Work and Pensions Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 570

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Work and Pensions Committee

on Wednesday 10 July 2013

Members present:

Dame Anne Begg (Chair)

Debbie Abrahams

Jane Ellison

Sheila Gilmore

Glenda Jackson

Teresa Pearce

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Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: John Shield, Director of Communications, and David Frazer, Director of Information Governance and Security Directorate, Department for Work and Pensions, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Thank you for coming in slightly earlier, but we were ready, and we thought you were ready and might appreciate it. Can I start by apologising for our slightly small number? There is rather a lot on today, and this is our second evidence session of the day as well. Hopefully, two more colleagues will arrive, but a debate on welfare reform and disabled people is about to start in the Chamber, so I am sure you will understand if people come and go as a result.

May I ask you, very briefly, to introduce yourself for the record?

John Shield: My name is John Shield. I am the Director of Communications at the Department for Work and Pensions.

David Frazer: I am David Frazer, Director of Information Governance and Security at the Department for Work and Pensions. I am also its Head of Profession for statistics

Q2 Chair: That answers one of our questions, because you get referred to as that, but it did not seem to be in your formal title.

First of all, thank you very much for coming along this afternoon. We are keen to understand the process of how statistics are compiled within the Department, and also how those statistics are used and disseminated and how other people get their hands on them and use them as well.

Could you start by describing your role and responsibilities in relation to ensuring that the DWP publishes and releases to the public accurate, informative and fair statistics?

David Frazer: In my role as Head of Profession, I am responsible for overseeing the production of the vast majority of DWP statistics. I am also the Department’s senior adviser on statistics, if you like, which means that interpreting the code of practice and advising others in the Department on what their obligations are under that fall under my remit as well. Would you like me to start covering what we do in terms of how we make statistics available to people and how we prepare them?

Chair: No, you can leave that for now. We will come back to it.

John Shield: As Director of Communications, I oversee all the comms in the Department and the Department’s press office reports into me.

Q3 Chair: Can you now take me through the stages of the process for releasing statistics? Can you indicate which type of DWP official-statistician, press officer or analyst-has responsibility for each stage? From beginning to end, how does it happen and who is responsible?

David Frazer: I might perhaps give a toplevel summary of the main ways in which we do it; I would then be happy to drop into any detail you want.

The main way we make statistics available is through the publication of regular statistical series: the numbers of people on workingage benefits, employment programmes and so forth. They are usually data sets produced by statisticians and analysts. They are done to professional standards. They are involved in producing that, right up to the point where we get to publication. There are set procedures I can go into about how we then handle the actual release into the public domain.

That is the main method. We release something like 50 statistical series, sometimes four or more times a year. That is how the vast majority of information finds its way into the public domain.

Q4 Chair: Are these releases happening every year-year in, year out? You are collecting the same statistics all of the time, so you can do longitudinal comparisons.

David Frazer: Absolutely, yes. Some can be monthly or quarterly. For example, for longtime series on how many people have been claiming income support, we will probably update the data once a quarter. We will put out regular publications saying, "This is the latest number of people on workingage benefits. Here is a summary of the key trends and the matters around that." That is what we put in there.

Besides a publication known as a first release, which gives lots of tables, charts and background guidance that have all been prepared by statisticians and analysts, we will supplement that with what we call our tabulation tool. This is an online system where there are literally hundreds of thousands of detailed breakdowns of those headline numbers: by age, sex, geography or other characteristics of claimants. Anybody outside the Department can go online and get access to those very detailed breakdowns. They can go and create their own numbers and tables, and use them in whichever way they see fit. That is our main method. It is under the control of statisticians and is, ultimately, my responsibility; it is how we put most things out there.

There are supplementary ways. For example, once we have created those statistics and published them, we have fairly rich data sets that are capable of being subject to much more detailed analysis and breakdowns. For example, if somebody asked, "How many people who have been on income support for three out of the last five years and might have also been on jobseeker’s allowance once over that time?" we would be able to use the databases, do some further analysis and produce that information. The sorts of things we do with this are parliamentary questions and freedom of information (FOI) requests-we get a lot of those. We have had probably 1,200 parliamentary questions since May 2010 that have asked for statistics. A lot of information goes in the public domain via that route.

Finally, if Ministers themselves want to use information publically and it is not readily available from a firstrelease publication or a tabulation tool, we produce what is known as an ad hoc statistical release, which again is prepared by statisticians or analysts. It will have the key numbers and advice about interpretation.

From the point of view of a statistician or producer, they are the main methods through which we create information. We put out publications and lots of rich data; they are then readily available for people to use.

Q5 Chair: Is it just Ministers who can ask for ad hoc statistical releases or can they come out as a result of a freedom of information request?

David Frazer: We get a lot of freedom of information requests. Since April 2010, we have probably had 600 that have asked for statistics. We prepare those, put in the relevant information and make them publicly available. If you go to the DWP part of the gov.uk website, there is an area where you can see these FOIs. You can go online and see them, so besides sending them to the person who has made the FOI request, they are readily available for everybody else.

Q6 Chair: Who makes the decision whether to answer a freedom of information request?

David Frazer: In some cases, the decision is probably finally down to the Minister but, on a routine basis, it is officials who would advance and then prepare them.

Q7 Chair: I saw recently that there had been a freedom of information request, but the reply came back saying that as it was a vexatious request, the Department was not going to provide the information. Who would make that decision?

David Frazer: There can be judgments made along those lines. In the first instance, officials will look at what the request is. They will look at whether it can be produced at proportionate cost to what it is and make that kind of further judgment. Eventually, it will be down to Ministers to make the call.

Q8 Chair: The Minister themselves would make the decision.

David Frazer: Yes, but I will have to confirm that for you. Do you have a specific case in mind you would like us to look at?

Chair: I received a copy of it yesterday, but I cannot remember all of the details. The reason given for not providing information was the person asking it had mentioned something on a blog and therefore it was interpreted as being vexatious, so they would not supply the information.

David Frazer: That is fairly rare.

Q9 Chair: As I say, I cannot remember what the information was they were asking for, but it was statistical information.

John Shield: Certainly, my understanding of what happens is that a request comes in, officials analyse it, look at the request and go through the process David has described. Once that has happened, a recommendation is made and that is sent to Ministers as part of the wider brief on FOIs. Of course, we can check that for you to make sure that is copper bottomed and 100% accurate.

Q10 Chair: You have described the statistician’s role. They have the statistics and they have the tabulation forms-all of that. What happens next, before a Minister stands up from the Front Bench or goes on the Today programme?

John Shield: Ministers may choose to issue a commentary alongside a statistical first release. The press office is not in any way involved in producing the actual statistical publication, but it will be involved in producing a commentary that could go out as a release.

Q11 Chair: But is a statistician involved in producing the commentary?

John Shield: Yes. Press officers will sit down with statisticians and officials to discuss the content and talk about what it says, which things in it might be of public interest, and whether the data say anything new or different that the public, journalists and others would be interested in. They would then produce a first draft of that material. This would then be checked and cleared with statisticians and policy officials until everyone is satisfied that the product is a fair and appropriate one. Only once it has gone through all those stages would it then be issued.

If it is a national statistic, there are access rules about who can see the data and there would be only two press officers who would have access to the data, alongside the Minister, 24 hours in advance of publication. Again, they would just go through that same process of drafting, checking, discussing and making sure that it is a fair and appropriate assessment.

Q12 Chair: Do the statisticians in the Department feel they have the power and the confidence to challenge if they think that a set of statistics is being misinterpreted for publication?

David Frazer: We do get closely involved in a wide range of work in the Department. We are a heavily evidencebased Department, so our statisticians and other analysts do produce regular briefing for Ministers on a range of topics. Certainly, when it comes to statistical press releases, every effort is made to make sure that they are factually correct.

If there were to be instances where people working on the press releases felt that there was a serious risk of them being misleading, it would get referred up to myself and I would take it up with the Permanent Secretary and Ministers, ultimately, but, in my experience, that is pretty rare.

John Shield: From my perspective, the press office could not do its job without the support of statisticians, so it is absolutely vital that they are involved and part of the process. We would always seek to follow their advice because it is incredibly useful and we are not statisticians.

Q13 Glenda Jackson: Who comes first? Is it the press office that approaches the statisticians-say, at the behest of a Minister-saying, "How are we doing on this bit of policy?" or is it the statisticians who consistently have a kind of running brief to pass up the line the changes in statistics, be they an improvement or not, if you see what I mean?

David Frazer: We are talking about the regular release of statistics as a dual process. There is the stats press release, which is the first release that comes out, and there is a briefing that is prepared by statisticians and analysts that will highlight any key trends in the figures and talk about any changes in data, methodology, quality, or other things of that nature. It will set out that picture.

In parallel, there is usually a set of advice that goes to Ministers, which is developed in the 24 hours of the pre-release access period. This will look at the wider policy issues and give advice on what Ministers may or may not want to say on it. That second submission has the involvement of analysts as well, so we play in to make sure that that is factually correct.

Q14 Glenda Jackson: With respect-I am not arguing with it-you are presenting it as if the statistics are consistently gathered and put out there as though that is the actual stream of statistics. Surely there must be an element within that whereby Ministers or the press office have a say in where those statistics go? If there is a huge spike in unemployment, is everyone going to want to rush that out immediately?

David Frazer: In the way we work with our regular statistics, there are regular timetables. They are preannounced 28 days in advance. It is my responsibility to set the publication dates and that determines when they are released. If we look at something like the latest unemployment figures, if there were a spike, it would appear in the latest set of numbers. When it comes to what Ministers then might want to say on the basis of those statistics, that moves more to John’s side but, again, statisticians are involved in what the messages are.

Q15 Glenda Jackson: Is there always a time gap in the collection of the actual statistics? Is it "We look at this every three months; we look at that every two months"? What are the time scales?

David Frazer: There can sometimes be continuous data collection, but with a predetermined publication period. You might get an extract of data every week, but you may only publish once every month or once every three months, which is based on a judgment about user needs.

Q16 Glenda Jackson: Is that the case for all data, or does somebody prioritise which data you collect?

David Frazer: In terms of what we collect, it is for Ministers to decide which sorts of information and what sets of statistics they need. They make the judgments on what is collected. Once they have made a decision, the methods for how the statistics are produced and how they are released comes to myself, as Head of Profession.

If you take an example where we were publishing something once every three months, say, and there was a level of interest that suggested things were changing fast and we would like to see things published more frequently, a request would then come to me and it would say, "What is possible? Is it possible to do this more often? How should we do it?"

We have had examples in the Department in the past where we have produced monthly early estimates of some case load figures such as incapacity benefit for precisely that reason. We have responded to user needs. We still then do them at the set times, so that it is clear it is down to statisticians to determine how the information comes out. The reason for that is to avoid the accusation that Ministers have picked and chosen the time of the release of statistics to suit their own ends.

Q17 Glenda Jackson: But, essentially, the prioritisation of those statistics comes from Ministers.

David Frazer: Essentially, yes. However, once Ministers have set a broad set of priorities in terms of the information they would like to have in a set of statistics, managing that on a day-to-day basis-and coming up with plans for what to deliver and in what order-is down to me. Obviously, if there are difficult choices to be made, I will consult Ministers and, indeed, other users on that, and we will then act as best we can on that.

Chair: We are going to take you through the process of a couple of incidents of the Department falling foul of the UK Statistics Authority. Debbie has the first one.

Q18 Debbie Abrahams: Thank you. I want to discuss in a bit more detail, if I may, the publication of a piece in April regarding an ad hoc analysis-let me read the title so that I get it absolutely right-called "Benefits cap ‘an incentive to work’". Within this, it was said: "Officials suggested 8,000 people have found jobs while others have moved to cheaper properties". There is then a quote from the Secretary of State: "even before the cap comes in we are seeing thousands of people seeking help and moving off benefits."

That was what was stated in that press release. The UK Statistics Authority found that there was no basis for claiming that a behaviour change was related to that. In fact, as I understand it, the interpretation of the ad hoc analysis could not possibly have led to that claim. Can I ask you to take us through the process by which that article appeared, going right back to the ad hoc analysis? Who commissioned it? How was it undertaken? What was the relationship with the communications department? How did it actually end up in that piece in the papers?

David Frazer: Shall I start with the production of the statistics themselves?

Debbie Abrahams: Yes, please.

David Frazer: There were two sets of analyses. One was an estimate of the number of people we at the Department believed would be affected by the benefit cap-the number of households affected. This was an estimate originally done for an impact analysis way back in July 2012, when the cap was first announced. Between then and the start of the scheme, there were changes to the assumptions of how the scheme would actually work. The Department updated its view on how many people would be impacted by that. The information was to be put in the public domain; there was a request to get it into the public domain before the start to the benefit cap itself. As this was a one-off analysis, we will not change that view unless there are some major reviews to the scheme. There is therefore nothing to produce on a regular basis, so it is a oneoff bit of information.

Q19 Debbie Abrahams: Did you do sensitivity analysis around it? Were there confidence intervals associated with the data?

David Frazer: It was produced by analysts. It is effectively almost a costingtype estimate. I was not personally involved with the detail. It was produced using a range of data, and probably a range of assumptions on what the scheme would be. I cannot comment specifically on what was around that, but it was produced with a methodology consistent with the previous estimate. Having done it, we made it available. We did it as an ad hoc release because it was a one-off. We put notes on how the estimate was produced and that was what went in the public domain, so that people could see that there was the number and that it had been produced by departmental analysts.

Q20 Debbie Abrahams: So that is how you produced it. It would be a good idea if we checked to see what assumptions were published with that, the sensitivity analysis and, as I say, the confidence you could have on that data. Could you then take us through the process of how that ended up in the press release and the subsequent article?

John Shield: The sentence with the claim that 8,000 people affected by the cap had moved to jobs relates, specifically, not to the content of the press notice, as I understand it, but actually to an article that appeared in the Daily Mail.

Q21 Debbie Abrahams: How did they get that information? They got your release and they conjured up this 8,000 people.

David Frazer: Could I clarify? There was another release at the same time, as well. There was some management information on activity by Jobcentre Plus that was released on the same day. That was about work Jobcentre Plus has done with contacting claimants that might be potentially-

Q22 Debbie Abrahams: Sorry for interrupting, but Jobcentre Plus is part of the DWP.

David Frazer: Yes. Let me finish talking you through the process. There was some management information that was also relevant about Jobcentre Plus activity. That is why they say there are people out there they have contacted to offer help and support with the benefit cap, and 8,000 are no longer on benefit. As that was important information, it was also put into the public domain on the same day. That was out there in a similar sort of release on the numbers affected. The two bits of information were seen; they were reviewed by analysts; and they were put in the public domain on the same day.

Q23 Debbie Abrahams: So within the same Department, you issued two releases. What communication was there? Did you anticipate that these two independent statistical analyses could be conflated in the way that they were, and misinterpreted?

David Frazer: What was out there were the two independent notes prepared and assured by analysts.

Q24 Debbie Abrahams: Mr Shield, you would be responsible for the releases. Did you anticipate that two releases of this nature may have the effect that they did?

John Shield: We certainly would not have anticipated that anyone would conflate the issues. They are both important bits of public information that the Department has put out. Putting them out together on the same topic, which-

Q25 Debbie Abrahams: Can you explain the quote from the Secretary of State that related to this?

John Shield: In the context of that quote, it was in relation to an opinion piece given to the Daily Mail where the Secretary of State was stating his opinion on the statistics, and not only basing it on that, but basing on what staff had been telling him about the impact of the cap, the management information that he had been receiving and what claimants had actually said to him. That was a judgment formed by him and, as a politician, obviously he can make those judgments around what he thinks the data are saying in the context of everything else. Therefore, that is why he said what he said. Clearly, if you want to push him on why he thinks that, you can of course ask him in September, when he appears in front of you.

Q26 Debbie Abrahams: I will certainly be doing that. Did the journalists seek to clarify-this is Daily Mail journalists-with you the accuracy and reliability of the data that were being presented to them, and, particularly, the behavioural change that was being suggested by that?

John Shield: I did not have the conversations. To be absolutely clear, this was part of an article from the Secretary of State that made out that view.

Q27 Debbie Abrahams: Can I clarify? You said it was a comment piece; I was assuming it was an interview.

John Shield: No.

Q28 Debbie Abrahams: So it was a written article.

John Shield: It was a written article from the Secretary of State.

Q29 Debbie Abrahams: There was not even the potential for any error. It was a written and thought-out article.

John Shield: It was the Secretary of State’s view.

Q30 Debbie Abrahams: Would that have been written by DWP officials?

John Shield: It would have had some involvement from DWP officials, special advisors and the Secretary of State.

Q31 Debbie Abrahams: That is very useful indeed. Thank you for that.

The UKSA chair received a letter from the permanent secretary, and he was led to believe that the releases are prepared with appropriate involvement from DWP analysts. Can I clarify who these people were?

David Frazer: There are a range of analysts working in the Department. Some work directly for me and some are bedded in to policy functions, but all have what is known as a lead analyst overseeing their work. Typically, a grade 6 or above senior analyst will do that. The relevant analysts who provide advice on the benefit cap and related issues prepared the press release on the number of households impacted. The Jobcentre Plus one was prepared by the team that run the actual benefit cap programme, but that was assured by the same set of analysts who prepared the benefit cap one. They had oversight of it.

Q32 Chair: Can I just be clear on something? Is there no one checking the written articles of the Secretary of State from a statistician’s point of view, and actually saying, "Secretary of State, if you look at the little footnote on these statistics"-which there was, in the published statistics-"it says that you cannot interpret this as saying that 8,000 people have gone into work as a result of these statistics." Is nobody pointing that out before the Secretary of State gets a bit embarrassed?

John Shield: Press notices, Q&As and speeches, and, indeed, sometimes articles, go through that process. However, if a Minister is doing an opinion piece that is about their reflections and views on how policy is working and performing, sometimes they will be produced without press office involvement. Sometimes they will author them themselves; sometimes they will be produced by special advisors; sometimes they will be produced partly by us, partly by advisors, and partly by Ministers. In this instance, it did involve the press office-I will say that quite clearly. I am trying to be clear-I am not talking about this case-that not everything that comes out of the Department will go through us, because Ministers give interviews and author some things themselves, particularly when there are political elements.

Chair: I can understand that. I am just trying to find out where the responsibility lies in terms of that kind of checking but, clearly, before the Secretary of State makes these kind of comments, there should be a checking mechanism in his own office, saying, "Actually, if you say this, it might lead to you being misleading or being left embarrassed," which is the problem more than anything.

We have another example that Sheila Gilmore picked up as well.

Q33 Sheila Gilmore: This is an article that appeared in The Sunday Telegraph originally and was then repeated in a number of other newspapers; certainly, it was in the Daily Mail. It was attributed to the chairman of the Conservative party, rather than the Department, but stated that he was basing it on departmental statistics. This was a conflation. The headline says that nearly a million people dropped their ESA claims and did not attend their assessment when faced with one. The implication is that these were people who had been on IB for a long time but had panicked at the thought of having an assessment and had given up their claim. Actually, the figure was correct, but the figure was for the entire period since ESA came in for new claimants. It was a fiveyear rolling total of new claimants. The actual figure of people who did not go for an assessment in the first phase of migration was something like 19,000, so this made quite a big difference. Would that kind of statement ever be looked at, or is it seen as completely political?

John Shield: This is really simple. I knew you would ask, so I have checked with the press office. In no way, shape or form was anyone involved in the production of this. They were not, and I have been assured that this is purely a piece of party output. One of the virtues or vices-depending on how you want to interpret it-of publishing a lot of data and making it available on our website for anyone to use is that people go and look at that and form their own judgments and interpretations, and then they can put out their own material. However, no one in the press office or in communications had any role in that; it is a party matter.

Q34 Sheila Gilmore: When that sort of thing appears, is there any role for the DWP press office to issue a statement to say, "Actually, this is not right"? The story ran for quite some time before it was corrected. It was corrected only because I went to both the Press Complaints Commission and the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) with a complaint. As far as I know-and I might be wrong-nobody from the DWP said, "Actually, that is two sets of figures muddled up".

John Shield: I have always taken the view, and press officers do, that we should stay away from the politics of these matters. This is precisely why you have organisations like the Statistics Authority and others that can hold, as relevant, politicians and others to account. I certainly have not seen it as my role or that of press officers to mediate or otherwise alter the content of political party releases.

Q35 Sheila Gilmore: It is good that there are so many statistics, although there are never enough, because there are always questions we want to ask that are not in the published statistics. However, on that basis, these go out to all sorts of people, as you say, in the public domain and can be used by anyone. We know that there is a significant difference between new claimants and the migration. They are published separately.

John Shield: This is an incredibly difficult issue, is it not? I understand why you are asking it, so I will not question this, but you are effectively asking a civil servant at what point should they intervene or not in a release put out by a political party. That is an incredibly difficult judgment for me to make. I have always found it best to stay away from that world. It is for other political parties and the Statistics Authority to-

Q36 Debbie Abrahams: But then the damage is done. I am sorry for interrupting. I understand the difficulties, but the damage is done. When it goes out, it sticks. This is the first impression and, unless it is corrected by officials, it is lauded as being accurate.

John Shield: If you are saying you think these things should be done in a different way and there should be roles for statisticians or others to comment on the output of political parties, that is, of course, absolutely for you to recommend. I have been operating under the conventions of the way people have done my job over many years. It is an incredibly difficult area.

Debbie Abrahams: I recognise that.

John Shield: I totally recognise what you say, but it is quite hard for me.

Debbie Abrahams: People do not see the difference; it will be seen as information being published in the role of Secretary of State.

Q37 Jane Ellison: Chair, I am not sure that that is quite true. If somebody is the chairman of the Conservative party, it puts it very firmly in a party political context. I was going to ask whether you operated the same policy under different Governments of different shades.

John Shield: Correct.

Q38 Jane Ellison: You take that view that you cannot intervene when it is clearly partypolitical knockabout.

John Shield: That has been the position.

Q39 Chair: Clearly, statistics have been used in a way that is not appropriate. Is this happening more now than it did in the past?

David Frazer: In recent years, if you look on the UKSA website, there is more correspondence. There is more happening around that. In the DWP, for example, there is a lot more going on in terms of programmes, so there are a lot more new statistics appearing and there are a lot more people commenting on these kinds of things.

Debbie Abrahams: The Department is only 12 years old.

John Shield: It is certainly the case that Government have never put more data out into the public domain than they do now. Ordinarily, that is a good thing. However, when you put more data out, of course, people interrogate it, make their own conclusions and make their own statements. On the whole, that is probably a good thing, because it contributes to a debate and people can debate figures. However, as you will know, we are also in an environment where more and more data and more and more of what people say is contested, particularly on something like the DWP’s policy.

Q40 Jane Ellison: Could I just follow up on that? I take your point completely about the press release by the chairman of the Conservative party but, presumably, the same thing reads across to everyone who uses statistics. Have you ever seen anything by, for example, a disability rights group or a charity where you have thought, "I am not convinced they have interpreted those statistics in a way I would be comfortable with," but have taken the same view that it is for others to correct them? What would the view there be?

John Shield: If it is not overtly political, so if it not the output of a political party, we would ordinarily attempt to set out the picture and the position. Sometimes we are successful and people listen; other times, they do not, for their own motives.

Q41 Jane Ellison: But presumably the same thing applies: it is out there, as Debbie was saying. If someone puts statistics out there, perhaps to make or reinforce a particular point that has a political impact, there is a limit to what you can do.

John Shield: Correct; it is very difficult territory for a civil servant to know when to intervene and when not to intervene. There are others who can intervene politically, however, on all sides, and of course you do have a regulator sitting in the centre, who has shown that they are quite active in holding people to account.

David Frazer: Something we do on the stats side is to look at presentation of the first releases and the data sets, and ask ourselves the question, "Is there anything we can do to prevent others from coming to similar sorts of interpretations?" Certainly, for the work capability assessment report, we were looking at what other notes and guidance we could provide. We will be looking to flag up some of the advice, as was said, about what you can and cannot interpret about people who have left benefit before medical tests, and we will see if we can make that more prominent.

Chair: Could I ask you to speak up a bit? I am getting a bit old and a bit hard of hearing.

John Shield: He is quiet, but it is always worth hearing what he has to say.

David Frazer: Would you like me to say that again?

Chair: I was beginning to lose it as your voice was dropping towards the end. I cannot remember what you were saying; please do say it again.

David Frazer: We always look to see whether there is anything in the statistics publications that we could improve to reduce the risk of anybody misinterpreting it or arriving at improper conclusions. There is advice about numbers of people, like with those who go off benefit before they hit the assessment. We will look at how we can make that more prominent. Can we flag it more clearly in all the tables? We do try and learn those lessons and react to them.

Q42 Chair: Sometimes it must be the context. That, often, is not published alongside your statistics. Take the example of people who dropped their claim before they underwent the assessment for the benefit, if it is ESA. To contextualise this correctly, you would have to explain that many of these people will have dropped their claim because they went back to work and were only putting in a claim for ESA because it is all they can claim for, if they have been off work, once their statutory sick pay runs out. I am not aware that that kind of detailed explanation accompanies statistical releases. That would actually help to make people understand exactly where these numbers are coming from and who the people are to whom they apply.

David Frazer: Absolutely. This first release does contain some information. It refers to research that has looked at that. Research suggests that a lot of the reasons why many of these people come off benefit before they do the assessment are either that they have got fit and returned to work, or that they have gone to another benefit. That was available, but the question we have been asking ourselves is, "Was it prominent enough? Was it easy for people to spot?" We have been looking at what we can do in the first release and other things so that it is much more upfront for people to see.

Q43 Chair: Can I ask how often journalists phone you to check that their interpretation of the statistics is correct? Very often, they will phone us to do the interpretation. We do it from a politically biased point of view, as you would expect, so they are not getting the unvarnished explanation very often.

John Shield: Could I say a few things on this? We can check that. Forgive me for not having one, as we are talking about statistics, but I do not think we have a precise figure for the number of calls we get on this. However, the press office will typically get 100 calls a week. When there is an issue we know has a huge statistical element, alongside all the preparation that we have talked about, we will ask a statistician to come and sit down in the press office to be on hand to help with any complex questions or interpretations. It does not matter how much you prepare: a journalist will always come along with something you had not previously conceived of. We find that incredibly useful.

One of the things we could do more of is to do briefings directly for journalists with analysts and statisticians. We have done that on labour market statistics and, certainly, the first time we put out the Work Programme data, that is probably something we can do more of. We certainly do try to facilitate access, and we continually draw on David and his people’s expertise to make sure that we get things right.

Q44 Chair: You must now have pretty good idea of which ones in welfare are going to be controversial.

John Shield: Yes. There are always ones that will surprise you but, normally, yes. Because there is a preannouncement process for statistics, the world knows when they are coming. From this, you can often get a sense of whether there is going to be interest. We know the topics that continually excite journalists and others, and you do as well-they are all the ones you would expect them to be.

Q45 Glenda Jackson: Thank you for your answers to date.

Essentially, you would agree, would you not, that there have been recent problems? We have already touched on some of those. These difficulties have not arisen from the actual production of the stats-you are a welloiled machine for finding them, I would imagine, in the Department-but rather from the way they are released to the public and the DWP commentary on them. I will come right out: how often does a Minister come to you and say, "I want to put this story out; have we got any stats to support it?" as opposed to you going to them and saying, "These are the stats; do you want to dress it up with a story?" You would use much more diplomatic language than that, but you see what I mean. Which comes first, essentially?

David Frazer: For statisticians, when we do the regular releases is when we will highlight the key things that will be there. We do that approach by the first release. That is when statisticians are proactive in what is said. Thereafter, it very much depends on what Ministers and Departments want to do. Perhaps, John, you could talk about how you go about that.

John Shield: There are times when Ministers will request information. There are, indeed, times when the press office is actually requesting statistics, particularly if we want regional information to tell the story about how policies are landing locally. There are occasions when that happens. I do not think that there is anything wrong in asking for statistics. Where they are used, the important thing is that they are released in an open and transparent way, with all of the work that David’s people do to ensure that they are produced to high quality and that what is said about them is entirely appropriate.

Q46 Glenda Jackson: I do not know what you mean by "entirely appropriate". I am not saying to you, and I am certainly not saying to David, that I think he manipulates the stats, even though we all know the old cliché of lies, damned lies and statistics. What I am trying to dig through to is that we are talking about a series of policies that are bringing about the most fundamental changes in the benefit system this country has ever seen. Obviously, it is the duty and responsibility of Ministers and the Department to sell that to the country. Looking at it from a completely non-political view, they have been very successful in that. I could argue, and I would, that this is because-I do not mean the statisticians and I am not accusing the press office-statistics have been deliberately placed in certain ways so that the Minister’s story plays and is positive. Debbie has already given the example from the letter the TUC wrote over the ad hoc figures that were put out. I am trying to find out which comes first, really.

John Shield: I would not quite categorise it in that way. What you have is a preestablished set of statistics that the Department puts out on a regular basis that everyone expects: the Work Programme, labour market statistics and so on. You have ad hoc statistics where, particularly if a policy is new and there is no preestablished way of doing it, Ministers or journalists or people will have asked, or tabled PQs, and people will ask information about data and then statistics will be produced. As I said, sometimes the press office asks for that sort of data as well. What we then do is produce the commentary. That commentary is agreed with statisticians and analysts to make sure that what is being said is appropriate-that is what I mean by "appropriate"-and in line with what the statistics are telling you. That is what we do; that is the process we follow.

Q47 Glenda Jackson: There is a clear difference for you. If I go back to your response to the letter to which Debbie referred, it was something that the chairman of the Conservative party had done, so it was overtly and completely party political. It had nothing to do with anything in the Department.

John Shield: Yes, that is correct.

Q48 Glenda Jackson: If it is a story that a Minister in the Department wants to put out, though, would you cross-refer not only the statistics, but their use of those statistics to ensure they were correct?

John Shield: Yes. If this is data published by the Department as an official statistic or an ad hoc statistic, it would go through all the processes that David has described, and the commentary that would go with it would go through those processes.

Q49 Glenda Jackson: That is the issue. What is the most important there? Is it the selection of the really good statistics within the context of the story the Minister wants to put out there, or is it the way other way round? Somebody could rush up to a Minister and say, "Have you seen the latest statistics? Do you want to put something out about it?"

John Shield: If there was a situation where a Minister or a press officer had selected a statistic which, without appropriate context, actually suggested something that it would not otherwise suggest in the rest of the context, it is David’s people’s job to say, "Hang on. You cannot say it in that way; you are not providing the appropriate caveats." We would listen to David’s people.

Q50 Glenda Jackson: You do say that.

John Shield: Yes. I can assure you that he does.

Q51 Glenda Jackson: Do Ministers listen?

David Frazer: They do, yes.

Q52 Chair: Has there been a time when you have said to a Minister or to the press office, "You cannot say that; it is not correct," and they have still published it anyway? Does that happen?

John Shield: I do not think it does happen. I am struggling to think of an instance where we have put something out from the Department that is heavily contested or disputed.

Q53 Glenda Jackson: My very next question follows, rather beautifully, on from that. How often are statistical releases issued subsequent to press comments from Ministers or DWP press officers-you are in the hot seat now-to support what they have said?

David Frazer: That process is, by and large, demandled. If the Minister wants to say something in reference to statistics that are not already in the public domain, what the ad hoc process is then about is making sure that information is accessible for everybody. We will normally aim to have that independent analytical note out before the Minister actually makes a statement. There have probably been some occasions when that has not been possible. It might have been providing information to Select Committees or something of that nature, and we have done that shortly afterwards but, typically, we do get that out before.

The Minister is free to say what he says and, obviously, we will give him advice on how he might frame whatever he says, but there is always an independent analytical note that has been prepared by analysts.

Q54 Glenda Jackson: He is free to say what he says, but he is not free to invent the statistics, is he? That is the hard and fast rule, is it not? They have to be accurate; they have to be correct.

David Frazer: The source statistics, which they may include in speeches, will be in the ad hoc release. That is its purpose: so everybody can see it. He may then go on to say things based on those statistics. Obviously, we will advise him on the statements he makes, but the idea is to have the information out there so that anybody can look at that information and form a-

Q55 Glenda Jackson: Is that before he or she stands up and makes the speech?

David Frazer: Typically, it is probably at the same time. What we are aiming for is to have the vast majority of what we produce in our regular outputs. If there is something there that is likely to be needed on a regular basis, or in which there is going to be outside interest, what we actually do is add it to the regular list. I go back to the 8,000 information from Jobcentre Plus on people they have helped into work. We have regularised the release of that information; it is now published through that process every month at a preset time announced in advance, with that process now controlled by statisticians. Broadly, this is how it works. If there is ongoing information, we normally put it into that standard pack

Q56 Glenda Jackson: I was interested that John mentioned the regional requests, and I was going to ask about that at some point. What kind of regional request do you receive for information? It all seems to come out of Westminster at the moment. There must be regional variations. Presumably, there are statistical variations as far as the regions are concerned. I am still trying to dig down into this. Which, essentially, comes first: the statistics that you collect all the time and which go out there generally-whether people want them or not, they are available to them-or the highlighting of certain statistics to validate a Minister’s story?

Let me put it into words for you. We have seen a whole novel develop around the definition of people who are on benefits, as in whether they are workers or shirkers. Speak to a Minister and they say, "We never use those words," but they are out there. It is the statistical equivalent of how, essentially, that is used to validate a political policy. There is nothing wrong in that-it is what all Governments do-but I am trying to work out what the balance is.

John Shield: It is certainly the case that Ministers in the Department use statistics, but fairly and appropriately, to illustrate how policy is being delivered.

Q57 Glenda Jackson: Would you care to give us an example? I am sure we have examples of where we regard it as being inappropriate.

John Shield: If you look at something like the New Enterprise Allowance, we sought regional data on that, precisely because we thought it would be useful to be able to tell regional stories and case studies to the local media to talk about how the Government are helping to get people into work. That is a fairly simple example of the sort of request and data being used to deliver that.

Q58 Glenda Jackson: It was actually presented to the public as a percentage of people who had been found fit for work. It was quite a different slant on the actual statistics, was it not?

John Shield: I was talking about the New Enterprise Allowance. We are probably talking about different policy areas.

Q59 Glenda Jackson: Are we? Perhaps we are, but the point I am making is that something was put out regarding this, but the interpretation that was politically put upon it bore no relation to the actual statistics

John Shield: In terms of what politicians’ motivations are, that is best answered by politicians. In terms of our processes, what we have done is to try to assure you that we are very diligent in terms of: first, how all the data are collected; secondly, how that is published; and, thirdly, when the Department’s press office is commenting on that, that it is done in a way in which statisticians have ensured that what is being said is an appropriate reflection of what the statistics say.

Q60 Glenda Jackson: Who signs off on this, essentially?

John Shield: Ultimately, any sort of press notice will be signed off by the Minister. That is the case. When we put out press notices, they will always-I am trying to think of an example when they have not-include a ministerial quote, and that final product will always have been signed off.

Q61 Chair: The Minister will not have access to the original statistics; they do not have time to look at the original statistics. Is it really the special advisors, effectively, who are saying, "Sign this, Minister. We are putting this out, Minister"?

John Shield: Ministers have to be accountable for what they actually sign off in their name. In my experience, they are quite diligent in doing that. I say that quite genuinely.

Q62 Chair: A Public Administration Select Committee report said that press releases accompanying Government statistics sometimes go too far to create a newsworthy story, rather than providing a true and accurate picture. Do you agree with that?

David Frazer: Are statisticians a bit too cautious in how they present numbers? Do they drive down to some limited things that sometimes did not tell the full story? As far as the DWP is concerned, we have some long-standing established first releases that cover the main benefits that have been out there for a long time. We have not really received adverse comments that they are not giving the media enough information.

In terms of developing them, whilst it is done by statisticians, we do a lot of work with other analysts in other Departments. We do a lot to try to understand the policy context. Are there changes to policies that would be affecting the numbers that we might expect? We try to reflect those in there.

Q63 Chair: That still does not answer my question. Is it the desire for a newsworthy story that overrides all of the considerations that you have made?

David Frazer: As statisticians, we are looking to put out a balanced picture, highlight key trends and help people understand the information.

Q64 Chair: I appreciate that that is how it is from your point of view. I am asking for your opinion about what you do, and how that gets translated into the press release that then goes out.

David Frazer: I am talking about the first releases, which is what the statisticians put out. We try to be fair and careful about what we present. We have spent a lot of time and effort-

Q65 Chair: I do not think we have any problem with press releases that emanate directly from you; it is once they have gone through the mill of the Department.

John Shield: Could I try to draw a distinction? Unless I have misread that report, it was actually talking about the statistical first releases that are produced by statisticians, and what goes into those. That is certainly how I read it, though I could be wrong. There is a separate question you might be asking about the commentary.

Q66 Chair: They also commented that Government statistics are often used to justify particular policy and a particular portioning of resources. It recommended that Departments do more to ensure that statistics are presented in a fair and accurate way, and that they are un-spun. We are not suggesting that you do the spinning; we are just trying to find out who does the spinning. If the spinning has become out of control or the spinning spins something that really is not recognisable to you as statisticians, who alerts either the Minister or the special advisor (SPAd) that, actually, putting something out in that form, or using statistics in that particular way, could lead to embarrassment if anybody was to challenge them?

John Shield: There is a process that we go through, which I described at the beginning, where we will actually work with statisticians and analysts to ensure that what we say is appropriate, balanced and all the rest of it that I have described. It is that process that determines and makes sure that we get right what we do.

In terms of that report, one of the things it was particularly recommending in relation to this is that press officers and statisticians work more closely to ensure that all that is right. That is something the Department actually does quite well.

Q67 Chair: It always seems to be disability benefits that cause the most controversy. There were some examples where the press release was clearly spun, but the Department had its knuckles rapped for that quite early on in this Parliament. The press releases that then came out were quite bland. Surprisingly, however, all the tabloids managed to interpret the figures in exactly the same way, which is not the way in which anybody looking at the statistics would have interpreted the figures. Can you explain how it is that the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Sun and some of the other tabloids end up interpreting a group of statistics in a particular way that perhaps the broadsheets and anyone else looking at the statistics would not have done? How does that happen?

John Shield: This case was probably before my time at the Department. I was not here at that particular period, so I do not know the detail of that. Certainly, however, press officers work within the confines of the press notice, the Q&A and the statistical advice that they get, as I have said, through embedding statisticians in the press office. That is how we brief the information. Of course, we will also do broadcast interviews where Ministers will give their commentary on air. They will also give interviews, and they will give their views and judgments on the policy.

Q68 Glenda Jackson: Usually the press release to the press goes out before then. There may be an embargo that it is not to be used before one o’clock on a Sunday morning, for example. With the example the Chair has given, where all of those newspapers ran exactly the same stories, presumably that did come out of the press office.

John Shield: Sorry; I do not know the case you are referring to. If the story is based on statistics, and they are national statistics, for example, we would not brief anyone in advance, because we are not permitted to do so. There are quite strict rules.

Q69 Chair: Would the departmental SpAd do that?

John Shield: A SpAd could not do that either. No one is permitted, including Ministers, to brief the content of national statistics ahead of their publication.

Q70 Chair: What happens if it is an ad hoc statistic, rather than a national statistic?

John Shield: David is a better expert on that than myself. Not all the same rules apply. Professional judgement can be made in terms of ad hoc statistics. Certainly, however, the principle we employ is that we aim to publish those at 9.30. It is at that point that the commentary and the comment from the Department and Ministers come.

Q71 Chair: It might have been before your time, but the Daily Express had a headline saying that 93% of people on the sick-I think that was the phrase used-are perfectly capable of working. That was, roughly, the headline. Of course, to get that figure they were not talking about people who were on incapacity benefit; they were talking about the statistics for new claims for ESA, where only 7% ended up in the support group, which is where they got the 93% from.

John Shield: When was this from?

Chair: This was in 2011. That was the most extreme one, but the other tabloids also had very large percentages. Not only were they getting the actual statistics wrong, but they were conflating two different types of benefit claimants.

John Shield: I say this genuinely: I am afraid this predates me, so I cannot illuminate the circumstances of it. What I can say to you, however, is that we are very diligent in applying the rules that David has described.

Q72 Chair: Are you saying that this kind of headline would not come out now?

John Shield: I cannot control what newspapers do or do not do, or how they write stories. My job would be much easier if I could, but I cannot. They have their own journalists.

Chair: I was going to ask why not, but I will not.

John Shield: They are capable of finding stories. They put in FOIs; they write their stories, and they have their editorial perspective. That is the way it has always been.

Q73 Jane Ellison: Do journalists ever ring up to check their interpretations?

John Shield: They do, though not always. There are examples where journalists will call us and we will talk them though something and say, "Actually, that is the wrong sort of interpretation." We will involve David’s people in ensuring that we get the right sort of take on that. Sometimes a story will appear and we are just as surprised as everyone else, because the journalist will not have approached us-it does happen.

Q74 Jane Ellison: If you saw a particular story where you thought, "Gosh, that is way off the mark," would you ever, if that journalist came back to you in relation to a different story, say, "By the way-"?

John Shield: As a matter of routine, we will write to newspapers when we think they have printed something substantively wrong. We certainly have a huge amount of engagement with the BBC and Channel 4, where we think they are getting things wrong. It is a constant dialogue, if I am honest.

Q75 Glenda Jackson: They are publically funded; the newspapers are not.

John Shield: Regardless of the funding stream of the media outlet, we will always attempt to ensure that, if they come to us or we see something, we will engage them where we can.

Q76 Glenda Jackson: Behind my intervention was that they will be much more ready to listen to criticism, because of that public service ethos, than Fleet Street, even though it is Canary Wharf these days.

John Shield: You would like to think so, but that is not always borne out by experience, I have to say.

Glenda Jackson: It is a hard life in the press office.

Q77 Jane Ellison: Could we move on to the relationship between the Department and UKSA? In particular, picking up on some of the points you made in written evidence about how you have responded to some of its criticisms, you indicated that you adapted some procedures and put different processes in place. Can you talk us through the relationship with UKSA and how you responded to points it has made in recent months?

David Frazer: Yes, certainly. In my position as Head of Profession, I do have a dotted line to the National Statistician, who is part of the UK Statistics Authority. She is responsible for working with Government statisticians right across Government on that. We will have quite regular dialogue with the National Statistician. If there is any issue the UK Statistics Authority wants to look at, she will call me up and we will have a conversation about it.

Clearly, in some of that correspondence, we had some areas where some of the processes did not work exactly as they should do. What I do then is investigate whether there are substantive things that we can do. We were talking about one case where there were quotes about a set of figures on child support that looked as if they were quoting figures that were yet unpublished. They were not; they were referring to figures in the public domain. It goes back to having statisticians assure every press release that gets out there. For some reason, that did get a breakdown. I look at whether there are things we can do to strengthen the process. We have done things like work with John’s people. After that case, we did seminars for press officers around the code of practice.

Q78 Jane Ellison: Is this what you referred to in the evidence as educating?

David Frazer: Yes, that is right. That actually involved members of the National Statistician’s team from the UK Statistics Authority. It was not just about processes, but about why they matter. It was kind of an awareness piece. Obviously, I do a lot of work with lead analysts to assure a lot of the information John is talking about. We have issues like that arise; I highlight these things to the lead analysts in weekly meetings. There is guidance on this anyway, but I will maybe pick out the key points in the guidance and summarise them for them again. We will do things like awareness sessions for analysts more at the working level.

Q79 Jane Ellison: In terms of the turn-key processes on that, if a statistician said to a press officer, "I cannot sign that off. That is pushing an interpretation too far," who has the final call? Is it either of those two, or is it a Minister?

David Frazer: It comes up. Ultimately, it would come to me to get involved in that. I would then have that conversation with the Permanent Secretary or the Minister around that.

Q80 Jane Ellison: You would get involved and essentially try to broker an acceptable outcome.

David Frazer: I have a deputy, and his day job is to look after all this. There are other people around it. We try to do more of this by bedding it into our daytoday procedures so that people who look at policies and help to prepare press releases, along with press officers, understand it as well. However, if there is something that is more difficult and the Minister or his office cannot quite understand it, they might say, "Why can I not have this number now?" and I will then get involved, if need be, around it.

John Shield: As an additional thing, all the press officers in the Department are going to go on a statistics course over the summer to raise their understanding and insight-I am very popular for enacting this measure. Nevertheless, it is an important thing to help to enhance understanding. I say this genuinely: we do have a really strong relationship with David’s people and we do value their advice, but having that additional understanding would be incredibly useful.

Q81 Jane Ellison: Is this one of the responses to the UK Statistics Authority’s findings, essentially?

John Shield: We have not said that to the Statistics Authority, but it is something that would be incredibly helpful, which is why we are instigating it.

Q82 Jane Ellison: Has anything else been instigated to deal with any kind of weaknesses or criticism that has been made of you by the Statistics Authority?

David Frazer: I have been discussing with the National Statistician. We have talked about ad hoc releases. There are always debates in terms of how much of the code do you apply, in terms of how long you preannounce. If something is needed for a debate by this Committee, telling you that you could not have it for 28 days would not be popular or, indeed, appropriate. You then get to aspects of the code regarding exactly how much detail, background, commentary and advice you include, and what is appropriate to do there. That is not completely clear. It is an issue for all Government Departments, not only the DWP.

What I have agreed with the National Statistician that we will do is that we will look at a range of examples where the DWP has used this process; we will work and have a look at the code and say that we think it is reasonable; and, when we have completed that, we will have that conversation with the UK Statistics Authority. It is not an attempt to get an absolutely definitive set of rules, because a lot of the code is about interpretation. We will build up best practice on what to do, which should hopefully be useful to the rest of Government. That Public Administration Select Committee report commented on this issue, and it recommended that the UKSA should look at possibly some standards. This will not be the be all and end all, but hopefully it will be a useful input that will help not only DWP, but other Departments.

Q83 Jane Ellison: Has that come out of the correspondence between the Permanent Secretary and UKSA?

David Frazer: Yes. We talked to the Statistics Authority about how we could improve some of our press releases and ad hoc releases.

Q84 Jane Ellison: We touched on it a bit earlier, but what processes are in place for publishing corrections? In what circumstances would you publish corrections in terms of statistics that you believe have been presented inaccurately or incompletely?

John Shield: So not where we have something wrong in terms of the actual statistics, but where others-

Jane Ellison: You have probably dealt with the issue about how you react to other people, previously, in terms of whether you identify them as an overtly political group but, essentially, I am talking about if they are your own statistics.

David Frazer: If it is about the statistical releases themselves, there are revisions policies, which are available on the website. They basically look at how important and how high profile the error is. If it is major and it affects a whole headline series, in absolutely extreme cases we might suspend the series. If it is that a small bit of analysis was wrong in a table, we would probably draw people’s attention to it and correct it the next time we publish it. Its range depends on what it is, but if you look on the website, there is a revisions policy, and it sets out how we do that-so that it is transparent.

Q85 Jane Ellison: Outside the Department’s own statistics, have you ever issued corrections on anybody else’s use of your statistics?

David Frazer: We ourselves would not issue a correction per se. We might talk to organisations and point out what it is, maybe, that they have got wrong. It would then be down to them as to whether they wanted to issue something.

John Shield: We have certainly had lots of dialogue with journalists about how you calculate the performance of the Work Programme and that you cannot make this 3.5% calculation. There is certainly plenty of activity around issues like that.

Q86 Teresa Pearce: Earlier on, you said that, without statisticians, the press office could not do its job. What do you understand the press office’s job to be?

John Shield: The press office’s job is to explain Government policy, and also to respond to questions that are put to it about Government policy. Clearly, some of the key questions and issues that come up in that are whether policies are working, and whether they are meeting targets or expectations? The data that Mr Frazer’s people produce are an important part of that.

Q87 Teresa Pearce: You mentioned earlier that they do not, as a rule, brief newspapers and journalists. How can they explain statistics? I was unclear about that.

John Shield: What I have said is that we have done briefings with statisticians and analysts on things like labour market statistics, or the first time we put out Work Programme statistics. I have said this before-apologies. At moments where we have a major issue that will excite lots of interest in the statistics, we will request that one of David’s people comes and sits down with us. If it gets to the point where we are struggling to explain it adequately, we will get the statistician or analyst to explain it.

Q88 Teresa Pearce: When the press office that works within your remit puts the statistics out, they put them out with a narrative when they pressrelease it.

John Shield: There is more than one release. There will be the statistical release, which is what David’s people-

Teresa Pearce: Yes, but the press release will go with the narrative.

John Shield: Yes.

Q89 Teresa Pearce: Earlier, you said that there will obviously be political releases, which are different, and political statements to the press, or articles. However, for what comes out of your office, there will be a narrative for the statistics.

John Shield: Yes, a commentary.

Q90 Teresa Pearce: When it is picked up in the newspapers and they do run with it in a way that is not wholly accurate, you said with TV stations you will send rebuttals. Do you do that with the newspapers?

John Shield: Yes, we do indeed.

Q91 Teresa Pearce: Do you ever become quite heavy-handed with particular journalists?

John Shield: I do not know if we would be breaching confidences. It is certainly the case that journalists come in all shapes and sizes; they treat press officers in different ways. There are certainly occasions when we need to be quite robust in our position when dealing with journalists. That is the nature of the dialogue that happens between press officers and journalists. Doing your job, you will have been on the end of some of that at various points.

Q92 Teresa Pearce: Yes, certainly.

Some of this has been touched on, anyway, but I would like to move on to the quality and accessibility of statistics. There is an improvement in the availability of the statistics but, clearly, unless you understand them, it is just numbers. There has been criticism that there are vast quantities of statistics available, but they lack transparency and they are not user-friendly. Are you taking any steps actually to make them more useful or easily understood?

David Frazer: As you say, we do a lot on accessibility. I mentioned before that it is the first release where you will find narrative, advice and guidance. That is why we always try to make sure we can tell the stories around it. There are these electronic methods where people can get their own statistics, and we just introduced some new software called StatXplore, which lets people do a lot of visualisations, so charts and graphs, which you can drop into your own document. We are trying to improve what people can get at.

We are also conscious that that is an ongoing challenge. The world is getting quite complicated, and the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has made one of its drives that it would like statisticians to do more to explain statistics. The National Statistician has a good-practice team that specialises in helping departmental statisticians to explain statistics more clearly. We have been working with it.

Q93 Teresa Pearce: When you are compiling these statistics and making them available, who is your audience in your head? Who are you thinking of? Is it other statisticians, civil servants, politicians, or everybody?

David Frazer: It is for everybody.

Q94 Teresa Pearce: That includes the general public.

David Frazer: Yes, absolutely. That is what we are pitching for: to make them as accessible as possible.

Q95 Teresa Pearce: There has been a consolidation of all the Government departmental websites into gov.uk. Is that a plus or a minus?

David Frazer: It is a plus, actually, because it is standardising the formats in which people get this stuff. It is in one place; you can start to search for things in the right way and see things on related topics.

Q96 Teresa Pearce: You think it has actually made it easier to access.

David Frazer: It will help. There are always challenges, because people, when they think about searching for information, will think in different ways. However, it is a good start. I am sure more can be done to improve it but, rather than having to go to lots of different Government websites and do it yourself, it is a big step forward.

Q97 Teresa Pearce: As an aside, Jane asked earlier about whether journalists ever rang you up to check things. A friend of mine, who has been a journalist on Fleet Street and a broadcaster for a very long time, would call that the phone call too far. What he does not want is for the story to fall down. It would be the phone call too far.

You can use statistics in any way. The way in which some statistics have been used to prove a narrative is a great concern to this Committee. From what you said earlier, Mr Shield, you are saying that you put information out there and you cannot really be held accountable for how people use it. However, it is interesting to hear that you do rebut when people do twist facts.

John Shield: An important thing to say is that we put every effort into putting information out that is fair, and into providing information about how the Government are doing on the delivery of their policies. What I cannot control, ultimately, is how that appears in every single newspaper. Clearly, however, when we have disagreements with any media outlet, we will pursue that, and do so rigorously.

Teresa Pearce: I do realise it is very difficult. As Members of Parliament, virtually everything about everything we ever do is misrepresented in the press. It is something that we understand is quite difficult, but it is encouraging to hear you say that you do try and rebut it. That is important.

Q98 Chair: Rebuttal can be difficult. Do DWP statisticians feel that they can act independently, and that they have the freedom to act independently?

David Frazer: Yes-that is the straightforward answer. All those first releases are ultimately down to my responsibility. It is all down to statisticians as to what the contents are.

Q99 Chair: To whom do they feel professionally accountable?

David Frazer: Statisticians are ultimately accountable to me, as Head of Profession. That is my role as the senior advisor.

Q100 Chair: The ones in the DWP are accountable to you. Who are you accountable to?

David Frazer: I have two lines, really. I have a dotted line to the National Statistician. If I felt there was something inappropriate in the Department, I have that outlet, and I could go to her. I have never actually done it, but it is there and it is available. Beyond that, as a civil servant, I am accountable up to the Permanent Secretary. The way the Head of Profession works, if there were perhaps any concerns, is that the Permanent Secretary would be my first port of call for anything significant. We would seek to resolve it with him before we might need to resort to the National Statistician.

Q101 Chair: Who are you accountable to, Mr Shield?

John Shield: I am accountable to the Permanent Secretary, ultimately.

Q102 Chair: Rather than to Ministers. You are accountable to the Permanent Secretary, as a civil servant.

John Shield: Yes, I am a civil servant.

Q103 Chair: Who is the press office accountable to?

John Shield: It is accountable to me.

Q104 Chair: To you directly?

John Shield: Yes.

Q105 Chair: So do you check everything that goes out from the Department?

John Shield: No, and it would be impossible for me to do so. However, what we do have are the processes I described. We have a head of news running the press office on a daytoday basis, and they have desk instructions for how they do their job.

Q106 Chair: Do you feel that you are able-or people doing your role, if you are unable to do it-to have the independence to say, "No, that is not going out in the Department’s name"?

John Shield: In the face of Ministers?

Chair: Yes.

John Shield: I do not think that situation has actually arisen. If a Minister wanted to say something, they are perfectly able to pick up the phone and talk to whoever they want to, if they have a particular need.

Q107 Chair: Do they do that? Is that how some of this happens?

John Shield: I am not implying that; I am just saying. The reality is that I do not think I have ever witnessed a situation where a press officer has been put in a situation where they have been asked to do something that they should not be doing, or that was inappropriate or wrong. It is not something I have ever seen.

Q108 Chair: Can the Department’s statisticians have direct access to the Minister, or do they have to come through you?

John Shield: They certainly do not have to come through me. There are many exciting and indepth meetings of which I am not a part involving statisticians and Ministers.

David Frazer: It quite routinely happens that analysts at particular levels will get involved in meetings with Ministers because, often, they want to hear first-hand advice on the interpretation of figures and things of that nature.

Chair: I think I have exhausted my colleagues, and I think we have exhausted our questions. Could I thank you very much for coming along this afternoon? I am not sure if we have quite got to grips with where all of this stuff comes from, and that has been the difficulty for us. Things appear in the newspapers, and everybody puts up their hands and says, "This is nothing to do with us." However, it must come from somewhere. Teresa is suggesting that journalists will very often not check, because their story might not stand up. There may be some more responsibility on them to make sure it is accurate. Anyway, thank you very much for your time. We really do appreciate it.

Prepared 18th November 2013