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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-67)


19 MARCH 2008

  Q60  Dr Harris: I meant, do departmental statistics people have relationships with the media facing people?

  Mr Hughes: Yes. Typically, what would happen is for whatever set of statistics it was, the Minister and a small group of people around the Minister will see the statistical release; so it is not a case of saying, "You cannot say this or you cannot say that" because that is what the public is going to get—that statistical release and those statistics. Thereafter there may be an engagement between the private office or the press office and the statisticians about the meaning of some of those statistics, but I have very rarely seen a situation where the Minister would then seek to countermand or in any way put a different argument to the one the statistics are saying.

  Dr Harris: Really!

  Q61  Dr Gibson: The media have statisticians attached to them as well; they give them prizes every year. You—

  Ms Dunnell: I have sat on that panel.

  Dr Gibson: The Times always wins.

  Q62  Dr Harris: You must be talking about different Ministers than I am because they are always over-hyping data, and I would do the same in their position; but the question is not whether that happens or not—of course it happens—it is understandable—the question is what you, the statisticians, are doing to protect your position by saying that you counselled against that particular over interpretation being done?

  Mr Hughes: At the end of the day, it is a Minister's prerogative to present which statistics on their policy he wishes to do. All I was saying was that I have never encountered a situation where Ministers have sought in any way to undermine the statistics that have been put into the public domain, which is what I thought was possibly an issue—well, in any way countermand or contradict statistics that have been published.

  Q63  Dr Harris: I am talking about interpretation, not contradiction.

  Mr Hughes: I am sorry, that was the point I was seeking to make.

  Q64  Dr Harris: Finally, if I may, can I deal with this question about these fascinating waiting list issues. Your view was that a patient understands the waiting list targets, but I would like to ask you about this question of targets versus continual performance monitoring. Are you arguing that it is more useful for a patient waiting for a procedure to know whether the hospital has zero or not zero people waiting more than 18 months, or to know what the average waiting time for that procedure is?

Ms Dunnell: I was not trying to make a comment about that at all because that is quite a complex question, and different patients will want to view it in different ways. All I was trying to say was that at least patients understand what a waiting list is. Sometimes we come up with targets that the community cannot relate to.

  Q65  Dr Harris: So when they come up with a high-profile thing like a waiting list, do you provide advice to anyone as to what gains might take place? It may come as a surprise to you that when waiting times get political action, suddenly there develops a waiting list to get on the waiting list, and that rather subverts, at least for the patient and the public, the whole point of this.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q66  Dr Harris: Do you say that if you are going to go for that data collection this is what you must guard against happening?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. Part of the statistician role, if you take something like waiting lists, would be to provide advice about which measure of waiting list might be most appropriate. But at the end of the day it will be up to the politicians or the policy-makers to decide; but it is the job of the statisticians to say, "If you use the arithmetic means you will get that kind of answer; if you use the median, you will get that kind of answer; if you use the proportion of people who have to wait more than six months, you will get that kind of answer" That is the kind of thing that a statistician would do; they would lay out those options. Actually, Andrew Dilnot's book has a very good section, I think, on explaining how you can use the same data and turn it into a range of statistics, which gives you a slightly different story. That would be the job of the statistician in the department to set that out quite clearly so that the policy-maker and the Minister understand what difference it makes depending which particular measure he chooses.

  Q67  Dr Gibson: So the check would come in politicians being sharp enough to scrutinise as Ministers; in other words it is our job, is what you are saying.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Dr Gibson: We have got to get savvy about it. That is a challenge. Thank you very much for coming along. It is a fascinating world you live in. It is extraordinarily important information that you have given us and it will help us make a judgment in our report.

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