Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 1 MARCH 2000
JOHNSON MP, MR
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
(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.
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
(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
(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 knowledgeobviouslywhich
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 ensureparticularly reflecting the user input
to the Commission, because I think this is an area where ONS have
been developing thingsa 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 thingsor, maybe, two or three
of these thingscombined, 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
(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 forand we have every expectation
of appointingwe 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.
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
(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.
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
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
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
99. It is the scope of the statistics, not the
(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.