Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. I am very pleased to hear that. We are told by the Government in various publications they issued with the Pre-Budget Report that the ONS is at the forefront of trying to work out this quality adjustment problem with the OECD and Eurostat, could you say a little more about that and how you are trying to push forward on an international level, because it is international comparisons which concern me?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, it would be premature for me to give a Commission view because this is not something we have studied. One of the traps for the Statistics Commission is to come out with premature judgments on matters of substance. That is a trap we shall avoid because it is important, when we do say something on an issue such as the one you have described, it is well-researched and well-founded, and anything I said now would not be well-researched or well-founded.

  181. I can accept the need to make sure any statements you make in this area are of substance and are well-founded, but clearly this is an area affecting so many aspects of economic policy-making—the work of the Monetary Policy Committee, for example, as well as the setting of budgets by the Chancellor—and therefore it is fairly urgent, and very key to the work of this Committee. Can you give us any indication of the sort of timetable you would be looking at?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, it would be wrong of me to do so, and the more important the subject is the more crucial it is that the Commission should not go off at half-cock.

Mr Kidney

  182. Just to pursue that one a little further, Sir John, my colleague asked you would you listen to Parliament, and you said of course you would, and then he asked you about hedonic pricing and you said, "Yes, we will add that to our work programme". Is it your intention to blow in the political wind and every time politicians try to make use of your expertise you will jump to what they ask?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, it is not, and you have misinterpreted my answer. I did not say we would add it to the work programme, I said we would take it very seriously. We will certainly listen to what is said in the Adjournment Debate and what is said in this Committee as well and we will take that very seriously, but it is for the commissioners to make the judgment about what are the important issues and I will bring to them any suggestions, such as the one that has just been made, and I can promise you they will take them seriously. I cannot promise you what priority they will give because that obviously needs careful discussion in the Commission.

Mr Fallon

  183. Sir John, do you advise on the scope of the National Statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  184. Do you have a formal remit to do that?
  (Sir John Kingman) I assume that any advice that we give about what is in National Statistics and what is not will be taken for what it is worth. If Ministers and Parliament and the other people who read our reports want to take our views seriously, they will, we cannot force them to do so but we shall report on any issue which we think is of importance to National Statistics.

  185. How would you define the scope of National Statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) I would not go beyond the words of the Framework Document which I think are quite clear in this respect. What I do think is quite impressive is the array of official statistics which departments have chosen to include within the umbrella of National Statistics. I think that is a good sign. It shows that the new structure is being taken seriously in Whitehall. It gives us a challenge, of course, because there is a lot of work there for us to do but I think the signs are good that our work is being taken seriously.

  186. When you say that the scope is clear, as I understood it originally National Statistics would broadly comprise all statistics of public interest, the Framework Document seems to classify National Statistics as Government statistics. Do you define National Statistics as Government statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) As I said before, you have to look at, at least, three concentric circles. You have the output of the Office for National Statistics, you have National Statistics which are produced by other departments, and then outside that you have a very wide range of work that is carried out by members of the Government's Statistical Service, much of which is not in any sense formal statistical output but is, for instance, advice to Ministers, management information within departments. All of those are in some sense official statistics, with lower case letters, but National Statistics comprise those outputs which departments have chosen to put within the discipline of National Statistics and within the quality purview of the National Statistician, and I am encouraged that there is so much meat in that category.

  187. But the RPI is outside the category. That is a statistic which seems to be relied on very heavily, the public know it, should that not be a National Statistic?
  (Sir John Kingman) The RPI is quite a complex situation and it is one which I think the Commission will want to do some serious work on. The relative responsibilities of the National Statistician and of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in relation to the RPI are a matter of proper public interest and they are certainly a matter which the Commission will in due course take a view on.

  188. Do you see a danger here that the Government can run out various series of statistics and classify them as for management use? Do you accept that you have a role as the independent watchdog in defining in some sense what are National Statistics which may be distinct from Government statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, I think we have a role in advising Ministers in the first instance and, through them, Parliament and the country at large about the arrangements for official statistics broadly. We are not going to restrict ourselves to any particular category, though of course the priorities for our investigations will be matters for very careful consideration.

  189. Do you think it is important, when surveys are commissioned by Government departments that may lead into a time series of statistics, that it is decided from the start whether or not they should be within the scope or not?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think it is a question which needs to be argued, just at what point you label something as being National Statistics. I am looking forward to seeing the code of practice which is being produced, I have not seen a draft of that as yet but the Commission will want to comment on the code of practice, which I think will address issues of that sort, issues of timing and so on as well as things like release practices which we also regard as very important.

Mr Davey

  190. To pick up on Mr Fallon's point on the RPI, am I right in believing that it is just the RPI that is left to the Chancellor, for reasons that the inflation target for the MPC is set by the Chancellor as well, but that the Statistics Commission, ONS, could look at other measures of inflation and develop and comment on those?
  (Sir John Kingman) I would regard that whole area as being within the sphere of proper comment by the Commission.

  191. Including comment on the RPI?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, oh yes.

Mr Beard

  192. Sir John, in the Aims and Objectives in the Framework Document it says that the first aim is, "To inform the Parliaments and Assemblies and the citizen about the state of the nation and provide a window on the work and performance of Government, allowing the impact of Government polices and actions to be assessed." There are two major Government policies which I can identify, one is to improve productivity generally in the economy, for which research and development and the level of it are very important, whether it be in universities or other institutions or in business itself, and the second one is the general drive to equalise the performance of the National Health Service and ensure practice is similar in different parts of the country and being able to compare the incidence of disease. When I look at the White Paper which is covering the scope, I can see neither epidemiological statistics nor research and development statistics either from the public or the private sector referred to. Is it that they are missing? If they are not missing, how is one to get a proper comprehensive view of what statistics are covered as National Statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think that is really a question that you ought to ask Ministers, because they approved that document rather than the Statistics Commission, but these are certainly issues on which the Statistics Commission may want to make comments when it has properly examined the situation. As I have said already, we are not going to make comments on important matters like that without careful study.

  193. So that is the sort of thing which the Commission could do?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  194. You could say, "These aspects are missing, Minister, what about filling them"?
  (Sir John Kingman) The Commission could certainly say that but it is not saying it at the moment because it has not studied those questions.

  Mr Beard: I understand.


  195. To come back to the point I asked at the beginning about the scope and where the responsibility ultimately lies, you are saying it does ultimately lie with the Ministers as to the provision of the scope?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes. The definition of National Statistics is clearly the responsibility of Ministers. We cannot change those decisions but we can comment on them, we can report on them, we can advise Ministers if we think it is right to do so that they should take different decisions from the ones they have taken.

Mr Beard

  196. Why is it, in talking about the integrity of National Statistics, you have chosen to focus on the question of freedom of interference, rather than on other aspects that could be summed up in the integrity of National Statistics like accuracy?
  (Sir John Kingman) These are semantic questions and one of the things I would like to do in our first annual report, which we are aiming to produce next summer, is to try to give some definitions so that we can have an agreed language to talk about these things. Clearly there are a lot of aspects of National Statistics which are very important, one of them is freedom from political interference, another is proper statistical methodology, which includes an indication of the accuracy of statistics, one of them is that the systems which produce the statistics should be robust enough that we can believe the answers, and I could list others. Exactly what names you attach to those different aspects is to some extent arbitrary, but I think it would be helpful for debate in bodies like this if we had an agreed language in which to discuss the issues, and I hope the Commission can help in a small way to making the language more precise and acceptable.

  197. So integrity will not just be focused on that issue, it will be widened out when you have considered it?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think it is worth thinking about how useful it is to label different aspects as being integrity rather than quality or reliability. These are all good things but exactly what is covered by each of the names is to some extent arbitrary. But we all agree that it is important that statistics should be produced by good methodology and robust systems, we all agree that it is important that the statistics should not be distorted by political interference. What you actually call these desirable qualities is something that I think it would be useful for us to agree.

  198. If you were told that the Minister had directed the National Statistician on some professional issue, what would you do?
  (Sir John Kingman) We only have one power, which is the power to report and advise, so if we thought something undesirable was happening, the only thing we could do is to draw that to the attention of Ministers and Parliament and the public. We have been told to be completely transparent in our proceedings, so that if, for instance—and I emphasise that this is "if", I have no evidence that this is happening—something improper were happening and we advised Ministers not to do that, then that advice would be public advice, would be known to Parliament and the public.

  199. What about the more subtle forms of political interference where, say, a department drops a whole statistical series because they do not reflect well on what they have been trying to do? What would be your role in that case?
  (Sir John Kingman) Again, the only role we can have is to give advice that this is a bad idea.

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