Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. How do you see that being resolved?
  (Sir John Kingman) We are having considerable discussions at Secretariat level which I think will make the situation better. We have to allow for the fact that the people we are seeking information from are very busy and pressed but it is a question, as always, of priorities. One of the points we have made repeatedly to the National Statistician is that with the very substantial task that he and his colleagues have there has to be a clear indication of priorities, and I think that is something he is grappling with.

  101. Is it the case that over the last year there are areas of National Statistics which have simply missed out on your scrutiny? Could you give some examples over the last year of what you would have liked to have done but have not been able to do?
  (Sir John Kingman) Inevitably we have had to have our own sense of priorities. We have concentrated on areas, some of them because they have presented themselves to us and others because we have decided specifically to study them. It would have been absurd, for instance, if we had not looked at the Average Earnings Index because in a sense that was how we came into being. It would have been absurd if we had not given a lot of time to matters connected with the Census. I would put it more positively, not that some areas we have not covered but we deliberately concentrated our attention on certain areas of importance.

  102. Are these delays confined to the ONS itself or are there other sources of statistics, like the devolved administrations, where you have had similar delays?
  (Sir John Kingman) We have necessarily been concentrating on ONS. We have not had so much occasion to ask questions of other departments or of the devolved administrations but I think that will come. For instance, we have recently had a very successful visit to Northern Ireland to see what are the particular problems there. Departments have been as helpful as they could reasonably be. There is one particular problem which you might like to take note of which is inherent in the way we were set up, and I do not quarrel with the way we were set up. We were told, you will remember, to be completely open and transparent and that means that we cannot be given confidential information. So if we ask for information from a department or from ONS it must be given to us in a form in which it can be made public and that inevitably takes time. I think that is a price which is worth paying in order that everyone knows what is going on in the Commission, but it is something that can hold things up. A department will say "we have got a document which answers the questions you are asking but we cannot just give it to you because it contains information that we could not put in the public domain" and, therefore, they have to extract in some way from that document the material that we need which can be in the public domain, and that is a time consuming matter sometimes.

  103. Have departments been using that as a shield?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I do not think so.

  104. They have not been using that argument?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I think it is a genuine point. It is much easier simply to take a document down from the shelf and hand it over than it is to extract from it the information which we need and which can be made public.

  105. There were two or three issues we pursued with you last time that I just want to check on. Resourcing is one. You said in the Annual Report you were going to pursue that vigorously. How have you been getting on?
  (Sir John Kingman) For ourselves or the ONS and others?

  106. For yourselves.
  (Sir John Kingman) I will ask my Accounting Officer to comment.
  (Ms Eastabrook) I think the reference in the Annual Report was about ONS. Our concern was the point that Sir John has just elaborated, that they cannot give us as much time as we would like as quickly as we would like.

  107. Have they reacted to that?
  (Ms Eastabrook) We are working with them to find better ways of doing it. There is a problem about finding better ways of dealing with things, particularly to the extent that where there is work that can be done by me and my small team I and my team are trying to take that on rather than asking ONS to do it, but there is a lot, particularly in areas where confidentiality might arise, where we cannot do the work.

  Chairman: It is the same problem as before.

Dr Palmer

  108. Just one supplementary to the last couple of answers. I am a little puzzled that the need for openness in your own findings actually prevents you from seeing documents which include confidential information. Would it not be possible for you to receive the existing document with a proviso that the particular passage not concerned with your work was not to be published?
  (Sir John Kingman) No. That would be contrary to the terms of reference under which we were set up. It is not just our conclusions which are public but everything we do is supposed to be public. That is something which is worthwhile, I think, because you know and everyone knows everything that we know. That is worth having and the price we have to pay is sometimes that it is a bit awkward getting information in the right form.


  109. There were two other issues. One was the issue of direct access from the National Statistician to the Prime Minister, if there was a serious issue he wanted to raise with him that was to be direct rather than through the head of the home Civil Service. You comment in your report that you would expect this to be resolved and you would also expect the National Statistician to inform you. Has he agreed to do that?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes. I think he will tell us if on any occasion he requires access to the Prime Minister and that is blocked by the Cabinet Secretary. I enjoyed your exchanges with the former Economic Secretary but I think in practice this is much more a matter of Whitehall status than it is of operational significance. I am sure that if Len Cook needs to speak to the Prime Minister he will find a way of doing so.

  110. Sure.
  (Sir John Kingman) And he would tell us if that access were to be blocked on any particular occasion. It is part of a general request that we have made to him to be informed if his professional integrity is in any way challenged by political pressure and he has agreed to tell us of any such occasion, and he has not told us of any such occasion.

  111. I just want to be absolutely clear, you started by saying you think he will or you are sure he will, now you are saying he has agreed to tell you?
  (Sir John Kingman) He has said that he will tell us and I believe him when he says that he will tell us.

  112. Fine, and this has not in fact happened over the last 12 months?
  (Sir John Kingman) He has not told us of any such occurrence.

  113. Finally I want to ask you about the issue of scope that we touched on in our report. Again, you commented that the scope should evolve over time. You have already made clear your intention to advise on scope if appropriate, etcetera. What have you done there?
  (Sir John Kingman) We have not yet found any places where the dividing line between National Statistics and those things which are not in National Statistics seem to us to cause any problem. We are keeping our eyes wide open so that we will spot any such instances but, as far as we can see at the moment, our initial judgment that the framework document threw the scope very wide is still our general view, but we may well, as we visit different areas of National Statistics find exclusions about which we will want to advise Ministers, and also, of course, there will be new statistics that emerge which may or may not be put into National Statistics and we shall feel free to advise Ministers on whether those should be within National Statistics.

  114. Have you over the last year had representations from other stakeholders seeking your support on the scope?
  (Sir John Kingman) I do not think we have, have we?
  (Ms Eastabrook) Not explicitly on scope.[1]

  (Sir John Kingman) We, of course, have a lot of approaches which we take very seriously. If you look at our web site you can see all the approaches listed and what we have done about them and I think that is right, that none of them are explicitly about scope.

Mr Plaskitt

  115. As a Treasury Committee we spend quite a lot of time discussing the issue of inflation and some of us are not sure that we measure it very well. I know this is a matter that concerns you. You told us when you were before us a year ago that you wanted to get to work on the RPI. It comes up again in your Annual Report where you are still saying that you want to get to work on the RPI. Where are you at on this?
  (Sir John Kingman) We have made some progress since then.
  (Ms Eastabrook) We have commissioned a scoping study—it is being undertaken by a member of the secretariat, as it happens—looking at the whole area of price indices and deflators (so not specifically the RPI) and interviewing various users and trying to get a feel for the main user issues there. We are expecting the report by the end of this month and it will go to the Commission for its January meeting.

  116. That is useful progress. Has that research been given a specific number of questions to address? Has it got terms of reference?
  (Ms Eastabrook) It has got terms of reference.

  117. Can you tell us briefly what those are?
  (Ms Eastabrook) To assess whether, prima facie, useful purpose would be served by a substantive study of methodological and other issues of price indices and deflators.

  118. That is asking whether there should be a study.
  (Ms Eastabrook) And what it should cover. And the full terms of reference, which I can let the Clerk have a copy of, include a reference to the question of the Chancellor's role.[2]

  Mr Plaskitt: If you could let us have sight of that I think that would be interesting. We look forward to returning to that issue when you have had the report I think.

  Chairman: Nick Palmer?

Dr Palmer

  119. About a year ago in our previous incarnation, before my time, you told the Sub-committee that you planned to do an Annual Report which would cover both the way that the Commission fulfilled its remit and comment on the Annual Report of the National Statistician. I believe that subsequently you decided to separate those. Is that a long-term decision? Will there in fact always be two reports?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think there have to be because both the report of the National Statistician and our Annual Report are timed for the end of the Parliamentary session, before the recess, and therefore we do not see the National Statistics Annual Report in time to comment on it in our Annual Report. It is inevitable, unless we were to wait a whole year, which would be foolish, that we would respond separately. It does give us the opportunity, though, 12 months later to make a second comment, a comment on what the National Statistician has done about our comments on his Annual Report so we can get into a cycle which is quite a good iteration on this. I think actually you may find it more helpful to do it that way.

1   Note by witness: One letter to the National Statistician, referring inter alia to the question of why some but not all hospital waiting list figures were included in National Statistics, was copied to the Commission for information just over a year ago. Back

2   See supplementary memorandum by the Statistics Commission, Ev 38. Back

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