Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. So it is a tripod: there is the Commission, there is the National Statistician dealing with National Statistics, and there are chief statisticians in different departments dealing with departmental statistics. Will this framework document, which is to come out in April, be defining the roles between those, because there is quite a lot of scope for overlap between those responsibilities?
  (Miss Johnson) We propose this will cover these arrangements and will indicate how we see those arrangements working in the new setting. Obviously they have worked in a broadly satisfactory way in the existing setting, but there will be changes as a result of the move to the new setting. We certainly see that as being covered by the framework.

  81. As experience is gained of these relationships working out and activities happening, then there will be, potentially, a need to change the framework. Who is going to be responsible for that? How is that process going to work? Who is going to be responsible for seeing whether the framework is right and deciding whether it should be changed or not?
  (Miss Johnson) I think the framework document itself will be of a general kind, much as a strategy or some such similar document might be. So it will not have many things in it which will be the subject of day-by-day changes. It will include with it a list of all the statistics which are going into National Statistics, and, obviously, that list may be changed over time.

  82. By you or the Commission?
  (Miss Johnson) In consultation with departments and with advice, conceivably, from the Commission.


  83. We are going to turn to scope now, but before we do I will put one question, if I may. Is it not a bit odd that the auditor should be appointed by the Government? Is that not a bit odd?
  (Miss Johnson) The new arrangements will actually mean that the body is actually an advisory NDPB of the Treasury, with the Treasury as the sponsoring department. My guess is that the audit arrangements reflect that relationship.

  84. The fact that this particular appointment is made by ministers directly is the wrong way round, surely?
  (Mr Grice) The appointments of all the members of the Commission will be made under the public appointments procedures. That seems to be as independent as we can make it.
  (Mr Goldsmith) Can I add a word? I would like to just tease out the slight nuances of the difference between audit and quality assurance. At the end of the day, the ONS, which will continue to exist, along with all other government departments, is subject to audit by the National Audit Office, which as you will know is fully integrated. We append the word "audit" to the Commissioner's role in the sense of quality assurance, and I think there is a distinction there that is important. It is not a fiduciary audit, as such, it is ensuring that the standards that the National Statistician wish to see in place are subject to independent quality review. So, as the Minister said earlier, the Commission can commission its own quality reviews. Equally, rather like the NAO relying on an internal audit, the Commission will also rely on quality reviews that it (National Statistics)will be carrying out inside the Office. I think when you put all that together there is a very strong matrix of audit and quality assurance, which is really quite a rich mixture.

Mrs Blackman

  85. Could I just go back to the recruitment process of the Commission and the composition of the Commission, for a minute? The Royal Statistical Society is, again, quite critical of the recruitment process. They talk about a national advert being placed in newspapers rather than in their own journal. They complain about the very short deadline, they complain about the application pack arriving late and the deadline then being extended but people not being told what the extension was. How valid are their criticisms? Are you confident that you have actually got a good field to interview for the Commission? What is in those criticisms?
  (Miss Johnson) We have had, as a result of the advertisements for the Chair and for the Commission members as well, which were in the national press at the end of January, 700 requests for application packs, which I think indicates a very wide response. That is for the application packs; I do not, I am afraid, have the figure in front of me for the actual applications received. Even so, you can see there is a scale of response to it which is very encouraging, I think. The people who will be involved with the appointment, apart from myself, will be Sir Andrew Turnbull's Permanent Secretary; there will also be, I think, Gwen Batchelor, who is from Abbey National, Adrian Smith, who indeed is an ex-president of the Royal Statistical Society and the Principal of the Queen Mary and Westfield College, and the Chairman designate, once appointed, in terms of the rest of the Commission members. There will be a very good arrangement for the appointment of the members, and we have got a promising field. I cannot comment on what seems to be a fairly gloomy view, I think, from the Royal Statistical Society, but I hope they will be encouraged when they too learn of the response that we have had.

  86. Can you recap again? What precisely will be the balance of the Commission between users and professional statisticians?
  (Miss Johnson) I am not giving you a specific answer to that because I would not want to give a specific answer ahead of seeing the people that we think are likely to be the highest quality applicants and trying to get a balance between the highest quality applicants and the range of backgrounds that we want to see in this Commission. We are looking for people who reflect both users and providers, and people with some statistical knowledge—obviously—which might be combined with those who have got abilities and characters which are likely to ensure that there is an integrity and a functioning of the Commission which meets up with its role as a guardian of National Statistics and the quality of National Statistics. We are looking for a balance of people. I think once the Chair has been appointed it will probably be quite a difficult job, with just six appointments, to complement that to get the range. I think if we were looking for a Commission of, say, 12 (which I do not think would be a good size to have, for other reasons) you could imagine, perhaps, allocating a certain number of those positions to particular backgrounds, but I think with six we are trying to ensure—particularly reflecting the user input to the Commission, because I think this is an area where ONS have been developing things—a much stronger user representation, user role or user relationship developed by National Statistics. We will be very keen to see people from that kind of background.

  87. So user representation from outside government as well as inside?
  (Miss Johnson) Yes, indeed.

  88. There would be consideration of a range of different users in appointing the different members of the Commission as well.
  (Miss Johnson) Indeed, yes. I suspect that what those doing the appointments will be doing is looking for people who have got one or two of these things—or, maybe, two or three of these things—combined, ideally, in somebody of the right calibre. So that it is going to be a sophisticated job to try and provide the best outcome, as it would be if one was doing this in any setting, really.

  89. Without being unprofessional in any way, presumably those 700 applications have now been looked at. Are there any general comments you can make about the quality of the field thus far? Are you confident that from the 700 applications you would be able to generate a sufficiently strong shortlist to ensure that the Commission is of the highest quality?
  (Mr Grice) It looks to me to be an extremely strong shortlist. There are some first-rate people who will appear before the selection panel. Perhaps I could say one point about the balance. I think what we stressed in the job description in the advert is that the key quality for everyone is a keen appreciation of the importance of official statistics of integrity. I think that is the sine qua non; that is what we want everyone to have. That, really, is the essence of the Commission.

  90. Finally, in the White Paper, it is intended to ask the Commission to recommend to ministers within six months its own machinery for covering the interests of users and producers of National Statistics. Have there been any preliminary discussions on that?
  (Miss Johnson) Not that I am aware of, but I do not know whether there have at official level. There have not been any involving ministers. I think this is, perhaps, a little early days for that but we would envisage starting that fairly soon.

  91. So the Commission will be left entirely to its own devices to produce its own way forward?
  (Miss Johnson) We hope they will produce their own way forward, broadly speaking, but obviously if they seek help or any kind of engagement then we are going to provide them with whatever support they may think is useful in the very early days. As they get themselves set up and they get their own staffing, they have their own location, then I am sure, given the sort of calibre of people we are looking for—and we have every expectation of appointing—we would envisage them being able to be fairly self-sufficient and self-motivating and engaged with the task from early on. Those are the sort of people we would look for in this kind of job.

Mr Ruffley

  92. A very quick question, Minister. I think you have detected that Members of the Committee are a bit concerned about the way in which the National Statistician was appointed. On the question of who is going to appoint the Statistics Commission, can you just confirm for the record that the appointment panel will be chosen by a chairman, but that chairman will be appointed by Sir Andrew Turnbull? For the record, is that what is going to happen?
  (Miss Johnson) No, the chairman will be involved, together with the other people I have just mentioned, in terms of appointing the members of the Commission. I, along with, obviously, the members, minus the chair (who will not be appointed at that point) will be involved in the appointment of the chairman.


  93. Who then appoints the Commission?
  (Miss Johnson) Who would then be involved with the rest of the group in appointing the remaining commissioner members.

  94. "With the rest of the group"?
  (Miss Johnson) With the rest of the appointments panel. In effect, just to make it absolutely clear, I will be there to appoint the chairman, and then, subsequently, the chairman will, if you like, take my place on that appointments panel and appoint the remaining members of the Commission.

Mr Ruffley

  95. The appointments panel being?
  (Miss Johnson) Sir Andrew Turnbull, Gwen Batchelor from Abbey National, Adrian Smith, who is an ex-president of the Royal Statistical Society and Principal of the Queen Mary and Westfield College.

Mr Davey

  96. Minister, you will be very aware that there has been some severe criticism of the scope that has been proposed in your White Paper for National Statistics; that it is going to start only with statistics which are currently produced by ONS and will not include a series of statistics such as hospital waiting lists. Indeed, a number of commentators, including the Royal Statistical Society have expressed great disappointment about this and suggested that, basically, this amounts to the Government reneging on the spirit, if not the letter, of its manifesto commitment to set up an independent Statistics Commission. The basic criticism is that the ministers will have the final word on whether a particular series of statistics should go to National Statistics. Why have you decided that ministers, rather than independent bodies such as the Statistics Commission, should decide on the scope of National Statistics?
  (Miss Johnson) We said in the White Paper that all along our intention was to begin by including all the ONS publications and, as I said earlier, public access databases, and then other statistics published by the departments with the agreement of ministers.

  97. That is the point I am getting at. The White Paper does not explain why you have left the decision to expand the scope of National Statistics with ministers and not with the independent Statistics Commission.
  (Miss Johnson) One of the issues is that a number of these statistics, as I explained earlier on, are actually produced departmentally, although they may already be ONS statistics or they may be GSS statistics or they may indeed be going to be included in National Statistics. So there is a departmental element to all of this, produced by departmental statisticians who are expending departmental budgets. So there are questions, always, about, for example, the practicalities of various datasets being developed or used, cost-benefit issues which both departments may wish to have a say on and, indeed, others may wish to comment on. We envisage, with the framework document, that there will be a full list of those statistics which are going to be included in National Statistics at its opening stage, as it were, which will be published alongside the framework document, department by department, in terms of their generation. However, they will become part of National Statistics. I think it is important that we work with ministers to achieve that. We are not trying to set up anything that anyone is not comfortable with in these arrangements; we are trying to set up something that works well from the departments' point of view and from the point of view of National Statistics.

  98. With respect, Minister, I do not think we on this Committee are that bothered with what ministers think, we want to know that Parliament is going to get the statistics from National Statistics with the quality that Parliament deserves. So, we are looking to you, as the lead Minister, to effectively use the authority of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that it is not ministers that decide what statistics will be produced by National Statistics but, actually, it is an independent Statistics Commission. That was what was effectively in the manifesto of the Labour Party at election. Moreover, that is the only way that you can meet many of the goals that you have set out in the Green and White Papers, to ensure that there is a full set of statistics that everybody can rely on. I ask you again, why have you decided that ministers should take that decision and not an independent Statistics Commission? Is it for the sort of reasons you were giving about cost-benefit analysis or practicality, or is it that you are not getting co-operation from ministers or other departments, or is it that you are not prepared to actually give Parliament what Parliament needs?
  (Miss Johnson) We are very keen to see that the statistics that are provided are accepted as being of very high quality and standard.

  99. It is the scope of the statistics, not the standard.
  (Miss Johnson) I was just coming on to that. Obviously, there are serious resource implications if the scope is set too large to begin with. So we see the scope as gradually evolving over time. Departments are still considering at the moment what statistics should come within the initial scope. As I said, a full list will be published, along with the framework document. I do not think this is a static something. As I said in relation to Nigel Beard's question about the framework document, the fact is that the framework itself may not change very much over time, but the list alongside it is bound to change over time, inevitably, because some statistics will join it and other statistics will be modified in time. There is always the conceivable possibility, which we were discussing earlier on in relation to Michael Fallon's point, that some statistics could be deleted because of concerns about the quality of the dataset, or temporarily withdrawn.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 January 2001