Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter to the Clerk of the Sub-committee from Mr David Webster, Chief Housing Officer (Policy Review and Development), Glasgow City Council

Further to our recent telephone conversations, I enclose a copy of my letter to Len Cook, the National Statistician (with enclosure), dealing with the various issues in relation to which ONS is not implementing the new Framework for National Statistics. This will be of interest to the Committee in its current inquiry.[5]

  My letter to Len Cook deals with the duties of the ONS under the Framework. There are three additional matters concerning the duties of government and civil service which have come to light in the course of preparing my letter:

  1.  In the Committee's oral evidence session on 2 March, Melanie Johnson, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, gave an undertaking, repeated several times, that the National Statistician would have a right of direct access to the Prime Minister. The Framework as published in June, para 2.3 and 4.3.4(1), gives only a right of access through the Head of the Home Civil Service. This is not the same thing at all. The diluted right of access weakens Mr Cook's position in relation to issues on which ONS might need to be in conflict with an individual government department, as in my view is the case with unemployment statistics.

  2.  One of the key points in the Framework (paras 3.2 and 3.5) is the need for absence of political interference and for this to be "clearly apparent to users". But there appears already to have been political interference. The government made a reply to the House of Commons Education and Employment Committee's report Employability and Jobs: Is there a Jobs Gap? (HC 60, 11 April 2000), which was received by the House of Commons on 16 June 2000 and printed in HC 603 on 20 June 2000, some two weeks after publication of the Framework on 7 June 2000. In its reply, the government (p vii) rejected the recommendation by the Committee that it should publish the Want Work Rate and (p xiv), in commenting on the recommendation that ONS should undertake a review to establish whether unemployment data should be presented in a workforce or residency-based form, indicated that it wanted publication of "workforce" unemployment "rates" (which are invalid) to continue. In launching its consultation on unemployment rate measures in Labour Market Trends (September 2000), ONS has simply implemented these government views, and has withheld the issues from public consultation. There is no statement that ONS has actually considered the issues on its own behalf, or any evidence of such consideration. If the Framework was being honoured, the government would have said in so many words in HC 603 that it had a particular view but that it would be for ONS to decide what was done, after consulting the public. Similarly, ONS in launching its consultation would have said that it had noted the government's views but that it would itself make the decisions in line with the requirements of the Framework after considering the evidence and submissions made to it; it would certainly have invited views on the issues. What we have therefore is certainly the appearance, and very possibly the actuality, of political interference.

  3.  There appears to be a conflict between the Framework and the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. The Framework requires that ONS shall maintain "a transparent mechanism for taking into account the views of users and providers of data in the priority setting process (para 3.4) (emphasis added). But Government departments currently appear to be allowed to make unlimited representations to ONS before, during and after any public consultation, and under the Code, the public have no right to know what they say. There is clear evidence that in the area of unemployment statistics, the DfEE has been allowed, in private representations to ONS, to have not just the first bite of the cherry but the decisive bite. In my view this conflict needs to be resolved by altering the Code to provide that all representations to ONS by government departments shall be published. Without this change, it is difficult to see how the Framework's requirement that ONS should be free of both actual and perceived political pressure can be delivered.

November 2000

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