Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-297)


28 JANUARY 2008

  Q280  Ms Keeble: What is your thinking on that?

  Sir Michael Scholar: I have already responded personally about that. I am sure you will recall that when the Treasury Committee interviewed me in July prior to my appointment—

  Q281  Ms Keeble: I was not present for that one, I was away.

  Sir Michael Scholar: The Chairman asked me that very question and my reply to him was to say that I thought it would be better if the power to determine pre-release arrangements had been given to the Board rather than retained by the Government, but since that is a feature of the legislation, and it is therefore not in any way in the short-term alterable, I said I felt that the announcement made by the Prime Minister in early July that pre-release times would be reduced to a uniform 24 hours was an improvement on the pre-existing situation but did not go far enough.

  Q282  Ms Keeble: So what would you like to see?

  Sir Michael Scholar: I think I said, and recently reiterated when the Government produced their pre-release consultation document, that I thought we should be in line with the very best international practice and that suggested certainly no longer than the three hours which I think this Committee itself recommended a while back.

  Q283  Ms Keeble: In terms of the many very onerous tasks that are going to confront the new Board, what do you see as being the priorities?

  Sir Michael Scholar: The priority is to try to rebuild trust in UK statistics. At the beginning of this present session I think it was Mr Ainger who referred to the fact that in a recent piece of work commissioned by the European Commission the UK came 27th out of 27 in terms of public trust in its statistics and that is a very deplorable number. It points to the same conclusion as the survey carried out by the ONS a couple of years ago. It seems to me that our first priority has to be to try to remedy that deficiency and to restore public trust or rebuild the public trust in UK official statistics.

  Q284  Chairman: Just on the structure of the Board, will one of your deputies have particular responsibility for looking at the population count in the Census or is that something that you are going to take the lead on yourself?

  Sir Michael Scholar: That will remain to be discussed by the Board. Initially I have indicated that one of the deputy chairmen would have particular responsibility for the management of the ONS and the other would have particular responsibility for the assessment and monitoring of the whole statistical system, the former being David Rowe-Beddoe and the latter being Professor Adrian Smith. How we will fit particular important topics into that pattern I am not yet quite clear.

  Q285  Ms Keeble: On the issue of the management, are you going to look at the whole issue of the management and the locations of staff? Are you going to reopen that issue?

  Sir Michael Scholar: The Board is charged with the duty of managing the ONS, that is clear, that is in the legislation and that is one of our important tasks, and if you are managing an organisation you have to have regard to its location, its premises, its retention, its recruitment and so on and so forth, and I think the Board is bound to consider all these issues.

  Q286  Ms Keeble: Although it is only a Shadow Board and you have not got formal responsibility, when you look at what is happening at ONS and you look at issues around the confidence that people have in the statistics, are you satisfied that the current arrangements are proving satisfactory or do you feel there is an issue about the location of staff and confidence?

  Sir Michael Scholar: I hope you will understand me if I say I do not feel at the moment that I want to say I am satisfied about anything. I have not really started yet and I have not met my Board. I have not had a discussion with the Shadow Board. Before I meet the Board I think it would be foolish of me to say that I am satisfied with any feature of the present arrangements.

  Q287  Ms Keeble: Does that mean it is all up for grabs?

  Sir Michael Scholar: No, it does not mean that. It means that we are going to go about our work in a serious and deliberative way and I am not going to respond to questions and give snap judgments about what is going well and what is not going well and what should happen and what should not happen. I would like to consider these things properly with my colleagues and then reach conclusions.

  Q288  Ms Keeble: But you must accept that there is pressing public interest in this because it is an issue that has been open to debate for a very considerable period of time and about which there have been concerns expressed, and that there are very profound implications in terms of confidence in statistics which earlier you said you thought was down to the Government to address, and also that part of the point of having the new arrangements was proper accountability to the public. People will want to know, and I suspect they will want to know sooner rather than later, what is happening, and that is just because it is important. People want to know what is happening.

  Sir Michael Scholar: I accept that. Perhaps I should just make absolutely clear what I said so that there is no misunderstanding about it. I was not saying it is the responsibility of Government to rebuild trust in statistics. It will be the responsibility of my board after 1 April to do so, but it is not yet our responsibility. At the moment it remains with the Government until 1 April and so I am afraid I am not going to answer every question that you just put to me. I do not think it would be right to do so.

  Q289  Ms Keeble: The fact remains that these are issues that people have been concerned about and are absolutely critical to things like the inflation figures and to all kinds of things that affect people in their day-to-day lives. There have been a lot of questions asked about this. This meeting is a public meeting and it does give you an opportunity as an incoming person in charge of this area to say what your views are. It is not unreasonable to think that you might want to give some indication as to what your thinking is on these very critical issues, which are critical to my constituents as well as to the staff of ONS.

  Sir Michael Scholar: I accept that they are very important issues, absolutely, and I accept—I do not just accept; I insist—that my board will very quickly grapple with them and you will very quickly find that after 1 April the board will be expressing views on the important issues which you have just raised.

  Ms Keeble: A week is a long time.

  Q290  Chairman: You are not implying that questions from this department are unreasonable, I hope.

  Sir Michael Scholar: I certainly do not wish to imply or say that.

  Q291  Jim Cousins: I wonder if I could just ask you this. Have you given any consideration to your reporting or accountability to Parliament for your work, because we have got two strikingly different models? We have got, as it were, the traditional model, which is an annual report covering everything you can think of, published usually well into the year following the year referred to on the one hand, and on the other hand we have got the Monetary Policy Committee, which is almost real time. Those are two strikingly different models and I wonder if you have given any consideration to what sort of model you would be likely to adopt. I would not be devastated if you told me no, you have not, but it would be useful for the Committee to know when you are going to reach conclusions about that so that we can guide our parliamentary colleagues.

  Sir Michael Scholar: I have thought a good deal about that, actually, and I have had discussions with a number of members of this House and also members of the House of Lords about it. I have expressed the view that it is absolutely vital that there should be strong parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the board and at the same time support for the board in Parliament. If the board does its job properly it will sometimes find itself in conflict with departments and with ministers and if that should arise it will require strong parliamentary scrutiny to bring these issues into the open so that Parliament and the public are aware of what in the board's view it is necessary to do to improve UK statistics in the way the board desires. I put it in that general way. I have also put it in a more specific way to some of your colleagues, that it would be very helpful if there were a committee which specialised in the work of the board, a statistics committee, which no doubt would meet quite often, perhaps not exactly in real time, to use your phrase, but would meet quite frequently so that the board's output could be subject to timely scrutiny. The response I have so far had is that the channels that consider these matters in the House of Commons are perhaps unlikely to agree with that suggestion and will suggest that the board's work is dealt with by the various departmental select committees which exist already, including, of course, most importantly, the Public Administration Select Committee, to whom the board would naturally principally report since the ministerial responsibility for the board is being switched from Treasury to the Cabinet Office. If that were the decision I am bound to say that I would be disappointed because I think there is great merit in a committee of Parliament developing expertise and having a focused responsibility for statistical matters.

  Q292  Jim Cousins: That is very helpful, Sir Michael, and gives us something to think about in our own discussions, but can I put it to you: will it be your view that it is up to Parliament to scrutinise and ferret these things out or will the board itself, if it has a matter of concern about something topical, flag that up?

  Sir Michael Scholar: The latter, certainly. I think it will be the board's duty to discover where there are deficiencies in UK official statistics and in the handling of those statistics, and to bring those directly to Parliament's attention.

  Q293  Jim Cousins: So it will be your intention to report to Parliament?

  Sir Michael Scholar: Absolutely.

  Q294  Jim Cousins: Not just, as it were, annually, but when you feel that there is a matter of concern?

  Sir Michael Scholar: If Parliament will listen we will report to it.

  Jim Cousins: Yes, Parliament will listen. Nothing gets the juices running in Parliament more than the atmosphere of the Roman arena, but how hard it is, Sir Michael, sometimes to tell the Christians from the lions.

  Q295  Chairman: A final question from me. Karen Dunnell, we should have asked you about the Home Office e-Borders programme. How much assistance will that be in ensuring robust population estimates?

  Ms Dunnell: We believe that it will be a help. It will not provide all the answers but it will give us information about who is leaving the country and who is entering the country. Of course, before it will become useful we will have, together with the Home

Office, to do a lot of analysis to identify different patterns of movement that will help us to make better estimates but it will be the first time that we have actually had, as it were, a 100% count of these movements.

  Q296  Chairman: But the Bank of England suggested that only a representative sample would be needed at first. Do you agree with that? Will you have a sample before 2009?

  Ms Dunnell: Sorry—a representative sample of what?

  Q297  Chairman: A representative sample of those coming in and out.

  Ms Dunnell: That is what we intend to do through our International Passenger Survey and that is what we are at the moment increasing the sample size of to get a better fix on this issue.

  Chairman: We need to leave it there. Thank you all very much.

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