Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. You think it is unique?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think so.[2]

  61. Could I finally ask, the model of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General is to a lot of parliamentarians, myself included, an excellent one. It has stood the test of time and, above all, in contemporary Britain it seems to me to have a great deal of respect accorded to the NAO and what they say and their impartiality is beyond reproach. Could I ask you this very simply: why is there no recommendation and no lobbying, as I understand it, from you and the National Statistician to make the National Statistician in public life and in parliamentary terms on all fours with the Comptroller and Auditor General, in other words to copy the Comptroller and Auditor General model for the National Statistician on the grounds of utter transparency and a regime that is really quite beyond reproach and, above all, accountable to Parliament, which I think is the great virtue of the Comptroller and Auditor General's role? What would your response be to that?
  (Sir John Kingman) The Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee go right back to the 19th Century and were set up in political conditions very different from those that obtain today. His power and authority and influence have developed over many, many decades. The National Statistician post has only existed for two years. We are a very young business. I think that there would be considerable advantage in the National Statistician being responsible in some sense to Parliament and having a committee like the Public Accounts Committee that could take his reports seriously, but you can imagine that is an issue which would rouse mixed feelings in government departments and in the Cabinet and whether it is serious politics you can judge better than I can.

  62. Would you favour that?
  (Sir John Kingman) I would favour anything that gives the National Statistician clear independent authority so that he can make professional judgments untrammelled by any suspicion of political partiality.

  63. I think we are agreed on the ends. In terms of the means would you be in favour of the National Statistician having his work and role put on the same footing vis a vis that of the Comptroller and Auditor General?
  (Sir John Kingman) That would be a very powerful means to that end. It is not the only way of achieving it but if it could be done it would be a very quick and certain way of achieving it.

  64. You see attractions in that?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

Kali Mountford

  65. Sir John, you are a man who chooses your words extremely carefully and I have listened very carefully to the evidence you have given us this afternoon but on one point I feel I need clarification. When we were discussing the early information about statistics being given to ministers, and I welcome your attitude to changing approaches inside departments, you made statements about the possible use of statistics for spending and early leaks. I just want to have it clarified or not on the record that you are not actually meaning any misrepresentation of facts in these situations.
  (Sir John Kingman) I have not come across any examples of that during the time the Commission has been in existence but I think you can find plenty of examples in the more distant past in which there was spinning of statistics and I mentioned one notorious example when Dennis Healey was Chancellor.

  66. You are not asserting in your answers about spinning today that we have a larger problem to look at in actual misrepresentation of the truth?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I am not saying that it is a widespread disease but it is a disease to which we are susceptible if there is not some safeguard. If information is around in a government department there is always a risk that someone will pick it up and say "I had better have a word with a journalist about this to make sure that it is presented in the right way". The temptation is clearly there. I am not saying that people have given in to that temptation recently because I think that the whole publicity around National Statistics has made people more careful of these things and that is entirely to the good.

  67. You are satisfied that the departmental approaches now are improving in a way that you are more comfortable with?
  (Sir John Kingman) I shall be more satisfied when I have seen the departmental statements.

Mr Plaskitt

  68. Sir John, you told us in the Annual Report that the work that you are doing on sub-national data is one of the most important things you are doing at the moment and it is very interesting to us as we too are looking at aspects of regional performance of the economy. Are you telling us by saying that that there are elements of regional data at present which you think are unfit for purpose?
  (Sir John Kingman) This is something that we are looking at quite carefully and there are certainly problems. The ONS does not have the resources to do a proper job at the regional level and the further down you go into more detail, the more you come across problems to do with greater proportional errors in small areas, the possibility of disclosure problems, and the sort of problems that have come up in relation to the Census where people have been very surprised at simply the population, let alone more subtle information at a local authority level. I do not want to make definitive statements about this. It is a very important and a very difficult area, and it is one that we are working on with the National Statitician who has his own problems with it.

  69. Clearly something has drawn you into it. You do not mince your words in the report, you say it is one of the most important issues. Given that subnational data is used in quite a lot of important decisions the Government has to make—and you yourself quite rightly cite the allocation of EU structural funds—if there are questions about the reliability of regional data there could be some quite sizable misallocations taking place. Should we be quite concerned about that?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, you should but I do not think you should jump to conclusions yet because we need to do more work on it. It is a worrying area. I think you will find that Len Cook will also agree that he is worried about it. We have got to find ways of getting reliable information at this level. One suggestion that is not very helpful is to have this data produced in departments rather than in the ONS, which actually could have some short-term attractions but would be much more difficult to control in terms of quality, and I think we really do need to bring in the expertise that exists in ONS firmly to bear on the regional problem. I would like to have more time on this one before being definitive about it.

  70. How much more time do you think you need to take before you start to come to clear views about this?
  (Sir John Kingman) Perhaps my colleague would like to say a word about the work that is going on on it.
  (Miss Buckley) We have received a review very recently on government accounts and indicators which we are looking at. There are some other reviews due by the end of the year. We shall need time to study those and then we will be able to report back with our views on them.

  71. You think you will be reporting back early next year?
  (Miss Buckley) That is probably a realistic timescale. Until we have seen the reports that come out, it is difficult to put a time on it.

  72. At this stage on the basis of what you have seen already, you are sufficiently concerned there are some quite big problems? You know that already?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  73. I think that is helpful to know.
  (Sir John Kingman) All the experts tell us that these are all very difficult areas fraught with various traps and we must make sure that we give some advice that will be helpful to finding a way forward.

  74. Why are there particular problems here? Are the figures not being collected or not being soundly measured or by the wrong people or what is it?
  (Sir John Kingman) I really do not want to go into detail about this because it is so complicated, but just the sort of thing that you get from the fact that people live in one place and work in another, for instance, and you have to make allowance for that all the time, whereas when you are operating at a national level the statistical majority of people live in the same country that they work in statistically. Once you have cross-border flows of different sorts—people and money and so on—then you have got to find ways of making allowance for that. Also the smaller the area the more, as I say, the proportionate errors mount up. You do not get the same law of averages operating. But these are difficult technical questions and I do not want to pose as an expert on this.

  75. We will be interested to see your conclusions next year.
  (Sir John Kingman) We will certainly make sure you get them.

Kali Mountford

  76. Sir John, part of your report covers the use of national statistics in the measurement of targets and performance. I would like to look at a couple of areas of those. I was quite interested in your answers to my colleague Mr Plaskitt, especially about how two of them came about, the first of which is the key stage results that you looked at and I was interested to note that came about through an enquiry from an individual. From your answer it appears the individual was concerned about complexity. Can you tell us now what exactly were you looking at in those key stage results?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think I would rather let you have a note on that if I could because if I try to explain it now I shall get it wrong, frankly.

  77. Okay. We would not want you to get it wrong. I assume, therefore, that there has been correspondence with the DfES?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  78. Have you had an answer?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes. Our concern in that case has been that all the research which is going on in that sort of area is being used properly by the department and they have given us assurances that it is. We are trying to ensure that that is put on paper in a way that satisfies the original inquiry. As I say, I would really rather let you have a written note about this if you are interested in the details.

  79. Yes, but our interests may not be the same exact interests of the original inquiry.
  (Sir John Kingman) Indeed.

2   Note by witness: This case is unique in that the Framework for National Statistics specifically says "the scope and definition of the index [RPI] will continue to be matters for the Chancellor of the Exchequer". The Commission is concerned that greater transparency is needed about what this means in practice. The National Statistician also has a responsibility to ensure that "the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as Minister for National Statistics, and Departmental Ministers are consulted on proposals that impinge on matters of government policy". These may relate to any National Statistics and the arrangements for such consultation are set out in the Protocol on Consultation Arrangements Between the National Statistician and UK Government MinistersBack

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