Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. You are talking about when the committee was in place. I am asking about this transitional period.
  (Miss Johnson) Already there are arrangements which reflect the fact that we want to involve more people in this. Obviously there has been a lot of consultation about the direction in which we shall go, as a result of the White Paper, and a wide number of people were involved in that.

  41. Can I interrupt you? There has been no consultation about the framework document.
  (Miss Johnson) I said about the White Paper.

  42. There has been no consultation with the Royal Statistical Society about the appointments. Can you enlighten me as to what consultation arrangements are in place?
  (Mr Grice) It is perhaps worth saying that although the Statistical Advisory Committee ceased to exist, a number of user groups are still in existence for particular areas of statistics. All those user groups that used to exist, still exist: for example, the financial statistics user group and the business statistics user group. Those user groups are still there and still provide advice and input into the statistical process.
  (Miss Johnson) The intention is to publish a paper as soon as we can setting out how National Statistics priority setting will be conducted. We also want to have planning organised around 12 themes that will help to deliver "joined-up" government in a modernising government agenda. As part of that theme group user requirements will be determined for each theme and to produce plans for delivering user requirements. We want to feed that information up into the National Statistician's annual strategic plan and work programme. So there will be wider than ever before consultation in the planning process. Papers will be made widely available using the Internet and other media. Users will be able to contribute to the quality assurance aspects of the work programme as well. User consultation plans are being drawn up with the help of a group of wider user representatives from outside Government. We could supply you with a list of members if that would be helpful. I do not have the list with me.

  43. I follow that. Those are the arrangements and I am very pleased about that. Perhaps I am not making my question clear. It seems to me that the period between when Dr Holt said he was leaving and when the new arrangements will be in place will be a tricky time to get through. There is no advisory committee from which to take soundings. It seems odd that there is no advisory committee now.
  (Miss Johnson) The decision in May 1999 pre-dates my time in this post. I cannot comment on that this morning.

  44. In the Treasury Committee's Second Special Report we said, "In view of the many challenges facing the ONS and the imminence of the decennial census, strong leadership, from both its Director and from Ministers, is vital". The Government's response was, "The Government agrees . . . that the ONS will require ongoing ministerial support and direction from senior management and it is confident that this will be delivered". In the light of the arrangements that we are discussing at the moment, such as Dr Holt hanging on until Len Cook arrives, no advisory committee, no framework document yet, the commission not yet in place, and the fact that you did not take part in the appointment of Dr Holt's successor, do you think that the ONS is getting the strong leadership that we hoped for?
  (Miss Johnson) I believe so. Within ONS there is a strong programme of continuing development in response to the efficiency review and the average earnings index review and the outcome of that. That has all been taken forward by existing management in an energetic fashion. Obviously the organisation is working towards the new arrangements. While those are not yet in place—you may say that is still the future—I am very well aware, as I am sure you will appreciate, that if an organisation has a clear description of where it is going and it knows that it will have a further and enhanced role in the new arrangements, that tends to fire people up, it increases morale and it spurs on activity. I should also say that we have been lucky to appoint Alan Goldsmith, who is here with me today, who is effectively director of operations. He is Director of Finance and Corporate Affairs. In effect, he deals with and is responsible for a lot of the operational matters at a senior management level. The appointment of the Director of Quality and Methodology is imminent. So a number of arrangements have already been put in place. I think that the organisation has made very good progress.


  45. I am interested to hear that Mr Goldsmith is here. We have been told that he was to attend as a witness but had not been able to make it.
  (Miss Johnson) He is here, yes. He is sitting behind me.

  46. Perhaps he should come and sit at the table.
  (Miss Johnson) I would be very happy for him to sit at the table. I should have said that Dr Holt is currently at a UN conference on statistics in the United States and so is not here today.

Mr Fallon

  47. Minister, your previous statistician resigned in June last year. You will not replace him until the end of May. The advisory committee has been wound up. There has been serious doubt about some of the indices and there have been various inquiries to which you have referred. Through all the dithering and incompetence have you not left the service in limbo?
  (Miss Johnson) On the contrary. To say that the previous statistician resigned in June last year is inaccurate. He indicated that he would leave when we had a new statistician in the post being created under the new arrangements. Indeed, those arrangements are still in place. There has been no break in terms of the head of the service. Dr Holt has been there for some time. He is well regarded and he is continuing to lead the service forward at the moment. In terms of the progress that we have made, obviously we have set out that there will be a Statistics Commission, we have set out its role, the fact that it will be an advisory NDPB, and that its purpose is to ensure greater independence, transparency and accountability with respect to national statistics to strengthen priority setting and responsiveness to all users and to ensure high quality and professional standards. The Government are clear that the commission will need to be seen to be independent, embody a good understanding of statistical issues and embody the value of trustworthy statistics in democratic debate. All those things have provided a positive focus to the work that is going on at the moment. The appointment of Len Cook, the setting up of the commission that is now well under way and will be concluded shortly, being clear about the purpose of the commission, developing a website and tackling the issues identified from the issues that ONS needed to address and has addressed, are all things that take forward the organisation in a positive direction over the period that you are talking about.

  48. I shall turn to the commission in a moment. On the appointment of the National Statistician, when the Chief Inspector for Schools is appointed that is a matter for Ministers, is it not?
  (Miss Johnson) Yes. I think it is actually a matter for the Prime Minister. I stand to be corrected. I think it is an appointment made possibly in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I certainly think it is an appointment where the accountability is to the Prime Minister.

  49. Ministers are involved, are they not?
  (Miss Johnson) I cannot confirm that because I am not absolutely certain, but I believe that you are probably right in saying that, yes.

  50. Why did you leave this equally important job to the Permanent Secretary? Why were you not involved?
  (Miss Johnson) There was a discussion about this. I have taken the decision to be involved in the appointment of the chair of the commission but I did not think it was particularly appropriate for me to be involved in the appointment of the head of the profession, as it were. For that I wanted people who were in a position to assess the quality of that individual in statistical and professional terms. I believe it is appropriate that I should be involved in the appointment of the chair of the commission. I shall not be involved in the appointments of the other commission members. We hope that once the chair is appointed, he or she will be involved with the appointments of the remaining members of the commission—almost in my place. The position with the commission is different from that of the National Statistician. You can argue it either way, as I can imagine people doing so. Earlier I indicated that it is either a good thing for a Minister to be involved or a bad thing.

  51. In your own White Paper you said that the whole object of the exercise was to introduce more openness and transparency. Now you have told us that the statistical community and the Royal Statistical Society were excluded from the process of appointment; you did not take part in it and the whole thing was left to the Permanent Secretary and his friends.
  (Miss Johnson) Ultimately, the appointment of Len Cook was approved on the recommendation of the Chancellor by the Prime Minister. To that degree a high level ministerial sanction was involved. I have certainly not just said what you have attributed to me. Perhaps you could repeat it as my brain is a little tired.

  52. Your White Paper spoke of introducing transparency and openness into this process. You have told the Committee that the statistical community was excluded, that the Royal Statistical Society was not involved, that you yourself did not sit in on the appointment process and that the whole thing was left to the Permanent Secretary and his friends.
  (Miss Johnson) Perhaps I should clarify that David Bartholomew, who was involved, is an ex-President of the Royal Statistical Society and a member of the council of that society. Quite contrary to what you said originally, we had a very senior and highly regarded statistician involved in the appointment. I am bemused by your concern.

  53. Let us move on to the role of the National Statistician. We have to ask you these questions because you have not published the framework that you said you would publish. Having already appointed the National Statistician, will you define for us his role and responsibilities? You can probably help the Committee best by saying how that role and those responsibilities are different from Dr Holt's role and responsibilities.
  (Miss Johnson) The National Statistician will have a duty to maintain and demonstrate the integrity of National Statistics. One of the differences is that National Statistics does not currently exist and the arrangements there will be different. The National Statistician will have authority to determine whether or not a statistical output meets National Statistics' requirements and a responsibility for the timing of the release and the content and format of the release. As I mentioned earlier, we envisage the National Statistician being the key to developing the new code of practice. That will be an articulation or a demonstration of the integrity and professionalism of the new statistics and will ensure that there is a freedom from political interference. Indeed, the National Statistician will have a right of access in terms of integrity issues directly to the Prime Minister should he wish to exercise that at any time.

  54. Which of those responsibilities is different from Dr Holt's responsibilities?
  (Mr Grice) The easiest way that I have found to think about this is that National Statistics is a new concept which means that we can apply much more systematically mechanisms to get us to what we regard as the two key elements of statistical integrity: firstly, assured quality, higher quality across the board, and secondly, freedom from interference in a user-focused way. We are putting in place a number of mechanisms that will underpin National Statistics, with much more seamless planning across departments in each of the areas, and the National Statistician will be the professional responsible for that whole process. It is a much thicker and more comprehensive process than we have at the moment. Dr Holt is the current head of the Government's Statistical Service as well as being Director of the Office for National Statistics. He is the chief professional, but within that rather more limited mechanism that we currently have for achieving those two components of statistical integrity.

  55. It is a wider-ranging role?
  (Mr Grice) It is a wider-ranging role.

  56. Will Mr Cook, as the National Statistician, be more independent than Dr Holt, as the director of the office?
  (Miss Johnson) In his role he will have direct access to the Prime Minister, as is laid down in the arrangements, which Dr Holt has in terms of the way things work, but it is perhaps not so clearly laid out. Specifically, that is a provision that we are making in the new arrangements. Also he will have the support of the Statistics Commission, in terms of his role. There will be a body whose job it will be to ensure that National Statistics is free from political interference and has the high quality outputs and data that you would expect of the service that we are looking for.

  57. I shall come to the commission, but I want to focus on the statistician. Dr Holt already has access to the Prime Minister. How will the new statistician's access to the Prime Minister be different?
  (Miss Johnson) It will be clearly laid out that he will have access and if he has any concerns about integrity it will be clear that he will have direct recourse to the Prime Minister.

  58. Dr Holt has that at the moment.
  (Miss Johnson) Yes. I am not sure that it is so clearly articulated. In practice he has always had it. He would be the first to acknowledge that. It is not articulated in the way in which we have clearly made it part of the new arrangements.

  59. On specific access to the Prime Minister, in your October paper you said that he would continue to have access to the Prime Minister on matters concerning integrity and validity. Does that include scope?
  (Miss Johnson) His likely prime point of contact with the Prime Minister would be if he had concern about the integrity of the statistics.

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