Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)


14 JUNE 2006

  Q240  Peter Viggers: Your repetition of "national statistics" means, I assume, that you will continue with two tiers of statistics. Do you think that will help to promote confidence, or will that be a manner of retaining confidence?

  John Healey: Mr Viggers, I am not quite sure what you mean or see as two tiers. The nature of statistics is this, and actually it is much more varied than simply two tiers. What are currently termed official statistics are essentially the large number of statistics that are produced by government. These are statistical outputs of a varying nature, from databases, to management data that is in departments, to one-off research projects, produced by government officials that are not necessarily Government Statistical Service staff. It is very hard, first of all, to define those and, secondly, to quantify them. Within that, it is possible to identify and quantify the statistics and statistical outputs of the Government Statistical Service. These number around 1,450. Within that, you have national statistics, identified and designated as such, numbering around 1,180. They are possible to define; they are possible to identify and, for the first time, our plans are to require the board to ensure that these are assessed and independently adjudged, to meet the provisions of the code that it will be responsible for developing and maintaining. Within that 1,180 of national statistics, around about 250 are produced by the Office for National Statistics. In other words, you have a very rich, wide-ranging and varied statistical picture in the first place. The question then—about which I think you are obviously, and rightly, concerned—is the question of scope. Where in that range of statistics is it right to turn this particular legislatively based attention? It seemed to us that the sensible starting place was that 1,100-1,200 or so national statistics, currently designated as such, because they represent the most important sources of data that tell us what is going on in the economy and in society, and tell us the degree to which government is meeting the commitments and undertakings that it produced. I would suggest to you that it is in those areas where the need for most regular, robust and comprehensive statistics is required. That is the reason we are suggesting that this is a system which should have that at its core. Clearly, however, it is a system that could evolve—including the scope and the reach of the system as it develops.

  Q241  Peter Viggers: Do the representations you have received echo those that we have received, which is that there should be a code of standards which covers all statistics? I hear what you say, but I think that the world outside does not understand the distinction between different kinds of statistics—and neither do I.

  John Healey: It is probably quite hard to have a code of practice that covers absolutely any statistics, any statistical outputs, or any data that may be generated within government. I have tried to explain that. I think it is right that we have an independently produced code of practice and that a designated set of the most important statistics—in our proposals the national statistics—are properly assessed and adjudged to meet the standards of quality and integrity that we want from them; done independently and under the auspices of the board, and all entirely without the involvement of ministers.

  Q242  Mr Breed: At the back end of last year it was reported that the Treasury had reviewed the framework for the national statistics. You did not actually publish that review. What were the reasons for not publishing the review?

  John Healey: The Chancellor's announcement and the consultation document are precisely the output of the review that we undertook, and the review that, when we introduced the Framework for National Statistics in 2000, we said that we would do after five years. In effect, therefore, this is your review. This—Independence for Statistics—contains our review of the performance of the framework over the five years. Our plan is now to strengthen that further and entrench the independence in legislation.

  Q243  Mr Breed: Were there any recommendations in that review that you decided not to take forward into the consultation process?

  John Healey: It was not a review that produced recommendations; it was a review that allowed us to assess the performance of the reforms that we put in place in the year 2000 and, off the back of that, set out for wider public debate and scrutiny proposals for strengthening the independence of statistics still further.

  Q244  Mr Breed: So there were no recommendations as such?

  John Healey: No, the recommendations are set out in the proposals that are in here.

  Q245  Mr Breed: Those are fully the ones that were part of that review process.

  John Healey: Yes, those are the conclusions that we draw from the review that we have done; the performance of the framework over the five years; the view we now take of what needs to be done further and, for the reasons I have explained, to entrench that independence in legislation.

  Q246  Mr Breed: You have already said that today is the last day and you are going to publish all the responses to that review.

  John Healey: Correct.

  Q247  Mr Breed: You said earlier on that you were perfectly happy with the independence of the drawing-up of the statutory code of practice that would be drafted by the National Statistician and approved by the independent board and the parliamentary committee. It has been suggested to us by the Chair of the Statistics Commission that, while ministers should be consulted, the Commission felt that their approval was not a "prerequisite". Are you quite happy that ministers will not have any role in the drafting or approving of the new statutory code of practice?

  John Healey: I think the process that we intend is very clear. This will be a code which there will be a legal duty on this new board to develop and then to maintain. In all likelihood, the preparation and drafting will be led under the auspices of the Chief Statistician but it will be for the board to direct that; it will be for the board to approve that; and it will be for the board to modify that subsequently as it thinks fit, depending on how it works. None of those functions will be a matter for ministers.

  Q248  Mr Breed: They will be consulted obviously and therefore have their own views reflected into the code of practice by the board as such, but they will have no direct role as regards the drawing-up of the code of practice.

  John Healey: No, that will be a responsibility for the board. As I indicated earlier, I would see a duty on it to consult, but consult widely and certainly well beyond government, in its preparation and approval of that code.

  Q249  Kerry McCarthy: You have already told us, Minister, that almost 300 of the statistics produced by the Government Statistical Service are not designated as national statistics. Then you have referred to these other statistics that are produced by departments which are difficult to define or quantify. Does it not concern you that so many statistics are beyond the professional scrutiny of the senior statistical adviser and that they will continue to be outside that regime, under the new proposals?

  John Healey: The short answer is no, it does not, as long as we have what generally would be regarded as the most important statistics within the designation of national statistics and within this new system, where they are independently and properly assessed and then adjudged to be of the sort of quality and integrity that we require of them.

  Q250  Kerry McCarthy: In terms of making that decision as to what is classed as a National Statistic, is there not some conflict? We have heard evidence in relation to the figures for NHS waiting lists, for example: that the monthly statistics are not National Statistics and the quarterly ones are. Do you think there is scope for reviewing what is designated as a national statistic?

  John Healey: I said earlier that there is scope for the system to evolve, and I would see it in these terms. First of all, in principle it is right that the decision to want to see a particular dataset or production of statistics designated as a National Statistic should rest with ministers. In the end, we are responsible for the outputs; we are responsible for the resources, the allocation of those, and the operation of the departments that will produce them. That is the first thing. The second thing is, with the added status that I think this independent process will give to the nature and the confidence in National Statistics, there will increasingly be—for ministers who are concerned about the confidence people can have in the statistics that cover the key areas of activity their department is responsible for—an incentive for them to want to see them within the system.

  Q251  Kerry McCarthy: For example, I think at the moment about 12% of the figures the Home Office produces are National Statistics, and the Home Secretary said to the Home Affairs Select Committee that he could not remember a fact or figure that he had been given since his appointment that was not "revised quickly within a very short period of time". Do you think that this new regime will help restore some of the confidence in the statistics that are being produced at the moment?

  John Healey: I think that it will, because it is designed to do precisely that. Perhaps I can give you a view from myself as a minister, irrespective of the Home Secretary. If I am a minister responsible for a particular policy area which is of great importance to me, to the wider department or the Government, then I am likely to want to be confident about the data that I get on what is happening, how it is being delivered, and how it is being managed and monitored. In those circumstances, you can probably see that there may well be merit and an incentive for ministers to see whether they should be submitted—in a sense that will be the process—to the board for inclusion as national statistics. In order to be so, they would have to be produced according to the code that the board will draw up; they will then have to be assessed against that code. That assessment function will be undertaken and the results reported directly to the board, because it will be for the board ultimately to judge and approve a particular statistical output or dataset as a National Statistic. As the corollary to that, I would expect the board to have the capacity—and it actually would in some circumstances at some points—to withdraw designation of a National Statistic if it does not judge the quality or integrity of those statistics to be up to the code.

  Q252  Kerry McCarthy: Could I ask a few technical questions about the suggested new arrangements? It says in the consultation document, "under the new arrangements, the annual report would be laid before Parliament directly by the board, rather than via a minister". How would that work?

  John Healey: At the moment, the Office for National Statistics, or indeed the Statistics Commission, produce an annual report. It is a report formally to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In practice, because the Chancellor delegates his statistical responsibilities to me as Financial Secretary, those are reports to me and then I lay those reports to Parliament. What we are proposing is taking the ministers out of that reporting and accounting process.

  Q253  Kerry McCarthy: Is it not the case at the moment that all papers laid before the Commons have to be laid either by a Member or, in some instances, they are laid by the Clerk of the House? So would it be via the Clerk of the House? The board would present them through him?

  John Healey: It could be done in a number of ways. You will see that in the consultation document—having declared as I did at the outset part of the intention of these changes is for a more direct scrutiny and accountability function in the role to be played by Parliament—in many ways it is for Parliament itself, including a leading view from this Committee, how Parliament wants to develop its own scrutiny and reporting requirements of the new system.

  Q254  Kerry McCarthy: You also say in the proposals that responses to statistical Parliamentary Questions "could be done via the Chairs of the committees responsible for statistical matters". What is the thinking behind that?

  John Healey: In a sense, that is an idea we are floating in the consultation document to see, in particular, whether there is a parliamentary appetite for altering arrangements as they have always taken place. What is the idea behind that? The idea is simply, again, to emphasise that we are looking to take the practice and the perception of ministers being involved in an accounting process out of the frame.

  Q255  Mr Gauke: Can I turn to the issue of which will be the leading department in this area? I hear what you say about the fact that the Treasury has a lot of experience with regard to statistics, and the nature of the Treasury's activities. One could also argue that the flip side of that is that a lot of the controversies over statistics relate to the Treasury. Are you not in any way attracted to the argument of the Cabinet Office having a role here, given that the Treasury is a much more political, if you like, policymaking department, as this Committee has heard, rather than the Cabinet Office which has much more of a cross-departmental role?

  John Healey: First of all, I do not really accept your starting contention there. I said at the outset that actually the hard evidence and the number of examples where there have been abuses or short-circuits within the existing system were very few and far between. You will know, Mr Gauke, the Statistics Commission investigates apparent breaches of the code of practice at the moment. In 2004-05 they investigated six—on pre-release, for instance. Three of those were accidental; three of them were contraventions of the code, but in each case the Commission regarded that the steps that were being taken gave them confidence for the future. On the issue about the Treasury or the Cabinet Office, in the end I think that people will come to their own judgments. I do not want to repeat myself, but we have the experience of dealing with it. With statistics within government, many of the statistics—particularly the Office for National Statistics—the majority of the National Statistics that they produce are economic. The importance of those statistics and the frequency of them generally are higher than other departments. Particularly in terms of the role the Treasury has within government and across government for value-for-money concerns and performance targets, the interest we have in the highest possible standards, and the quality and integrity of statistics, means that we have a very active interest in that.

  Q256  Mr Gauke: If the drive behind giving statistics more independence is apparently to improve its credibility—I hear what you say about where there are breaches, but if the drive is to increase credibility—would you not recognise the argument that, where the Treasury is very often in the middle of that argument, it is not an ideal position also to be the department that is scrutinising the statistics? The Statistics Commission, who you have referred to, have themselves argued that consideration should be given to the Cabinet Office taking over this area.

  John Healey: I do not know if implicit in your contention there is that you somehow give it to a weaker or a less active part of government—which seems to be implicit in some of the arguments some people are making in this territory. In the end, I think that you deal with the question of whether there is the right degree of independence by setting up the framework, based in legislation, in a way that ensures that there cannot and will not be any inappropriate interference—and that is precisely what we are setting out to do.

  Q257  Mr Gauke: If statistics were moved to another department, do you think that would in any significant way weaken the ability of the Treasury to dominate the Government?

  John Healey: To dominate the Government?

  Q258  Mr Gauke: To dominate the Government. Do you think it is key to the Treasury?

  John Healey: I would not suggest for a moment, Mr Gauke, that we dominate the Government. We have a very important role at the heart of government.

  Q259  Mr Gauke: All right—to influence other departments. Do you think it is significant?

  John Healey: I think that you would have to put that to other parts of government. Generally, in my experience—and those of you round the table who have been ministers would recognise this—performance is important, funding is important, and at the heart of both features of government is the Treasury.

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