Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examinatin of Witnesses (Questions 204-219)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q204 Chairman: Lord Moser, can I welcome you to the Sub-Committee this afternoon, and thank you very much for assisting with our inquiry. I believe that you may wish to make a short opening statement to us—or not?

  Lord Moser: I do not think it is necessary.

  Q205  Chairman: Perhaps I could begin then. You were quoted in the press—but you may have been misrepresented—as describing the Government's proposals as "deeply flawed". What would you identify as the chief flaw?

  Lord Moser: I do not remember saying that, but you must presumably be referring to a quote. I approve of the Government's proposals, of the Chancellor's proposals, in principle. I think that the details in the consultation paper need quite a lot of work on them. I cannot remember saying that they are deeply flawed, but you never know.

  Q206  Chairman: What are the areas you think do need more work?

  Lord Moser: The main issues which certainly need more work are the obvious ones, which I think almost every witness who has come before you has talked about—so you must be a bit bored. Number one, that the independence—which I do approve of—must in some way or other apply to the entire system of statistics. This is the key area. It is also the area on which I will focus in the Lords tomorrow. This is not something that can just be confined to ONS. In fact, in my view ONS is the best part of the system. It least needs any kind of reform. I also have always taken the view, ever since I was in charge and even before, that it is a single system. That is my greatest concern, therefore. The next greatest concern, which links with that, is that the proposed board, which I do approve of, must be non-executive—not executive. Then there are other issues. Those, I think, would be my two main problems. Along the line there is the issue of pre-release, which again everybody has talked to you about and I will certainly focus on in whatever else I say.

  Chairman: I am sure my colleagues will have questions on all those.

  Q207  Peter Viggers: When I heard an announcement, which I heard simplistically as that the control of statistics would be made independent, I was pleased and really quite excited. However, there are two areas of distinction, are there not? That is, between departmental statistics, which as I understand it will, in the present proposals, remain within the departments themselves, and another distinction, which is that between statistics that are National Statistics and statistics that are not National Statistics. I fail to understand how such a system could be effective. I do not know if you are able to help me understand this.

  Lord Moser: Thank you for that question. Can I take them in the reverse order? The issue of national statistics did not exist in my day, when I was the head of the whole thing. That was introduced, if I remember correctly, in the last major reforms—the framework reforms. The idea was that you had one group of statistics, the so-called national statistics, which are subject to serious quality control from the centre, even if they come out of departments. Then you have another group of statistics which are, so to speak, departmental statistics. At the moment, the minister of a department—say, Education—decides which are to be departmental and which are to be national. The view I take—which again I will refer to in passing in the Lords tomorrow—is very straightforward. If this system remains, which is what is proposed in the Treasury document, if we retain a system of National Statistics versus departmental statistics, then it is crucial in my view that the decision as to which is which rests not with the minister, as now, but with a board—the new board. In my view, however, that system should be abolished anyhow. I see no merit whatever in the distinction between national and departmental statistics. I see only demerit, because it gives the minister the chance of saying, "This is the group which is entirely under me". With waiting lists at the moment, some waiting list statistics are departmental; some are national. This increases public distrust. So I would abolish the distinction. That is on your second question. The first question is really the one that is at the centre of my concerns. I have always taken the view—which is the view of every head statistician throughout the world—that government statistics, which should simply be called "official statistics" not "national statistics", are a single entity. They are all linked together, not only within the national accounts but also to each other. Therefore, they must organisationally be treated as a single entity—which is why almost every other country has them all in one department. In my day, we discussed endlessly whether we should go to a single department. I discussed it with the three Prime Ministers I served. We always ended up by saying, "No, let us keep to our decentralised system, because it ensures the relevance of statistics to policies". However, it must be run and led as a single system from the centre—and that means the National Statistician, as she is now called, and the board. It must be treated as a single system.

  Q208  Peter Viggers: You have expressed a concern about lack of confidence in statistics, even distrust in some circles. If the proposals as currently put forward were to be implemented, what do you think they would do in terms of confidence in statistics?

  Lord Moser: The whole trust issue, as the Committee of course knows only too well, is a very complex issue. One part of it is that figures go wrong—like the 1988, I think it was, national accounts which underestimated growth, and the Chancellor of the time blamed policy decisions on that mistake. So occasionally mistakes will be made. Quite often they are actually revisions, which are inevitable. That does not help trust. In my view, however, it is a very minor aspect of the trust problem. The real trust problem is the way the statistics are used, above all by ministers, and the fact that ministers are able to get at the figures so far ahead of time—which was not allowed in my day. It is the fact that they can spin what they put alongside the figures—done more for comment—and all that kind of thing. The public do not so much distrust figures: they distrust the people who use the figures and the institutions, and all of that. Also, this is the only country in which there is a major trust problem. I have discussed this endlessly with other official statisticians. It does not exist in Canada, Australia or Sweden. It is a feature of the fact that our public distrust politicians, distrust authority, and do not like figures. We have a national problem.

  Q209  Mr Newmark: Perhaps I could comment on that. I think that part of the problem, as you have identified, is lack of a joined-up single system, a lack of independence, and probably the fact that politicians are delivering the message, not an independent body. Those are the issues that you have identified. What powers should the National Statistician and the independent board have over the statistical system, and how should these powers be divided between the two?

  Lord Moser: This is genuinely difficult. Perhaps I may answer in terms of how it was done in my day, because I think it was done reasonably well—not because of me, but also my successors. Number one, clearly the National Statistician, as I will continue to call her and as she should be called—she should not be called Chief Statistician, that is a mistake—obviously has direct executive control over the Office for National Statistics. I do not think that is the problem. The problem is what authority or power does she have over, let us say, the Department of Health statistics. It is a very difficult issue. The way it was done in the old days—and I think it is still meant to be done—is, number one, the National Statistician is the head of profession. So she appoints or helps to appoint the key statisticians in the Department of Health, in consultation with the minister, et cetera. She is a reporting line for the statisticians in each department. That is the first thing, and it is very important. Secondly, ultimately the buck stops with her—as it did with me. If there is a major problem, say with waiting list statistics, she tries to influence—I tried to influence my person in that ministry, my statistician, to do things differently. Quite often one succeeds, because maybe there is a better way and he has to persuade his minister that there is a better way. If I do not succeed with him, I have a go at the permanent secretary and say, "Look, the way the waiting lists are collected or analysed is misleading. We need to have a change". Sometimes that works. Sometimes there is a committee which deals with all social statistics with lots of departments, and I try there. If the worst comes to the worst and I did not succeed through influence—it is not power, it is influence—through the statistical networks, then I went to my boss. This is important. My boss was the Prime Minister. It is crucial that the board, or whatever ministers are still involved in the whole business—I do not believe that there will be no ministers involved, because it does not work—ultimately, if there is a real problem, they are the end of the solution line, and then usually it did get solved. In terms of legislation, therefore, the challenge that you must be grappling with is, if the legislation is to cover the entire system—which I regard as absolutely essential—a way has to be found of defining, first, the powers of the National Statistician and, secondly, the powers of the board in relation to the departments, obviously in consultation with the minister involved and the permanent secretary. It is not easy but it can be done.

  Q210  Mr Newmark: Do you favour the establishment of a non-executive board with oversight only? Is that what you are saying, or would you retain control through an external audit body, such as the Statistics Commission? I am curious as to what powers you would give this board.

  Lord Moser: The powers derived from legislation.

  Q211  Mr Newmark: But the powers that they have—should they be one of oversight?

  Lord Moser: If one needs one word, it is scrutiny; it is advising the public, advising Parliament.

  Q212  Mr Newmark: So it is an external audit body effectively? It has more of an audit function. That is really what you are saying.

  Lord Moser: It is not a body that can decide on how to collect particular figures. It is not an executive body. That must be the National Statistician. I do not believe in committees running organisations anyhow. It will by definition be powerful, because of its composition, chairmanship, and so on, but also because it is backed by statute.

  Q213  Mr Newmark: Do you think that ministers should play any role at all in appointing board members?

  Lord Moser: If it was left to me, I would have the Prime Minister being given that responsibility.

  Q214  Mr Newmark: You do not think that it should be an independent board of people, some sort of independent committee, that appoints this?

  Lord Moser: Let me make myself clear. Of course the board is, above all, not only non-executive but totally independent. However, the board has to be brought about. The document proposes that the Treasury, the Chancellor, appoints the board members. I do not have strong views about that.

  Q215  Mr Newmark: You do not think that it should be an independent panel deciding, though, i.e. removing it one step from the Chancellor or Prime Minister in deciding who should actually be on that board? An appointments committee—call it what you will.

  Lord Moser: I do not feel strongly about that. I would totally trust the Chancellor or the Prime Minister in appointing the members of the board. It has to be very high-powered. I think the structure that is proposed makes a lot of sense.

  Q216  Peter Viggers: When I came fresh to this subject, I did not realise that there was a difference between National Statistics and other statistics, and that quarterly waiting lists in the National Health Service are National Statistics and monthly waiting lists are not national statistics. Should there be one standard for official statistics? Should there be a code to which they must comply, which would make them all official National Statistics?

  Lord Moser: As I say, if it was left to me I would abolish the concept of national statistics. I would replace it by what we have always had and what every other country has: official statistics—call them what you like. The great mistake is to have a category of statistics which are left totally to the ministers' hands. It is a formula for lack of trust, because anybody who looks into it can see that the minister has decided that those particular things do not go anywhere near ONS; they are totally for him or her to decide on. That, to me, is a very basic flaw. However, I missed the first part of your question.

  Q217  Peter Viggers: It was merely a preliminary comment, that I had not realised the difference between national and other statistics. I think that you have answered the question, Lord Moser.

  Lord Moser: The problem is that nobody out there knows the distinction. What they do know is that there are a lot of statistics in the departments which the minister has total control over. To answer an earlier question, to my mind the Chancellor's initiative is totally welcome. The concept of independence is totally welcome. It has to be coupled with some subtle way that it covers the entire system. As soon as you do that, you make real progress; but it does not solve the trust problem totally. For example, pre-release issues have to be solved.

  Q218  Mr Newmark: You keep referring to the lack of trust in using statistics and you keep using the health service as an example, on waiting lists. Does it not come down to a problem of definition and clarification: that one person's definition of a waiting list itself is different than might be used elsewhere? It is this consistency that you want throughout the whole system: that if we use the phrase "waiting list", it means the same thing to the person who runs the department as well as the Chief Statistician.

  Lord Moser: I do not think that the lack of trust problem is as subtle as that. The lack of trust problem is the public conception that politicians, ministers, and others play around with these figures to suit their policies.

  Q219  Mr Newmark: So you feel that you can actually manipulate figures without necessarily manipulating definitions?

  Lord Moser: I would not use that word, sir. I would never use the word "manipulate". I could quote you a lot of examples from my own personal experience where ministers, far short of manipulating or wanting to manipulate, put what would nowadays be called a slight spin. It is not easy to interpret figures, and it should really be left to the statisticians. In my 10 years there were two occasions when I actually resigned my post because ministers did try to manipulate figures. I am not going to say which they were if I am asked, but there were two. It happens occasionally, but I do not think that it happens nowadays because there is too much attention in the press.

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