Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 170 - 179)




  170. Good morning, Sir John.
  (Sir John Kingman) Good morning.

  171. We are going to move at quite a pace today because we have the Minister coming in three-quarters of an hour. Could I ask you first of all whether you have noticed any specific changes and improvements, if I can put it that way, since the new framework has been established?

  (Sir John Kingman) Of course this is a time of very great change in National Statistics with the arrival of the new National Statistician as well as the changes in the structure, and I think things are moving really quite fast, but the long-term effect of the changes will take some time to emerge and I think the jury is still out.

  172. You say things are moving fast; in what direction? Can you be specific about that, Sir John?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, I can. Clearly the structure that has been laid down in the White Paper and the Framework Document gives a central position to the office of the National Statistician. Len Cook has picked up the managerial challenges of the Office for National Statistics itself but he also has a role in relation to the quality of National Statistics which are produced outside ONS and a further role in terms of the whole Government's statistical service as the professional head of that service. Inevitably, I think, the most pressing problems are in the first area, in the ONS itself, and I do not want to comment in detail because the Commission has not yet investigated in detail what is going on in ONS, but my impression is that his arrival is resulting in some quite profound changes being initiated but not of course completed.

  173. Have you yourself identified any elements which need further improvement?
  (Sir John Kingman) We have already said to the National Statistician that we would like to discuss with him and his colleagues ways in which the statistical output from ONS and National Statistics at large can be accompanied by indications of reliability and accuracy; that is good statistical practice that we would like to see widely adopted within National Statistics. We have also had discussions with him on more detailed matters which I think it would be premature to go into but that is our first substantive request of National Statistics, that we should all have indications of just how accurate the figures are that come out, because all statistical figures are subject to error and it is good practice to quantify that error.

  174. One of the fundamental worries of this Committee has been the question of whether there is too much political control over National Statistics. That has not changed very much, has it, in terms of the scope of the statistician or indeed the priorities of the ONS which are still laid down by Ministers?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think it will be much more difficult for any Ministers who wanted to try to distort the output of National Statistics to do so, because the role of the National Statistician in terms of the quality of the statistics has been much more clearly spelt out than at any time in the past, so he has a much stronger position than his predecessors had, and the Statistics Commission is there as a watch dog and will report if it sees any sign of any political interference with statistics. That is one of its main functions and it will do that as well as it possibly can.

Mr Davey

  175. Sir John, how did you devise your initial programme of work?
  (Sir John Kingman) We are still considering our initial programme of work. We have identified two particular areas so far but we are trying to be sensitive to the needs of users and to what users of all sorts of National Statistics think is important. So, for instance, I attended the recent conference of the Statistics Users' Council, which is a very widely representative body, and I listened very carefully to the concerns which were being expressed there, and we shall feed that into our discussions about our work programme. We have identified the two areas so far, one which I have already mentioned to Sir Michael, and the other that we are going to have a look at the situation with cancer statistics, because that exemplifies some of the tensions and dilemmas which exist in National Statistics generally.

  176. You have said you have spoken to the Statistics Users' Council; would you listen to what Parliament says about your work?
  (Sir John Kingman) Of course.

  177. How would you go about amending your programme of work given the need to ensure this political impartiality and independence but also the need to respond to key users of your output?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think it is important to understand just how wide and how heterogeneous the community of users is. The Statistics Users' Council represents a lot of the groups of what you might call "conscious statistical users", people who get up in the morning thinking, "I am going to use some official statistics", but there is a whole range from Parliament at one end through to the Clapham Omnibus at the other, with the Governor of the Bank of England and other interesting people in the spectrum. They all have different expectations, different needs, some of them know what they need and can express that very clearly, others really do not know what they need and it is up to us to try and interpret that. Parliament, I think, is very important and we shall listen very carefully to what is said in this Committee, what is said in the House and so on, and I understand there is to be an Adjournment Debate which we will be very interested in. We are really in the market for concerns about statistics which we will then decide whether we should pursue or not.

  178. Since it is my Adjournment Debate you are referring to tomorrow, could I raise one of the points I will be raising, because it relates to one of your tasks, which is the extent to which National Statistics successfully communicates information about the reliability of its figures? This relates to a recent ONS study into the way the ICT industry is measured and the effect that has on industrial production. You will be aware that recent survey suggests if industrial production is measured using the hedonic pricing methods of the USA, production would be 6 per cent higher since 1995 than the 3 per cent measured. Does your programme allow you to deal with those sorts of real concerns because those sorts of errors could have a major impact on the whole set of economic statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) Of course. That is certainly something that we should consider very seriously for inclusion in our work programme. I agree.

  179. Well, "consider it", but I would argue it is a very high priority. Are you actually looking actively to include it as a top priority?
  (Sir John Kingman) We are now, as of three minutes ago, yes.

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