Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


19 MARCH 2008

  Q1 Dr Gibson: Thank you for coming and helping us in what we hope will be an interesting inquiry about Government statistics and policy-making. We are very aware that this change is taking place in structures and we do not want to get into that, but we would like some advice from you to carry it forward. I will ask you the first question, and then other Members of the Committee will pile in. We want to try and get it over in an hour. Tell us about the different types of statistics that you record, the national statistics and official statistics and the differentiation between them. What are the differences, and are they important?

  Ms Dunnell: The Government and its agencies of course produce a very wide range of statistics; probably about half of these are badged as national statistics; and we refer to the whole lot as official statistics. National statistics are characterised by the kind of quality badge that represents the fact that they adhere to the statistics produced under proper professional mechanisms, and adhere to the code of practice, which means they are fit for purpose, they are relevant, they are high quality, they are accessible in terms of being on the website and so on, and they are produced with integrity—a whole series of things like that. The Government's statistical surveys work to a very clear code of practice. They were badged in 2000, when the last reform of government statistics took place; and at that time all statistics produced by ONS, which represents about a fifth of all national statistics, were going to be national statistics, and the rest were decided by Ministers in departments. Since then, some extra statistics have come into the fold, if you like; and basically that is something that Ministers advise on; and then I and my colleagues rubber-stamp. We would do an assessment and decide—

  Q2  Dr Gibson: Do you know which class of statistics you are handling?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q3  Dr Gibson: How is that decision made? You say Ministers, but statistics are statistics are statistics, are they not?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, but this is one of the very interesting things about statistics; that in the UK, in 1999, when the last reforms were decided upon and consulted on, and indeed in the debate that has taken place more recently in Parliament, everyone decided that this should remain in the gift of Ministers, so it is a parliamentary decision, the latest one.

  Q4  Dr Gibson: Could you hazard a guess why Ministers want to keep control of this?

  Ms Dunnell: Well, I could hazard a guess about it, yes. It is partly of course that many of the statistics that are produced, which we refer to as official statistics, are those figures which emanate from administrative and management systems, for example in the health service, the prison service or the police service, and they are used very intensively for management and administrative purposes and may not ever in some senses fulfil the very strict codes of practice that we work to, particularly on things like publication processes.

  Q5  Dr Gibson: Do you think the words "statistically proven" are just used in a loose kind of way by politicians? I assume if the Prime Minister will say to me "statistics have proven that we are not as poor as we used to be" and all this kind of stuff—the word "statistically" gets thrown into the hat somewhere! Is that your feeling?

  Ms Dunnell: It may do, but on the other hand we do produce a large number of series, the whole intention being to demonstrate how our economy and society are developing; so in many cases, for example child poverty, we do have in the Government statistical survey methods of working out whether it has gone up or down. That is entirely statistically good practice.

  Q6  Dr Gibson: Do you feel you are ever compromised in different positions and different committees you are on? Is that a possibility; or can you sit back and be quite neutral about everything?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, my job, partly as a statistician, and as a senior civil servant, is to be impartial and to give advice based on the statistics that I am there to talk about.

  Q7  Dr Iddon: Who decides the boundaries between national and official statistics, and are there statistics that are produced as official statistics that you feel ought to be national?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, there probably are some of those. I think that the new UK Statistics Authority is planning to take a pretty systematic look at the whole of official statistics and give some advice about whether the boundaries are right.

  Q8  Mr Boswell: Will that require a re-definition of the criteria, to see what they are; or at least a fresh look at that?

  Ms Dunnell: One of the things that the UK SA will do is review the existing code of practice, which we have had in place for more than ten years now; and then they will apply those new criteria, which I do not suppose will be very different because there is an international set of codes of practice for statistics, which are pretty similar across the world.

  Mr Hughes: One of the things that the Act did was to give the Statistics Authority the powers to oversee the whole of the UK official statistics system, rather than focusing just on national statistics. It gives the Authority the power to raise questions with Ministers in Parliament about their treatment of official statistics and whether they should be national statistics.

  Q9  Mr Boswell: Will that be a public dialogue do you anticipate; or will it be a matter of private advice to Ministers who, if their official statistics are controlling them rather than—

  Mr Hughes: I think the answer to that is still not clear. The Authority is currently looking at its policy on transparency, and will seek to be as open and transparent as possible; but in the context of dealing with Ministers, you will have to respect that dialogue.

  Q10  Graham Stringer: You have said that you want to improve the public perception of statistics, and that the SA will help you to do that. How will you do that? Is that just an aspiration? Can you put some flesh on the bones to convince us that you have a real plan that will improve?

  Ms Dunnell: It is aspirational but of course we believe it is very important that this work we do, which is extensively used across Government, is much better regarded by the public. The UK SA will have plans, and indeed we always have things that we are trying to do to improve trust. I think the main one will be what the UK SA has already decided, which is to set up a web hub, a single place on the Internet, where all official statistics will be published together. That will be very separate, and seen to be very separate from the ministerial statements about those statistics. The intention is to for that to come into place on 1 April. That will make, hopefully, quite a big difference. The other things are down to quite a lot of things that I can try to do in my position as National Statistician, which is to raise the standards of what we do across the Government's Statistical Service, particularly in terms of things like making the statistics we produce understandable, interesting, and used in a relevant way, because the more people who can understand what we do and use them in their work or, for example, at local level in helping to get the kind of things they want at local level, then gradually we will build up respect and regard for these very important statistics. Those are the kinds of things we try to do.

  Q11  Graham Stringer: Do you think that will be sufficient when less than a fifth of people currently believe official statistics? Do you think your website and making your work technically superior will change people's perception? Is there reliability in statistics?

  Ms Dunnell: That is the intention. I agree that it is probably quite a long, slow process; but the real secret is widening the community of people who understand statistics and what they are useful for and get some benefit out of using them. That is really the challenge.

  Mr Hughes: One of the other major planks with trying to improve trust—and it is very much a perception problem—is reducing both the time and the number of people who would see the statistics in advance. That is something that the Government, during the passage of the Bill, made a clear commitment to do. I think there is a perception by those outside that because Ministers and their senior officials may see the figures in advance it gives them the opportunity to present their arguments in a way that is more helpful for Government. I think that is a major plank in all of this as well. As you probably know, the Government has just gone out to consultation on that very issue.

  Q12  Graham Stringer: Have you read the transcript of the Public Accounts Committee session with your predecessor, Mr Cook, about the last census?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes—not very recently.

  Q13  Graham Stringer: What have you learned from that, because Mr Cook, following that session, became a fairly major national figure—and I certainly did not think it was fit for purpose and most people in Manchester did not think it was fit for purpose. What have you learnt not just from the transcript of that but from that whole sorry episode about the last census?

  Ms Dunnell: We have learnt an enormous amount from the last census, which, as we know, had a few failings. Of course, we are now deeply into planning for the next census in 2011. The key things that we learnt about what went wrong with the last census, or one of the things anyway, was that we did not have a proper up-to-date and fully comprehensive address register. In Manchester, for example, some streets were entirely missing because the address register that we were using had been checked something up to two years before, so one of the lessons is that we must create a single address register from the existing address registers, and we must do that ourselves and have it up-to-date as close to census date as possible. That was a very important one. The other was that actually the response to the census was very good: 94% of households returned their forms. Then the statistical challenge of course is to do the follow-up survey and to use that information to estimate the remaining part of the population. What happened last time was that some areas, the difficult areas—mainly inner-city areas—had a much lower response than that—because that was the average. This time, we are having a different approach to collecting the information, which means we are going to focus the enumerators, that is the people on the ground, in the difficult places, and have a much more immediate management system that tells us where we are not getting a response so that we can move people in to the more difficult areas. Those are the key things that we are planning to do differently, which will have a big impact on the quality of the census.

  Q14  Graham Stringer: Statistics are collected by departments in a decentralised way. Is there any way that you think you can improve the communication and the quality of those statistics collected in a decentralised way into a centralised set of statistics?

  Ms Dunnell: As I said, all the 1,200 or so people who work in the Government Statistics Service all do work to the code of practice, and so that is part of this continuous process of ensuring that what they do adheres to that; and of course 27 of the Government departments and agencies have somebody whom we call the statistics head of profession, and they meet regularly with me and my senior colleagues and work on things like education, training, career development, standards and all of that type of thing. That is all in place.

  Mr Hughes: One of the major planks once again of the Act is this new concept of an assessment, where the UK Statistics Authority will be developing work programmes to look across the whole of the official statistics to make sure they are fit for purpose. It will be the major element of their responsibility to ensure quality of the statistics not only in the ONS but across the GSS as a whole.

  Q15  Dr Gibson: Are there some good departments and some bad departments so far as statistics are concerned? I am not going to name them, but there must be a differentiation between professionalism—or do you think they are all good?

  Ms Dunnell: I do not think we would be able to say which were good and which were bad. There is a variation in every department, probably including ONS.

  Mr Hughes: Given the huge number of statistics produced across Government, there will always be the odd slip-up; and Andrew Dilnot's book exemplified some of those; but every one of those heads of profession who is accountable to Karen will be seeking to ensure that standards are met. I have been in the GSS thirty years, and I have never been able to see that sort of distinction.

  Q16  Dr Gibson: Oh, dear—it is all good—okay, fine!

  Mr Hughes: I did not say it was perfect.

  Q17  Mr Boswell: Do you make use of reality checks with statisticians outside, either in overseas administrations, which might, as it were, come and inspect you, or indeed in the private sector where private sector companies also need to—

  Mr Hughes: We have very, very strong links with academe and we have methodology committees where we have a wide sprinkling of academics in different areas of statistics so that we engage very closely with them on our methodologies and techniques. That is one area. We also work in a very strong international network and we are continually looking at best practice there. To pick up your specific point, as part of the European statistical system, all of the statistical systems of the EU have just gone through a major peer-review process where we contributed in assessing some of their offices and they in turn assessed us. There is that continual check and balance in the system. We, if you do not mind me saying so, did very well in that process.

  Dr Gibson: People can be proud of their work occasionally!

  Q18  Dr Turner: Karen, you, as National Statistician—and I quote you—said: "It is my responsibility to ensure we deliver statistics that are of high quality and integrity", which is obviously a very worthy aim, and we would expect nothing less; but you have just quoted one example where the statistics were not of the highest integrity. It was not necessarily the fault of the statisticians, but of the actual integrity of the data collection process itself in the last national census. I am fairly confident that is not the only area of statistics that gets published where there are question marks about the quality of the data collection. What steps do you have in mind to try to ensure that you can improve on the quality of data collection?

  Ms Dunnell: Data collection is very important. What we have to remember about the census that makes it different from many of the other statistics that we produce is that we only do it every ten years. This is something that we are thinking about very actively for 2011, because, as we know, society changes an enormous amount in a ten-year period, and each subsequent ten-year period seems to change even faster. Getting the arrangements on the ground absolutely perfect for a situation that has moved on considerably is quite challenging. That is one of the particular issues of the census, which is why this time—and in answer to your question this is another of the lessons we learned—we will work much, much more closely with local authorities in the planning process, to use the information and intelligence they have about their areas and how they have changed in order to make sure that the practical arrangements are as good as they can be. That does not mean that at the end of the day something that involves getting quite a complex form back from every single household in the UK is not a risky business. It would be really silly to say that you can put your hand on your heart at any point and say "this is going to work 100%"! It is the only statistical activity in social statistics where people have by law to fill the form in, which is a big advantage. Even so, there are many risks to the process. Those are the kinds of things we try to manage.

  Q19  Dr Turner: The definitions are another problem because you often find the press comparing sets of statistics, but they are not actually like for like because there are subtle differences in the collection bases. That then helps undermine public confidence in statistics or certainly in what the Government uses those statistics for. Do you have quality control mechanisms to review your statistical processes before they are published?

  Ms Dunnell: For many of them we do. The census is a very good example of what you have just mentioned about changing classification. When you do something ten years apart you have a real conflict between doing it exactly the same so that you get a very good measure of change, which is often at small area and local authority level and constituency level, which is what people are interested in; but on the other hand you have to make sure that the statistics are relevant for the time on which they are collected. For example, in 2001 we revised the ethnicity classification, which had been used for the first time in 1991, because the whole nature of the ethnic groups living in the UK had changed quite considerably in that ten-year period, so we changed it. This time we are trying very hard to keep it the same because we have had different kinds of changes. We have had a lot of migration from the EU; therefore, for the first time we are asking questions about citizenship and country of birth, which will help identify those people from Europe and other parts of the world that come into the white ethnicity category. So you have all the time to balance keeping things the same so you can measure change over time and reflect what is on the ground. That is one example. I can think of other things.

  Mr Hughes: As part of the National Statistics, when it was introduced in 2000, one of the planks was a quality review process. All the Government departments were obliged to go through this process of statistics, and something like 75 to 80 major reviews have been undertaken in that time period. Many of those reviews have included external representatives—academics and users—to peer-review the statistics produced.

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