Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 225 - 239)




  225. Minister, thank you very much for coming. May I begin with one or two general questions? First of all, are you yourself, from the perspective that you see the changes, happy with what has happened and are there any further improvements you want to see?

  (Miss Johnson) Perhaps I could start by making a few opening remarks to set the scene. I will not spend very long doing this but it might be helpful to set the context down for our discussion this morning. Perhaps first of all I could introduce to you with pleasure Len Cook, who is of course the Director of the Office for National Statistics and the new National Statistician. Len's appointment in the summer as our first National Statistician coincided with the biggest overhaul of official statistics since the 1960s and over the coming years Len has a key role in making a success of the new arrangements in modernising our statistical infrastructure and in driving up the quality and the confidence in official statistics. The Statistics Commission, on which Sir John Kingman has been speaking to you a few minutes ago, is obviously also an essential part of that particular change. I believe that the Framework document is the key to the new overhauled arrangements and the discussions that we had here in March which anticipated the launch of the Framework of National Statistics in June, but of course the Framework is now in place and we have had the launch. It has been warmly welcomed by the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistical Users' Council and the breadth of the initial scope of National Statistics has been applauded. National Statistics can now take forward our goal which is of statistics of assured quality and transparent, free from political interference. I believe that we have had some notable successes even in the short time since June. There is £20 million of spending review monies which have been allocated to ONS for the production of data across the PAT 18 (Policy Action Team) Report which relates to local information. There is a new web site which is a truly interactive forum for stakeholders and we can talk a bit more about that. And of course the Statistics Commission which I mentioned earlier is a key to greater independence; it is now up and running, and there is a lot more to come. I hope that we can review the progress today and I welcome the opportunity to discuss future developments with you.

  226. You talk, Minister, about "free from political interference" but the scope of the National Statistics and the priorities of the ONS are laid down by Ministers.
  (Miss Johnson) The scope is a matter, as we discussed at considerable length before, for Ministers ultimately to decide, but for the Statistics Commission to comment on and make comments about and, as I am sure Sir John has been explaining to you, they are perfectly free to do that.

  227. But the Government of the day still has the whip hand so far as the nation's statistics are concerned?
  (Miss Johnson) Obviously there are resource implications in deciding that things will go into National Statistics, or there could be. I made a number of comments before when I was at the Committee about the constraints which affect issues of scope, but essentially the Framework says that the scope will include all public access databases and publications produced by the Office for National Statistics and many of the key public interest statistics produced by other departments, and that it will evolve over time and that is why the document that you have, that came out with the Framework, is actually entitled Initial Scope. The National Statistician will take a lead in advising on methodological questions relating to scope and definition but also Ministers will take those final decisions in the light of the costs and benefits involved. As I say, there is a weighing up there and obviously one of the weighings up is a resource issue which can only be taken by Ministers.

  228. Some of my colleagues will have further questions on it, but you talk about it being just a resource matter. It could also, in theory, be a political matter as to what the decision is as to what the scope of the statistics is.
  (Miss Johnson) I think that the reason for looking for ministerial decision is connected with benefits from different ranges of statistics. Just as we have made announcements in relation to the PAT 18 data and decided to go forward with an investment in it, there is obviously a decision there in that the benefits from having small area data will be quite considerable and therefore we ought to go ahead with a development like this. It always involves a considerable injection of resources and a lot of work on the part of ONS, and therefore that decision has been made. Those are the sorts of decisions that we believe will be the ones that are rightly made by Ministers but the Statistics Commission will help Ministers by telling us of any widespread concern about the quality of statistics and, in responding to them, those responses will be transparent and publicly made, both their remarks to us and our responses to them. I think it will be obvious and clear to people, transparent, what responses have been made by Ministers in relation to particular issues.

  229. What really has changed as a result of this? Have we just seen a sort of re-vamping exercise or is there a real change in the ONS in the way it works?
  (Miss Johnson) There is a very large change. It is perhaps something that will come out in a number of ways this morning. First of all, to have a large initial scope of National Statistics which has been very well received is a change. The initial scope goes beyond the Government's statistical service range of outputs that was initially around. For example, it includes labour market trends, it includes things like animal health statistics from MAFF, it includes all of the Northern Ireland Civil Service statistical outputs as well. It will be the first ever coherent statistical work programme across government. It is not simply an aggregation of departments' own plans for doing this. It is a truly joined-up and collaborative approach which we have got. I have already mentioned transparency in response to your earlier questions but there are new standards of transparency and openness. We are planning to see committee minutes and papers put up on the web sites for everyone to see, and of course all the Statistics Commission activity will be in the public domain. As I mentioned, the ministerial responses to those will also be in the public domain. We have boosted the consultation arrangements as well. This is a really strong element of the new arrangements. There are draft work plans and programmes on quality assurance reviews which are being publicly consulted on through the web site and there are ways in which users can interact with that web site. The web site itself is a major development. Increasingly we all know that the future will be a future via a web site sending on-line information and we are providing a fantastic start in what we have done on the web site. There is a way for users to engage and to have discussion with ONS and with National Statistics through that web site. Of course we have abolished all charges for the use of electronic data for not-for-profit end users, and that has been very widely welcomed.

  230. Can you tell us, Minister, when the National Statistics Code of Practice will be published?
  (Miss Johnson) Work is going on on the Code of Practice. I think it is fair to say that good progress is being made. It would not surprise you if I said that obviously having a new National Statistician arriving from elsewhere as well, coming into the United Kingdom, has meant that he has had to start work on that from the time of his arrival. We have got 15 government departments involved in the discussions on that, so work is being developed at the present time and we hope to be able to publish the Code in due course.

  231. It is a bit strange, is it not, that this was not published before the new arrangements were set in place?
  (Miss Johnson) I think the order of it was a very natural order, which was to get the framework in place and the Initial Scope document out, and then to move on to what ought to go into the Code. We had to make progress before Len Cook's arrival on other matters obviously; otherwise a number of things would not have happened, but we did want to wait for the new National Statistician to be in place to take forward the work that is very important on professional integrity to develop that Code of Practice.

  232. The Royal Statistical Society have expressed their concern, that there is no apparent end point. They do not know, nor apparently are we going to know, when exactly this Code is coming out.
  (Miss Johnson) The fact that they do not know when it is coming out is because there is not at the moment a date as such for it. I think it is important for us all to recognise that it is in development and it will set high professional standards applicable to all National Statistics. We also need to go through the process of looking at exactly what the Code will contain, and that process of consultation is under way. The National Statistician is sounding out the views of all interested parties beyond Government including the Royal Statistical Society, and of course the Commission and a wider public, and all of those interested parties, those stakeholders, need to be involved in having an input before he reaches a decision on it. The Code would normally contain standards relating to broad things, for example, those set out in the UN Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics relating to things like the objectivity, the methodology, release and presentation, impartiality and confidentiality of supplied data.

  233. So there is a systematic process of consultation in place?
  (Miss Johnson) There is indeed, yes.

Mr Fallon

  234. Mr Cook, you have come from New Zealand where all this is on a statutory basis. Here it has been decided that the new arrangements should not be put on a statutory basis. What are the advantages of not putting it on a statutory basis?
  (Mr Cook) I have discovered that legislation in the United Kingdom does not happen immediately. Other than that I suspect that the passage of time is something that will make it clear that there is a clear time for debate on legislation. I do not know whether there are significant advantages in not having it in law, and I am not too sure what are the significant disadvantages. I guess to me the key aspects of the change in terms of transparency and the other accountability mechanisms in the United Kingdom will give us a significant shift from where we are at now. I guess the most important judgement in the end is the difference between what people perceive we have had, what we are going to and what we will additionally get from legislation. I am not too sure I am too good in my short time here at judging the real value of legislation in the United Kingdom. I do have a personal view on it.

  235. You do?
  (Mr Cook) Yes, in terms of the importance of statistical legislation because of my background, but that is very much more based on my past than my sense of what is relevant in the United Kingdom.

  236. So personally you prefer it to be statutory?
  (Mr Cook) That is my experience and I have found that a very effective working environment. I have been here and I think the new environment, the clarity of the role of the National Statistician, is going to be very important in being clear who is responsible for defending and being accountable for methodology in the United Kingdom. I think that is as clear as it would be in legislation. I am not sure that any law would define it more exactly. The placement of ONS and giving the National Statistician a very strong methodological team to support that through the creation of a critical mass at ONS that has not existed in other parts of the United Kingdom statistics before is another part of that in terms of supporting the professional standards.

  237. So you would prefer it to have been on a statutory basis?
  (Mr Cook) My natural instincts are for that, yes.

Mr Beard

  238. Minister, could you say when the second edition of this Framework for National Statistics will be updated and the scope of the National Statistics will be published?
  (Miss Johnson) We do not have a date for that at the moment. Perhaps I could add a timescale to the remarks in response if I may, Mr Beard, to what Mr Fallon was saying earlier on in his comments about legislation. The framework of course sets out that the Statistics Commission will advise on the need for legislation after two years of the existing arrangements, so I think it is worthwhile just adding that as an addendum to Mr Cook's remarks to you. We do not have a date for upgrading or reviewing the Framework. I think there is a very big programme of work in place now developing the Code of Practice. There are a lot of managerial issues within ONS which Len Cook is taking forward. The immediate priorities are to tackle some of those very important issues and to get those addressed. Obviously, as time wears on, and I am sure the Commission will be looking at these things themselves, they would welcome a review but at the moment we have a very big work programme in hand.

  239. The scope of the National Statistics is expected to evolve over time. How would you expect this evolution to happen? Have you any view of what the final thing will look like when it has evolved?
  (Miss Johnson) I suspect it will grow in time. That is a sort of innate response that I have. I believe that we will find ourselves faced with a number of areas where there is pressure for additional statistical work to be done. There is ongoing interest in various data and increasingly over time my guess is that we will try where resources allow to respond to those needs for additional information and collect the data and hopefully some of that will be further added to the scope of National Statistics, and obviously some of it can be done by departments and is done by departments on some occasions. I think there will be increasing interest in it. One of the main areas where we will already see an increase is that with all the PAT 18 work that is going on there is going to be a very big increase in local area data as a result of that initiative.

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