed in the past.

  3.9  The National Statistician should have responsibility for ensuring that the necessary statistical expertise is recruited and properly involved in areas which arguably arouse the greatest amount of public concern, debate and fear, such as BSE/vCJD, MMR vaccination, GM crops and food, and passive smoking and health, where the predominant problem is scientific uncertainty. The conclusions of the modelling and data analysis must be made public in a rigorous but digestible form.

3.10  Statistics across the UK which cannot be aggregated

  There are a number of instances where there is a commonly held belief that a particular statistic should exist, and be regarded as a "National Statistic" yet, under the present arrangements, it is impossible to produce that statistic. One example is the Caesarean section rate for the UK, which cannot be produced because data of sufficient quality are not available for all countries, and across the countries there are differing bases for publication. This makes it impossible to combine figures from England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland to obtain a Caesarean section rate for the UK. This was the situation even prior to devolution.

  3.11  The Royal Statistical Society believes that for important figures it ought to be possible to produce a UK figure, and individual country data should be made available in such detail as will enable the production of the UK figure, by outside analysts, if not the GSS.


4.1  Accessibility of data

  Many services which were once delivered by the public sector are now delivered by the private sector, or by agencies instead of government departments. The National Statistician ought to be able to demand statistical information from any organisation, just as (s)he does from any company under the Statistics for Trade Act, to compile National Statistics for publication. This should apply to a public sector organisation, for example, a hospital or a school, or a quango or quasi public organisation, for example, the Civil Aviation Authority, the BBC, the Health and Safety Executive, just as it does to a company.

  4.2  This would correct the major anomaly which is the omission of Scottish health statistics from National Statistics. Scottish health statistics are produced by the Information and Statistics Division of the Commons Services Agency for Scotland. This is part of the NHS, rather than the GSS. Scottish health statistics should not remain excluded from National Statistics on the basis that the producers are part of the NHS and not the GSS.

  4.3  An organisation which produces a set of statistics should not automatically be the vehicle for publishing National Statistics, although it could be if the National Statistician were satisfied about the quality control processes and practices within the organisation.

4.4  Financial considerations

  The fundamental feature of the White Paper Building Trust in Statistics and the subsequent new arrangements is a focus on statistical outputs. Fortunately, in the area of quality, it is already recognised that it is the whole statistical process that matters. The Royal Statistical Society would argue for additional funds to be made available to the National Statistician to improve data collection processes in government departments, agencies and other public sector bodies and thereby improve the quality of their statistical outputs. One desirable outcome would be that outputs currently excluded on grounds of quality would be brought up to a standard which would admit them to National Statistics.

  4.5  The Framework Document states that "Ministers will take decisions about the coverage of National Statistics in the light of the costs and benefits involved". Does this mean costs and benefits to the department, or would benefits be more broadly defined? This appears to give Ministers the opportunity to, in a worst case scenario, remove a statistic from National Statistics in order to ease pressure on a departmental budget.

  4.6  One of the responsibilities of the Statistics Commission listed in the Framework Document is to "consider and comment to Ministers on the high level programme for National Statistics, drawing on the views of users and suppliers, taking account of: (i) the resources available for National Statistics . . ." This implies that the Statistics Commission must regard the level of funding available for National Statistics as an inflexible amount of resource. This is far from giving the Statistics Commission powers to comment upon the level of funding for National Statistics and the right to argue for increased funding, or additional monies for a specific project of national importance.

  4.7  The Framework Document states that the National Statistician has "the right of access to the Prime Minister, through the Head of the Home Civil Service, on matters concerning the integrity and validity of official statistics including on resources where he/she believes they impact on the integrity and validity of official statistics". If "official statistics" are interpreted as the present scope of National Statistics, then this does not give the National Statistician the right to request more funds to extend the scope of National Statistics. Neither the Commission nor the National Statistician have the power to argue for increased funding. The Royal Statistical Society is concerned that the scope of National Statistics could remain static, or, in a worst case scenario, be reduced, as a result of funding constraints.

4.8  Possible criteria for inclusion in National Statistics

  In paragraph 2.5 of this evidence, the Royal Statistical Society has argued for a systematic examination of statistics against clear criteria to see which should, in principle, be included as part of National Statistics, subject to matters such as quality, for which there should be separate criteria. As a starting point for discussion, the Society would like to suggest the following:

  Would stakeholders, including the general public, use the statistics to judge the performance of government?

  Would stakeholders, including the general public, use the statistics to judge the state of the nation?

  Would the statistics be used to formulate or monitor policy?

  Is a particular statistic used by the political parties to support or repudiate a claim of a successful policy initiative?

  Is the statistic a performance measure of a particular policy initiative?

  Do the statistics relate to matters which arouse great concern, debate or fear among the general public, and where a clear statement of the scientific uncertainty relating to the matter under investigation would greatly help public understanding?

  Is it reasonable to expect an easily aggregated UK statistic to be compiled from the individual countries' statistics?

  What should not be a criteria for inclusion within National Statistics is whether the issue or subject under investigation is within the public sector.


  5.1  The Framework Document made the National Statistician responsible for preparing the Code of Practice. Given that the National Statistician was able to take up the post only a short time prior to the launch of National Statistics, this has had the unfortunate side effect of those responsible for the production of National Statistics having to work within the new Framework, but without a code of practice. The Royal Statistical Society feels that sufficient time has passed now, and would welcome a statement about the timetable for the production for the Code of Practice. The Society would expect to be consulted about its content at the earliest opportunity.


  6.1  At the time of writing, the page about the Statistics Commission on the National Statistics web site had last been updated on 16 June 2000. There was no link to a web site for the Commission. The Statistics Commission has a single page, interim website dated 21 October 2000. There is an e-mail address so that members of the public may contact the Commission. However, there has been a long wait between the launch of the arrangements for National Statistics on 7 June and the services being put in place which allow the general public to contact the Commission. This is not the fault of the Statistics Commission. It was unfortunate that announcements about the Commission were made before it had time to organise even its most basic requirements, such as finding accommodation.

  6.2  One of the responsibilities of the Statistics Commission is to "ensure that it is able to assess the needs of users". There has not yet been any announcement about how the Commission intends to consult and involve users.

  6.3  The Statistics Commission has no existence in law, and therefore, in theory, could be stood down at any time by the Minister for National Statistics. A practical problem for the Commission which comes as a direct result of this apparent impermanence, is the recruitment of staff to the secretariat. The Chief Executive, for example, is on secondment from the Department of Health. While the Royal Statistical Society does not question the suitability of the current Chief Executive, it would be a very great shame if, in the future, the important work of the Statistics Commission was hampered by problems recruiting suitably qualified staff.


  7.1  The Framework Document First Edition (4.2.5 [h]) states that the Commission should review the need for statistical legislation after two years and report back to the Minister for National Statistics. While accepting the pressures on parliamentary time, the Royal Statistical Society strongly believes, and has done so for many years, that legislation is necessary to underpin the principles and practice of National Statistics. Two years is too long to wait for a review of the need for legislation. There is no statement of when a report on the review would be published, and no indication of the scope of the review. For example, the Royal Statistical Society hopes that the review would include international comparisons. Much publicity has been given to the new arrangements, yet they have been left unprotected by law, and consequently, open to future alteration.

23 October 2000

2   It is also beyond the power of the producer to prevent a particular dataset being labelled a "league table" by users. The Royal Statistical Society recognises this, and uses the term to describe those datasets which are based on small numbers of data items, and which exclude additional information. Back

3   Hansard Volume 336, No 133. Back

4   Formerly conducted by the GSS, the 2000 survey has been contracted out to a market research company. Back

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