Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. Let us say there are resource constraints about expanding—
  (Miss Johnson) There are. Do not say "if"—there are.

  101. I am allowing you to accept that there are these resource constraints, but surely you want to give to the National Statistics not only the ones that can easily be handed over from the ONS but, also, the ones which are most important for measuring the success of Government. In other words, those statistics which really focus in on whether policy is being effective, such as hospital waiting lists and class sizes. Are you trying to make it a priority that those types of statistics, which really measure what the Government said it was going to do, are given to National Statistics?
  (Miss Johnson) It will be, of course, and it always is with these things, a matter of considerable discussion as to what the most important statistics and indicators actually are, both across Government and, indeed, for individual services. I do not see there being a known answer to that question at this particular point. As I said, all departments are currently considering what statistics, apart from their current ONS statistics, will go within the initial scope—and I have to emphasise the word "initial"—of National Statistics. I do see that as being something that is bound to evolve with the passage of time.

  102. Surely, if the Government comes to power with a set of key targets and key measures that it wants to be judged by, it would like to ensure that those measures and the statistics behind them are independently validated, so everyone can have faith in them that they can be judged properly and honestly by those statistics? Surely, they would be your priority to give to National Statistics, over and above everything else?
  (Miss Johnson) I think our priority, at the moment, is to make this huge change that is being made that has really not happened over the last 30 years, and to actually put on a firm footing the fact that we have had, as we all know, various events in the life of statistics produced nationally (I had better not use the word "national statistics" because that could be a little confusing), such as the problems with the claimant count. We saw 30 changes, I think, over a period of 18 years, which undermined people's credibility in the statistics that had been produced on a national basis. So our first and primary goal is to make arrangements which will ensure the integrity, professionally, and the independence of statistics, and restore trust in statistics to the level that we believe it should be, and, hopefully, enhance it for the future. Our emphasis has been to put our energies into putting the mechanisms—obviously, the Statistics Commission, the National Statistician and, ultimately, to get the framework published and have the code drawn up—in place, which will guarantee the new arrangements and the success of the new arrangements. That has got to be our first and foremost priority because if we do not achieve that overall target then issues about individual datasets will become irrelevant, frankly, because that is the prize to be won; it is to restore the public confidence in statistics produced and used by government generally across the piece. It is a very big project, and it is one, I feel, that we have made very considerable progress on. I am very proud of the progress we have made to date on it, and I think the indicators are that we are going to achieve our goals over the next couple of years.

  103. You say, in paragraph 4.4 of the White Paper, under the title "Scope of National Statistics", that your intention " ... is to begin by including all ONS publications, public access databases and, with the agreement of ministers, other statistics published by departments. Details will be published with the Framework for National Statistics". Can you tell us, when the Framework for National Statistics is published, whether it is likely to include statistics such as hospital waiting lists and class sizes? Is that your expectation at this moment?
  (Miss Johnson) I can tell you that we are discussing with departments which statistics will be included and will be published in that list with the framework.

  104. Are you having discussions about—
  (Miss Johnson) I am not having discussions with anyone, it is being dealt with at official level, but 4.4—which you have just read out—is exactly what we will be carrying out and is exactly what will be happening over the coming month or two.

  105. Is the Treasury trying to persuade Ministers of the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment that those sets of statistics should go to National Statistics? Is the Treasury doing that or is it not doing that?
  (Miss Johnson) We have sought the views of departments who are considering what other statistics will be included within the scope of National Statistics initially.

  106. Let me ask you in a slightly different way. If ministers reject recommendations from the Statistics Commission when the Statistics Commission reviews the scope of National Statistics, will the reasons for their decisions to reject the recommendations of the Statistics Commission be made public?
  (Miss Johnson) Recommendations or other suggestions being made by the Commission will be, if they wish to make those publicly—and we would expect them to normally make them publicly—made publicly. So will ministerial responses to any things that the Commission have made public—suggestions, recommendations or whatever. Public pronouncements will also be made public. We said that, and that is exactly what we are carrying out and intend to carry out.

Mr Fallon

  107. Just pursuing this question of scope, if the Commission, once it has got going, decides that a certain line of statistics that is currently excluded from National Statistics ought to be included, it will be able to publish that recommendation?
  (Miss Johnson) It will certainly have a role in advising on the scope of statistics.

  108. That is not what I asked you. I asked you whether it would be able to publish a recommendation.
  (Miss Johnson) We do not envisage fettering the work of the Commission in some way. They will be able to advise and have a role in advising on the scope of National Statistics.

  109. Will they be able to publish their advice?
  (Miss Johnson) They will certainly be able to publish, annually at least—and I do not see any other problem—a report which we hope will be taken and discussed here in the House of Commons. Indeed, we did try to entice the Treasury Select Committee or the Sub-Committee to actually volunteer to definitely receive and debate the annual report. I hope it is clear that I hope I can encourage you to take up that role, and I am sure you will be keen to do it when the time comes. We are already. We would hope that those outputs are not only public but are publicly widely discussed and, indeed, discussed in this building and by the House of Commons.

  110. You are starting to talk about the role of the Select Committee and I am asking you about the Statistics Commission. In the White Paper you envisaged, did you not, that where the Commission made a recommendation about scope ministers would then decide, but they would then publish their response to the Commission's recommendation?
  (Miss Johnson) I have said, in relation to Mr Davey's point, that ministerial responses to something the Commission has said publicly will, as the Commission is publicly going to make its comments, likewise, be made public.

  111. That is extremely helpful. Just to be absolutely clear: if a minister decides that a line of statistics—on tax burden, or crime, or waiting lists, or school sizes—should be excluded and the Commission thinks they should be included and defined as National Statistics, they will be able to publish that recommendation?
  (Miss Johnson) I think the exact way these arrangements are going to work, over and above what I have said, is something that we envisage covering in the framework document when it is published.

  112. Which, of course, we have not got.
  (Miss Johnson) You have not got it because it is not available. Let me make that clear. Work is still continuing on it. It is not that I have got it, either.

  113. How would you define an independent service?
  (Miss Johnson) I think it is one where people are able to make comments, in relation to the remit that they have, that are not in any way bound by any particular rules about what they can say, and where they are free from any untoward consequences—such as not continuing in that role, being sacked, or whatever; that they are free from any consequences that anybody may wish to visit on them as a result of what they say. So that their freedom is guaranteed.

  114. So the definition of an independent service is one in which people are free to make comments?
  (Miss Johnson) If you are talking about the Commission. The Commission's role is an advisory role, in essence.

  115. In your manifesto, Minister, you said you are pledged to "an independent, national statistical service". I am asking you what an independent service is, and you are telling us that it is simply one in which people are free to make comments.
  (Miss Johnson) I am sorry, I thought you were talking about the Commission.

  116. I am talking about the arrangements as a whole.
  (Miss Johnson) I am sorry. I misunderstood what you had been saying, because you had not quoted from the manifesto at that point. If you are quoting from the manifesto, what we believe is that we need a service which is going to provide statistics which are of a high quality, professionally, to the highest standards (and that will be covered by the Code of Practice, and to the professional standards which will be laid out in that Code of Practice) and that those statistics are able to be produced free of political interference. That is why it is so important that the National Statistician has a right of access, in terms of integrity, directly to the Prime Minister; that the Commission is part of the arrangement, because I think the Commission is an important part of these arrangements, and that the Commission can operate in an unfettered environment in carrying out its role as both independent of National Statistics and independent of Government.

  117. I am pressing you on this manifesto commitment because this is what you said is all going to be in place, finally, in April. You say you are committed to an independent statistical service, but what has come across this morning is something rather different, is it not? It is a National Statistician chosen by the Permanent Secretary; a Commission which will, in fact, be a departmental body—a creature of government—a framework that is not statutory, and statistics that are, in fact, defined by yourself in the Treasury. That is not an independent service, is it?
  (Miss Johnson) No, but that is not, with respect, an accurate summary of a number of points which I have made to you. To say that, for example, the appointment of the National Statistician has been made by the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury is to forget the other members of the appointments panel. You have not given an accurate description of the detail which I have given you about the way all these arrangements are actually going to work. This has been such an overriding aim for us, to ensure the quality and the independence of official statistics. One of the things we have always intended to do is to consult to make sure that they had that basis. When we consulted with the Green Paper, one of the things that came back as one of the most popular, if you will, aspects of the suggestions that were made in the Green Paper, was that there should be a Statistics Commission, and that is one of the aspects which we built into the new arrangements to help to ensure that independence. We believe we have come up with a workable arrangement which will guarantee the standards and the independence that we are looking for.

Mr Cousins

  118. I wonder if I could ask you questions, Minister, coming down more to the substance of the operation of statistics. Looking at the Average Earnings Index, which has proved such a difficult point over the last 12 months, I wonder if you, as a Treasury Minister, are now satisfied about the reliability of the Average Earnings Index?
  (Miss Johnson) We have certainly, and ONS, taken on very firmly the recommendation made in the Turnbull King Report and taken forward the various implementation issues which arose out of that. I am certainly confident about the quality of the AEI, yes. We are continuing to make sure that we strengthen the methodological aspects of ONS to make sure that there is sufficient methodological capability within the organisation—which was one of the issues identified in relation to the index—and, also, that we have a greater economic statistical input to the organisation. These are all issues which are or have been addressed and which are part of making sure that the sort of problems which occurred over the AEI never occur again. As we all know, this is an important economic indicator, and the consequences of it being wrong in any way could cause alarm. As it turned out, it was not so far off the mark, but the change and the way it was done caused considerable alarm and concern and it, effectively, could have had economic consequences. We are very concerned to make sure that that does not happen. I know that ONS, as they are currently and in future in the new arrangements, will be equally concerned to make sure that we do not have that problem again.

  119. The Governor of the Bank of England told the main Committee in November, and the Deputy Governor reiterated this point again yesterday in front of the main Committee, that they were still uncertain about the reliability of the Average Earnings Index over a 12-month period, because 12 months back is embedded in the period of uncertainty. Is that the view from the Treasury, too?
  (Mr Grice) I think the point I would make, which I think is relevant, is that of the recommendations made by the Turnbull King Report and, indeed, by the Professor Chambers Report, which ONS themselves commissioned, some of those changes could be made very quickly (and, indeed, all of those changes have been made) but I think we recognised from the outset—and, indeed, said so publicly—that some of the changes, like, for example, improving the sampling procedures, will take a period of months to implement. On all of the recommendations ONS are up to the timetable, which they accepted—and the Turnbull King Report came out a year today—a year ago. However, all of those recommendations are being taken forward, but some of them are things which were always known to take a period of time to implement.

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