CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1261-i

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Public Administration select Committee

Pre-Appointment Hearing for the Post of
Chair of THE UK Statistics Authority

Tuesday 28 June 2011

professor DAME JANET FINCH, DBE, DL, AcSS

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1-130

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.

This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.

The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be published in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee

on Tuesday 28 June 2011

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Charlie Elphicke

Lindsay Roy

David Heyes

Paul Flynn

Alun Cairns

Kelvin Hopkins

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Professor Dame Janet Finch gave evidence.

Q1 Chair : May I welcome you, Dame Janet Finch, to this preappointment hearing? We call it a "preappointment hearing", though that might be a slight misnomer. In any case, we look forward to hearing what you have to say with regard to your appointment as the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority. I am going to put you slightly on the spot straight away. Is there anything you want to say to us at the outset?

Dame Janet : Is there anything I want to say to you at the outset? Well, I am absolutely delighted to have got to this stage of the appointment process. If my appointment is indeed confirmed, it would be an honour to take up this role, which I think is of exceptional importance to the UK. I did have some knowledge of the process of setting up the Authority, because I was on the board of the Office for National Statistics up to the point when the changes came through. I was always very strongly in favour of a governance and regulatory structure that was independent of Government, and I think the Authority has proved its worth in the three years since it was established. I think there is still an important job of work to do to take it further, and I would be very pleased to be invited by Parliament to do that.

Q2 Chair : What do you think is the most important aspect of the role of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority?

Dame Janet : To ensure that the Authority fulfils its core remit, which is to secure the integrity and independence of UK official statistics.

Q3 Chair : Presumably you were doing that as a nonexecutive Director.

Dame Janet : Completely different governance structure-different governance structure, only in relation to the Office for National Statistics and only in an advisory role. This is an entirely different structure, with an Authority that has genuine independence but also some very important functions in relation to the oversight of the system.

Q4 Chair : What do you see as your greatest challenge?

Dame Janet : There are three things that I would identify, if I may-if you would allow me to have a threepart answer to the greatest challenge. To ensure that the Authority is focused on its core functions of maintaining the integrity of UK statistics, which, in the Act, focuses on the quality and the comprehensiveness of the statistical system that produces official statistics. I think there are some significant challenges there at a time of public expenditure austerity, which I would be happy to elaborate on if you would like me to. I think that making sure that the Authority is focused on those functions is going to be a challenge, but an important one. I also think that there are two other areas that are going to be challenges, and which I would regard as priorities for the Authority. One is to continue the good work that has been started in enhancing public trust in official statistics and also in securing value for money for taxpayer investment. Those are the things that I think are the main challenges and where I would put my priorities.

Q5 Chair : Do you think your predecessor has been regarded as sufficiently independent, because he has sometimes been regarded as too much of an insider?

Dame Janet : I beg to differ. I have seen only comments that have praised his independence and the independence that the Authority has established for itself. This Committee was very complimentary when you met him for his valedictory meeting, so to speak.

Q6 Chair : How would you establish your independence?

Dame Janet : The Authority is independent in that it has a statutory basis for that and it is my role to ensure that that basis is maintained. My personal independence, in a sense, cannot be doubted.

Q7 Chair : Can you give an example of where you have asserted your personal independence?

Dame Janet : On many occasions. I am not a Government insider, so I start from the position that I am delighted to be invited to take this role from the perspective of an outsider, but also a fairly wellinformed outsider. Examples of where I have asserted my independence in the past? Well, let me give you one example. When I was a university vicechancellor, I was invited by my fellow vicechancellors to take the lead in establishing the Equality Challenge Unit for higher education, at a time when many vicechancellors felt that that was an unnecessary feature; they felt that the university system was doing well enough in equality and diversity. I was quite clear that the system was not doing well enough and I made sure that we established the support system for equality and diversity to universities, in a robust fashion, which then gained the assent of those fellow vicechancellors who had been very sceptical about the matter. I think asserting independence is a matter of being clear about what needs to be done, and then doing it in whatever ways become available. Sometimes it is persuasiveness, but sometimes it is straightforwardly making clear statements about the position, which people do not necessarily like.

Q8 Chair : You do see your role as Parliament’s public enforcer?

Dame Janet : My role in relation to Parliament is that I report to you-and would be delighted to have the opportunity to report to you-about the charge that I will be given if you confirm it to make sure that the Statistics Authority is independent. I would not necessarily say that enforcer is the only role that independence implies.

Q9 Chair : In what sort of circumstances do you see yourself intervening with ministers, and what would be the manner of your intervention?

Dame Janet : Intervening with ministers? I presume you are thinking about intervening in a way that asserts the Authority’s independence. There have been cases in the past, and there may be cases in the future, where Government Departments use statistics in a way that is not justified to draw conclusions that are potentially misleading or even damaging. Those are quite clearly the circumstances where such interventions have been necessary in the past and may be necessary in the future. I would make a judgment about whether it was necessary, in any given circumstances, to do that. You cannot necessarily say that, every time there is a slightly misleading comment from a Government Department, it is appropriate to object to a minister. But if there are such occasions that are misleading and damaging, then I think it is essential that that happens.

Q10 Chair : Do you think the reputation of UK statistics is good enough?

Dame Janet : It is probably not sufficiently well known. For those who know about the Authority-do you mean the general system rather than the Authority?

Q11 Chair : Do you think the reputation that statistics have in the UK is good enough?

Dame Janet : Okay, I apologise; I misunderstood the question.

Chair : That is alright; I perhaps was not clear.

Dame Janet : No. I think we are still living with the legacy of the period when statistics were very much mistrusted and the general public’s view, if they thought about it at all, was that the political input to the interpretation of statistics was more important than any factual basis for them.

Q12 Chair : What are the measures that you would take as Chair of UKSA in order to rectify that?

Dame Janet : There are a number of things that are already underway. The very establishment of the Authority is an important step, and has been a very significant process in establishing, for example, a system where we have an assessment system for national statistics, where there is an independent view taken of the impartiality and fitness for purpose of the different statistical products that come from Government. That is an important groundwork for the independence of the system. But I think that the public understanding of statistics, how they are produced and what they can be used for is an extremely important step that needs to be enhanced further in the future.

Q13 Chair : May I repeat the question? What measures would you take as Chair?

Dame Janet : What measures would I take? I think that the engagement of the general public in understanding and use of official statistics is an objective that I would wish to set for the Authority. The nonexpert user of statistics is as important, in my view, as the expert user. We will only get full trust, or as close as we can get to full trust in official statistics, if the whole process of producing and using them becomes much more understood, demystified, is something that people who are interested in finding out about some aspect of the world in which they live, which is important to them, feel that they can get easy access, which they can understand, to impartial and authoritative information.

Q14 Chair : How would you go about that? What specific steps would you take?

Dame Janet : I would, if appointed, challenge my colleagues in the Authority to work together with the Board to find ways of making statistics more publicly accessible and available.

Q15 Chair : For example, there is a whole lot of hidden data, isn’t there, that is covered by the Data Protection Acts, which nevertheless could produce very interesting analysis about companies, about individuals. We do not want the personal company details, but they show trends and features of the corporate world and the population, which would be very interesting to the public and perhaps very useful to policymakers. How would you winkle that data out of Government, given that it has to be processed in order to be made public?

Dame Janet : I do not see that as the priority. I do not think lack of data is the problem. I think the problem is the difficulty that people who are not experts feel in accessing information, so that the general public is very much dependent on interpretation of statistics through the media, and through other ways of mediating those pieces of information that are already there. I do not think lack of information is the problem. I think the problem is the accessibility and comprehensibility of information that the general public accesses.

Q16 Chair : Do you not think there are a lot of users of statistics that are hungry for this information? Statistics generally are rather an expert thing. I do not go down to the pub and find people complaining about statistics much. And yet there is an enormous amount of information, which would be released in the public interest for use by expert users, which is not available at the moment.

Dame Janet : I am of course not undervaluing the importance of expert users, and the Authority has already identified the need for the producers of official statistics to engage more directly, regularly and simply with expert users. That is important. But I do think that the fact that statistics-it is the underlying information; it is not the technicalities of how they are produced, or even the detail of what the product is, but the underlying information about our democracy, the sort of economy and society that we are producing by our actions. That information is absolutely vital to a healthy democracy, in my opinion. People need to understand information about the world in which they live. There are things that could probably be accomplished, which are not being accomplished now, in terms of making that information more comprehensible to the nonexpert user.

Q17 Chair : Obviously you will take advice from your own staff at UKSA and from the Office for National Statistics, but how will you involve a much wider selection of advice in order to reflect these ambitions of yours?

Dame Janet : I am quite sure that there is a research project, generating somewhere in the background, on how to best ensure public engagement with statistics.

Q18 Chair : It’s not so much public engagement. It is engagement with other expert bodies like the Royal Statistical Society, for example.

Dame Janet : Of course the Royal Statistical Society and other interested bodies are already thinking along these lines, actually. The RSS already established an initiative called GetStats, which is designed to work in this space. There are plenty of allies there. There is also a great deal of experience in the scientific community on public engagement in science. The Royal Society, for example, has just established another initiative on public engagement in science, which I think could itself be a collaborative exercise related to statistics. This is pushing at an open door in many ways. Public trust in statistics will never be as full as I would like to see it, while it is regarded as expert only.

Q19 Chair : The point is these organisations are relying on you to push the door open, in a way.

Dame Janet : I would be very happy to do that.

Q20 Charlie Elphicke: Just on a supplementary, it is not surely just about experts looking at statistics. It is not about the great and good and elites just talking to each other. Do you agree with the proposition that it is ‘our data’, as in the data of each and every one of us? Do you agree with the proposition that we should have data scraping and the massive presentation of statistics, so that every person in an armchair can review what Government does, take an interest and take a view and start debates outside the great and good and expert bodies?

Dame Janet : It follows from what I have been saying that I would wholly welcome debates being started from outside expert bodies. However, I do not think that the simple availability of very complex data sets is in itself enough to produce that. There needs to be effort put into the interpretation and presentation of complex technical data in a way in which people who are not experts can understand it.

Q21 Chair : It is a prerequisite, is it not?

Dame Janet : That the data is available? Yes, of course.

Q22 Chair : Among Government statisticians, there is a horror that the Daily Mail is going to get hold of this raw data and use it for sensationalist purposes, but that is just one of the hazards of living in a free society, is it not?

Dame Janet : A great deal of data is already available actually. I really do not think the lack of availability of data is the main issue, from my point of view.

Q23 Chair : You do not agree with the Government on that-that transparency is a very important step they are taking.

Dame Janet : The Government’s Open Data Initiative is about something slightly different from what I am talking about.

Q24 Lindsay Roy: You have a very impressive CV. I would just like to pursue further what experience and expertise you would bring to the challenges of the job. You have given us the big picture of where you see us going. Can you just focus on the experience and the expertise?

Dame Janet : I would point both to my professional background as a social scientist and also to my experience in a chief executive position, as a vicechancellor of a university, and the substantial nonexecutive experience I have had in a number of public and notforprofit bodies. I bring knowledge of running a large complex organisation and all the things that that entails. I bring knowledge of operating at board level in various organisations and I have chaired a number of boards in a nonexecutive capacity. I understand the governance structure of a board, how to get a board working effectively and make sure that there are good working relationships with the executive, which means that they should be supportive but also challenging. My substantial experience, both as an executive and as a nonexecutive, is part of what I bring.

The other part of what I bring is as a social scientist. I am not a statistician; I have never been a statistician and I am not claiming technical expertise. I do understand and have had a lifelong interest in the importance of data and information in public life, both in terms of the way in which policy is made and implemented, and also as public information of the sort that I have been talking about. As a social scientist, I have had substantial experience of setting standards for research-chairing a key research council committee, for example. At the moment, I am also charged with the oversight of the Research Excellence Framework, the assessment exercise in universities, for all the social sciences. I am attuned to a number of social research issues, which are parallel to the sorts of issues that the Statistics Authority deals with.

Q25 Lindsay Roy: Understandably, you have focused on knowledge and information. If you do not blow your own trumpet, nobody else is going to. Can I ask you about the skill sets that are crucial to this job?

Dame Janet : I have answered it partly, because skill sets are about leading and running a board. I am good at leadership; I have had experience of doing it both as an executive and as a nonexecutive board chair. I know how to set objectives. I know how to get the best out of people on a board, and also to hold an executive to account. Boardlevel skills are leadership skills, judgment, wisdom and an ability to get absorbed into an organisation in which you were not previously absorbed.

Q26 Lindsay Roy: How would you characterise your leadership style?

Dame Janet : My leadership style is that I like to be well informed, but I am not too much of a details person. I like to know enough detail, but not too much, so that you do not get drawn into the detail and cannot see the wood for the trees. I like to be well informed. I also like to lead from the front. I like to set an example of the way in which I expect board members to operate. I like to make sure that I have a leading role in setting the strategy for the organisation, but not to have it as a personal blueprint, but to involve other board members and executives in that strategysetting exercise. Strategy, being well informed, and setting an example.

Q27 Lindsay Roy: And empowering other people who work with you?

Dame Janet : Most certainly. In a recent example of a board that I have recently taken over, I found that the other members of the board were rather frustrated that their expertise was not being used. I have worked that through with them. We have moved to a situation where we have fewer formal meetings but more individual involvement of board members in the business of the company. We did that, for example, by just my listening to what I was hearing, coming in as an outsider, and hearing what the other board members were telling me and then working out the best way to react to that.

Q28 Lindsay Roy: On a narrower front, what do you hope to achieve in the first year in post?

Dame Janet : As well as becoming more familiar with the Authority than I am now, in the first year, I would hope that we would be able to look back and feel that the system of official statistics was stronger, rather than weaker, than when I started. I think that is a significant challenge, because we are going through a period when, particularly in the Departments that are outside the ONS in the Government Statistical Service, we are going to see a potential further diminution of capacity to produce statistics. I am very concerned about that. I think there is a danger that the statistical system is going to be diminished as a result of that, and I would hope that the Authority can play its role, as well as Parliament playing its role, in ensuring that that does not happen.

Q29 Lindsay Roy: When you say ‘stronger’, do you also imply there greater trust in statistics?

Dame Janet : I would hope we would see continued progress in that area but, in one year, I would not expect to see a dramatic difference.

Q30 Lindsay Roy: In a short period of time, how would you gauge success in the objectives you are setting in terms of the first year?

Dame Janet : I would gauge success in the output of the process that goes on, in any event, in the Authority, and in the assessment processes, the extent to which the Authority’s voice is heard in Government, in Parliament and outside. Feedback from various important stakeholders and this Committee would be particularly important in telling me whether you think that that objective has been met.

Q31 Lindsay Roy: Would that be done on an informal or a formal basis, or a combination?

Dame Janet : It is for you to say whether you want to review formally or informally.

Chair : I think we would prefer both.

Dame Janet : Fine.

Q32 Chair : You see yourself as a leader, rather than as a technician.

Dame Janet : Most definitely, yes.

Q33 Chair : Your academic specialism is relationships and personal life. You might have much to teach politicians on that basis.

Dame Janet : You do not want me to comment on that, do you?

Chair : It depends how much you want the job. Some people would say that statistics are, by their very nature, a very technical business. Surely you need to bring that technical frame of mind to this job, even if you see your role as you do.

Dame Janet : One needs to understand the key underlying points, absolutely. I would expect to work hard to make sure that I did, on any particular issue. It is the case that the National Statistician is the professional expert and advises the Authority. In fact, I believe that the Act requires the Authority to take her advice, so I think it would be completely wrong to have the Chair of the Authority second guessing whether the National Statistician has got it right or not. That would actually be outside the provisions of the Act.

Q34 Chair : Have you ever attended the annual conference of national statisticians?

Dame Janet : No.

Q35 Chair : Apart from your role as a nonexecutive director of ONS, have you ever, in your line of work and various roles you have had, grappled extensively with statistical data? Is that part of your academic discipline as well?

Dame Janet : It depends what you mean by ‘grappling extensively’. In my academic discipline, demographic data is bread and butter, and I have used that in some of the research projects that I have done. In running a university, there is a certain degree of statistical data that one needs to use-data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and so on. As a data user, I have been familiar with the things I needed to be familiar with in my job, but I am not presenting myself as a technical expert.

Q36 David Heyes: Your predecessor in the job, Sir Michael Scholar, was pretty fed up when the previous Government reduced his time commitment for this job from three days a week to two days a week. You are accepting this on a twodayaweek basis. Is that enough to do what you have already described as a very demanding role?

Dame Janet : Needless to say, I have given this quite a lot of thought and it is quite difficult to make a final judgment about that before starting doing it, if I have the opportunity to start. My view would be that I have been asked to do this job on a twodayaweek basis. I will make an assessment, when I am confirmed in post-if I am confirmed in post-of what I can do in two days a week, given my own working style, which is bound to be different from my predecessor’s or anybody else’s. Within my own working style, how I can best use two days a week is how I propose to start. If I find that it is impossible to do a proper job on two days a week using my time and in the best way I can figure out, I will say so. I will tell you; I will tell the minister that it is impossible. As we sit here today, I can only say I will try to do it on a twodayaweek basis to the best of my ability. I will not skimp on doing the job properly. If it is genuinely impossible, I shall make sure it is known.

Q37 David Heyes: Given that Sir Michael was on the public record as saying that two days were not enough, clearly you have thought about this issue. Did you do any prior discussion with anyone? Did you take any advice? Did you sound anyone out on this timeavailability issue?

Dame Janet : Not on that specifically, because I am well aware I have taken over from other people in different capacities on a number of different occasions. I am very conscious that different people do these jobs in different ways. Although I absolutely hear what Sir Michael says, and he has been a very fine Chair of the Authority on the basis that he was asked to do it, I will do it in my own way, and we will see.

Q38 David Heyes: Let me turn the question on its head. We have been provided with a very impressive portfolio of your present other nonexecutive directorships. I will not read the list out; you know what they are. Will you be able to find two days a week to do the job?

Dame Janet : If you pay very close attention to that list, which you obviously have, you will see that four of the things I am doing at the moment finish in 2011, this year. One of them actually has almost finished already, the Office of the Health Professions Adjudicator, because the Government has decided to disband that organisation. It is just waiting for the legislation to go through Parliament. Another of them, my role in chairing the trustees of the National Centre for Social Research, was due to finish anyway at the end of the year. If I am appointed to this role, I shall resign before I start this role, because there is a potential conflict of interest. The other two will finish at points during the autumn. By the end of 2011, I will have divested myself of four things that are on that list.

Q39 David Heyes: You are obviously in demand in Government circles, in public service circles, for this kind of work, given your experience over the years. In what you have just said, can I take it that that amounts to a promise of no other nonexecutive roles in the future, because of the importance that you attach to this job?

Dame Janet : This job, if I am appointed to it, would be my prime role. It is the only one that has this level of commitment. The other one that I would continue, Chair of the Board of the Ombudsman Service Limited, is twoandahalf days a month. You can rest assured that, at two days a week-even at three days a week if that were necessary in the future-this would be the priority.

Q40 Chair : Your predecessor says it has been taking him four days a week.

Dame Janet : I hear what he says.

Q41 Chair : Having that spare capacity in your schedule is very important to us.

Dame Janet : Certainly until I have made an assessment about my view of how long I need to spend doing this job to do it properly, that is how it will be.

Q42 Paul Flynn: Parliament, in their wisdom or not, decided, when they set up the Authority, to give you a conflicting role in that you are both in charge of the Office for National Statistics, but also responsible for the scrutiny of what was produced by the Office for National Statistics. An arrangement has been made to create a kind of Chinese wall, with David Rowe-Beddoe running it. This is hardly a satisfactory permanent solution. Have you any ideas of how you would improve things to avoid this conflict, which involves the possibility of political interference? There would be a difficulty there.

Dame Janet : Looked at completely from the outside, it does look like an unusual structure. Interestingly, I have had some familiarity with a similar structure, which is the BBC. It has a similar-not exactly the same, but similar-role in relation to governance and regulation. I was a member of the independent panel chaired by Lord Burns, which was established ahead of the 2006 review of the Charter of the BBC, to advise on changes to the Charter. We focused a good deal on the governance of the BBC. What came out of that was not exactly what we had recommended in every particular, but the role of the BBC Trust changed, and so on. My view of these structures, both that BBC structure and the Statistics Authority structure, is that they look messy but they can be made to work. The last three years in which this Statistics Authority has been establishing itself has demonstrated that such a structure can be made to work very effectively, and alternatives have carried disadvantages as well, potentially. I do not have any aspiration to change the structure, insofar as I see that now.

Q43 Paul Flynn: Can you give me an example of the way that it is working where the scrutiny element of the Board has been operated in a critical way against what ONS has produced?

Dame Janet : It is absolutely essential to the credibility of the whole Authority’s being that the work that the ONS does reaches the highest standards, that it is subject to the full weight of the assessment centre, and the assessment system that the Authority operates is completely separate from the ONS and does not report through the same structure. It is essential that the ONS meets the highest standards and, if it does not, that it is criticised. The Board has been critical, where it needed to be, of standards within the ONS, just the same as of standards elsewhere in the Government Statistical Service.

Q44 Paul Flynn: Are you happy with that arrangement, because the Royal Statistical Society suggested that it needs a new arrangement, because this is potentially one that could cause problems in the future? Do you think it is working effectively?

Dame Janet : There is no doubt that, in principle, it could cause problems. That, I think, is selfevident. I do not think it has, and I have no particular reason to suppose that that will change or that it would cause problems in the future. I do not see the need to change it at the present time.

Q45 Paul Flynn: In your two days a week, much of your time could be taken up travelling to the heart of the ONS, which is in Newport. Are you thinking of moving to Newport in order to pack four days’ work into two days, to avoid excessive time spent travelling?

Dame Janet : No, I am not thinking of moving to Newport. I live in Cheshire, 15 minutes away from Crewe railway station, which is the most wonderful railway station to live near to, because you can go anywhere. From there, there is a regular train that goes directly to Newport, and takes two hours, 10 minutes. That is how I propose to do it.

Q46 Paul Flynn: Have you any idea how you would spend your time and how much time you are likely to spend in Newport?

Dame Janet : I have not worked through the detail of that yet, but I would say that I think it is important for the Chair of the Authority to be seen, to be visible, with the ONS of course but also with other parts of the official statistics systems. I would want also to be visible to key producers of statistics in the Government Statistical Service.

Q47 Paul Flynn: Can you point to any weaknesses in ONS that have been apparent in the last three years, in the work they produce?

Dame Janet : Weaknesses in ONS? I think ONS is a strong part of the system. I do not believe that there is a particular problem with the work that ONS does. There are always going to be things that do not go perfectly and, when they do not, they need to be criticised. But I do not wish to point to any specific issues, no.

Q48 Charlie Elphicke: The impression so far with everything you have said is that, under your management, the ship of statistics is going to have you on the bridge, it is going to perhaps see a few deckchairs shuffled here and there but, otherwise, it is going to be steady as she goes. Is that fair? Are you going to change anything?

Dame Janet : I am trying to extend the nautical metaphor, but I think it rather eludes me. I think that the earliest questions from the Chair indicated that I believe that there is an issue about the nonexpert public use of statistics, which I would definitely like to change. I also said at the beginning that I think that one of my objectives relates to value for money. I am not sure where that will lead, but it is quite clear that, in a time of financial constraint within Government, we have to make the best possible use of public funds to get the best possible outcome for official statistics. That may mean looking again-I think probably we should look again on a regular basis-at what statistics are produced directly, for example, by ONS and what are commissioned from other bodies. I certainly do not expect to cause major changes in the Authority. It is a body that has only been in existence for three years. It needs further time to develop its role. It has been regarded as successful by a number of people, including by me, in those first three years. I would want to build on that. Of course, there will be changes, but I do not expect to tear everything up and start again, no.

Q49 Charlie Elphicke: When it comes to the issue of public trust, we can see that it is really low, so why not have a major change? Why not have a revolution? Why not ensure that Departments are forced to data scrape, put things on an easily accessible basis? These days we have internet communities that pick over statistics, look at all these numbers. Why not ensure that we have a true democratisation of all our data, so that everyone can see what Government is up to, have full transparency and have real accountability?

Dame Janet : The transparency that you are talking about is transparency about the workings of Government, rather than about the production of official statistics. To my mind, it is a separate agenda, although it is linked in the aspiration-which I applaud-to make the general public and the taxpayer able to access as much information as possible.

Q50 Charlie Elphicke: The reason I ask this-and I am particularly concerned about the public trust issue-is that generally the Statistics Authority fusses about whether Departments misuse or misrepresent statistics that they publish. Meanwhile, down in the engine room of the ship, there is a whole load of civil servants busy suppressing statistics, making sure there is a whole load of things that we do not know about, which never come out, whereas you could actually use your position to ensure there is a flowering of the amount of statistics we see, rather than just worrying about whether a Department happens to have spun this story or that story when it is released.

Dame Janet : I do not think that worrying about spinning stories is a major part of what the Authority does. It is much more important that the Authority focuses on the regular production of good quality information about whatever we need information about, and that that is done to standards which meet the standards set for national statistics. That is very much less glamorous, perhaps, but a really important day-to-day role for the Authority.

Q51 Charlie Elphicke: My point is-broadly that happens already. Broadly, public trust is not high because people do not trust the statistics being published. If we had a data scrape-and this kind of stuff exists already; the technology to do it exists already-to ensure that we push all these Government numbers out there, and that they could be monitored by the Statistics Authority to make sure that they are broadly correct and not woefully inadequate, would that not be the kind of revolution we could have that could increase public trust and make people think, "Yes, the Government is not hiding anything, yes, these statistics are valid and, yes, we can see what is really going on and have much more information"?

Dame Janet : I think I have already indicated that I think more data is not the key to increase public trust, but it is a matter for Government to decide how much information about the workings of Government it is going to publish.

Q52 Alun Cairns : Can I come back to something you said to Mr Elphicke earlier, when he referred to Government spinning a story? What do you see as your role, should Government choose to spin a story and maybe misinterpret the statistics?

Dame Janet : I would expect to have this quickly drawn to my attention by the Authority and look at it in detail, and then make a judgment, with the National Statistician, about what the appropriate reaction, if any, was. I think there are circumstances when, quite clearly, the highest possible profile reaction is necessary. That is to say, if, for example, as has been the case sometimes in the past, the professional statisticians have warned ministers or officials that the statistics are not yet ready for publication, if they are then published and used to make particular points, then that is a circumstance that is completely unacceptable. I would expect to ensure that that was drawn to ministers’ attention in a public way. But that is not necessarily going to be the case with everything.

Q53 Alun Cairns : Do you think that has been done sufficiently often in the last couple of years?

Dame Janet : It has certainly been done. Whether it has been done sufficiently often, I do not feel qualified to say, because there may have been breaches of which I am not aware, by definition, if they have not been made public. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for enhancing public trust that that does happen when statistics are misused.

Q54 Paul Flynn: Can I follow on from that? I think the word ‘sparingly’ was used by Sir Michael Scholar, but certainly he courageously stood up to Government and opposition, and absolutely correctly. I believe he had the full support of this Committee in doing so. Would you be less sparing in your judgment? Do you think you would extend your criticisms to even the media, if they would ever use statistics in a misleading way?

Dame Janet : Statistics are produced for Government, so it is particularly important that any alleged misuse of statistics by Government is drawn to public attention, in the context that I have just outlined. I think that any serious misuse is something that the Authority should be concerned about. Now, whether the reaction to media misuse, for example, should be different, I think I would need to work that through with colleagues in the Authority. But I certainly think that the reaction to use by Government and, to some extent by the Opposition as well, in the political process is something that is a legitimate role for the Authority.

Q55 Chair : Would you agree that an abuse of statistics by the media would have to be very serious for you to intervene?

Dame Janet : I did not intend to imply that I was committing the Authority to intervening at all. I said I would need to look at it.

Q56 Chair : I think we would encourage you to be evenhanded, because the Government and the Opposition have both been victim to the media many times. If the media were straightened out once or twice, it would not do any harm.

Dame Janet : There is a great danger. The danger of that, if I may say so-which is why I would really need to look at it carefully-is drawing the Authority into political debate, which potentially then compromises its independence.

Q57 Chair : That is inevitable. We are all grownups and this is politics. You are going to have to get your hands dirty and, occasionally, be the proverbial ton of bricks that Parliament expects you to be.

Dame Janet : I have had some experience of being the ton of bricks in other circumstances. I am quite happy to do that, but-

Chair : Please tell us.

Dame Janet : I am sorry, if you would just let me finish-I would not wish to do it in a way that compromises the Authority’s position.

Q58 Chair : Can you give an example of where you have exercised your authority in the manner described?

Dame Janet : As a vicechancellor of a university, it is fairly necessary to do that on a number of occasions, when academic colleagues wish to go in directions that are inappropriate for the university. I would prefer not to give details.

Q59 Paul Flynn: Presumably the Authority should be courageous enough to take on Government and the Opposition, but not courageous enough to take on the Daily Mail.

Dame Janet : I do not think it is about courage. I think it is about judgment, and recognising that the Authority has been given a very particular role by Parliament, which it is very important not to undermine.

Q60 Paul Flynn: To strengthen, I would have thought, having been on that Bill that went through, there were great hopes that this would be-and I think it has been mainly achieved-that we would do a great deal to restore the credibility of national statistics, by setting up the Authority. Progress has been made. But, if you were to take that step of criticising anyone who was responsible for a major distortion of statistics, that would surely enhance that role.

Dame Janet : Possibly. I would prefer to reserve my position on that.

Q61 Chair : On the question of prerelease, the Act says that the rules on prerelease have to be set out in secondary legislation. There was a review in 2010 under the previous Government, but that did not engage with the wider topics, such as the effect of trust in statistics. The Royal Statistical Society argues that prerelease should be less than 24 hours, or abolished altogether, and the current incumbent, Sir Michael Scholar, has suggested that the norm should be considerably less than that. He recommended three hours or even nothing. What is your position on this?

Dame Janet : The Authority has taken the view that it thinks it should be three hours. I am certainly not going to renege on that view. Prerelease is an issue because of precisely the matters that we have been talking about previously in relation to public trust. The reason why it is important is that there is a belief that ministers and officials having access to statistics before their release enables them to write a story that suits their particular needs, but may not be accurate. That is the concern. If that happens, then prerelease becomes a major issue. If it does not happen, if the existing rules about prerelease and who the information is shared with, how it is used and so on, are respected-and I think that there have been breaches but they have largely been respected-then the present situation is tolerable. If the breaches become regular and if this has a further effect on undermining public trust, then it is not tolerable.

Q62 Chair : You seem to be taking a softer line than Sir Michael.

Dame Janet : Sir Michael expressed a personal view to you, I think. I certainly would not take a softer line than the Authority’s position.

Chair : But you take a softer line than Sir Michael.

Dame Janet : I am not entirely sure what his particular view is. He said he would express a personal view to you. I am very much signed up to the importance of respecting the prerelease rules, and it would be desirable to be less than 24 hours.

Q63 Chair : Sir Michael said, "I think it is damaging to the credibility of the statistics that are produced by Government. Even if there is never any spinning going on, the public think that, because Ministers have these figures, it is likely that there is a manipulation of the figures."

Dame Janet : That opinion is obviously quite correct. I do not disagree with it. It is a question of whether it is a practical problem at the present time.

Q64 Chair : Do you believe that abolishing prerelease access would improve public confidence?

Dame Janet : I do not know whether it is so critical. It is one factor. It is one factor, but I am not sure, if it was abolished tomorrow, that you would see an immediate increase in public trust. The increase in public trust will only come through a number of different measures-of which that undoubtedly would be very helpful-over a period of time. It is not going to be an instant reaction.

Q65 Chair : To say "I do not know", when this is one of the raging controversies about statistics in this country, seems a rather openminded attitude to bring to this job. One would have thought anybody applying to this job would have hard and fast opinions about this matter.

Dame Janet : I am sorry-if I could just clarify what I intended to say. I did not say, "I do not know about prerelease access." I said that I am not sure how significant it is in changing public attitudes instantly. It will certainly help. I entirely support the view that, if we did not have it, it would be better. I think it would not have an instant impact on public trust in statistics. There are a number of other things that need to be done as well, which I have elaborated earlier in this discussion, alongside it, which would really in the longer term have the impact.

Q66 Chair : You will be aware that, when in opposition, Conservative frontbench spokesmen made clear their opposition to prerelease.

Dame Janet : Yes.

Chair : The Government has so far reneged on that commitment.

Dame Janet : Government took a view that it was not going to make the change when it came into office.

Chair : We all know why. Those particular individuals may not have changed their minds, but they are up against vested interests-notably the Treasury-in respect of prerelease.

Dame Janet : I am aware that there was that change but it is, in the end, for Government to decide.

Chair : You are for letting Government off the hook on this one.

Dame Janet : No, not at all. I do not think I said that.

Chair : Well then, what are you saying?

Dame Janet : I am saying that prerelease access is a very important issue. It would be better if it did not exist. I agree with Sir Michael there, but I also think that it would be unwise to imagine that simply that act, on its own, would increase public trust in statistics immediately.

Q67 Chair : Have you been asked about prerelease during the process of this recruitment by the panel that interviewed you?

Dame Janet : I am afraid I do not recall every question that they asked me. I honestly do not recall whether that was part of it.

Chair : You cannot remember whether they raised the question of prerelease or not?

Dame Janet : I cannot remember whether they raised it specifically, no, I cannot.

Q68 Chair : Do you think there is any danger that your appointment will be seen as opportune for the Government, because you are adopting a slightly less abrasive tone on the question of prerelease than Sir Michael?

Dame Janet : I think you are putting words into my mouth.

Chair : No, I am not putting words into your mouth. I am just wondering if this is going to be the perception, if you are appointed to this role.

Dame Janet : I do not believe that is true. I am not reneging on anything that the Authority has already said.

Q69 Chair : Do you not think that public confidence in your independence relies upon a robust attitude towards prerelease?

Dame Janet : I think I have already said that I am absolutely signed up to the position that the Authority has, and I agree with Sir Michael that it would be better to go further.

Q70 Chair : I think you said it would be better not to have it.

Dame Janet : Yes.

Q71 Paul Flynn: Could I just say briefly on this-what is the significance that the Opposition, when the Bill went through, was very critical of prerelease and the Government defended it? Now the roles have changed. The Government is defending prerelease and the Opposition is attacking it. No one is suggesting it is a panacea, as it did not create all the problems, but there is no question that it is in the interest of the Executive, which has a major interest in spinning the figures, that they have maximum prerelease. It should be basic for the Authority to be seeing as a major reform the elimination of prerelease, as all oppositions in the last five years have asked for.

Dame Janet : The Authority has already made representations to Government that have not been accepted. I do not doubt we will continue to do that.

Q72 Paul Flynn: You seem to be putting words in the mouth of the Chairman. The Chairman is only asking whether there should be an improvement, and your answer was it would not be a total panacea, it would not change everything. No one is suggesting that. But it does seem to be that you are damning this with feigned enthusiasm for prerelease, where Michael Scholar had great enthusiasm for eliminating prerelease. It seems strange that it has not cropped up. It was almost the only subject that crept up in the passage of the Bill, in both Houses-whether prerelease should be a day or not, or should be eliminated altogether.

Dame Janet : I am sorry. I probably need to make the position clear again. Your phrase "a panacea" is very helpful. My main point is that prerelease, on its own, if it were abolished, would not immediately increase trust in statistics. I do think that it should be abolished, but I also accept that it is for the Government to take a view in the end, to make the decision.

Paul Flynn: But the Government has a vested interest in keeping prerelease. It is Opposition you should be listening to, whether it is a Conservative opposition or a Labour opposition.

Chair : Constitutionally, of course you are correct. But, in the real world, if you persistently argue against prerelease, you do not need to accept the Government’s view; you can continue to recommend the abolition of prerelease.

Dame Janet : Indeed, I would expect to do that.

Paul Flynn: I am sorry to use this expression, but you appear to be suggesting that you are a Government stooge or that you are acting in the interests of the Government. That is not what the role that you are seeking to fill is. It is very much an independent role that should be removed from Government, should be critical of Government and should be challenging the Executive, not agreeing with them.

Dame Janet : Of course.

Q73 Chair : Can you explain, for example, why 50 people have to see the RPI or CPI figures before they come out?

Dame Janet : No, I cannot.

Q74 Chair : Will you make that clear to Government, because that is undermining public confidence in statistics?

Dame Janet : I do not know whether that information, as such, is undermining public confidence in statistics, but it is something that I would expect to keep pressing Government on. Yes of course.

Q75 Charlie Elphicke: What can you do about it legally? What powers do you have to say it should not be 50 people; it should be 40 people?

Dame Janet : The role of the Authority is to be independent and to report to Parliament. I do not know the detail of whether we could actually get down to that level of detail with Government, I have to say. I would notice of that question. I think it is for Parliament to call the Government to account, as the executive, and I would expect to work with you to be able to do that.

Q76 Chair : Can I ask a tangential issue, which is about the shift from RPI to CPI? Do you have a view about that?

Dame Janet : That is a very technical issue. I am aware that the Royal Statistical Society has become engaged in discussions about that. It is also a matter of the international comparability of the data that we produce on the economy in this country. The Statistics Authority is working on that. It has taken a view on it. This is an area in which I would be advised by the National Statistician on the appropriate outcome. I think that it is an important issue. The Royal Statistical Society has asked the Authority to take a view on it, and the Authority has obliged partly but not wholly.

Q77 Chair : Can I just finish this matter about CPI and RPI? It is, again, another running sore, because the CPI is generally lower than the RPI, and the CPI is now being used in wage negotiations and so on and, therefore, is becoming a running sore in industrial relations. Do you think it is the role of the Authority to adjudicate on this, and to make recommendations as to whether CPI or RPI is the better measure?

Dame Janet : I think one of the problems is it is good for some purposes but not for other purposes. It may be very good for macroeconomic purposes, but not so good for some of the other purposes that you mention. Pensions, for example. Pensions has been an area that has been particularly contentious. It is the role of the Authority to give technical advice on this and, as I say, it has to also bear in mind the international comparators, where we have to produce statistics that are internationally comparable.

Q78 Chair : I am not asking you what you might recommend. I am simply asking you whether you think it is the role of the UKSA to express views on these matters robustly.

Dame Janet : Yes, I do, but views which are about the integrity of the statistical product, not views about the political use of the data.

Q79 Chair : I appreciate that. If it is clearly a manipulation to try to restrain the cost of pensions, for example, by using the CPI, you would regard that as legitimate for the UKSA to make that clear, robustly.

Dame Janet : Not in a way that engages in the political debate; in a way that is about the accuracy and integrity of the statistics.

Q80 Chair : My concern is if you are too frightened of being political, you will not say anything.

Dame Janet : I do not accept that, if I may say so. I am very familiar with making comments that are quite robust but not in the political domain.

Q81 Charlie Elphicke: Just a quickie. Have you read the Prerelease Access to Official Statistics Order 2008, and other allied secondary legislation under the Act?

Dame Janet : No, I have not read the detail of it.

Q82 Charlie Elphicke: To what extent have you read the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 itself?

Dame Janet : I have looked at that.

Q83 Charlie Elphicke: To what extent are you aware of the powers that you have under the Act, and under associated secondary legislation?

Dame Janet : I am aware in general terms but, if appointed to this role, I would obviously look at it in much more detail.

Q84 Alun Cairns : Can I ask you about your view of the census, particularly in light of comments that have been made on cost?

Dame Janet : Are we talking about the census that has just been conducted or the potential for another one?

Alun Cairns : The need for a census.

Dame Janet : It is quite clear that the information that the census collects at the moment, and has collected since its initiation, is not collected in any other way, and gives us a population base that other statistical information can be fed into. As things stand at the moment, and have stood, it is an essential part of public information. That said, everybody I am sure here will be aware of the disadvantages of it. That it goes out of date very quickly is a particular disadvantage, and it is a very expensive operation. I therefore do support the initiatives that are now underway to assess whether it is possible to find an alternative, which would be more costeffective and also enable us to keep that population information more uptodate. I want to keep an open mind on whether there is such an alternative. The National Statistician is going to report in three years’ time on the work from that.

Q85 Alun Cairns : The Beyond 2011 programme aims to come up with an alternative means of collecting the broad information. Is that feasible? Do you think that that could succeed?

Dame Janet : I think the work is the right work to be doing. It is right that we should be looking at it very carefully. What the outcome will be, I do not know and I do want to keep an open mind until we have the outcome of that work.

Q86 Alun Cairns: Bearing in mind the £500 million cost between 2005 and 2016 on the census, the need to save money, and the duplication and the intrusion that the census provides, do you think that ending the census or not requiring the census in 10 years’ time could be a mark of success or not of your role, should you be appointed?

Dame Janet : I have already said that I think value for money in taxpayer investment in the statistical products is one of the things that should be a particular objective. If there were an alternative that was better value for money, then yes it would be.

Q87 Alun Cairns : What do you think is the biggest hurdle to that at the moment? Practically, why did it not happen this time, for example?

Dame Janet : It is quite difficult to say why it did not happen this time, because I am not sure that it was a practical possibility this time. The biggest hurdles for doing it in the future would be the lack of a population register in this country, or its equivalent, so we do not have anything on which to base administrative statistics to link into a population database. It is probably politically unacceptable to have a population database. Finding a way around that, which also would then enable the linking of other databases held by Government Departments and others together, in a way that genuinely provides an alternative to census information-some of that is quite technical, but some of it is also political.

Q88 Chair : The census is coming to an end, we are told. Does that not make the question of a population database even more essential?

Dame Janet : The decision about whether there is to be another census is obviously not yet made.

Q89 Chair : What is your view on these questions? Do you think we should stick with the census?

Dame Janet : My view is that we need the information that a census provides. If an alternative cannot be found, then we need another census.

Q90 Chair : That is a very political answer, if I may say so. It is the sort of thing we expect a minister to say. What is your view? Do you think the census is the right tool to gather this kind of information or do you think we should have a population database? Which will you be campaigning for?

Dame Janet : I will not be campaigning for anything. That is not the role of the Authority.

Chair : It is for you to have a view. You must have a view about the superior utility of one system over another.

Dame Janet : The utility of the census has been tremendous in the past and, in the past, we could not have done it in any other way. It is not only a population database. That is something that may not happen. It is a question of whether it is possible to link in other existing databases and to supplement them by rolling large sample surveys. That is really the model that would have to be effective and robust for the future, in order not to have another census. As I say, the National Statistician is working on that at the present time. Until she produces her recommendations, I do not know whether it is actually feasible to produce such a system, but I hope it would be.

Q91 Chair : Generally, you are not in favour of a population and address register.

Dame Janet : I think if we had one that would be one important contributor to the alternative.

Chair : Is that a yes or a no?

Dame Janet : Is that a yes or a no?

Chair : Yes.

Dame Janet : Yes, from the point of view of finding an alternative to the census. Yes, I am in favour of it.

Chair : You would give advice to the Government that, if they are going to drop the census, they need a population and address register.

Dame Janet : The question of an address register is already being progressed, I think. That advice would be subject to the professional advice that the National Statistician produces.

Q92 Chair : What do you think we should do about the missing million from the 2001 census?

Dame Janet : From the 2001 census?

Chair : The ONS has been rather obsessed with getting forms returned rather than the quality of data or the spread of data. The missing million is mostly men and mostly young men.

Dame Janet : That was in 2001.

Chair : Yes.

Dame Janet : The most important think is that the 2011 census, I hope, will have produced a much better picture than that.

Chair : Is it not that the overall percentage of forms returned is not the material point? It is whether you have forms returned that will give a sufficiently accurate picture of all sections of the population, including young men.

Dame Janet : Yes, that of course is true, but there are other ways of assessing that. The large sample survey that followed up the census is a method that enables there to be an estimate made of if there are missing forms and whether those missing forms are skewed in a particular direction or not.

Q93 Charlie Elphicke: Just touching on the census, do you not think that the latest census, the 2011 census, is incredibly long and has an incredible number of stupid and unnecessary questions?

Dame Janet : No.

Q94 Charlie Elphicke: Would you be surprised if a whole load of people do not bother to return it?

Dame Janet : We do not yet know exactly what the rate of return is, but the signs are that it has been quite good. The content of the census form is a matter of huge debate and consultation in the years while the census is being developed. If you think it is long, detailed and boring, I think that it could have been even longer and more detailed. There is a huge demand from all sorts of sections of society and Government to have questions included. It is a very difficult judgment about what actually is going to be included.

Q95 Lindsay Roy: Dame Janet, are you concerned that the inevitable cuts in Departments’ budgets will lead to uncoordinated and perhaps illjudged cuts in statistical information across Government, which may impinge on other bodies and their statistical output? If so, how would you address this?

Dame Janet : Yes, I am very concerned about this. This is probably, in the immediate future, my main concern. The problem is not cuts in expenditure per se, because obviously we know that that is happening around Government and I cannot expect the statistical system to be totally protected from that. The problem is the uncoordinated nature of those cuts. I am very concerned that there are going to be a number of instances where the decisions taken by a particular minister-and I completely accept that, ultimately, ministers have to take decisions on their own budgets-the decisions that they take, which may make sense to them, have a very detrimental effect on the statistical information that is being produced across Government.

What can be done about it? Well, the Authority has already protested in one or two cases. It has started to produce statistical expenditure reports, which I wholly support, making sure that the information is available to Parliament and to the public about what is happening. I think that a great deal more could be done by coordination across Government to produce the best value from the investment that the taxpayer makes in statistical products, so that Departments ought to be able to share with each other a particular piece of survey, for example, which could then perhaps give better value for money to everybody. There are a number of things that could be done, but this is something I expect to pay quite a lot of attention to in my first year.

Q96 Lindsay Roy: Do you see yourself as having a strategic role with Government in this regard to ensure there are no black holes?

Dame Janet : I absolutely think that the Authority should be vigilant about making sure that it understands whether there are any black holes, drawing it to the attention of Government and, indeed, to Parliament where that is the case.

Q97 Lindsay Roy: You are saying the Authority there, but what about your own role?

Dame Janet : My role is to spearhead the Authority in this respect.

Lindsay Roy: So it is in terms of leadership.

Dame Janet : Yes, absolutely.

Q98 David Heyes: Even putting aside the issue of budget cuts, there is a fairly longstanding view now that the status of Government statisticians has been downgraded over the years. For example, there are no longer any senior statisticians at director level in Government Departments. The Royal Society is certainly of that view. Do you agree with them?

Dame Janet : Yes, I do. When you put that together with the concern about decisions and cancelling statistical products or not beginning new initiatives, these two things together really do concern me. There is a parallel actually, which I have already been involved in to an extent, which is that the same thing is happening with the social research capacity within Government. Exactly the same thing is happening. The more senior positions are disappearing and the leadership is passing to a lower level within the civil service. I have already been involved, in another capacity, in protesting to Government about this, in relation to social research. These things are very worrying and I hope to take a particular interest in them.

Q99 David Heyes: What can you do? What will you do?

Dame Janet : My predecessor on behalf of the Authority has been pressing for the National Statistician to have a more active role in decisions about the appointment to statistical posts within the Government Statistical Service. I think that would be very desirable, but I am not sure that on its own it would make the difference. I would link it into initiatives related to the question that came before about statistical products, put the two together and make sure there is very public identification of these deficiencies.

Q100 Kelvin Hopkins : One or two preliminary questions if I may. Just a preliminary question here: were you actually tapped on the shoulder and told that the job was vacant and would you like to apply, or did you see it advertised and decide that it might be a good job for you?

Dame Janet : I saw the advertisement in the Sunday Times and took the initiative.

Q101 Kelvin Hopkins : The second simple question: you are a distinguished socialist and academic, and sociology involves a lot of statistics. I was a bit of a social scientist myself. You are familiar with statistics to an extent at least, even if you would not call yourself a statistician.

Dame Janet : Yes.

Q102 Kelvin Hopkins : Good. I am a lover of statistics and I studied and taught statistics to an extent myself, and I am fearful about the loss of time series. Government squeezes on the statistical service could see time series cut back and squeezed out. Would you resist that?

Dame Janet : Absolutely. Longitudinal data that shows trends, whether it is social statistics or in the economy, is absolutely vital for public understanding-not only for policymaking but for public understanding, coming back to my early comments about the importance of statistics to public understanding in a healthy democracy. So time series are particularly important. That would be a very real concern, if we are beginning to compromise those, yes.

Q103 Kelvin Hopkins : I have said it before and I will say it again: I am an enthusiast for the census. Maybe not all my colleagues are, but I certainly am and I hope we can preserve it in some form. We were talking about public trust in statistics and the popularity. There are two possible factors. I wondered if you had given any thought to this. One is that statistics sometimes gives us answers we do not want to know, like when governments are told, for example, that class sizes in Denmark or Switzerland are 15 on average, and in Britain they are 30 on average. They do not want to hear that, because they know that it implies spending more money. Is that not part of the unpopularity of statistics?

Dame Janet : I think that is unpopularity with those who have to make decisions, whether it is central government, local government the health service or whatever. Yes, statistics do sometimes produce very uncomfortable information, but that is one of the reasons why I think it is important that there should be much greater accessibility and use to the public at large, so that people understand what the true position is, even if those in political positions, who have to take decisions, take a decision that is in a different direction. It is like research evidence and the use of research evidence in policymaking. It is very important that ministers should have access to accurate information. They may choose to ignore it, but then it should be clear that they have ignored it.

Q104 Kelvin Hopkins : Much has been made of evidencebased policymaking in recent times. I have heard from a civil servant, who shall remain nameless, that when the Government has evidence that does not fit with their policy they get rid of the evidence rather than change the policy. Is that something that statistics have to take a firm stand on and say, "This is the reality. This is what the Government has to accept as the truth"?

Dame Janet : Absolutely. I would deplore any situation where the evidence was being suppressed. I accept that, sometimes, ministers take decisions on a basis that is not simply driven by the evidence.

Q105 Kelvin Hopkins : Another possible factor in lack of public trust in statistics is the fact that we are not, as a nation, very numerate. We have excellence at the top but a real poverty of understanding of statistics and numeracy at the bottom. Lord Claus Moser did a report 1012 years ago, where he found that 50% of the population was not functionally numerate. He illustrated this by saying that 50% of the population do not understand what 50% means. If you throw statistics at people, people react and say, "Oh yes, it’s just statistics." I have had this experience myself. How are you going to address that to try to get it across to people that these things are important-that 50% is a half, for example?

Dame Janet : I would agree with that entirely. Quite a lot of it is about the way in which you communicate. 50% of people do or do not like some product or other is one way of putting it. There are other ways of expressing it: one in two of us does not like it. There are ways of making things more comprehensible to people who are afraid of numbers. I agree with you about that.

Q106 Kelvin Hopkins: My formal question really now, after those preliminaries, is: would you agree with the view that to fulfil the objective of the Act to have official statistics, "which serve the public good", a key role for you is to promote and defend the interests of statistics users against those who might abuse them?

Dame Janet : Yes, I do agree with that. I think that the relationship that the Authority has built up with the Royal Statistical Society and other bodies that represent statistics users has been very helpful way forward there. I am sure there is further to go, but I think that the professional users of statistics have been attended to by the Authority. I would certainly wish to continue to do that.

Q107 Kelvin Hopkins : Do you think there is indeed a need for a more formal relationship between UKSA and users?

Dame Janet : A more formal relationship? Can you explain what-?

Kelvin Hopkins : I can imagine a regular consultation body, joint meetings. I could imagine how a more formal relationship would work, but something where you had quarterly meetings with representatives of users, and you listened to their suggestions and responded, in a sense.

Dame Janet : If that does not happen, I would expect to do something like that as a matter of course-not exactly necessarily in that form. Of course, users can be consulted in a number of different ways. The Authority consults on, and ONS consults on, a number of different proposals that it is bringing forward. ONS’s work plan, for example, is a matter of formal consultation, and that is a very important way in which the potential users of statistics can be involved in influencing the Authority and, in that case, ONS in particular. There are a number of different ways of consulting other than simply talking to people, although that is important.

Q108 Kelvin Hopkins : Finally, you emphasise value for money. We are constantly told about value for money. I am not an enthusiast for savage cuts in any sphere, but it may just be that it is not just about value for money but having enough money in the first place. If the Government is squeezing the statistical service too much, would you go and say, "We cannot do the job unless we have the resource. If we want these truths that statistics reveal, we have to be given the resources to do the job"?

Dame Janet : Certainly, if necessary. Absolutely, but because it is taxpayers’ money-it is not the Government’s money, so to speak, but the taxpayer’s money-it is very important to do that only when one is sure that the best value is being obtained from the money that has been invested.

Q109 Chair : The Government has asked the ONS to develop a wellbeing index. What do you think of this project?

Dame Janet : I think it is very interesting, very ambitious and I am keen to see it work. I would not underestimate the difficulties of doing that, but the aspiration to find measures that are parallel to the use of GDP, but different, focusing on different things, is admirable. It is something that a number of other countries are also looking at at the present time, so we may be able to be in the lead a bit there. I think it is very good that it is now underway. The challenges of actually finding ways of doing it are quite considerable, and it is quite easy to criticise the questions that probably members of this Committee are familiar with, about happiness and so on. I think that a serious approach to assessing wellbeing-which I am sure we will get as the National Statistician is leading it-is a very good thing.

Q110 Chair : This is almost closer to your academic discipline than much else. What do you think are the legitimate elements of a wellbeing index?

Dame Janet : There are both objective and subjective elements. A good deal of the information that is already collected through official statistics on domestic life, on employment and so have a bearing, potentially, on a wellbeing index, but the thing that has attracted attention particularly are the subjective measures of wellbeing. It is going to take a little while before we can be confident that we have the subjective elements. It is necessary to have that there.

Q111 Chair : What are the subjective elements?

Dame Janet : The subjective elements are how I feel about myself, how I feel about my life, and that is a really difficult thing to find robust measures for.

Q112 Chair : You do not think this is potentially rather political?

Dame Janet : In what sense?

Chair : This is a political idea; it has been proposed by politicians.

Dame Janet : That does not make it wrong, does it?

Q113 Chair : No, it certainly does not, but it does make it quite political. What would it be like if there was a divergence? Economic and conventional indicators were on a downward and rather depressing trend, but the Government insisted that people were getting happier because its wellbeing index was going up.

Dame Janet : We are in the realm of speculation here, I think. If that were to happen, I would hope that the said politician, who you are speculating about, would be well informed about what these statistics actually show.

Q114 Chair : What is a wellbeing index for? What could it legitimately be used for?

Dame Janet : I think it is a matter for public information.

Q115 Chair : It is too subjective a measure to use for guiding the allocation of Government resources for example.

Dame Janet : No, not at all.

Chair : It would affect Government decisionmaking?

Dame Janet : Presumably that is one reason why the Government is interested in it. But I think it is important as a matter of public information as well.

Q116 Chair : Don’t you think there is a danger that the wellbeing index would be championed by people who are not happy with the way that resources are allocated using conventional indictors and, therefore, they want to invent a new indicator in order that they can get their way?

Dame Janet : I do not know that there is a group of people there championing it, but I think there are a number of other people who are very interested in it, who do not fit that description.

Q117 Chair : It does tend to be an idea that emanates more from, dare I say, the left of politics than the right.

Dame Janet : No comment on that.

Q118 Paul Flynn: I am sorry. I just missed the start of the discussion. Is it really sensible to spend £2 million asking 200,000 people if they feel happier today than they did yesterday?

Dame Janet : I think when you were out of the room I said that my belief is that it is a very good thing to have an index of this sort, if it can be developed in a robust fashion. We do not yet know whether it can. It is not only the subjective elements to it. There are obviously also objective elements to it, which are based on statistics collected in other ways.

Q119 Lindsay Roy: What is your inclination as a social scientist as to how easy it would be to develop a robust approach?

Dame Janet : I think it is quite difficult. If you ask me as a social scientist, I think it is quite difficult to develop the subjective element in a robust way. But we will see where we get to.

Q120 Chair : Then why do you think it is a valid idea?

Dame Janet : I did not say it was impossible; I said I think it is very difficult. I think it is going to take some time before the instruments for doing it are sufficiently robust that we can all believe in them.

Q121 Chair : Do you think we are right to be a little bit sceptical about a wellbeing index?

Dame Janet : There is a difference between a wellbeing index and the instruments that gather the information about that index. The idea of an index is a really good thing. I am speaking about the difficulties of developing the instruments. There is some research evidence that it is possible to do it, but the social scientist in me remains sceptical until some more work has been done.

Lindsay Roy: There is a difference between possible and how well.

Kelvin Hopkins : I confess freely, so I am a politician of the left, that a wellbeing index might lead us to policies that make society more equal. It might even be that more equal societies are happier than more unequal societies. Very political stuff, but a wellbeing index might help in that direction. And, if it made society happier, it could be a good thing.

Q122 Charlie Elphicke: If you were not here applying for this job and all the rest of it, and someone said to you six months ago, "What do you think of the idea of a wellbeing index?" Wouldn’t you actually say, "That is a really stupid idea"?

Dame Janet : No.

Charlie Elphicke: Why not?

Dame Janet : For the reasons that I have given. I think that the social scientist in me welcomes the thought that Government is interested in something that is broader than the measure of GDP as an indicator of the development of the country.

Q123 Charlie Elphicke: What would it be useful for? What would you expect such a time series to actually be useful for in practice?

Dame Janet : Just like all official statistics, it ought to have a number of different uses, some of which we cannot envisage at the present time. It quite clearly can inform Government policy on a number of particularly social policy areas. Also, I think it will contribute very significantly to my aspiration to make more nonexpert access to official statistics. People will understand what is being said about their society.

Q124 Chair : Is there not a danger in creating an index that will encourage Governments to make people happier in the short term, rather than, for example, improving the longterm competitiveness of the British economy, which actually would make people happier in the longer term?

Dame Janet : You have made a number of assumptions there, which I would perhaps question as a social scientist, about the causal links.

Q125 Paul Flynn: Is this not part of this fashionable myth that we can go through life with a smile on our face, from cradle to grave, being happy? If Mozart had been on Ritalin or Beethoven on antidepressants, we would never have heard of them. It there not a need for angst, grief and suffering in life? It is an inevitable part of the human condition that we are trying to deny. It is madness.

Dame Janet : Developing a robust measure that will tell us whether there are changes in wellbeing, not just happiness, is a piece of impartial information about society. The way you interpret that is another matter for debate.

Q126 Chair : Would you not agree that somebody who manically insists that they are perfectly happy is not necessarily happy? Somebody who is depressed and does not mind being depressed is probably happier.

Dame Janet : The illustrations that you give reinforce my view that it is going to be quite a challenge to get robust measures, as subjective measures of happiness, if that is what we are looking at.

Chair : If we have the opportunity to discuss this with you further, we will relish it. Mr Hopkins, a last comment.

Q127 Kelvin Hopkins : Just a general question. The whole purpose of collecting statistics is for us to know more about our society. Is that not about helping Governments to make judgments, which are going to make society better than worse-even if it means unemployment increasing or decreasing, or output increasing or decreasing, so we have less to consume or more to consume, elementary things like that? We perhaps might draw the line at a certain point, whether it is a good idea to take drugs all the time or whatever. Basically, statistics are about helping Governments, in particular society as a whole, to make judgments about how it orders itself and hopefully to make it more enjoyable for everybody and more satisfactory for everybody, shall we say.

Dame Janet : Yes, if the taxpayer is paying for statistics to be collected, you would hope they would be used.

Q128 Chair : Did the happiness index, wellbeing index, come up in the interview?

Dame Janet : You are stretching my memory here, from the interview. No, it did not.

Chair : It cannot have been that long ago. I know this has been a protracted process.

Dame Janet : No, it did not actually. No, it did not.

Lindsay Roy: Has this process contributed to your wellbeing today?

Q129 Chair : Thank you very much indeed for coming before us today. I have to ask you the absolute shocker of a question, which is that, if this Committee were to recommend against your appointment, it is in fact still the Government’s prerogative to appoint you anyway. Would you accept the appointment on that basis?

Dame Janet : That is a shocker of a question, which I had not thought about. It would give me pause for thought. I would like to reserve my position on what I would do.

Q130 Chair : Very good. When did you first decide that this might be the job for you?

Dame Janet : When I saw it advertised.

Chair : Thank you very much indeed. We have put you through the mill and you have been very open with us. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 15th July 2011