Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

SIR JOHN KINGMAN AND MS GILL EASTABROOK

  120. It seems sensible. When would you expect a report on the Annual Report of the National Statistician this year?
  (Sir John Kingman) We are bringing a further draft of our response to the meeting of the Commission tomorrow. It may be if the Commission agrees that we have reached a final form that we shall get it to Ministers after that, but we are anxious that our report is a well-considered one and that we have had an opportunity to pick up certain points in the Annual Report with the ONS before we make the formal response. It is more important that we do that than we rush out with comment.

  121. We were struck by the comment in your foreword to the Annual Report 2000-2001 where you mentioned that you do not see the National Statistician's report in advance of publication. Is that a deliberate policy decision perhaps for clarity of sequencing?
  (Sir John Kingman) It is a deliberate decision because we feel that our independence depends on us being seen to be detached from the National Statistician. If we saw the report in draft and commented on it then we would to some extent be implicated in that report and, therefore, our comments would not be wholly independent. It is part of the point about openness that we should see the Annual Report when the rest of the world sees the Annual Report and we should not have any privileged position that involves us in the drafting of that report.

  122. I follow the argument that a reviewer of a play should not be involved in the production of the play, but do you not feel that it might be in the public interest to incorporate any concerns that you might have before the report is finalised rather than as a critic in the gallery after it has already come out?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think your analogy is a very good one. It would be unfortunate if the critic went along to the dress rehearsal and said, "I will be able to write a better review if you do not come in at stage left at that particular point." I would stick to the view that we should see the report when it is published and we should comment upon it in an open way without having been involved in any way in its preparation.

  Chairman: Can we come back to the issue of the Code of Practice. James Plaskitt?

Mr Plaskitt

  123. You said in reply to the Chairman that this is possibly your biggest frustration. Let's explore that a little bit further. What, in your view, is holding it up?
  (Sir John Kingman) Of course that is something we do not know, we can only speculate on. We have been told repeatedly by the National Statistician that he is doing his best to get the report cleared for publication and open to everyone to comment on and I believe the National Statistician. We have been told several times by the Economic Secretary of the Treasury and the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury that it is not the Treasury that is holding it up, therefore by elimination it is presumably other Government departments. We can see the great importance of getting full consent to the code of practice from all the relevant departments because it is much more likely to work if departments are committed to it. At the time when I said we were disappointed that it had not come, I was convinced by this argument that it was worth taking time to get that consent. At the time of our Annual Report when we said that we were extremely disappointed our patience was, as you can realise, beginning to wear thin, but I think now we have passed the point at which it is reasonable to say that things do take a long time in Whitehall and ministers are very busy. I think we have now reached a stage where the non-appearance of the code throws doubt on the commitment of the Government to the new Framework for National Statistics and I hope that the Government can take rapid action to prove that I am wrong in that perception.

  124. Do you think that without the code the integrity of National Statistics is in question?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  125. You mentioned in your report examples of where information had been trailed in advance of publication. Could you just give us some examples of that and why it concerns you?
  (Sir John Kingman) Before I do, can I just say a little more about the non-appearance of the code?

  126. Sure.
  (Sir John Kingman) We had a Green Paper and a White Paper and a Framework Document and now we are waiting for the code but we have been told that the code is not going to answer all of the questions we would want to ask, that there will be protocols associated with the code, some of which may come with the code but some may come later. There is a dance of the seven veils going on and the fourth veil is taking a long time to drop. It is an unsatisfactory way of carrying the public along with the need to build trust and confidence. Even when the code comes we may still have to wait for protocols and, who knows, some of the protocols may have—I do not know what comes after a protocol—sub-protocols or something. I am waiting impatiently for the full picture to emerge. As far as disclosure is concerned, you will know that there have been a number of occasions recently, as there were in the more distant past, when the Today programme on the BBC has contained news items that say "Statistics to be announced today will say such and such . . ." That does not seem to us to be the right way to build public confidence. If they are going to be announced how does the Today programme know what they are going to say and what the Government's response is likely to be? I think it is important that that be tightened up and we are looking to the code of practice to contain strong provisions that will avoid that sort of premature disclosure and briefing.

  127. Do you think that it is your business to get involved in the timing of Government announcements? I thought you were simply supposed to be looking at the integrity of the statistics. When it is announced does not really imply any question about the integrity of the statistics, does it?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, it does. I think the code will probably contain the arguments for that. This is something that Len Cook feels very strongly about and I should let him make that case, but it is a case that convinces us that it is important that the statistics should be announced at the time when it was said they were going to be announced so there is no suspicion that they are being announced in order to gain some particular political advantage. It is important that the announcement should be the time at which everyone knows about it and not several hours beforehand.

  128. Is a statistic which is, therefore, by your definition sound at three o'clock in the afternoon unsound at eight o'clock in the morning if it is still the same figure?
  (Sir John Kingman) It may be the same figure but it may have a different gloss put on it if the announcement is made other than by the professional statisticians.

  129. That is all an issue of politics, is it not, and communication, it is not part of your brief?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think the way in which statistics are communicated and the gloss that is put on them is part of the issue of integrity. We are not concerned to say that a certain statistic should be disclosed at this time or that time, but I think the Commission would support the National Statistician strongly in saying that there should be a clear protocol about the way in which the statistics are announced and that protocol should be adhered to.

  130. Are you confident that the code, when it emerges, will contain guidance on these issues?
  (Sir John Kingman) If it does not then it will have been emasculated at some point because certainly Len Cook will have written a draft which covers those points. If they are not there they will have been taken out somewhere and I hope you will ask people who took them out and why.

  Mr Plaskitt: I note that, thank you.

Chairman

  131. Can I pursue this a little. Sir John, you have been around Whitehall before and when you said that you were pretty sure the Treasury had not been delaying it, you said it was other Government departments. Is it a collective lot of Government departments or one particular department do you know?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am sorry, I cannot speculate about that.

  132. You have no idea why this delay is there?
  (Sir John Kingman) I have no idea where the delay is occurring or why it is occurring. If I knew which department was delaying it I might go and talk to people in that department.

Mr Plaskitt

  133. We spoke earlier about inflation and the deflators and in addition to that the issue of the average earnings, an issue you have rightly also raised which is a matter which concerns us as well on this Committee. Can you tell us how work on that is progressing?
  (Sir John Kingman) We are at an advanced stage in producing advice to ministers on the way in which the Turnbull King Report has been implemented and it would be wrong of me to prejudge what we will say to ministers, but you will know as soon as we have made the report to ministers.[3]

  134. You certainly cannot trail an announcement, can you?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, of course not.

  135. May we assume it is imminent?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

  136. Thank you.
  (Sir John Kingman) The reason it has not come before is that we thought it right to check all the facts with the people in ONS because there is no point in our making criticisms which are based on a misapprehension of the facts. Therefore, we are in the operation of clearing all the factual statements in our response with the people who know the facts at first hand.

  Chairman: Thank you, that is helpful.

Dr Palmer

  137. The Office for National Statistics announced significant data revisions to the National Accounts in September. Have you had a chance to assess the significance of these revisions?
  (Sir John Kingman) It is too early for comment on the specific revisions but can I perhaps explain what my approach is to those revisions in general. We have pressed the National Statistician to indicate when figures like this come out what is the area of uncertainty in those areas, not just statistical sampling error but also uncertainty because of the underlying assumptions. If you were to do that you would find that the area of uncertainty in the first announcement was relatively large and that what we call revisions are actually reductions in that area of uncertainty which would normally stay within the original area, so the area would reduce but might, as it were, move to the right or to the left within that area of uncertainty. That seems to me to be perfectly legitimate but it would be much clearer to the users if it were accompanied by a clear statement of the way in which the area of uncertainty was being reduced as successive revisions were being made.

  138. As we have already ventured into the area of interpretation of statistics, do you not feel that there would be a risk that those with less pure motives than ours perhaps would select one end of the range in that case to give a distorted view and that might be a significant deterrent to doing what you recommend?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, that is one argument against indicating an area of uncertainty. Another argument is that simply to admit uncertainty might cause less sophisticated users to query the value of the statistics at all. Of course, all scientists know that a numerical result is useless without some indication of how accurate it is. We have to educate the users of statistics to understand that there is an element of uncertainty in all statistical information and that to know how large that area is is an essential part of understanding and using the statistics.

  139. Would you say that the recent revisions were within the normal range which you would have expected?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think that is something we would have to look at and come back to. I would not give a snap judgment on them.


3   Note by witness: In fact this report will be addressed to the National Statistician initially. Only if the Commission is not satisfied with his response will it approach ministers on the specific issue. Back


 
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