Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
WEDNESDAY 16 OCTOBER
60. You think it is unique?
(Sir John Kingman) I think so.
61. Could I finally ask, the model of the National
Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General is to a lot
of parliamentarians, myself included, an excellent one. It has
stood the test of time and, above all, in contemporary Britain
it seems to me to have a great deal of respect accorded to the
NAO and what they say and their impartiality is beyond reproach.
Could I ask you this very simply: why is there no recommendation
and no lobbying, as I understand it, from you and the National
Statistician to make the National Statistician in public life
and in parliamentary terms on all fours with the Comptroller and
Auditor General, in other words to copy the Comptroller and Auditor
General model for the National Statistician on the grounds of
utter transparency and a regime that is really quite beyond reproach
and, above all, accountable to Parliament, which I think is the
great virtue of the Comptroller and Auditor General's role? What
would your response be to that?
(Sir John Kingman) The Comptroller and Auditor General
and the Public Accounts Committee go right back to the 19th Century
and were set up in political conditions very different from those
that obtain today. His power and authority and influence have
developed over many, many decades. The National Statistician post
has only existed for two years. We are a very young business.
I think that there would be considerable advantage in the National
Statistician being responsible in some sense to Parliament and
having a committee like the Public Accounts Committee that could
take his reports seriously, but you can imagine that is an issue
which would rouse mixed feelings in government departments and
in the Cabinet and whether it is serious politics you can judge
better than I can.
62. Would you favour that?
(Sir John Kingman) I would favour anything that gives
the National Statistician clear independent authority so that
he can make professional judgments untrammelled by any suspicion
of political partiality.
63. I think we are agreed on the ends. In terms
of the means would you be in favour of the National Statistician
having his work and role put on the same footing vis a vis
that of the Comptroller and Auditor General?
(Sir John Kingman) That would be a very powerful means
to that end. It is not the only way of achieving it but if it
could be done it would be a very quick and certain way of achieving
64. You see attractions in that?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
65. Sir John, you are a man who chooses your
words extremely carefully and I have listened very carefully to
the evidence you have given us this afternoon but on one point
I feel I need clarification. When we were discussing the early
information about statistics being given to ministers, and I welcome
your attitude to changing approaches inside departments, you made
statements about the possible use of statistics for spending and
early leaks. I just want to have it clarified or not on the record
that you are not actually meaning any misrepresentation of facts
in these situations.
(Sir John Kingman) I have not come across any examples
of that during the time the Commission has been in existence but
I think you can find plenty of examples in the more distant past
in which there was spinning of statistics and I mentioned one
notorious example when Dennis Healey was Chancellor.
66. You are not asserting in your answers about
spinning today that we have a larger problem to look at in actual
misrepresentation of the truth?
(Sir John Kingman) No, I am not saying that it is
a widespread disease but it is a disease to which we are susceptible
if there is not some safeguard. If information is around in a
government department there is always a risk that someone will
pick it up and say "I had better have a word with a journalist
about this to make sure that it is presented in the right way".
The temptation is clearly there. I am not saying that people have
given in to that temptation recently because I think that the
whole publicity around National Statistics has made people more
careful of these things and that is entirely to the good.
67. You are satisfied that the departmental
approaches now are improving in a way that you are more comfortable
(Sir John Kingman) I shall be more satisfied when
I have seen the departmental statements.
68. Sir John, you told us in the Annual Report
that the work that you are doing on sub-national data is one of
the most important things you are doing at the moment and it is
very interesting to us as we too are looking at aspects of regional
performance of the economy. Are you telling us by saying that
that there are elements of regional data at present which you
think are unfit for purpose?
(Sir John Kingman) This is something that we are looking
at quite carefully and there are certainly problems. The ONS does
not have the resources to do a proper job at the regional level
and the further down you go into more detail, the more you come
across problems to do with greater proportional errors in small
areas, the possibility of disclosure problems, and the sort of
problems that have come up in relation to the Census where people
have been very surprised at simply the population, let alone more
subtle information at a local authority level. I do not want to
make definitive statements about this. It is a very important
and a very difficult area, and it is one that we are working on
with the National Statitician who has his own problems with it.
69. Clearly something has drawn you into it.
You do not mince your words in the report, you say it is one of
the most important issues. Given that subnational data is used
in quite a lot of important decisions the Government has to makeand
you yourself quite rightly cite the allocation of EU structural
fundsif there are questions about the reliability of regional
data there could be some quite sizable misallocations taking place.
Should we be quite concerned about that?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, you should but I do not think
you should jump to conclusions yet because we need to do more
work on it. It is a worrying area. I think you will find that
Len Cook will also agree that he is worried about it. We have
got to find ways of getting reliable information at this level.
One suggestion that is not very helpful is to have this data produced
in departments rather than in the ONS, which actually could have
some short-term attractions but would be much more difficult to
control in terms of quality, and I think we really do need to
bring in the expertise that exists in ONS firmly to bear on the
regional problem. I would like to have more time on this one before
being definitive about it.
70. How much more time do you think you need
to take before you start to come to clear views about this?
(Sir John Kingman) Perhaps my colleague would like
to say a word about the work that is going on on it.
(Miss Buckley) We have received a review very recently
on government accounts and indicators which we are looking at.
There are some other reviews due by the end of the year. We shall
need time to study those and then we will be able to report back
with our views on them.
71. You think you will be reporting back early
(Miss Buckley) That is probably a realistic timescale.
Until we have seen the reports that come out, it is difficult
to put a time on it.
72. At this stage on the basis of what you have
seen already, you are sufficiently concerned there are some quite
big problems? You know that already?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
73. I think that is helpful to know.
(Sir John Kingman) All the experts tell us that these
are all very difficult areas fraught with various traps and we
must make sure that we give some advice that will be helpful to
finding a way forward.
74. Why are there particular problems here?
Are the figures not being collected or not being soundly measured
or by the wrong people or what is it?
(Sir John Kingman) I really do not want to go into
detail about this because it is so complicated, but just the sort
of thing that you get from the fact that people live in one place
and work in another, for instance, and you have to make allowance
for that all the time, whereas when you are operating at a national
level the statistical majority of people live in the same country
that they work in statistically. Once you have cross-border flows
of different sortspeople and money and so onthen
you have got to find ways of making allowance for that. Also the
smaller the area the more, as I say, the proportionate errors
mount up. You do not get the same law of averages operating. But
these are difficult technical questions and I do not want to pose
as an expert on this.
75. We will be interested to see your conclusions
(Sir John Kingman) We will certainly make sure you
76. Sir John, part of your report covers the
use of national statistics in the measurement of targets and performance.
I would like to look at a couple of areas of those. I was quite
interested in your answers to my colleague Mr Plaskitt, especially
about how two of them came about, the first of which is the key
stage results that you looked at and I was interested to note
that came about through an enquiry from an individual. From your
answer it appears the individual was concerned about complexity.
Can you tell us now what exactly were you looking at in those
key stage results?
(Sir John Kingman) I think I would rather let you
have a note on that if I could because if I try to explain it
now I shall get it wrong, frankly.
77. Okay. We would not want you to get it wrong.
I assume, therefore, that there has been correspondence with the
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
78. Have you had an answer?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes. Our concern in that case has
been that all the research which is going on in that sort of area
is being used properly by the department and they have given us
assurances that it is. We are trying to ensure that that is put
on paper in a way that satisfies the original inquiry. As I say,
I would really rather let you have a written note about this if
you are interested in the details.
79. Yes, but our interests may not be the same
exact interests of the original inquiry.
(Sir John Kingman) Indeed.
2 Note by witness: This case is unique in that
the Framework for National Statistics specifically says
"the scope and definition of the index [RPI] will continue
to be matters for the Chancellor of the Exchequer". The Commission
is concerned that greater transparency is needed about what this
means in practice. The National Statistician also has a responsibility
to ensure that "the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as Minister
for National Statistics, and Departmental Ministers are consulted
on proposals that impinge on matters of government policy".
These may relate to any National Statistics and the arrangements
for such consultation are set out in the Protocol on Consultation
Arrangements Between the National Statistician and UK Government