Public Administration Select Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 190

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Committee

on Wednesday 12 December 2012

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Charlie Elphicke

Paul Flynn

Kelvin Hopkins

Greg Mulholland


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Andrew Dilnot CBE, Chair, UK Statistics Authority, and Jil Matheson, National Statistician, UK Statistics Authority, gave evidence.

Q84 Chair: May I welcome our two witnesses to this session about communication and statistics? Please identify yourselves for the record.

Andrew Dilnot: I am Andrew Dilnot. I am Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority.

Jil Matheson: Jil Matheson, National Statistician.

Q85 Chair: Thank you very much for being with us. First, in reaction to yesterday’s session with the Minister, we were a little surprised: he seemed less engaged with some of the issues that many people think are very, very important in the statistics world, not just in relation to the communication and publication of statistics. Could you say something about the relationship between UKSA and the Cabinet Office? I mean, do you have regular meetings? What kind of engagement do you have? Do you feel you have a good relationship with the officials briefing the Minister? Is there an issue to address here?

Andrew Dilnot: We have two very different sorts of relationship: we have a relationship with officials, because in some senses the Cabinet Office is responsible for some elements of the pay and rations associated with the UKSA; and I have a relationship with Mr Maude. I have not met Mr Hurd in his ministerial capacity, but I have met Mr Maude, I think, on either two or three occasions since I took office. I had a meeting with him two or three weeks ago, and we are in line to have regular meetings. I suspect, I hope, that I will meet him a couple of times a year to talk about statistics business. When I have met him, we have discussed the interventions that have been going on. We have discussed prerelease access. We have discussed data sharing, the future of the Census, and ways in which the Statistics Authority might want to look to the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Office Ministers for support. I also have interactions with the Cabinet Office, both at official and ministerial level, over things like appointments of new members to the board: soon after I arrived, we had to make three new appointments because of the sad death of Roger Jowell and the retirement of others. There is a whole process of that going forward. So, by and large, that seems to be working okay. I was not able to watch Mr Hurd’s evidence session yesterday. I was in a meeting elsewhere, and all I have seen is a rather brief summary of it.

Chair: Right. Ms Matheson, do you want to say anything about that?

Jil Matheson: No, my contacts are, as Andrew said, on the pay and rations side, and also on matters of Civil Service reform, where one of the strands is about capabilities and strengthening of the professions, of course, which I take a great interest in. So there is contact with Cabinet Office officials.

Q86 Chair: Mr Dilnot, what about with Secretaries of State and permanent secretaries?

Andrew Dilnot: Permanent secretaries: I am going on a circular trip around the great Departments of state seeing permanent secretaries, often seeing permanent secretaries with their heads of statistical profession and sometimes an appropriate director general. I think I have now seen three or four, including the permanent secretary at BIS, the permanent secretary at DWP. I am off to CLG quite soon.

Q87 Chair: So you have a programme of meetings.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes, I will not call them state visits, but that is all good. I have met the Cabinet Secretary to talk about statistics matters twice, I think, since I have taken office, and the Cabinet Secretary has made it clear that if we have issues, I am at liberty to ring him up and say, "Sir Jeremy, we need help with this."

Q88 Chair: And Sir Bob Kerslake?

Andrew Dilnot: I bumped into Sir Bob two weeks ago on my way in to see Sir Jeremy. I have not had a formal meeting with him, but again he is certainly open to that.

Chair: Well, we think there is scope for improvement in terms of what we heard yesterday from the Minister.

Q89 Charlie Elphicke: Can I ask who is primarily responsible for managing and maintaining the ONS website?

Andrew Dilnot: There is a range of different answers to that. I imagine I will turn to Jil in a moment for detail on how the structure works. In the end, the UK Statistics Authority Board has to take responsibility for that as for all other matters, but we have a Director General of the Office for National Statistics, Glen Watson, relatively new in post, and the National Statistician, and, within the ONS, we have a structure that has changed relatively recently. I will pass to Jil for an accurate description of that. At the beginning of November, I think, we set in place a new analysis and dissemination directorate, and it is now within that that the structure of the ONS website is controlled.

Jil Matheson: Part of the restructuring of the Office was to bring a new leadership focus to the way that we communicate and disseminate statistics-the way that we engage with users. That of course includes the website, so a lot of work is going on on the website to bring about some much needed improvements; some of them are already in place, but the responsibility is within ONS.

Q90 Charlie Elphicke: And would you accept that no one or virtually no one now consults hard copy compendia? Inevitably, it is the website that everyone is going to consult to find statistics and to get the latest information and, effectively, the ONS now is the website from the point of view of anyone looking for or utilising statistics.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes. I think I made clear at my preappointment hearing coming up to a year ago that I thought the website was the absolutely central way in which people access information, certainly at the moment. Who knows what the world will be like in two years’ time? There are some signs of developments in social media, for example, that we are going to have to take seriously, but at the moment the website and certainly electronic communication is at the absolute heart of what we do, and we must make that as good as it possibly can be to give the kind of access to the statistics and commentary that we have to see.

Q91 Charlie Elphicke: Before you became Chair of the Authority, presumably you would have consulted the website for statistics and things like that. Did you find it easy to use, user friendly and highly accessible, or did you find it challenging?

Andrew Dilnot: I have boasted that for many years the ONS has been one of my home pages on my internet browser. Before I came to work in the Authority, it was indeed a website that I consulted regularly. Four or five years ago, I thought it did what then seemed to be a good job, and I have said repeatedly we have in this country marvellous data-an extraordinarily rich array of professionally produced statistics. The relaunch of the ONS website in August of last year was not one of our greatest moments, and at that time the website became difficult to use, difficult to navigate, difficult to search, and a lot of work has been done since then. My view is that quite a lot of progress has now been made. There is quite a lot more still to be made, but even in the last two weeks significant progress has been made in an area that was the one I found most frustrating, which was search. I think Will Moy from Full Fact in his written evidence pointed out how hopeless the search function used to be. I think the example he used was that you could type in "population" and you would get 3,000 results in no particular order. I think the weekend before last, the ONS web team quietly put through a reform to the search function, and now when you type in "population", the first thing that comes up is the latest Census results. I spent quite a lot of time yesterday, thinking that these questions might come up, trying to break the search engine and not succeeding very well. So the search is now much better; there are better theme pages, but there is a further significant series of steps to be taken.

Q92 Charlie Elphicke: Would you accept that, broadly, the website has been pretty terrible? It needs a lot of improvement and you are on the case. The search is just awful and that needs improvement, and also are you going to sort out the time series, as it is also a menace to try to work out how to do those? All these things are shocking to all of us who are anoraks and use statistics. Quite a few around this table, including Mr Hopkins and me, find this endlessly frustrating. Are you going to say to us, "We get it, and we are on the case"?

Andrew Dilnot: Absolutely, and one of the things that we have agreed with this Committee is that we will be bringing a version of our strategy to you in the next little while, and one of the things you will see in that is the significance that we give to this. I would encourage you to go back and have another go at the search engine, because I think it is now much improved, but we would really value input from this Committee. So if there are more specifics, please let us know, because it is of the highest possible priority.

Q93 Chair: Can I invite you to look at the transcripts of Chris Giles and others yesterday? They were pretty excoriating about the website, in particular about the inability to obtain time series. I have to say that Members of Parliament are very insulated from this problem because we just ask the Library, but most people do not have the expertise of the Library at their disposal, and getting time series on GDP statistics or unemployment statistics is still extraordinarily difficult.

Jil Matheson: Can I just come in on this? I absolutely recognise the problem and, as Andrew said, I am a user of the website as well as responsible for it and share that frustration. There have been improvements, but the improvements that are there now are only part of a process. There is more to come. One of the lessons from the really disappointing launch of the website in August 2011 was the need to engage the very wide range of users that we have. There are, as you say, some very expert users and there are some very casual users and trying to meet a range of requirements is not an easy task, but we have groups; we have been talking to journalists and others, trying to understand what their experience is and what they need from the website. That is now part of what will continue to develop over the next not just months but years; I think this is an ongoing development programme.

Q94 Charlie Elphicke: The other issue is I have always found the publications like Social Trends, Economic Trends, Labour Market Statistics, Financial Statistics, Annual Abstract, and Monthly Digest personally very, very useful, particularly for prompting new thought. I published a lot of think-tank papers when I had time before getting elected here, and these were very useful publications, and yet they do not seem to be around anymore. I do not understand it, and I think it is a real tragedy that these all seem to be discontinued or something. What is going on?

Andrew Dilnot: My understanding is that in the face of cuts, the compendia documents were one of the things that were discontinued, after some consultation with users. I have to say, Mr Elphicke, that I am with you. I have often said that the world would be a much better place if every Member of Parliament had a copy of Social Trends under her or his pillow, because it contains such a rich source of information and the putting together of information that is not necessarily precisely what you thought you wanted. The serendipity that used to come from these compendia is important, and I am pretty sure that the National Statistician also shares the Chairman of the Authority’s slight discomfort at this decision. Now, it may not be that physical copies are what is required, but I think we do need to look at whether either physical or electronic compendia are a way forward. Of course, there is a new electronic publication, which I hope Jil will talk about in a moment, called Life in the UK, which has grown out of the wellbeing work, which has much of the sorts of information that Social Trends used to have.

Jil Matheson: Yes, the content of all of those things that you referred to is still available, and one of the reasons that the big paper publications stopped was because increasingly the content was available much more rapidly online. There was a delay in compiling Social Trends or whatever it was every year, compared with much of that data now being available quarterly or monthly on the website.

Q95 Charlie Elphicke: So are you saying that you publish a PDF of Social Trends on the website or that you are planning to do that?

Jil Matheson: No. Life in the UK is one of those on the website, but there are other publications that bring together data. We could do more, and again this is an area that is evolving and, as Andrew said, I am a bit sympathetic myself, being of that age, to the notion of having something that is easy to carry around and easy to look at.

Q96 Charlie Elphicke: Yes, but I would say, broadly, discontinue the hard copy stuff anyway, because no one reads it and, to be honest, even if I had a copy, I would suspect it was out of date. I would just go to the website. So you should not bother publishing hard copy. Put Social Trends, Regional Trends, Economic Trends, all these great publications that you used to do, on the internet as PDFs, which is how we used to access them anyway. I mean, when was the last time anyone saw a hard copy? Mr Dilnot, when did you last read a hard copy of Social Trends? You would look at it on the internet, presumably, if we are being honest.

Andrew Dilnot: Well, I do look at it endlessly on the internet, but I have to confess I went and had a look at the 1991 Social Trends only last week.

Q97 Charlie Elphicke: Because it is not on the internet probably.

Andrew Dilnot: Probably. I have two hoods on my anorak; I am that committed to nerdishness.

Q98 Charlie Elphicke: But you get the point that I and indeed many others are making. As Chair of the Authority and National Statistician, will you both look at this issue and see if you can draw together these compendia in a way in which anoraks like me can access most easily and understand?

Andrew Dilnot: My sense is that one of the tasks that this new, one-month-old directorate within the ONS has-the analysis and dissemination directorate-is precisely to think about how we can help users through the astonishing array of data there is. We need to find ways of putting it together into different packages, and my guess is it may not even necessarily be PDFs. Even that technology is moving on and it may be other forms of web publication, but I am certainly happy to say that we will look at how we can meet the needs that were met for all those decades by things like Social Trends.

Q99 Paul Flynn: Did I understand you to say that you have not seen yesterday’s session we had with the Minister and with the other witnesses?

Andrew Dilnot: I have not. I have seen a brief summary of it.

Q100 Paul Flynn: Why have you not seen it? It was broadcast to an attentive nation.

Andrew Dilnot: It was, but I am afraid that yesterday I was focusing on my other day job, in Oxford.

Q101 Paul Flynn: Well, had you watched it, you would have seen an astonishing performance from the Minister, who seems to have a relationship with his civil servants and with reality generally that is very tenuous. Every question seemed to come as a complete surprise to him. None of his civil servants seem to be telling him what is going on in the areas of his responsibility. It is very well worth reading, and I would urge you to contact him and communicate with him as quickly as possible. The other three witnesses were great value and were, surprisingly, very critical of the communications. At your preappointment hearing, which you referred to, where we were all greatly enthusiastic about your appointment, we saw that as one of your great strengths. One of your colleagues in broadcasting on the More or Less programme was saying that there is no questioning the quality of the statistics and the professionalism of statisticians, but the communications are awful generally. I see you have a note in your report saying that you agree with this, and you convened a workshop on how a series of ONS statistical releases could be better communicated to users. In the light of that, the Authority established, on a pilot basis, a good practice team. You have been there almost a year now; should it not have gone beyond the gleam in your eye? Communications are in such a poor state.

Andrew Dilnot: I have been there since 2 April, so I have been there eight months and I think we have made progress on all of this. For many years I have been critical of statistical communication by almost the whole statistical community, of which the ONS and the GSS are a part, but there are other parts of the statistical community. I would also want to emphasise that while there are some very serious shortcomings still, I think there are also some signs of really good stuff. While your evidence session was going on yesterday, a second tranche of Census data was released, and I thought the way in which that was communicated was extremely effective. We see in the press this morning a number of, I think, very well written stories that have demonstrated understanding. We saw on the ONS website yesterday some very, very good visualisations of data, which were syndicated widely across the Guardian and BBC, for example, so I think there are some good signs there.

We have made, I think, considerable progress. We have set up a good practice team. I convened a meeting in June, which was followed up in July and then again in October, to look at three specific statistical bulletins: the GDP statistical bulletin, the retail sales statistical bulletin and the population estimates. We thought that we drew those at random-well, not quite at random; we thought they were very important-and on those I think we have made some considerable progress. The population statistical bulletin we thought was pretty good. We thought there was significant progress needed on the GDP and retail sales bulletins, and I think significant progress has been made. I have brought them with me to show the kinds of things where we are making progress.

But it is important to remember that the volume of statistical communication is enormous and we are not going to transform it overnight. As Chairman of the Authority, I have two sorts of levers: I have the National Statistician as the leader of the ONS and of the GSS and the work she can do to encourage them. I also have an assessment function. Richard Aldritt is the Head of Assessment, regularly assessing and providing monitoring. So I think we are making progress. The good practice team that we set up in October is now working with, I think, nine departments. The ONS and many other departments are working with them on their releases.

I think we are making progress, but there is much more progress to be made. It will not happen overnight, but I think we are moving forward. In the written evidence that I sent in to you I described seven areas where I think we need particularly to focus. Some of those clearly came up, from the summary I saw yesterday, and we need to be focusing much more on the uncertainty surrounding estimates. We need to be focusing much more on time series-on giving people the long context. We need to think about context. We need to think about using appropriate language and not attributing meaning and causation when there is none. There is a long way to go, but I do not feel as though there is no momentum. I think that we have lots of signs of progress.

Jil Matheson: I did hear and welcomed the comments from the three colleagues that you heard yesterday, because this is really important and it is becoming more and more important. I was also pleased to hear about the quality of statistics, because that underpins everything that we do and we must not sacrifice that. But it is undoubtedly true that the ability to communicate and explain what we do is even more important than it has been in the past, and we have to improve in lots of ways. We have talked about the website. We have talked about the kinds of statistical releases and written communication, which I think is really important, but it is interesting for me to have heard that yesterday, because one of the things that we also often hear is: "Just give us the data. We do not want any of that." So to have a strong voice saying that we do want clear understanding-because people do not have time and because they need to be able to really understand the key messages and the trends in the data, and that is what a professional statistician’s job is-is really important. It is about writing, and Andrew has talked about what the good practice team is doing, working with nine Departments. There is an appetite. There is something about skills and confidence, and the confidence to talk as well as to write-so being able to talk to the media, as the Census team did very effectively yesterday.

Q102 Paul Flynn: Full Fact said yesterday that many of the communications from you are poorly written, and one of the witnesses gave an example of Norway, where, in the equivalent of ONS there, they employ journalists. While the Census yesterday was well covered, virtually every paper played on their own prejudices, whether they were going on immigration or religion or whatever it was going on; it fitted with the lines taken previously by the papers themselves. I do not think we would have any criticism of the paper you put in, but I am rather depressed by the fact that when the website was reorganised and was launched again with trumpets and trombones, it turned out to be a flop and more impenetrable than the previous one. One of the witnesses yesterday said it took him seven clicks to get the information he required. One hopes that between the dream that you have, which is splendid, and the reality, the shadow does not fall. Are you confident of that?

Andrew Dilnot: This is a big task. The volume of statistical output is enormous, absolutely enormous, and this is an institution that is relatively stretched financially. We spend about £3 per year per person in this country on the Office for National Statistics.

Chair: That is far more than the monarchy.

Paul Flynn: Yes, but the Statistics Authority is a useful body.

Andrew Dilnot: That is a debate into which I shall not travel, but the GDP per head is between £25,000 and £30,000, so we are spending about one tenthousandth of the resource we generate on collecting data that we then use to allocate most of that. So we are relatively stretched. There is a huge amount to do. We are producing many, many hundreds of bulletins all of the time. We have to have a world where we make it desirable for everybody doing this production to do it in the right way. Simply mandating it, I think, will fail. What we are finding is that there is real enthusiasm among statistical producers to do this more effectively. They want to be well understood, they want to get their stories out, but I would be foolish to say to you that we could be sitting here this time next year and it would not be possible for Chris Giles or Michael Blastland or Will Moy to pick out a statistical news release and say, "Well, I do not like that very much." What I think we absolutely can commit to you is that the proportion of all of the output that is good and effective, which is already growing, will have grown very substantially more by then and that we will gradually drive up standards across the board. As I say, just taking retail sales, if we look at the July release, we had statements of the form "the annual implied deflator", which by October had become "the estimated price of goods sold in the retail sector". In July, we talked about value and volume; by October, we were talking about amount spent and quantity bought. We have moved from statements that meant nothing to the public to statements that did. In July, we had charts that, frankly, when we sat down to look at them in a group at the ONS, we could not work out the meaning of. By October, we had a chart that shows what has happened to retail sales since the year 2000, so it showed its growth and then, at the beginning of the recession in 2008, it became flat and stays flat.

So we are making progress. There is more to do, but my sense is that our colleagues in the ONS and the GSS do want to do this. We need to keep the pressure up, and it helps us and is encouraging for them that this Committee, representing Parliament and the whole of the nation, is saying, "Come on, you need to do better. You have to do this. We care enough about the data for you to need to communicate them effectively." I cannot promise that it will change overnight, but we are making progress and it absolutely is a high priority for us.

Q103 Paul Flynn: I will let you come back to this later, but can I give you just one opportunity to answer something that was suggested yesterday in a question? It was that those who work in the ONS might be tempted to trim the figures in some way to please their political masters. Would you give me an emphatic denial of that or an astonished confirmation?

Andrew Dilnot: I have absolutely no evidence of that, and we have been through an assessment of all the statistics-all national statistics. I do not think any evidence of that came through. I think it particularly unlikely that it would happen in the ONS, because there is no Minister responsible. I am responsible; Jil is responsible. There is not a Minister responsible. Francis Maude is not the Minister in charge of the ONS. In the GSS you might think that there was more risk, but every statistician in the GSS knows that if they were to be subjected to such pressure, they would go immediately to Jil, and Jil could come to me, and I would get out the very large stick with rusty nails in it and we would go all out on the attack, because the marvellous existence of the legislation that set the Statistics Authority up in 2008 makes it clear that such behaviour would be unacceptable.

Jil Matheson: And the culture and the values of the ONS absolutely prioritise integrity and professional conduct and transparency about our methods. So I would be amazed, absolutely amazed, if there were any foundation in that observation.

Andrew Dilnot: But if there were any such evidence and it was brought to your attention, we would act. We would also bring it formally to this Committee’s attention.

Paul Flynn: Of course. Thank you very much.

Q104 Charlie Elphicke: I think you have briefly touched on the issue of revisions. Taking the second quarter GDP figures, how many revisions have there been? They started at was it -0.7 or something and ended up lower. Can you just explain that?

Andrew Dilnot: I think off the top of my head it started at -0.7, closed at -0.4 or -0.5. I think there were two revisions. My recollection is that at the time of initial publication the uncertainty surrounding them was emphasised because of the additional Bank Holidays for the Jubilee, and so there was uncertainty and a revision of 0.3 of 1%, so three onethousandths. The process is that we publish the first release 25 days after the end of the period to which it relates, which means that we have, I think, between 30% and 40% of the data that we will finally have when we make the final estimate. Now, of course, it would be possible to say we do not want an estimate as soon as 25 days after the end of the period, but our experience of users, including the users in the Bank and the Treasury, is that there is an enormous demand for data as quickly as possible. It is important for us to recognise the uncertainty around it, which is why the first of the seven points I make is that we must be clear about uncertainty, and you will note that the first line of the preliminary estimate first released in October was: "GDP in Q3 is estimated to have grown by 1%," whereas in July we did not say "is estimated to" and instead said "has". We need to be clear about that.

Q105 Charlie Elphicke: Understood, but then we also have the situation where the OBR come along and say the depth of the recession in 2008 was worse than we thought. That looks to me like a five-year-ago revision. What is going on there?

Jil Matheson: There are two parts of this. One is the quarterly estimates, where there are two revisions: we put out the very first estimate each quarter, and then revise it a month later and again at the end of the quarter. That is a perfectly normal part of the process and, as Andrew says, the thing that is important, and it is part of communicating statistics, is to be clear about what the levels of uncertainty are at each point.

There is then another stage where we think about what we are trying to do when we measure something like GDP, where we are taking data in a long time after the reference period. For example, corporation tax or whatever it is that we are getting from HMRC and other sources comes a long time after the year, so we revise then.

The other part of it is where there are methodological or structural changes. For example, that may be a new industrial classification, which means that different parts of the economy have different weights, and those get introduced often under EU or UN standards. The back theories can be revised again when there are those big methodological changes. All of that is a normal part of the process.

The important point is that we explain very carefully and clearly what the status is at any one point and there is a revisions policy on the ONS website.

Charlie Elphicke: If you can find it.

Jil Matheson: I hope you can find it. It explains what that process is and, in particular, what the revisions are at each stage in the process.

Chair: We need to make faster progress.

Q106 Kelvin Hopkins: I have to say that I am something of a hard copy dinosaur. I at least metaphorically sleep with a copy of the House of Commons Library’s Economic Statistics under my pillow. I use it all the time, and if I want anything special I go and ask the Library to sort it out for me, so it is nice to have them there. But I am concerned about the nonexpert users. We have known for some time now that more than 50% of the population do not understand what "50%" means. The understanding of percentages is particularly poor, and when I write my local newspaper articles, if it is "11%" I tend to put "one in nine people" in brackets afterwards, so that it is understood. I walk around with this-I am very much a nerd. That is national debt as a proportion of GDP, which is just over a quarter of what it was in 1945; it is not quite the crisis that some people make out, but there we are.

Chair: Audiovisual aids do not work in this Committee.

Kelvin Hopkins: Well, I have used that frequently and people say, "Oh my gosh, how interesting." Anyway, I am always concerned about the nonexpert users and the way that particularly the media and the press distort things: they cut off vertical bar charts at the knees so it exaggerates the vertical scale and so on. How are you working on that kind of visual simplification, which is not unfair and not untrue but gives a good picture?

Andrew Dilnot: Well, we think you are absolutely right. The first principle of our Code of Practice is user needs, and so in thinking about these statistical bulletins, we have comprehensibility high up the list. One of the sets of things we have been talking about with producers is making the numbers meaningful: if it is sensible to describe the number per person, then describe it as per person, rather than using hundreds of millions or billions of pounds; if it is sensible to put some international comparisons in, do that. We are thinking very hard about trying to make things comprehensible and avoid the use of jargon, so you will also notice that the first line of the GDP release used to be: "The chained volume estimate has done X." We now say "GDP is estimated". So we are trying to think all the time now about avoiding jargon, making things come alive, making them relevant to people. It is not easy. It is not at all easy. I have spent much of the last 35 years trying to do that, but I do think we have some very good examples of that, and in some of the data visualisation that we see on internal migration or some of the Census stuff, I think we are finding good ways of using maps and figures to make it come alive.

Jil Matheson: Visualisation is an important part of that, and there is a fantastic team in ONS working on visualisations, so you will see more and more of that because that is one way that helps the nonexpert user. Explanation is part of it. There is also another strand, which is about talking to the media, and so briefings increasingly play a part as does making statisticians available to the media. We are also working with organisations like the Royal Statistical Society; their Getstats campaign is trying more broadly than we could do to improve what they call the statistical literacy of the population-it is really important-so that people have a sense of the kinds of questions to have in their mind when somebody presents them with statistical information. There is a broad range of effort and activity to try to improve both what we produce and the understanding of what we produce.

Q107 Kelvin Hopkins: Even the term GDP we use casually, but for most people it does not mean very much, so if we talk about the total value of the output of the country, it might mean something. Anyway, there is another question: do you think that more needs to be done to improve the reporting of the uncertainty associated with statistics, for example those from surveys? Some things are uncertain.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes. I said earlier that is at the very top of my list of things we need to do, because there is uncertainty, which does not mean it is wrong. The statistic will be uncertain but it will still be much better than not having any data at all, but if we help people to understand the uncertainty, that makes a big difference. To pick up one of the issues that I know Chris Giles raised yesterday-the trade statistics release-if you look at what has happened to trade over the last year, the monthly figures have just gone up and down. So there was not really very much information in the fact that last month it went from 2.6 to 3.5 or vice versa, and elsewhere in the release that is said, but it is the kind of thing we should say right up at the front. So rather than saying, "There has been this shift," we should say, "Over the last year, there has been oscillation around what looks like a trend." So yes, getting good ways of describing uncertainty is a crucial part of getting the meaning out of statistics and into people’s understanding.

Jil Matheson: That is alongside the more technical quality reports, which again are available, although often not up front in the statistical releases that we want to communicate with. But there are technical reports associated with the main series, which talk about things like the uncertainty from surveys and sampling and demonstrate what that is.

Kelvin Hopkins: Harold Wilson always claimed, I think, that he lost the 1970 election because of four jumbo jets in one month’s trade figures.

Jil Matheson: Explaining that is exactly what I mean, yes.

Q108 Kelvin Hopkins: And moving averages rather than monthly figures-those sorts of things. Another point here: unfortunately, I was away yesterday, and it sounded like an interesting session the Committee had, which I missed-great fun. We talked about press releases being misleading and concentrating, as you say, on the immediate and shortterm data changes; they may be true but not fair, and it is trying to get fairness into the picture.

Andrew Dilnot: Again, I think I have talked in this Committee about how, when we publish GDP releases, GDP numbers, the important thing is to set it in the context of the last 10 or even 60 years. Of course, what the City will often be interested in is simply the news-the extra bit of information.

Q109 Chair: This is a very important point, because Chris Giles was very clear that if the press release goes out saying that the trade figures changed against last month, most of the press will report it as such, but it does not mean anything. True but not fair is a very, very powerful point, I think. He made another point: pandering to the worst elements of journalism-that the headline writers for the ONS press releases are simply thinking about what will catch the eye of the media rather than thinking, "What is the real headline of this set of numbers we are just about to publish?" As Mr Flynn suggested, should you not be employing subeditors to make sure that your press releases are, in fact, the news and not just an eyecatching headline?

Andrew Dilnot: Well, we certainly should not be looking for eyecatching headlines. My strong view is that it is not the task of the ONS to seek to maximise coverage. The task of the ONS is to seek to inform the whole public with the right story about what the statistics tell us. I am not myself absolutely sure about employing journalists. I am more persuaded, and this is certainly the view I always took at the IFS, that we should make sure that our analysts, our statisticians, can write properly. So we need to employ journalistic skills.

Chair: Well, train them to be subeditors.

Andrew Dilnot: I think there are often risks in employing journalists, and I think sometimes when things have gone wrong it has been because we have broken the connection between the statisticians and the people writing the releases.

Chair: Ms Matheson, you are smiling.

Jil Matheson: Well, as Andrew knows, I have a vision of a world where ONS does not have separate news releases but very clear, well written, well explained, visual statistical releases, which is, in itself, the news release, so you do not have this kind of disjuncture between the two. Now, it is going to take a time to get there, but the point about not having misleading headlines is absolutely right. We must not do that, but the way to achieve that I think is to get the statistical bulletin, the statistical release, where we want it to be.

Q110 Kelvin Hopkins: It is important to have a very prominent health warning with those sorts of immediate statistics. Otherwise you get the situation where Paxman has a go at some poor politician and then they come back and say, "Yes, but you are looking at one month’s statistics. They are uncertain; it is unfair to look at them." It looks like an excuse.

Andrew Dilnot: It is important to have a health warning, but I think we can be more positive. One of the things that I know came up yesterday, which we have been running for the last few months, is that there should always be a time series chart in the press release. In the statistical releases that we have worked on you will see that they now all have a reasonably long time series, which allows you to see what is going on-to see whether the latest bit of data tells you something new. So, yes, there needs to be a health warning, but I think we can be more positive about what we have got to say at the same time as getting the health warning in.

Q111 Chair: Moving on, it has been suggested that the National Statistician should be more ready to be a public figure and answer questions on an important set of numbers. You should be up there on Sky and BBC News 24 explaining what these statistics mean, rather in the way Robert Chote does for the OBR. What do you think about that, Ms Matheson?

Jil Matheson: I have a couple of thoughts on that. One is my job is very different from Robert Chote’s. I do not want to talk about what his role is. I think it is important that we do have people on Sky or on BBC News 24 or wherever explaining the statistics that we produce. That does not have to be me, given the range of statistical outputs from across the whole of the Government Statistical Service.

Q112 Chair: So when you issue the quarterly trade statistics, you say, "So-and-so and so-and-so are available for media interviews."

Jil Matheson: Absolutely-absolutely we do.

Q113 Chair: Why do you think they are not taken up very often?

Jil Matheson: They often are. One of the things that is noticeable is the increase in the number of people from ONS, in particular, who are talking about their statistics. The GDP numbers regularly are broadcast and then interviews occur. The Census yesterday was a perfect example, where we had a team of people who were doing lots and lots of media interviews. I myself did so when we released the Census results earlier in the summer. So it is not just about one person doing it. It is about having, increasingly, a team of skilled and confident people who are able to talk about their statistics, and I think there has been a big change in that. Much more of that happens than ever did in the past, and it is good to see.

Andrew Dilnot: Perhaps we might get some data on that. Since we are statisticians, why do we not get some data on that and we will send in to the Committee?

Jil Matheson: Yes.

Q114 Chair: I am just looking at your press release today on labour market statistics. You do not have a headline on it.

Andrew Dilnot: That may well be a sensible thing. I do not know. I never know any numbers until they come out.

Q115 Greg Mulholland: We had a number of pieces of written evidence and also an interesting discussion yesterday about the format of statistics-how they are presented-not in terms of what we have just been discussing in terms of headlines, etc, but the overall picture. Some of the evidence suggested that is not quite good enough in painting a coherent overall picture that would then help in guiding policy. So how well do you think the formats currently used for releasing official statistics are meeting the needs of users?

Andrew Dilnot: I think it varies. I think we have some pieces that are doing a very good job. I think often the bits of output that come out once a year do a good job, because there has been lots of time to think. I think we have been less effective in the area of some of the data that come out once a month, and that is where we are putting most effort in. One can understand why it is tricky, because the statisticians themselves are under enormous pressure to produce this stuff every month and then they do not have very long to craft the output at the end, and that can tend to make it very formulaic. It can tend to grow year by year as new things get added in. What we are trying, and I think having some success in, is absolutely seeing the statistical bulletin as the core of what we do and then being able to spin off shorter bits of it on to landing pages on the website, social media. So I think we are making progress there. We are putting a great deal of effort into ensuring that the statisticians understand that they need to tell the story. The lead statistician needs to say to herself, "What is it that these data most powerfully say?" There may not be a headline, but there needs to be a story, a context, that will help people to understand.

So, I think there is still a considerable way to go, a very considerable way to go, but I think we are making progress. As I say, I think it tends to be the more frequent releases where there is most work to be done.

Jil Matheson: I agree with that, and you will gather we are both passionate about improving this. However, one thing I would say about even the monthly releases is that there are users out there who really like them, because they are familiar. When we change things we also get people saying, "Please do not change it, because we know exactly where to look. We know exactly what the format is and what the style is." Even in making change there is a process, and often a process of consultation or seeking feedback. It is very much a process. It is taking a whole range of types of users with us as we develop these things.

Q116 Greg Mulholland: Just to give an example, the Royal Statistical Society said, "A deeper communications challenge for the official statistics service is to present a coherent statistical picture of what is going on in areas where debate needs to concentrate on the issues rather than on explaining particular statistics. The debate on Scottish independence is an example where statistics needs to be brought together and well communicated in order to foster good debate," and not only debate, of course, but also good policymaking, which is, in the end, what statistics primarily should be there for. Have you any ideas on further publications that you might produce to inform major events or big public policy decisions or a debate like the referendum on Scottish independence?

Andrew Dilnot: These are interesting questions. We are all here today because we love statistics, and the reason we love statistics is not just for their own sake but because we believe passionately that good policy, whether it is private policy of individuals or public policy of governments, can only be made if we have the right data. If there are gaps, we need to find a new way of making that work. I think some of those compendia used to fulfil that role, which was one of the points Mr Elphicke was making about compendia publication.

The question of data for the Scottish referendum debate is an interesting one. It raises all the issues about comparability of data across the four nations where we have an explicit role set out in the statute. It also raises some quite tricky questions of analysis. I think it is perfectly reasonable for us, as an Authority, to think about the needs for that debate and whether they are currently being met appropriately. But you were using the Scottish independence debate as an example.

Q117 Greg Mulholland: It was the Royal Statistical Society who used it.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes. There is a wider question about how, when there are big policy questions, we assess whether the statistical material is appropriate. It seems to me that is a task for Jil and her colleagues-but it is also a task for my absent colleague Richard Alldritt, as the Head of Assessment, and for David Rhind, the Deputy Chairman responsible for official statistics-with their monitoring hats on to have periodic examinations of whether we have the right kind of data. Recently, that side of our work produced a monitoring review on health statistics, asking questions about whether the array of health statistics was coherent and really answered the kinds of policy questions that need to be answered. I think that is something we need to go on and possibly do more of.

Jil Matheson: I have a couple of points to add. The first is this is about relevance, and making sure that the statistics we produce are not only of good technical quality but are relevant is again fundamental to what we are trying to do. There are some examples of where the statistical service has been able to be very responsive to a policy or political debate. The example that comes to my mind is the riots last year, where the statisticians in the Ministry of Justice, working with other colleagues, were able to very rapidly produce some excellent statistical analysis and reports in the public domain that helped shape the debate. That was a really good example, which I hold up because that is the kind of thing that I would like to see more of.

Within ONS, I think earlier I was talking about some of the restructuring that we have done, and part of the new analysis and dissemination directorate in ONS is a division called the public policy division, whose aim is explicitly to be sensitive to the wider public debate and what the issues are and how statistics can be presented to inform that debate. There are of course, as Andrew referred to earlier, going to be questions of priority and capacity. There are lots and lots of things that we would like to do and we cannot do them all, so there will be a process of discussing with the Authority and others what the priorities are.

On the comparability point, I think our role is to make sure that we have a bedrock of comparable statistics that can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, coherent statistics across the UK is one of the issues that certainly the Statistics Authority has raised with the Government Statistical Service. We are looking at it. I have to say it is not something that we hear about very often from users. It is not something that I get representation on or that I know my colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get much representation on. It is part of our remit to explain and particularly to understand where there are differences between Scotland and England and Wales, for example, and we have a group working on that at the moment so that that is more helpful to users.

Q118 Chair: Can I just interject at that point? This is obviously a huge existential debate for our country about whether Scotland will leave the United Kingdom or not, and the statistical analysis around that debate will be hugely important. What exactly are you planning to do in order to make sure this debate is properly informed? Should there not be a compendium of statistics that are produced especially to support this debate, where you can highlight what is indisputable, what is disputable or what might be a matter for negotiation of a separation settlement, so that we can engage in the debate on a common understanding of what the statistical basis is?

Andrew Dilnot: I think my response to that is that it is extremely helpful for us to have that user need so clearly spelt out and, in the light of that, I think it is perfectly reasonable for me, as the Chairman, and Jil, as the National Statistician, to go away and think about exactly what it is that we might seek to do that would fulfil that need.

Q119 Chair: You might do the same for the EU question as well, though I hesitate to start that argument in this meeting.

Jil Matheson: This is why getting the bedrock right and getting some clarity about the comparability is really important, so that we are not just trying to respond but we have the infrastructure right.

Q120 Chair: Are you free to do this? Nobody can stop you doing it?

Andrew Dilnot: Let us leave the EU question to one side.

Q121 Chair: Can you do this on your own initiative?

Andrew Dilnot: If we have the resources, then I think in principle we can.

Jil Matheson: I do not think there is anything that would stop us doing it impartially and bringing it together based on the statistics that we already have or the data that we already have.

Q122 Chair: Do you anticipate Ministers leaning on you not to publish controversial series of statistics?

Andrew Dilnot: Jil has been doing this much longer than I have. I have only been here for eight months. No Minister has ever attempted to lean on me in any way.

Chair: Right, well, we look forward to it.

Q123 Kelvin Hopkins: The Chairman touched on resources, and I am concerned that you are trying to work within fairly difficult financial constraints. I personally believe that we should spend more, give you more resources, and help to reflate the economy a bit maybe as well in the process. It is a worry that you are constrained in doing more. Is that a worry? Am I right?

Andrew Dilnot: Yes. We face limited resources. Everybody faces limited resources, but this is an area where people very rarely want to stop doing something. One of the challenges that we absolutely face-and it is a strategic challenge for us-is whether, with the resources that are going to be available to us, we can go on doing everything that we have done in the past and have some slack available to do the kind of work that the Chairman has just encouraged us to do.

Q124 Chair: If there is to be a referendum on Scotland leaving the UK, surely you should say, "Part of the cost of this referendum is going to be producing the statistics, and you need to reckon that that is part of the cost of what you have decided to do, Prime Minister," and get the extra money for it.

Andrew Dilnot: Well, it is certainly the case that we need to have a range of discussions about our funding in the medium term that reflect the way in which the things that we are doing are very important. It is not just this; there are discussions about the financial crisis and whether we need additional sorts of data to help us understand financial flows, for example. I think there may be a strong case for that, but that is also not cheap, and if that is important for the Bank and the Treasury, then we may well need some help with that.

Kelvin Hopkins: I can see you can go into political deep waters. It might be helping the Prime Minister, but not the First Minister in Scotland, and that might be a real controversy. On the European thing, Ministers time and again talk about our exports to the rest of Europe. They very rarely talk about the imports, which are far larger.

Chair: Kelvin, it pains me to stop you, but we are not going there. Shall we move on?

Q125 Paul Flynn: Ad hoc requests: I was surprised to see that you have 13,000 of these requests. Yesterday, we heard some complaints, understandably, from journalists, who want the information immediately for their deadlines. There was unhappiness about the fact that they can never speak to the person involved who produced the figures. There was no contact number often on the press releases and they were irritated by that. They were also suggesting that many of the ad hoc requests were turned down for reasons that did not appear to be rational and consistent. Many of them were turned into Freedom of Information requests, which took a long time to do. Are there improvements you think are necessary on this?

Andrew Dilnot: I will turn to Jil for confirmation on this, but I am pretty sure there is a telephone number on all press releases and all statistical releases.

Paul Flynn: The press releases are not from the person involved in producing the figures. I think they thought that the statisticians who were mainly responsible were too remote.

Andrew Dilnot: I think one of the very first acts that I took was to agree that we would publish much more of the outcomes of these ad hoc requests than we used to. I think we published 700 or so. That seems to me very good, and every couple of weeks I go and have a look at what is there and there is often something very interesting to me. Of course people want more access and more responses. The best thing would be for our website and our data release to be such that the number of ad hoc requests fell because people had direct access themselves, and more and more that is the case. More and more of our data are being published in an accessible form, in an electronically accessible form, and we want to go further down that road.

Jil Matheson: There may be an ONS versus other departments issue here, but I am proud of the fact that our statisticians who produce statistics are available, and we do give names on statistical releases. It does not mean that they are necessarily there waiting for a phone call if somebody has a very short deadline, and so it is simply not going to always be possible to turn round requests very quickly. That is the reality, but we would try to meet requests and we would try, as Andrew said, to make it known what requests have already been made, because it might save us doing some work twice as well as being helpful for users.

Q126 Paul Flynn: If you had an ad hoc request from an organisation like Republic, for instance, on the subject raised by the Chairman-the preposterous claim put out by the propaganda machine in the palace about the cost of the royal family-do you think you should include in it the cost of the Jubilee last year, with this wet procession down the Thames and the cost of security in that? I know minor royals come to my constituency and my constituents mass nil deep on the pavement, but the cost in security can be £20,000 to £30,000. Do you think that you have a job with your stick with a rusty nail in it to make sure, when you get some figure that is clearly dodgy, propagandist and where someone has an interest in minimising the cost, to come out and tell Republic what the total true cost is, particularly of the Bank Holiday for the Jubilee last year?

Andrew Dilnot: I have no desire to get into that particular matter, but on the wider question of when we should intervene, we should intervene when a matter of serious public interest is going on, and that is a judgment that we need to take. But we cannot possibly get involved in all such debates.

Q127 Paul Flynn: If you had an ad hoc request from Republic to do that, what would you do?

Andrew Dilnot: The ad hoc request would go to the ONS, and they would work out whether it seemed to be something that they could do or that had a high priority.

Jil Matheson: An ad hoc request would be a request for analysis of data that we already had. If we do not have the data, then we cannot do it.

Q128 Paul Flynn: This might be an appropriate time to raise this: under Michael Scholar and the pioneering work he did, he was very severe, I think, at times-entirely justified-on the Home Office for a number of very dodgy claims that they made, and there were half a dozen times that he wrote to them. I think you have written two letters, as far as I know, both to the Prime Minister, about two matters. One in particular was the cost of the Health Service. Would you like to tell us about that and what your approach is going to be on this in making sure that we do not have selfserving distortions of statistics by the Prime Minister and other Ministers?

Andrew Dilnot: I have written many more than two letters, and only one of them has been to the Prime Minister. I think I have intervened on six or seven matters so far. Three have been reasonably high profile. One was the discussion over what was interpreted in the press as being prerelease of statistics by the Prime Minister over GDP in Prime Minister’s Questions. One was in response to a complaint from Andy Burnham about descriptions of health statistics. Another was a discussion about education rankings and what could be read into the differences in number from 2000 to 2009.

The way in which we tackle this is that, if matters are either drawn to our attention or we notice what we think are serious questions where the public interest is materially involved, we will investigate them, and if we think that things have not been as they should be, then I will say so and say so very loudly. I am seeking in that to follow the policy and practice that Sir Michael developed and I think in the first seven or eight months that is exactly what we have been doing.

Q129 Paul Flynn: Are you happy with the situation as far as the Health Service statistics are concerned? Are they being fairly presented?

Andrew Dilnot: Well, my letter, which was a very careful letter, laid out our analysis of the data, and my understanding is that that description of the data has not been challenged; those figures drew on national statistics published by the Treasury. So I am content that we have put into the public domain an analysis of the figures for the real levels of public spending in the years 2009-10, 2010-11, and 2011-12. So, yes.

Q130 Paul Flynn: Did the Prime Minister accept in his reply that he left a misleading impression?

Andrew Dilnot: I did not write to the Prime Minister about health statistics. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health, and towards the end of his reply, which by that stage I think I already knew, he accepted there were some questions around definition and that "consequently it would be helpful if we were consistent in the definitions we used. The Conservative Party website previously stated, ‘We have increased the NHS budget in real terms in each of the last two years.’ While this again is correct-the NHS budget has increased in both 2011-12 and 2012-13-it would be better if it were consistent with what I and the Prime Minister previously stated. Consequently, I have asked the Conservative Party to amend its website accordingly."

Q131 Chair: Are you happy?

Andrew Dilnot: I am content that the Conservative Party website has been changed in response to the letter that we sent.

Chair: Because if at any stage you were unhappy with the responses you were getting from the Government, obviously we would like to know about that.

Q132 Paul Flynn: There is a book advising MPs on how to ask questions in the House, and there is a bit after the bit on how to ask questions, on how to question the answers that follow, because most of the parliamentary answers we have are as nebulous as what you just read to us, I think. The whole point, which you wrote about very eloquently while the Bill was going through the House, of setting up the statistics body was to increase public trust in statistics, and we should be in a position now where there is more confidence in statistics than there was 10 years ago and 20 years ago. Are we heading in that direction now? Does your relationship with the present Government encourage you to think that there is progress being made?

Andrew Dilnot: We should be very clear that it is not simply Government political spokesmen who are at risk; opposition spokesmen are at exactly the same risk. My sense is that both Government and opposition politicians are aware that, if they step out of line statistically, there is the risk that it will be drawn to our attention and that we will be critical. Then, I hope, indeed, that if we were critical, there is a chance that they would also face a discussion with this Committee. So I think there is an awareness that there are risks associated with statistical sleight of hand that perhaps were not there in the past, and my sense is that Ministers, senior civil servants and opposition politicians are aware of that and so are looking to tread carefully. Of course, no Minister or senior civil servant likes to be in a position where there is implicit criticism, but I have not felt that this is deemed to be in some sense unfair in my discussions with Ministers.

Q133 Chair: Can I just press you on the DWP issue and their ad hoc release, which they maintained was research and therefore was not covered by the Code? How was that resolved? Has that been resolved to your satisfaction?

Andrew Dilnot: I think this was one that was at the very end of Sir Michael Scholar’s time as chairman. My understanding is that it has been pretty much resolved to our satisfaction. There is an acceptance in the Department that they will think very carefully about whether this should be thought of as management information or official statistics, and have moved in that direction. They have now published, last month, some data that have been published as an official statistic and therefore is subject to the Code of Practice and is legitimate for us to assess. So that does seem to have been a reasonable outcome.

Q134 Chair: Ms Matheson, you said earlier that statisticians in Government Departments have this independence. Were there any conversations between you or the GSS and the Department about that release before it went out, or did anybody in the Department express any anxiety about that original release going out? How does it work?

Jil Matheson: Sorry, which release?

Chair: The DWP statistics about the number of people on out-of-work benefits who were immigrants.

Jil Matheson: How it works is that if there is a concern from the head of profession in a Department, then he or she would contact either me or my office.

Q135 Chair: So was there a complaint in that case?

Jil Matheson: No, no, I do not remember-

Q136 Chair: Should there have been?

Jil Matheson: I am struggling with the detail on this particular one.

Q137 Chair: My question is: how does this happen? For the health statistics one, the website is not under the direct control of the Secretary of State. This was all in Government. There clearly has been a failure in the Statistical Service not to have flagged that in advance.

Jil Matheson: To have flagged what?

Chair: To flag to a Minister that this ad hoc release of research information might fall foul of the Code. I am just asking, technically, how does this work? How do we make the people, the statisticians in Government, stronger and more confident and able to speak truth unto power, so that we do not finish up with the Chair of the Statistics Authority having to write a letter to the Secretary of State?

Jil Matheson: The intervention of the Statistics Authority is very important in sending the signal within Departments that this is something that will be taken seriously and that they have a role in alerting Ministers, special advisers and senior officials that there is potentially a Code compliance issue. That is what normally happens, and the fact of the interventions builds up this case law of how that happens.

Q138 Chair: If you do not have the detail to hand, could you send us a note of what the chronology of events was? Did this go out unchallenged from within the Department or was somebody not consulted within the Department who should have been consulted? Because clearly there was some failure, so that when the letter arrived from the UKSA Chair, it came as a great surprise to the Minister. It seems to me that it is about strengthening the confidence of the Service so these accidents do not happen. Agreed?

Jil Matheson: I will do a note, because I do not recall the detail.

Q139 Chair: Thank you very much. Can I ask about user engagement, because there is a very, very strong sense we got from yesterday’s panel that there is a mountain to climb for users outside the Service, that they are not engaged, they are not listened to. Listening to Jil Matheson today, I hear a very strong will to make changes, but is this a new initiative to make changes or have you been trying to make changes since you were appointed in 2009? There is a strong sense amongst users that, however much change you say you want, it is taking a very long time in coming.

Jil Matheson: It is taking time.

Chair: What are the impediments?

Jil Matheson: Well, let me just say what we have been doing.

Chair: Well, I would rather know what the impediments are. By all means give us the good news.

Jil Matheson: I think it would be helpful if I explained what we are doing and why we are doing it, because that is aimed at addressing some of the impediments.

Chair: As briefly as you can, but we would like to understand the difficulties you are facing.

Jil Matheson: Okay. Part of the difficulty is in identifying who those users are. There are some very, very strong relationships with some users that have been built up over years. It is very difficult to reach out to new users, which is what we need to do, or potential users even.

Q140 Chair: That suggests to me that you are rather fed up with some of the sort of terrorists who keep turning up on your doorstep and being ultra critical and complaining that things are not working, and you would like to engage with some new people who are going to be a bit nicer to you. Is that unfair?

Jil Matheson: I think that is unfair, yes.

Q141 Chair: Statistics is a very small world and I am getting to understand the very, very big frustrations from very well informed users. It seems to me that, if you cannot engage those very well informed users and get them to feel that they are involved with improving your business, engaging with a wider set of users is not going to resolve the problem.

Jil Matheson: Again, I think that is not entirely fair, from my perspective, in that there are some very well engaged users who I am sure do feel as though they have a say in what happens. They may not always like the outcome, of course, and that is partly because there is such a wide range of users, and one of the challenges is to understand that wide range of use and the kinds of decisions that people are making based on statistics. One of the challenges is to hear that breadth of perspective, not just from, I will paraphrase, the usual suspects.

Part of the way of doing that is, of course, talking, but there is a limited number of conversations that you can have. Part of it is through a new webbased system called StatsUserNet, where there are communities of interest developing, so that we can again try to get the breadth of views. Some of it is about established user groups, where there are established user groups, and some of it is about more traditional kinds of consultation. Certainly one of the things that I hear from users is that there is much more consultation-in fact, some of them say too much-going on than there ever has been in the past, and so part of the problem for some users is trying to respond to the plethora that comes from across the Statistical Service on users. At the moment, my office is working with the Statistics Users Forum on a set of guidance on user engagement. We are doing that together to try to improve the way in which we all engage with the breadth of user communities. But even they would admit in the discussions that I personally have had with them that they find it difficult sometimes to engage with their communities, because there is no single community. The former chair of the Statistics Users Forum is sitting next to me and he might like to add to this.

Chair: Well, great things are expected of him.

Andrew Dilnot: Being the chairman of the Statistics Users Forum was difficult. We found it quite difficult to get people to engage, for all the reasons that Jil has described. But I think, turning it back on ourselves at UKSA and the ONS, the most effective way of encouraging people to engage with us is showing that it makes a difference. What we have been engaged with for probably longer than I have been around is trying to make it clear that it does make a difference. If we can show we are responding to the needs of users, particularly on the communications side, then I think it is more likely that users will want to engage with us, because I think otherwise there is a tendency for people to think, "What is the point?" I hope that some of the steps that we are taking will succeed in making that work and we have to take it seriously. It is, after all, the first principle in our Code of Practice.

Q142 Chair: Right. Now can you answer the other bit of my question: what are the impediments that are preventing you from changing more quickly, more responsively?

Jil Matheson: The impediments are some of those very well established relationships, particularly within Government. This notion of thinking about statistics for a public good is a relatively recent one. It only really was enshrined in the legislation that we were talking about.

Q143 Chair: So what is the recommendation that we need to make in our report that will relieve you of these impediments?

Jil Matheson: Well, the crucial thing is the one I was giving earlier: a very strong message that producing and communicating statistics for a wide range of users, not just for your traditional policy colleague in your Department or the traditional relationships that we have had, is an intrinsic and important part of the Statistical Service.

Q144 Chair: So you need to spend more money on engaging your users and communicating your statistics to the wider public.

Jil Matheson: There is certainly a resource on the communications side. There are certainly, as I was saying earlier, skills, training and culture changes as well as the technology changes that are needed, and that takes resource and it takes time.

Q145 Chair: So, technological restraints, skills restraints, resource constraints-these are all preventing you from changing as quickly as you wish.

Jil Matheson: It will take time.

Chair: I see Mr Dilnot nodding.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes, because at the moment the users that it is not at all difficult to engage with are the big Government Departments.

Q146 Chair: Indeed, we get representations that private sector users of statistics are given much lower priority than the public sector.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes, although there I think we have a relatively recent real success story. We had a business users engagement event two or three weeks ago that I spoke to, and 100 people came along; it was huge. I do not know what it was about doing it this time that meant that it worked, but we had a huge array of people come along who were really actively using the ONS and GSS output in their businesses. We had a really exciting day and lots came out of it. I wish I could bottle whatever it was that made that so successful.

Chair: I suggest that people are beginning to feel that it is worth coming and making representations to you, which is a jolly good thing.

Q147 Kelvin Hopkins: Just a quick question on recruitment. Do you have a problem recruiting staff with the sorts of skills that are required, and is it the case, yet again, that the City is sucking up masses of people with mathematical ability, which makes engineering suffer as well: we have to import engineers because we cannot produce enough, as they all go and work in the City.

Jil Matheson: There are recruitment difficulties, interestingly; although, of course, for ONS, it is not so much the City, because we have so few staff in London now. But because of the recruitment ban, there is now a backlog of vacancies that we are trying to fill across the GSS, not just in ONS. We have had a couple of recruitment campaigns; they have not necessarily been as successful as we would like, and we are talking about how we can do better.

Q148 Chair: What is your analysis of why they have not been successful?

Jil Matheson: I think there are several things. The ban on advertising has not helped.

Q149 Chair: But surely statistics people all work in quite a small world. There must be a website for statisticians looking for jobs.

Jil Matheson: Not if you are recruiting directly from universities, which we are. These are not necessarily people we know. These are new graduates and not even statisticians: numerate social scientists, mathematicians; there is a whole range of skills that we are trying to recruit to, so it has been difficult. We have upped the recruitment effort. There are still vacancies.

Q150 Chair: So you need to improve what we used to call the "milk round".

Jil Matheson: Exactly. The milk round is part of it. Getting people out to the milk round, and getting these jobs known among careers advisers.

Q151 Chair: Is this not something that all your senior management should be involved in?

Jil Matheson: Yes, and it is not just the GSS. I have been having these conversations with the other analytical professions within Government, who are facing the same kinds of problems.

Q152 Chair: Are the salaries an issue?

Jil Matheson: I am not aware that salaries per se are the issue.

Q153 Chair: Have you done some analysis and research into that?

Jil Matheson: Yes. Certainly for ONS, I am not aware that salaries are an issue.

Q154 Chair: Do people like going and working in Newport? Is that a constraint?

Jil Matheson: The staff engagement scores for ONS were improved this year, which suggests that people do like working in Newport.

Q155 Chair: But is it easy to recruit top graduates to go and work in Newport?

Jil Matheson: I do not think the site is the issue. I do not think location is the issue. It is getting to the right people and recruiting them.

I think the other part of it is that I do have, along with others, some concerns about the supply of numerate graduates and whether the universities are training and developing enough of the kinds of people to fill the roles of the future. It is not just the City that we will be competing with. It is people like Google and the information sector as a whole.

Q156 Chair: Come to the University of Essex. We produce lots of social scientists and statisticians.

Paul Flynn: But they have an inferior standard of parliamentary representative.

Andrew Dilnot: The only other thing I would want to say on that is, seriously, people need to realise how important and glamorous it is. The whole statistical community has a problem of being a little bit too shy and not explaining to the world quite how important it is. We need young people to realise that it is incredibly exciting and astonishingly important, and that is a big and longterm task.

Q157 Chair: But that is a big PR task, is it not, for the Statistical Service and for UKSA?

Andrew Dilnot: Yes, and a great way of starting that would be that people got used to thinking that the ONS website was a fabulous place to go.

Q158 Kelvin Hopkins: Going back to the theme I was talking about earlier, about appreciation by people who are not necessarily statisticians themselves-and this goes for quite a lot of graduates and people who studied nonnumerate subjects and so on-do you think that statistics producers should do more to help educate people about statistics? You talk about people with an enthusiasm for it and I feel the same, but other people may not.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes, but I do not think we should do it in a dry way. I think we should do it by helping people to understand why it is important. I do not think we should try to educate people about what a standard error is; I think we should help them to realise that of course estimates vary and of course there is uncertainty. I think we can do the education through having really good statistical bulletins, but I do not think it needs to be obvious to people that they are being educated statistically when we are helping them to understand things. We do not need to explain regression to the mean. We just need to show people what is going on. So, yes, we have a role, but I think our role, by and large, is through explaining clearly and then the stuff should come alive.

Q159 Kelvin Hopkins: Even in primary schools, just playing games with statistics, and there is secondary education, obviously. I am involved with National Numeracy, one of these new organisations, which recently had a parliamentary reception. Sadly, they have found that numeracy has actually declined over the last 30 years or so-they did a comparison test-which is very worrying indeed. Numeracy is a real problem for Britain, I think. Is that your impression?

Andrew Dilnot: I do not have a professional understanding of whether it has got better or worse, but what I do have a professional understanding of is whether it is high or low. It is also worth saying that the media have to work alongside us in this. The media will be the medium in general through which much of our work gets out, and we need to make sure that what we are producing helps them and recognises that many people in the media feel very anxious and insecure about all of this and so are looking for us to give them material that they can work with. I think that is a crucial part of what we do.

Q160 Kelvin Hopkins: Many people in general feel nervous and insecure because they do not feel at ease with numbers and statistics.

Jil Matheson: As a small example of one other thing that we can do, during the Census we provided lots and lots of material for schools to help the CensusAtSchool, which was really a way of getting people to think about their area, about how data are collected, how you present those data, what they look like. Again it was not teaching the mathematics of it but teaching the understanding, and that was very, very widely taken up.

Q161 Paul Flynn: On your relationship with outside bodies, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority in 1988 about what I thought was a lying advertisement for personal pensions. They rejected my complaint, but a few years later 6 million people were compensated because they were missold personal pensions partly as a result of those adverts. The other organisation we have in mind and there were complaints about is the Press Complaints Commission, this remarkable body that I think was chaired possibly at the time by the intellectual giant Paul Dacre. You, I believe, approached the Authority to complain about the Daily Mail’s coverage of the prosecution of offences relating to the 2011 riots. The Press Complaints Commission decided that you were wrong, their statistics were better and they rejected your complaint. Clearly, this body is going to be euthanised and buried in a deep hole with a concrete slab on top soon, but do you think it is worthwhile when the new reformed body does emerge postLeveson that you engage with them, possibly at an early stage, to make sure that they do not get away with this? If you have decided that their statistics are wrong, they really have very little right to question you on the basis of the statistics alone and purely out of selfinterest. I would associate the Advertising Standards Authority in the same way, who have acted outrageously.

Andrew Dilnot: This happened just before my time, but my understanding is that indeed a concern was raised with the Authority about a particular piece of coverage and that the then chairman wrote about that coverage. It is not my understanding that the Press Complaints Commission in any way dissented from the view that the Authority had taken.

Paul Flynn: They said the Daily Mail had not breached the Code of Practice, so it was all right to lie.

Andrew Dilnot: No, not our Code of Practice. They have no jurisdiction over the statistical Code of Practice; it was their own Code of Practice. Now, my own view is that independent regulators, which in this context is what the Authority is, should always act simply on the basis of their own judgment. I think it would make sense when this new institution, whatever it is, is set up for me to have a meeting with its chairman to explain what our work is and the basis on which we do it. But I think I would always fight very, very shy of ever appearing to collude or cooperate over judgments. The judgments, I think, should always be the judgment of the Authority. Of course, I would then be very disappointed if any other body were to try to second guess that judgment, but that again, it would seem to me, would be up to them. I would be happy to meet with the chairman and explain our work, but I think I would probably stop at that point.

Q162 Paul Flynn: As I understand it, both these two bodies have codes of practice that allowed them to dissemble, to cheat, to lie, and you, as the keeper of the flame of truth, honesty and objectivity, have a role to get them to behave in a reasonable way.

Andrew Dilnot: If somebody were ever to complain about the statistical action, these bodies are within our domain, so if a concern reached us that any body had acted statistically inappropriately, that is something that we could take on. But my sense is that we stand alone. We are an independent Authority and we should not seek to collude or cooperate in coming to any decisions with any other body.

Chair: I think we have reached a conclusion.

Q163 Paul Flynn: Just one comment, if I may, seeing as Newport came up. One of the pieces of work carried out at Newport is on a sense of wellbeing. As we referred to the parliamentary representatives, there is no question but of the sense of wellbeing that my constituents have in Newport, for various reasons, partly because the Statistics Office is located there. But this is an area that seems to be very promising in providing us with a measure of success of Governments and others, not just in GDP but in measuring this area that is very difficult to measure-the question of wellbeing. Is this work continuing?

Andrew Dilnot: It is. I will pass to Jil in a moment, who is leading the work, but it is funded for a period and it is important to be clear about what it is. It is an attempt, as I understand it, to bring together a wide range of data, some of it economic, some of it about the physical environment; some of it, but only a very small part of it, is answers to questions about subjective states of mind. It is an attempt really to be a kind of modern Social Trends-a modern way of describing the whole of what it is to live in the UK.

Jil Matheson: Exactly so and it is developing. It is part of an international agenda. There are lots of countries that are doing this, so it will evolve. The OECD is very active, but it is looking at the three pillars: the economy, the environment and quality of life for individuals and households, and putting those together into a single place. There is a lot of interest.

Q164 Chair: How much is the wellbeing work costing?

Paul Flynn: Not enough.

Jil Matheson: The funding is for £2 million a year, which includes data collection, survey costs and the cost of the team in putting the data together, processing it, analysing it, producing it, disseminating it.

Andrew Dilnot: We were given a specific funding stream for it.

Q165 Chair: How will you judge the effectiveness of this expenditure?

Jil Matheson: The same way as with any other: is this expenditure doing what it should be doing? Is it value for money in the sense of: are there other ways in which we could have done this work more cheaply? Is there a user need? It takes its place alongside the kind of prioritisation that we will have to have of the range of work that ONS does.

Q166 Chair: Apart from the Government, who is really enthusiastic?

Jil Matheson: There are a huge number of constituents. I spoke very recently at a conference of voluntary sector organisations, who were intrigued, fascinated and incredibly supportive. A lot of them operate within local authorities or particular areas, and they found it really, really valuable in understanding how those three dimensions play out together and where the pockets of poor wellbeing or whatever are that the voluntary sector may have a role in helping, which may not be the same as areas of more material deprivation. So, it is real insight for them and there is a lot of support. There is support from parts of the business community as well, so that is a very, very wide range of constituents and a lot of new users who we have managed to engage with as part of the work that we have been doing on wellbeing.

Q167 Chair: How confident are you that it is not subject to political manipulation-that different people could measure wellbeing in different ways in order to support different political outcomes?

Andrew Dilnot: Well, one thing that we are not going to do, or at least not while I am the Chairman and Jil is the National Statistician, is produce a happiness index. What we are doing here is bringing together lots of different streams of data: some about the economy, not just GDP but employment, job tenure, housing experience; some about life, experience of health care, education; some about the subjective.

Q168 Chair: Lord O’Donnell will be so disappointed.

Andrew Dilnot: I have had a discussion with Lord O’Donnell about happiness indices, yes. This range of data is extraordinarily interesting and valuable. I cannot imagine how it could be collapsed in a statistically coherent way into a single number to say, "Look, this shows you what has happened to the wellbeing of this country." So, yes, the range of data will be open to a variety of interpretations, and people who value the performance of the Health Service or the labour market will come up with different summaries, but in a way that is precisely what is so exciting about it: that we are presenting a rich diet of data for people to look at and make their own judgments.

Q169 Paul Flynn: And it is challenging the view that only material wealth determines happiness and contentment and so on.

Andrew Dilnot: Yes, but it is not saying that material wealth does not matter.

Paul Flynn: Oh no, indeed, no, no. It is a factor, but so is fairness.

Chair: There wouldn’t be many people sitting around this table if we thought material wealth was the only route to personal happiness.

Andrew Dilnot: Quite so.

Paul Flynn: Indeed no; it wouldn’t be on for this Committee.

Chair: May I thank you very much indeed for your evidence and can you convey the Committee’s thanks to all your staff for the work they do for the public good? We appreciate that the cost pressures on Government make life difficult at the moment, nevertheless we thoroughly value the work that you all do. Thank you very much indeed.

Andrew Dilnot: Thank you very much.

Prepared 28th May 2013