Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. On the question of the RPI and the Chancellor, the issue is that the Chancellor sees some of these figures two or three days before they are published.
  (Sir John Kingman) No, that is not the issue. The issue is that the Chancellor retains a power to intervene on the scope and definition of the RPI.

  41. But, Sir John, these figures, when they are published, are a reflection of national policy, particularly in the economics sphere. Why is it particularly wrong for the Treasury to try to ensure that the way in which the national statistics are composed is a proper reflection of the policies that are being pursued?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am not arguing that it is wrong. I am arguing that the reasons for that power in relation to one statistic and one statistic only need to be publicly explained. That is all.

  42. What sort of explanation will satisfy you?
  (Sir John Kingman) An explanation which sets out what are the reasons for having this particular rule in relation to this particular output, and which explains the way in which the Chancellor might use that power, and the safeguards that exist to prevent abuse of that power. Clearly the Chancellor is not going to say, "I do not like the figure that the statisticians have produced, I am going to put in my own figure", it would not be anything as crude as that, but there is clearly an interest in the Treasury in maintaining the stability of the index so that it does not get revised in too radical a way which would upset, for instance, the index-linked gilts and everyone's pension and so on. That needs to be explained.

  43. But is not the ultimate guarantee of the intent of this the integrity of yourself and the National Statistician? There has been mentioned a somewhat elaborate process of having a public register of occasions on which ministers are consulted about proposals. Surely, the ultimate surety is your willingness and independence to stand up and say, "Oi, this is not fair"?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am sorry, you are changing the subject. You are moving away from the Chancellor's role in relation to the RPI to the more general question of ministerial access to statistics prior to publication.

  44. No, I am talking here about the proposal that if the Chief Statistician consults ministers then there should be a register of the occasions when ministers have been consulted.
  (Sir John Kingman) That is right and that will now happen and that will be available to us and we will be able to advise ministers and Parliament on whether proper use has been made of those.

  45. All I am suggesting, Sir John, is that that is rather an elaborate and bureaucratic practice and what you are trying to ensure is the integrity of the statistics, and this is the guarantee of their integrity, a combination of you, the Commission and the Chief Statistician in his organisation, rather than this elaborate register?
  (Sir John Kingman) The object of having these procedures, which you describe as "bureaucratic", is to ensure that if there is some leak or some spinning prior to publication of the statistics, then the public knows who had prior access to that information and can ask the question of who it was who actually did this.

  46. Let's take that point that you are pressing, that somehow or other it is not appropriate that ministers should have a sight of statistics. It is plainly going to be the source of a lot of questioning. They will be asked to comment almost immediately they are published. Why should they not have two or three days' notice? That is not detracting from the quality or integrity of the statistics, is it?
  (Sir John Kingman) The Code of Practice says that they should have that access but that it should be accompanied by safeguards to make sure that the access is not abused by someone getting hold of the information and leaking it in advance and spinning it in a particular way. I can give you a very good example. The results of the Census were known to key people in Whitehall before they were published but there was no leakage at all. The only speculation in the press turned out to be totally inaccurate and uninformed and everyone who had access to that information avoided the temptation to use that information in the wrong way, and that is an excellent thing. I think it shows that the Code of Practice, on which the ink was barely dry on 30 September, is already having a salutary effect and that is something to be wholeheartedly welcomed.

  47. Are your anxieties now covered by the Code of Practice as it stands?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I have explained that we want to be sure that all the departments are operating to the same high standards as the ONS, and this is something we will not be able to judge until the departmental statements that have been promised within the next few months are available to us.

  48. Is this attitude what is colouring your attitude towards legislation where you have said in the Annual Report that on balance you are in favour of legislation? What would the legislation cover that is not covered by the Code of Practice and the interplay of your Commission and the Office of National Statistics?
  (Sir John Kingman) I cannot answer that question yet because we are in the middle of a consultation about the issues that should be covered in the question of whether there should be legislation. That is something we will be reporting on when we have considered the views that are going to be presented to us.

  49. But your Annual Report on Page 11 says: "The balance of arguments we have heard so far is strongly in favour of legislation."
  (Sir John Kingman) That is right, that is a factual statement which is correct. If I can just indicate what is the strongest argument that has been put to us so far. It is that all these arrangements that have been brought in in the last two years—and I think we all agree represent important steps forward—the wider power of the National Statistician, the explicit Code of Practice, the existence of the Statistics Commission—could be put into reverse by a government that wished to do so, merely by administrative action. There is nothing permanent, there is nothing entrenched about that. The Statistics Commission is not even a legal entity, we cannot employ our staff or anything. So all of these are fragile in that sense and if they are thought to be good then they surely ought to have legislative backing, but that is the issue that we are going to look at, we shall present a report with the arguments for and against and we shall try to indicate what should be covered in the legislation. We are investigating what happens in other countries so that we can learn by the experience of other countries and so on.

Mr Ruffley

  50. Sir John, could I ask you about the early ministerial access to statistics because you highlighted, I thought rather pertinently, the fact that there could be a temptation, so far avoided, for individuals in Whitehall, not necessarily ministers but those who work for them, to get early sight of some key statistics and put their spin on in advance and therefore, I would argue, behave improperly. That is something we want to avoid. That temptation is not put in the way, as I understand it, of governments and officials in the US, Canada, Australia and many European countries. What are the arguments for not following that international practice of actually forbidding early sight to ministers?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think that is a question you ought to ask the National Statistician because he produced the Code of Practice which keeps early access.

  51. I do understand that but you are the watchdog and I have a great deal of respect for your views. I just wondered why you thought they were bucking the trend.
  (Sir John Kingman) The Commission is not arguing for early access. The Commission is saying that ministers appear to have decided firmly that there should remain early access and therefore we are saying there should be proper safeguards to make sure that that privilege is not abused. If it is abused despite the existence of the Code of Practice, then that will indeed call into question whether the only way forward is to do what other countries do and have no early access, but that is not what the National Statistician proposed.

  52. Have you asked the National Statistician why he does not wish to follow international practice?
  (Sir John Kingman) I would rather not give you hearsay evidence. You are going to have Len Cook before you, I am sure it would be better if you let him speak for himself.

  53. Just finally on that point before we get on to the RPI, am I right in thinking from your evidence today that there are no examples of information that is disclosed two or three days early being misused—misused in the sense of being spun in the newspaper or briefed about by government officials or special advisers?
  (Sir John Kingman) There have certainly been examples in the past of that.

  54. Would you like to furnish us with examples?
  (Sir John Kingman) There are many cases where you wake up in the morning and the Today programme on the radio says, "Government statistics to be announced later today will say that such and such . . ." Clearly these have been leaks from somewhere and it has been impossible in the past to investigate those because there was not a background of regulation against which to measure them but in future it will be because it will be known who saw this information prior to publication. It will be possible to ask, possible for committees like yours to ask if you are so minded, just who it was who leaked that information. We shall keep a close eye on that certainly. What I am saying is that first appearances are that the existence of the Code is tightening up procedures within departments. They are more conscious of the need to make sure that the papers are not widely duplicated and sent round to people who do not understand the limitations on their use and so on and that is all to the good. That is the sort of culture change which I have been talking about.

  55. That is a very helpful answer and certainly we shall pursue that. The Code will enable you to monitor quite closely what might appear prima facie to be improper use of information.
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  56. You are confident that you have got the resource and the manpower to actually monitor such leaks and chase up and harry ministers and say "Who had sight of this? We are quite unhappy with this. It has been spun in an improper way or with a particular slant on it". You think you have got the resources to clamp down and apply the Code rigorously?
  (Sir John Kingman) It is in the nature of things that when something like this happens it will be widely known and it will be known to us. We are not resourced and we do not have the authority to carry out a leak inquiry so we would have to rely on the normal processes of Whitehall to get to the bottom of that.

  57. Oh dear. It was going quite well until then.
  (Sir John Kingman) But we can ask embarrassing questions. Really that is our only power, to ask embarrassing questions.

  58. All power to your elbow in asking embarrassing questions where it is justified. That is a very helpful set of answers. Can I just ask you about the specific issue of the involvement of the Chancellor in the RPI and the public register issue. Is it sustainable, do you think, for ministers to demand that they keep this reserve power? Can you give us some indication who, apart from ministers, are saying that this reserve power is important and it should be kept because at first blush to many of us it should not be kept?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am not aware that there has been any serious discussion of the issue. What we are trying to do is to bring the arguments out into the open. There may well be very compelling arguments. The RPI is clearly an extremely sensitive statistic and it may well be that there are strong arguments about the way it should be handled but they are arguments that need to be made. We are simply saying "Please HM Treasury, please National Statistician, explain why this special statistic is to be treated in this special way." Then we can all have a debate. There is no reason why there should not be political debate and debate in the Commission and so on but we need to have the arguments put and if the arguments cannot be put then it does raise the question as to whether the arguments are strong ones.

  59. Are you aware, apart from the RPI, of other occasions when ministers are consulted about proposals impinging on Government policy, which I believe is the term of art used in relation to the RPI? Apart from the RPI are there any other occasions when ministers are consulted in this way?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I think it is a unique case.

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