Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. But you singled out the Chancellor in that?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I will come to the Chancellor. You asked me about ministers in general and I am saying that they are pulled two ways. They believe in good statistics, but they are also concerned about the policies of their department and how they are going to convince the electorate that they are doing a good job. This is all perfectly natural and we have to watch out for examples where they get pulled too far in the political direction. For instance, I wrote a fortnight ago to David Blunkett about some things he had been saying about crime statistics.

  21. Has that been published?
  (Sir John Kingman) It is on our website and I am happy to let you have a copy of that letter.[1]

  22. Please.
  (Sir John Kingman) In terms of the Chancellor, I was referring specifically to his role in relation to the Retail Price Index where the Treasury have always retained a reserve power for the Chancellor to intervene on scope and definition. What we are saying there is that it is difficult for the public to have confidence in the impartiality of that statistic if there is an explicit power for the Chancellor to intervene. I believe the Chancellor never has intervened, but the power is still there and in that situation it is incumbent on the Treasury, and this is coming back to the same point about explanation, to explain exactly why that power is needed, the circumstances in which it would be used and the safeguards that exist to prevent its abuse. That statement has never been made and I believe that the public cannot have full confidence as long as that explanation is not made. Now, of course it may be that the Chancellor may decide he does not need that power, in which case no problem, but if he and his advisers believe it is necessary, and I think they probably do, then they really must explain why so that the public can have confidence that that power is there for a good purpose and not to enable a Chancellor, and not necessarily the present one, but a future Chancellor, to distort figures in the way that Mr Healey famously did when he was Chancellor.

Mr Plaskitt

  23. Sir John, who sets your Commission's agenda?
  (Sir John Kingman) We do.

  24. You do?
  (Sir John Kingman) We do.

  25. Yet you say in your Annual Report that you look into some issues and are prompted to do so by either stakeholders or by the media, so you are obviously not fully—
  (Sir John Kingman) Well, we are obviously influenced by the issues that concern people who are interested in government statistics. We set the agenda bearing in mind what are the issues that are of public concern, what are the issues that are of political concern and so on.

  26. Do you not think you are at risk of being used by, for example, someone in the media who wants to campaign about something, approaching you and saying, "Here, this is a big issue", knowing that you are going to pick it up and then you pronounce on it? It seems more authoritative and independent if the journalist was going to do it, but in effect you have been employed by them to pursue their hare, have you not?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think you will find that the commissioners are people of independent judgment who know when they are being used by outside pressure groups or the media.

  27. Some of the big issues you have looked at over the years, can you say whether any of them were suggested to you by the media? For example, you did an investigation into NHS cancer plans, asylum applications, Key Stage II statistics, job statistics, hospital waiting statistics, child poverty, higher education participation. Were those all ones that you and your colleagues solely said, "We should look at", or were any of those issues raised with you by stakeholders or the media?
  (Sir John Kingman) Some of the ones you have cited are obviously of high political importance and it would be irresponsible of us not to concern ourselves with something like hospital waiting times, for example. Others were raised with us by members of the public. The Key Stage II study was actually suggested simply by someone who wrote in. We have not done very much work on that. Our concern in that area was to make sure that that member of the public got sensible answers from the government department. This is actually a function which, somewhat to my surprise, is becoming quite important. People write in and say, "We wrote to such and such a department", or to ONS, "with a sensible suggestion", or question, "and we have not really got a proper answer", so we can, rather as MPs, act as a catalyst to ensure that the proper answer is given. Others of the list you have mentioned were actually suggested by individual commissioners. The cancer study, for instance, was suggested because it was felt by commissioners that not only was it important in its own right, but that it also had general lessons which would be useful more widely.

  28. In any year there could be a whole host of subjects you could look into.
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  29. Presumably you have to do an element of selection?
  (Sir John Kingman) We do.

  30. What key criteria do you use in determining which ones you will look at and which ones you will not?
  (Sir John Kingman) Well, our concern is to raise public confidence in those statistics which are of public interest and, therefore, statistical questions which do affect the public or important groups of users are obvious candidates for us to study.

  31. That suggests, if I may interrupt you, that the level of media interest is quite a significant indicator for you.
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, it is a very useful indicator.

  32. Can you give us any examples of investigations you did undertake which were media-prompted, as you indicate in your Annual Report?
  (Sir John Kingman) I cannot think of any which were purely media. The hospital waiting list issue was largely a media-prompted matter.

  33. And you did not feel you were being drawn in by the media by some point they wanted to make and they were trying to employ you as some sort of ally in their case?
  (Sir John Kingman) Actually what is much more difficult to cope with is that when we do come out with something of interest to the media, the media do not read our press releases, but write what they think we have decided and that is a major problem and it is one we have got to address. It is happening in the Network Rail example.

  34. We know how you feel!
  (Sir John Kingman) Indeed.

Mr Beard

  35. Sir John, on the Code of Practice, you note in your Annual Report that you are concerned about the Code and how long it is taking and the fact that there are various protocols to develop. How serious are the shortcomings in the Code as it stands at present?
  (Sir John Kingman) The Code is pretty good. It leaves some issues undecided to which we must return and it is controversial in particular in that it retains privileged early access to statistics for ministers and their key advisers, but it does, on the other hand, lay down groundrules for that access which are very valuable. The protocol on release practices is going to be one of the key documents in the future. It is unsatisfactory still because not all the protocols have been published even in draft form and because they will need to be complemented by statements of departmental practice because some departments have particular ways of doing things that need to be brought out into the open so that they can be criticised, so there is still work to be done. The Chancellor's role in relation to the RPI is another piece of unfinished business, but nonetheless, those points should not be allowed to detract from the fact that the Code is a major step forward. It really is a milestone in the political development of this country, I believe, because for the first time there is a public document against which the performance of government departments in relation to statistical matters can be measured, can be criticised, can be brought into public debate, and I believe that is a very important step forward.

  36. We will come back to the Chancellor and the RPI in a second, but what are the other areas that you would be worried about not having a protocol for, the Code being a summary and whether it should be more elaborate?
  (Sir John Kingman) As I say, the two protocols we have got are certainly the most important, so I am pleased that those are out. The remaining protocols are not as crucial for this purpose as the departmental statements because it is a worry to us that some departments still may not have raised their standards and changed their culture in the way that we needed.

  37. Have you the authority to probe that?
  (Sir John Kingman) We certainly have the ability to probe it. We do not have any authority to do anything, except to issue reports and give advice to ministers and the public, but we are certainly able to nag away at departments and we are doing that.

  38. It is said in the draft Code of Practice that, "To help establish this confidence in official statistics, this Code of Practice sets out the professional standards that will apply to National Statistics". Now, are we to assume that the long period of gestation reflects some uncertainty about what the standards are?
  (Sir John Kingman) It reflects a reluctance on the part of some government departments to limit their freedom of action. There is no doubt that the Code does force departments to change practices which they have developed over the years and departments are never enthusiastic about making such change. I think that is why it has taken the time that it has, but there are benefits. The fact that not only all the relevant UK departments, but also all the devolved administrations have signed up to these principles is a very considerable advance and, for instance, I know, because we have been told this in Edinburgh, that there was very considerable discussion in the Scottish Government about changing their practices to come into line with the Code of Practice.

  39. What are those practices? Are they nefarious practices or are they just another definition of different statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) The release practices are the easiest ones to take as an example. The practice in Scotland was to give a much longer period of privileged early access to statistics to ministers and senior civil servants and they have now come into line with the UK practice.

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