Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examinatin of Witnesses (Questions 220-229)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q220  Mr Todd: The consultation document leaves slightly unclear whether the Treasury will continue to have the overall responsibility for the Office for National Statistics. Do you have a view as to whether the Treasury is the correct location or whether another location in government is sensible?

  Lord Moser: That is a very key point. Point one, it is not conceivable that the system is totally, so to speak, remote from Whitehall or from ministers. At the very least, a minister has to answer in Parliament. So there has to be the minister in the background. In the old days—and I do not say in the good old days, because lots of things are much better now than they were then—the reporting line was through the Cabinet Office to the Prime Minister. This is a very real link. I served three Prime Ministers. I would see the Prime Minister quite regularly and he would take serious interest. That obviously was a great strength, especially vis-a"-vis other departments. So it was much less difficult to influence other ministries when it was known that behind me was the Prime Minister. Those are the days gone by, however. The only problem with the Treasury as the home, and continuing home of ONS and so on, is nothing subtle or mysterious; it is simply that there is a conflict of interest. The Treasury has an overriding interest in economic statistics—in all the economic statistics. Many of the most important statistics relating to our society relate to things like education, health and all the other social areas which are not the direct interest of the Treasury. So I would still prefer some route which links the operation more closely to the Cabinet Office than to the Treasury. Whatever is done on that, however, the important thing is that the code, which was referred to earlier, has to be very powerful; the board has to be very powerful, because what the public sees is the behaviour of the board and what is in the code, and it is that which leads to trust.

  Q221  Mr Todd: You gave us a brief historical reflection without attributing the events to particular individuals. From that, I take it that there were occasions when you served in government when you felt that statistics were not properly used by ministers. Does that suggest—together with the remarks of Disraeli—that to some extent this subject is nothing new, and we may be getting a little over-exercised about some aspects of this, without taking a proper historical reflection?

  Lord Moser: I have heard the Disraeli remark so often in my very long life! The point about statistics is that it is a subject that many people are frightened of and most people are uncomfortable with, but it is a very professional subject. I was a professor of statistics, and we statisticians live by integrity. Otherwise, we do not exist. The problem is to ensure that that integrity comes through transparently to the general public. There the problem is that sometimes the interest of the actual figures and the interest of the ministers using them are not the same. I will quote to you—because it was not in my day but before my time—a Chancellor of the day who wrote to my predecessor, Sir Harry Campion, on a paper which gave the latest balance of payments figures. The Chancellor wrote at the top—and this minute exists, by the way—"Director, these figures are not compatible with my policies. Please recalculate"! Obviously they were not recalculated and the Chancellor of the day had the reply he deserved. But of course there is a temptation. Politicians do a different job from the statisticians. The whole strength of the Chancellor's initiative seems to me to be to find ways of increasing the distance between the statisticians and the politicians.

  Q222  Mr Todd: So you accept that this perfection of seeking accuracy and objectivity has to be viewed through a prism of, to some extent, presentation and occasional misuse, and that a bit of this lack of trust is an inevitable part of governance. To conclude, you presumably would therefore not be very sympathetic, based on what you have said, to the idea of giving Opposition spokespeople equivalent access to a minister; because that, from what you have said, may even make matters worse rather than better.

  Lord Moser: As long as my answer is linked to my previous answer—and I have not really talked about this—I will certainly propose, and I will say this tomorrow in the Lords, that pre-release should basically be abolished. Given that, I think the same applies to the Opposition. I see no justification—and there is no other country that has our system—for giving ministers or anybody the kind of pre-release we have at the moment, which is over a day. I think perhaps something over one hour, so that the minister can be prepared to answer questions about the figures; but that would be the maximum in my view—one hour pre-sight of any figures.

  Q223  Mr Todd: With presumably some exception on market-sensitive data perhaps?

  Lord Moser: Personally, I would leave it to the new board to decide whether there should be any exceptions. My own view would be to start from no exceptions.

  Q224  John Thurso: Lord Moser, various witnesses have drawn to our attention the fragmented nature of statistics across the United Kingdom as between the different home nations. One said that it was not so much a consequence of devolution but that devolution had brought this into focus. How important do you believe it is that at the UK level there should be a set of compatible statistics?

  Lord Moser: I think that it is absolutely vital. I do not know how to bring it about. Certainly in my day and for many years it was not an issue. I am not sufficiently clear about the legal position to say how this could be dealt with in the proposed legislation, which is what it is all about at the moment. I was head of the United Nations Statistics Division; I was head of European things, and so on. We must have UK statistics. The National Statistician and her staff will always try to ensure compatibility with their friends and colleagues in Edinburgh, et cetera. Should I have said Glasgow? No, I think that I should have said Edinburgh.

  Q225  John Thurso: You were right with Edinburgh!

  Lord Moser: Apart from that obvious professional behaviour of sticking together, I do not know how it can be done; but we must end up by having UK statistics.

  Q226  Chairman: We have to leave it there now, Lord Moser. Thank you very much indeed for attending this afternoon and helping us.

  Lord Moser: May I raise one other issue for two minutes?

  Q227  Chairman: Of course.

  Lord Moser: I am quite concerned how Parliament is intended to deal with this whole thing as a final authority. Although it is rather an offensive line on which to end, there is much more in the system than economic statistics. If the Select Committees that deal with this are not the purely economic committees in the Commons and the Lords, I think that would not fit the rest of what we should have in mind. Some thought has to be given on how Parliament actually deals with the wide range of statistics, not just economic statistics.

  Q228  Chairman: Thank you for that. We certainly will address that when we come to report. At present, the Treasury Committee is responsible because ONS is a Treasury body.

  Lord Moser: I understand that.

  Q229  Chairman: So we do not just have oversight over economic statistics; we look at the ONS and the Statistics Commission as a whole. However, it is certainly an aspect we will need to consider in our report.

  Lord Moser: The issue is, when there are important social policy issues which other committees deal with, some way has to be found. I hope also that some way will be found for the Lords to be involved in this whole process.

  Chairman: Certainly. Lord Moser, thank you very much.

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