Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-106)



Mr Beard

  100. In your foreword to the Annual Report you say "It is vital that the statistical outputs of Government should not only be trustworthy but also timely and well adapted to the needs. . . " You go on to say needs inside and outside the public sector. When we looked at the Census previously we were told that there was a substantial request from the private sector and the public sector for an income question which was ultimately dropped. Were you part of the discussions involved in that? What was your reaction?
  (Sir John Kingman) No. We were set up too late to influence the design of the Census form, which is unfortunate but the decisions had all been taken by the time we were established. A very important strategic question for future Censuses is whether it is right to have more and more questions from one Census to the next or whether you actually lose by having too long and elaborate a form, that people just do not bother or turn against the idea of filling it up or whatever. One of the questions when I last appeared before you that I think we agreed about was that there needs to be fundamental discussion about what sort of Census we need in order to get the information that is needed both in the public sector and the private sector. That discussion is going on now and one of our concerns has been to keep the momentum of that discussion because it is easy to think that 2011 is a long way away but it will be upon us sooner than we think and we really have to resolve these questions within the next few years.

  101. On the question of the quality of National Statistics you were quoted in the press in July when your Annual Report was published as saying that recent controversies, and that included Network Rail and pension fund double counting, had raised important points about the quality of National Statistics.[3] Are you satisfied with the quality of National Statistics?

  (Sir John Kingman) That is a very broad brush question and I am not going to give you a broad brush answer. There is a great deal of very good practice in the Government's statistical service. In some respects we are world leaders. There are also areas which give rise to considerable disquiet and you have mentioned one area which we are very worried about, which is the pensions statistics question. We are trying to get to the bottom of the series of mistakes that occurred there which seem to be somewhere around the interface between the Department of Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics. What we are going to do is to challenge the National Statistician to take hold of the statistics in the Department of Work and Pensions and to make sure that department operates to the highest standards because we think that there probably are weaknesses in the culture in that department which are giving rise to these successive difficulties which on the face of it are unrelated to one another but probably are grounded in the way in which statistics are seen in that department. That is a job for Len Cook and we shall hold his nose to that particular grindstone.

  102. Sir John, you said you were not keen on broad brush answers but you gave a pretty broad brush answer in an article in the Financial Times. It quotes you as Chairman of the Commission as saying that recent controversies—and this is the operative bit—"raised some very important general points—about independence and about quality of national statistics." The force of that coming from someone in your position is to weaken general public confidence in national statistics, is it not? Is that not somewhat irresponsible?
  (Sir John Kingman) There is an inherent paradox in the work we do because we are trying to increase public confidence. If we try and do that just by saying, "All is well", then we will have the effect of reducing public confidence. We can only increase public confidence paradoxically by first shaking it, by finding the areas where things are not as good as they might be and insisting that they are put right. By doing that we can gradually raise in the public mind the consciousness that there is an effective watchdog and that therefore they can trust the results that are coming up because they are being watched by an independent Commission. In the short-term you are right, we have to shake public confidence in order to build it up again.

  103. I understand your answer, but you need to get specific things and put those right and if they are not put right public confidence will diminish. That is not the nature of your comment. You said it raised some very important general points about the quality of national statistics.
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, the general points are to do with the fact that in some areas the statistical mechanism is not as robust as it should be and it is becoming more robust. As I have said several times, the existence of the Code of Practice will have an important effect in doing that. The mere existence of the Commission has an effect. It has an effect, for instance, in raising the status of the statisticians within particular departments because they are seen to be part of a professional community and not just isolated workmen in individual departments or branches. We are gradually changing the culture—we being not just the Commission of course but the National Statistician and everything that is around the Framework for National Statistics. Things are improving. They will only continue to improve if we insist on the highest standards and refuse to take second-rate statistics as satisfactory.

  104. Sir John, the general public will not read all that into this phrase. The general public will read into that phrase that somebody who ought to know who is an authority on this subject is casting doubt and aspersions on the quality of national statistics as to whether they are right or not. Do you still stand by it?
  (Sir John Kingman) Of course I do. There have been serious errors in the past. We came into existence largely because of the mistakes around the average earnings index. Those were serious mistakes. They may have misled the Monetary Policy Committee, for instance, and there is no shying away from that. There have been problems. Against the whole background of government statistics and National Statistics they may be isolated incidents but in this sort of sensitive area one mistake is one mistake too many and we cannot afford that.

Mr Laws

  105. Do you fear at all, Sir John, that Len Cook views your organisation as a somewhat unnecessary irritant?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am sure there are days when he is very irritated with us and we can cope with that, that is not a worry. We are, in fact, building a relationship of mutual respect and the ability to disagree in an honest and constructive way which bodes well for the future.

  Mr Laws: Great.


  106. Sir John, I think you owe us a few bits and pieces that you have offered to come back on. We would be particularly interested when you do receive the joint statement you are pushing for to have your comments on it.

  (Sir John Kingman) Indeed, certainly.

  Chairman: In the meantime I would like to thank you and your colleague very much for appearing before the Committee today.

3   Note by witness: This may give the impression that the Commission has already formed a view that the root of the problem lies in cultural issues on the Department for Work and Pensions side of the interface. This is not the case and it was not Sir John's intention to give that impression. Back

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 6 January 2003