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 getthat 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
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 notof course it happensit
is understandablethe 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 issuewell,
in any way countermand or contradict statistics that have been
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.