Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-74)



  Q60 Chairman: You recall what the target was? It is 90%.

  Mr Roberts: Yes, I do.

  Q61 Chairman: What was the outcome? I am looking for a figure.

  Mr Roberts: I think it was in the sixties. About 65% I think, but we can just check that. The difficulty that we had last year was that demand was increasing very rapidly, as you will have seen from the numbers. It was increasing—

  Q62 Chairman: For?

  Mr Roberts: Certificates.

  Q63 Chairman: You mean deaths and births were higher than you thought?

  Mr Roberts: No, no, no. The certificates that we produce are generally of two sorts: the majority are for genealogical purposes and there is also a lot of demand for people who have lost their certificates and need them for applying for passports and driving licences. The ones that are issued at the event of a birth and a death are done by the local registration service and not by ourselves. So that demand—

  Q64 Chairman: What was driving the increased demand?

  Mr Roberts: What has been driving it is some of the tightening up of controls generally within the economy, of money laundering and suchlike, where it is necessary to have more access to your certificates, but the thing that really caught us out last year was that when we recognised that we were having problems on this one, we were taking steps to increase capacity and we had introduced a night shift in the middle of the year; we already had evening shifts and day shifts. We introduced a night shift; we were taking steps to double capacity by an investment and that came on-stream in January and February of this year, but the thing that really caught us out was that, what was unfortunate timing for us, was the BBC ran a genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are?, which increased demand for our certificates about 40% overnight. We hit this enormous backlog in October, when that series started, to January. We had got the new capacity in in January and February, we had basically cleared the backlog by about March and ever since we have been running absolutely okay and well within our targets, but we just had that period. When you ask what was it that caused it, it was basically a BBC series!

  Q65 Chairman: Also your report identified delivering services that are comparable with the best five statistical offices worldwide, as one means of benchmarking your own performance. Who measures who are the top five? How is that assessment based?

  Ms Dunnell: I do not think there is any standard published league table but certainly there is a general idea across the international community about what the best national statistics offices are but, of course, there are many criteria by which we would judge whether or not an office was in the top 10, as it were. For example, having a very wide range of relevant outputs would be one thing, so for example I believe that in the UK we would come out very well on that, because compared with other countries we have a very wide portfolio of both economic and social statistics. Then there is the whole issue of public recognition and trust. Does the country's statistics have that? Whether or not they display methodological leadership, whether they have well designed and managed systems, whether their surveys have good response rates, whether they are good value for money; all those kinds of things.

  Q66 Chairman: Sure, but the idea of being in the top five was your idea. You said you wanted to be ranked with the best five. Who are the best five, and where are we in the table?

  Ms Dunnell: Currently we do not regard ourselves in the best five, which is why it is our aspiration—

  Q67 Chairman: So where are we?

  Ms Dunnell: Somewhere between six and 10, I would say. But, as I say, there is no standard league table, actually.

  Q68 Chairman: But it does not sound very statistical, this. Who are regarded as the best five?

  Ms Dunnell: Countries like Canada, Australia and Sweden, for example, are the kinds of countries that we often look to, to help us and advise us and so on, and they do to us, of course, because we know different institutes have different things that they are strong on.

  Chairman: Now, I am moving towards the end, but Susan Kramer has a couple more questions.

  Q69 Susan Kramer: Interestingly enough, the countries you have just mentioned—do they not all have these independent statutory frameworks for their statistics offices, and your comment on whether or not that is a key element, to be able to get into the top five?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. It may be one criterion that I did not get to in my long list, indeed. Yes, it may well be and certainly Canada and Australia do have very strong legal frameworks.

  Q70 Susan Kramer: Of the list of things you have outlined, getting into the top five, moving down the interpretation pathway, communicating more effectively; how are you going to do all of that and still deal with the required efficiency gains? I think £25 million per annum by 2007 and 2008?

  Ms Dunnell: Because we are already quite well advanced with understanding how we are going to achieve our efficiencies. Quite a lot of these efficiencies will be what we call statistical improvements and we have already compiled quite an enormous list of things that we have already done to improve, particularly the scope and the quality of our statistics over the last few years. Because statistics is one of those things that always has to keep up to date and relevant, most surveys and parts of the system have to improve all the time, so there are ways of counting that. We also, of course, with the efficiency challenge, have planned how we will achieve the benefits of our whole modernisation programme which, after all, is not only geared to improving statistics but geared to producing them quicker and cheaper and so we have that plan worked out and that is what we are moving towards. Hilary can say more about that.

  Ms Douglas: We have a target, like other government departments, that is part cash and part non-cash or statistical benefits, as Karen described them, and from our target we would expect probably about £14 million of it to be cash and £11 million to be non-cash. The cash savings are where you are delivering the same, or similar, output at less cost, so that the money saved can be recycled. This is all about reducing the costs of some of our activities whilst maintaining the value of the output, so that we can resource some of the other priorities that we have. We need to work out how we do that in order to live within the overall resource envelope that the Government has given us; the total resource that we have for 2005-06 is simply trended forward into the next two years, so we have had to start thinking very early on about how we can do things differently in order to reduce the cost of delivering the output, and we have been doing a lot of work on that already.

  Q71 Chairman: You are here because you are one of the Chancellor's Treasury departments; you report to a Treasury minister and I think you said today you need more resources or you are hoping for more resources from the Treasury. How are you, as the new National Statistician, going to demonstrate to the country your independence from the Treasury?

  Ms Dunnell: That, indeed, is quite challenging in the circumstances but I think it is quite clear from many of the answers that, for example, Colin has given, that the Treasury and our minister do not interfere with our statistical decision-making. Getting that across when it comes into question is another one of our communication challenges, I think.

  Q72 Chairman: But how are you going to demonstrate your independence? Never mind your telling us the ministers do not interfere. How are you going to demonstrate your own independence?

  Ms Dunnell: I think there are many ways of doing that. We have a very large portfolio of publications which I hope make it clear that we are reporting on the situation of the economy and society in a way that is not influenced by politics per se, because we have mechanisms of consulting with a wide range of users, not just people in the Treasury, and their views and so on, I think, come across in the direction that our work travels in.

  Q73 Chairman: How would you like to be judged at the end of your term?

  Ms Dunnell: I would like to have the Office with all its modernised systems in place. I would like us to be much leaner and meaner; I would like us to have achieved a much more important place for statistics right across government in the whole policy-making agenda and to be working in a much more joined-up way with our economists and researchers and other scientific colleagues, and I would hope that the general public has a much better understanding of what percentage is, basically!

  Q74 Chairman: We wish you well in that latter task and, indeed, with the earlier ones and we shall look forward to seeing you again in front of the Sub-Committee. Thank you and your colleagues very much.

  Ms Dunnell: Thank you.

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