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Public Administration Select Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 190
Taken before the Public Administration Committee
on Tuesday 11 December 2012
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)
Examination of Witness
Witness: Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Welcome to this session about public access to statistics and the operation of the Statistics and Registration Service Act. Could I ask you to identify yourself for the record, please?
Nick Hurd: Good morning, Chairman. I am Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society.
Q2 Chair: Could I start by asking what effect the Government feels the Statistics and Registration Service Act has had on the quality and integrity of statistics?
Nick Hurd: My view, Chairman, is that the legislation has helped us reach a much better place in terms of the integrity of the way in which statistics are produced and communicated in this country. We clearly had a problem; over the last five or six years we have reached a much better place. The Act has been fundamental to that.
Q3 Chair: What do you think is the effect of limiting the UK Statistics Authority’s work to what we call official statistics? It has been suggested that the definition of official statistics is not clear enough in the legislation. How would you like to see the term official statistics defined?
Nick Hurd: To be honest, Chairman, no one has come to me with representations that we have a problem in that respect.
Chair: They will now.
Nick Hurd: In which case I am all ears, but up until now no one has come to me, as I said, with representations that we have a problem there.
Q4 Chair: The problem is that quite a lot of published information is designated as administrative data or research, and therefore is used in the public domain in the same way as official statistics but has not been certified as official statistics. When the Government says something in numbers, the public does not make the distinction.
Nick Hurd: I understand that point and I come back to my starting point, which is the importance of improving the integrity of the system, where we clearly had a problem. I think we are in a much better place. We are very clear about wanting to preserve the integrity of statistics. As you know, Chairman, the National Statistician polices the quality of statistics and the way in which they are published, and is supported in doing so by the heads of profession in each Government department. That is the situation. If this Committee and others feel there is a problem that we need to revisit, the Cabinet Office is all ears.
Q5 Lindsay Roy: Good morning. Can you explain the rationale behind the distinction between official statistics and categories of information described as administrative data, management information and research? Maybe specifically, why was one on claiming benefits released as a research note?
Nick Hurd: We do have a hierarchy of statistics. National statistics is a subset of official statistics. As you know, Lindsay, the designation "national statistics" indicates the statistics have been certified by the Statistics Authority. We have three types of national statistics. I am sure the Committee is aware of that. It is our view that the Statistics Authority should be able to award accreditation independently where it considers statistics to be robust and reliable.
In terms of the statistics that are published by departments as administrative, management or research, I come back to the point I made to your chairman: it is for the National Statistician to police the quality of statistics and the way in which they are published, and she is supported in that role by heads of profession in each Government department. As I said, I have not been presented with any evidence yet of a problem in that hierarchy in that system.
Q6 Lindsay Roy: What are the criteria for something to be designated as official statistics?
Nick Hurd: That is all set out in the legislation. As I said, the legislation has been reviewed. I do not think that process threw up a great debate about this, but this is an evolutionary process. If we have to review it, we will, but I think the definitions are all set out in the legislation.
Q7 Greg Mulholland: One problem we have been told about by a number of those who have given written evidence is that there is a lack of understanding of what "national statistics", as designated, means. One view from a Government statistician was, "The label of ‘national statistics’ is an inappropriate choice of words to describe official statistics that have been assessed as compliant with the Code. Few, if any, members of the general public are aware of the designation. Few, if any, members of the media ever use the expression. The label is also misleading insofar as it is often interpreted to mean only those statistics that have a national coverage. The ‘national statistics’ label should be withdrawn."
Do you accept that there is a lack of understanding? Would you be open to a change in the way that these clearly key statistics are described?
Nick Hurd: Yes. We are open to discussion, if there is evidence of confusion and that it is undermining public trust in the integrity of the system. Since that is our starting point, of course I would be more than happy to revisit that. I am very happy to support the Statistics Authority’s efforts to broaden understanding of its processes and what national statistics and the Code of Practice for Official Statistics mean. It is quite clear that we have a long way to go in terms of what you might call outreach, so that more people are aware of the definitions and the importance of the Code.
Q8 Greg Mulholland: As someone who used to work in marketing, what awareness is there of the national statistics kitemark? Does that work? Is it a kitemark or brand that people are familiar with? If it is not, obviously it is not working.
Nick Hurd: I do not honestly know. It is not something my constituents are talking about a great deal, but maybe I would not necessarily expect that. I would expect the Statistics Authority to have a view on that.
Q9 Greg Mulholland: With respect, that is not the point, is it? The point is that taxpayers’ money has been spent on developing this with the belief that it is important in the job it does. Has there been an assessment of whether our taxpayers’ money was well spent?
Nick Hurd: Not that I am aware of. That does not mean that it has not happened.
Greg Mulholland: Do you think it might be sensible to see if this was a worthwhile exercise?
Nick Hurd: It is certainly something I will be asking about after this session. I am not aware of any assessment of the value for taxpayers’ money in terms of that investment, but it is certainly I will ask about after this session.
Q10 Robert Halfon: It has been suggested that the datasharing powers in the Act are too restrictive. Would you like to see changes?
Nick Hurd: As the Minister who has taken through a lot of the SIs that enable this, I am well aware that we have a rather cumbersome process for doing that. I have to say that there are no current plans to change the system, but it is one that will probably have to come under review-not least as there are clearly growing demands for data sharing. It will become relevant in the context of the future of the census as well.
Q11 Robert Halfon: The Royal Statistical Society believes there should be wider powers in order to obtain official data. What is your view on that?
Nick Hurd: My view is what I just said: there is clearly growing pressure for more data sharing. It is a sensitive area. It is something we have to look at carefully. We have a system at the moment that is perhaps not perfect but seems adequate. At the moment, that is what we are sticking with.
Q12 Robert Halfon: In the recent spat between the Government and the Statistics Authority about the NHS statistics, the Government said one thing and the Statistics Authority said another. Do the Statistics Authority come to you first and say, "We will release these statistics questioning the Government’s argument," or do they just release it and say, "The Government have got it wrong"? Do they give you a chance to rebut what they have said before they publish?
Nick Hurd: They certainly in that case did not come to me personally in that respect.
Q13 Robert Halfon: Do you think that if the Statistics Authority does publish statistics questioning Government figures, they should come to the Government first and give the Government a chance to rebut it?
Chair: They do that.
Nick Hurd: We are getting into the prerelease access situation.
Robert Halfon: But you are saying that for the NHS thing they did not.
Chair: They did, actually.
Nick Hurd: They did not come to me personally; that is what I said.
Q14 Robert Halfon: I see. How much notice did they give you? When did it happen?
Nick Hurd: I imagine it is subject to the prerelease access requirements.
Chair: To correct you, it is nothing to do with prerelease access. Before Andrew Dilnot writes an official letter to the Government, there is an exchange between the Minister and the UK Statistics Authority to check there has been no misunderstanding. In the case of the NHS statistics, the Government actually saw to it that the necessary information was altered in line with Andrew Dilnot’s request.
Nick Hurd: I do stand corrected, Chairman. I have now got the correspondence in front of me, and that is exactly how it works.
Q15 Robert Halfon: Are you still content with the current arrangements for prerelease access to statistics? Do you think they provide the right balance of informing debate and also ensuring that Ministers are properly briefed?
Nick Hurd: Yes, you are right. There must be the right balance. We are in an infinitely better place than we were five or six years ago. We have come from an unsustainable place to a situation that continues to frustrate some people but that the Government feels strikes the right balance, in terms of the public interest, between seeking not to undermine the public’s trust in the process and the need to satisfy the public’s reasonable desire for proper accountability, proper explanation and proper response. A system of up to 24 hours with much tighter control of who has access to data and much greater transparency around that process is clearly a much better place than we were in five or six years ago.
Q16 Robert Halfon: Is it right that the argument from the Treasury, for example, is that they need to see a prerelease with further advance notice because of problems with the markets? If the information has an effect on the markets, the Government needs to have time to react accordingly.
Nick Hurd: Some data is more sensitive than others, but I think the general principle is that when particularly sensitive data is released, Parliament, the media and the public have a quite justifiable demand for proper accountability, proper explanation and, where appropriate, a proper response. There will always be noise expressing frustration, but I think there is a broad consensus that it is sensible to have a short window of opportunity for the people responsible for those statistics to shape a response that meets that requirement for proper accountability.
Q17 Robert Halfon: Should that prerelease be made equally to the opposition parties, so as to give them a fair chance to prepare and examine?
Nick Hurd: As it is, we have a system that determines how much time is allowed and an access list, as it were, that is transparent and of which the Statistics Authority is notified. We have quite a transparent process in that respect. On balance, this is reviewed quite regularly. There has been a conversation very recently between the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Andrew Dilnot on this. The position of the Government is to stick with the current situation.
Q18 Robert Halfon: You do not think it should be given to the opposition at the same time. If statistics are given to the Government, should they be given to the main opposition party at the same time?
Nick Hurd: My position is that we are sticking with the current arrangements.
Q19 Chair: Of course, other countries have abolished prerelease altogether. That was originally the position of the Conservative Party when we were in opposition.
Nick Hurd: Chair, as you know there is quite a broad spectrum of positions. Scotland and Wales did not follow us in terms of the big move down from up to five days to up to 24 hours. The United States have a shorter period of time than us, but we are much closer to the United States than we are to Scotland and Wales in this context. There are balances to be struck. On balance, we think the current situation is sustainable.
Q20 Chair: Recently the Prime Minister adverted to forthcoming good news. There was speculation that he already knew about positive GDP statistics as a result of pre-release that had not been released into the public domain. He received a letter from the UK Statistics Authority for abusing the privilege of prerelease. Does this improve confidence in public statistics and how they are used by politicians?
Nick Hurd: Just to be clear, in terms of the correspondence between Andrew Dilnot and the Prime Minister, the letter from Andrew Dilnot was slightly more balanced than you suggest. Andrew Dilnot made that clear when he said, "Although it may not have been your intent, your remarks were widely interpreted as providing an indication about the GDP figures."
Chair: I say no more than that.
Nick Hurd: As you will see from the response from the Prime Minister, he was extremely robust in pointing out that his comments were in a wider context and were not intended to give any indication about the GDP statistics.
Q21 Chair: I appreciate that, but because he might already have had that information, it is open to that misinterpretation. If prerelease were abolished, such misinterpretations could not arise and public confidence in statistics would be stronger as a result, which is what we were saying when we were a party in opposition.
Nick Hurd: I think we are speculating, because I do not think there has been any public confirmation of that.
Q22 Chair: It is the Treasury that is objecting to this, is it not? We know the view of the Cabinet Office is to abolish prerelease, but there is resistance in other quarters of Government.
Nick Hurd: No, I think you are speculating there as well, Chairman. The position of the Government is to stick with the current arrangements, and that is what has been communicated to Mr Dilnot.
Q23 Chair: When do you think we will next make progress on this issue?
Nick Hurd: It is kept under review, but I do not detect any political will to change the system at the moment.
Q24 Paul Flynn: I think I am the only member of the present Committee who took part in the debate when the Bill went through. There were not many areas where there was disagreement between the two sides. In this House and in the House of Lords, there were impassioned pleas from the Conservatives to get rid of prerelease altogether. Is it the case that changes of Government mean changes of scripts, and some things that you believe passionately in opposition you no longer find palatable in Government?
Nick Hurd: Processes and positions evolve, Mr Flynn. You know that as well as I do; you have been in politics longer than I have.
Paul Flynn: They do not evolve. They deteriorate-they degrade. That is the word.
Nick Hurd: I think evolve is the polite term.
Paul Flynn: You have taken the line of a denial of information, and you have taken the opportunity to distort the information to take advantage, which you thought was inappropriate when you were in opposition. What happened to you? You used to be against lobbying as well. What has happened?
Chair: Steady, order. Stick to statistics.
Nick Hurd: Mr Flynn, you are drawing me offpiste.
Paul Flynn: Is there some sort of lobotomy that Ministers have when they get into Government, when they have been sensible people in opposition?
Nick Hurd: I see no sign of any lobotomies. I come back to my serious point. We had a bad system before. As a result of that legislation, for which there was crossparty support, we are in a much better place in terms of pre-release access. Clearly, we will not satisfy everybody on this issue. At the moment, I do not detect any political will to change the current arrangements.
Chair: We are probably satisfying nobody at the moment, because the abolitionists are not satisfied but the people who want more prerelease are upset. Mr Flynn, might we move on to the question of ad hoc statistics.
Q25 Paul Flynn: We have had evidence that people believe the release of ad hoc statistics is very patchy and inconsistent. Full Fact has said to us that ad hoc requests for data are dealt with inconsistently. Sometimes staff will respond with data immediately; at other times they will refer the request to a Freedom of Information department themselves or ask the applicants to do it for them. Is there any desire in the Department to have a policy that is more consistent and readily understood in relation to the use of ad hoc statistics?
Nick Hurd: I would say two things. If the process of applying for and generating ad hoc statistics is cluttering the process or causing difficulty for the Statistics Authority, our door is open to a discussion on improving the process. I think a very useful addition and an improvement has been around the transparency of that process, so all requests for ad hoc information are now public. That transparency is a friend of efficiency in this respect. I think there is more transparency and accountability around the process, which I hope the Committee would welcome.
Q26 Paul Flynn: Do you believe that the requests are frivolous, unnecessary or excessive?
Nick Hurd: Is that in relation to the whole generality of the number of requests? I cannot answer that.
Q27 Paul Flynn: One of the other issues raised was that some of the statistics that are produced in this way-in a fairly inadequate way-are then republished by the people who applied for them. There is a feeling that this general publication might have results that are misleading, rather than coming with the authority of the ONS and other bodies.
Nick Hurd: I would be concerned if that were true, but nobody has come to me with any representations on that.
Paul Flynn: You seem to be short of representations.
Nick Hurd: I am.
Paul Flynn: Are you on speaking terms with your staff?
Nick Hurd: I am. However, people have not been beating a path to my door-nor, I believe, to that of the Minister for the Cabinet Office-saying that this system is particularly broken. This Committee may unleash that, but to date, I have to be quite honest with the Committee and say that-
Q28 Paul Flynn: It is refreshing to hear your officials are giving you such a quiet life and not bringing this information to your attention. Regarding your general view on the accessibility of statistics, what has happened to social trends? This used to be a regular pageturner that we would examine as MPs, burning the midnight oil and going through every page. There are other data that you have that apparently you have been retentive about on youth unemployment, for instance. We are told there is information there that is not readily published. Is it a fair criticism that you have gone backwards in the accessibility of information?
Nick Hurd: No, I think the whole direction of travel is completely the opposite, Mr Flynn. This is a Government that takes some pride and has certainly raised the bar in trying to establish a reputation for being the most transparent Government ever.
Paul Flynn: I think you have raised the bar in saying that you are the most transparent Government ever.
Nick Hurd: No, I think that is unfair. These things do not happen overnight, but I think the public are already beginning to get a sense that there is much more information out there in terms of what is being done in their name, particularly in the area of how taxpayers’ money is being spent. It is a journey, but I think we have a signalled ambition and intent that was not there before under previous administrations. Government is becoming more open. In that process, will we satisfy everyone? No. Will we frustrate some people? Yes.
Q29 Paul Flynn: It appears to be a journey backwards into the past. Is information on social trends still going to be published on a regular basis?
Nick Hurd: I cannot comment on social trends.
Paul Flynn: Could you start to open a dialogue with your officials and find out what is going in your Department? It might help us as a Committee. You have given several answers to questions where you have said you have no knowledge on the matter. These were issues we were likely to bring up.
Nick Hurd: It is not a question of not having knowledge. I am trying to suggest that the Cabinet Office and I do not have a strong sense that there is anything particularly broken in terms of the system.
You mentioned social trends; I do not happen to know the future of that, but my main point, Mr Flynn, which I stick by, is that this Government set its stall out to be very open and transparent and is actually recognised on the world stage in terms of open data to be world leading. It is working in partnership with other governments to completely change the culture of government across the world in terms of openness and transparency. Are we getting everything right? No, but that is clearly the direction of travel and that is recognised by more objective, politically neutral figures, to be the case. As to the fate and future of social trends, I will have to come back to you if that is of particular concern to you.
Q30 Chair: Mr Flynn, can I interject for a second? By way of a public advertisement, can I say that if there is anyone listening to this session who feels they have made representations to the Cabinet Office about these matters, could they draw this to our attention as well as the Minister’s? I think there is some disquiet about these matters and we are a little bit surprised that these representations have not reached you.
Nick Hurd: Let me just, if I may, throw a little clarity down there. Of course, there has been a review of the legislation. In terms of the prerelease access, there was a special look at it again in 2010. There have obviously been opportunities for people who are interested in this to make their views known through some formal processes. What I was trying to say is that in terms of direct representations to me, I have not received any in this space. Just for the sake of clarity, that is the point I am making-no more, no less.
Q31 Paul Flynn: You may have observed, Mr Hurd, that since you started to give evidence, three Conservative members of this Committee have left the room, whether through embarrassment or guilt or not.
Chair: Order. Come on.
Paul Flynn: While we are still quorate, can I speedily point to your attention to the fact that the Statistics User Forum and the Social Research Association have made similar pleas to us? Briefly, the Statistics User Forum said, "All too often it is extremely difficult even for the expert user to find the statistics they need from the Office for National Statistics and departmental websites. Search engines leave much to be desired. Most users rely on Google." The changeover to the new website was generously described as a disaster-in fact it was probably worse than that-but the journey you are taking is one backwards into a denial-of-information policy.
Nick Hurd: No, I reject that completely. If you are referring to the Directgov replacement, I think the new website is a major step forward in terms of the information we give the citizens we serve in terms of what is being done in their name.
Paul Flynn: I think you are alone in thinking that.
Nick Hurd: There has been a transformation.
Q32 Chair: Minister, what dialogue have you had with statistics users about this yourself?
Nick Hurd: Do you mean me personally, directly? Very little.
Chair: Can we suggest that you have some?
Nick Hurd: I am certainly happy to receive that suggestion. As I said to you before, there have been channels for people to make their views known through the reviews that have taken place of the legislation. Those have been absorbed by the system.
Q33 Chair: I see in my mind’s eye a very useful Cabinet Office seminar on the availability of statistics, their users and how happy everybody is-a bit of market research. I think it really would be very positive.
Nick Hurd: Yes, but please do not underestimate what is going on in terms of the open data agenda, which is being driven by the Cabinet Office, such as the creation of the Open Data Institute. There has been widespread engagement with people who look at statistics and data. There has been widespread engagement with people who want to create businesses out of that. This is a very serious agenda for the Government, but if you ask me directly, in terms of personal representations made to me, I will be quite honest with the Committee: I have not received any. There is, however, a massive agenda for the Department in terms of open data to improve accountability and to support enterprise.
Chair: Mr Flynn, are you finished?
Paul Flynn: I do not want to be offensive to the Minister, so I shall not ask any further questions. I will just say that your performance, I believe, has been a very sad one today because you have batted back most of the questions.
Chair: You said you would not be offensive.
Paul Flynn: Well, I am, but I am being nice. I think your performance has been disappointing, and I can understand the reason why three Tory members have left the Committee.
Q34 Chair: Moving on, there is an awful lot of extra data coming into the public domain, which is very welcome, but how well explained do you think this data is? Is there not a need to explain it as well as just publish it? What improvements do you think need to be made in order to achieve that?
Nick Hurd: I think that, looking across the wider piece, Chairman, at the open data agenda, there is a very strong recognition that you cannot just dump the data. You need to put it out in a way that people can use and share. If the Committee wants to look at the work of the Open Data Institute and what we have set up in terms of the architecture to nudge and push the system to get more data out there, you will see that there is a very real drive to make sure the data is as accessible and usable as possible. Despite what Mr Flynn says, we are at the start of a journey here. We are learning, but there is a very open process of engagement with the very many people that care about this agenda a lot and who keep our feet to the fire.
Q35 Chair: Can I caution you about something that Parliament certainly will not want? Parliament will not want vast quantities of information, which we cannot possibly cope with because we have very limited resources compared with Government. Even the US Congress is complaining about the volume of data that is being published by the administration in the United States. Even the Congress, with all of their staff, feels they cannot cope with it. Do you understand this danger of data overload with too little interpretation and conversation about what the data actually means?
Nick Hurd: In a way, that comes back to our conversation about prerelease access, which is the need for information to be presented in some context. There are real tensions here, Chairman, but I think what I would say-partly in response to the question from Robert Halfon-is that the genie is coming out of the bottle here. It is not just Parliament; it is the public; it is civil society. They are also driving the demand for information and data. The capacity of Parliament to absorb this is one thing, but we should not underestimate the growing demand from the public and civil society.
Q36 Chair: The Royal Statistical Society has said, "A deeper communication challenge for the official statistics service is to present a coherent statistical picture of what is going on in areas where debate needs to concentrate on the issues rather than on explaining particular statistics. The debate on Scottish independence is an example of where statistics needs to be brought together and well communicated in order to foster good debate."
The written evidence that we are getting does suggest that even official statistics are not being presented clearly enough-particularly for the nontechnical reader. Do you think official statistics are presented clearly enough? This is an indirect Government responsibility, because the official statistics are produced by the National Statistics staff. It is a question of resourcing this service effectively so that it can do its job.
Nick Hurd: I doubt we are in a perfect world in terms of how statistics are communicated. I come back, however, to what I said at the start. The starting point is about wanting the public to feel trust in the system and the integrity of the system. That is our starting point. The Government is committed to working with the independent statistics authorities to make improvements where improvements are needed. The door is open for that conversation.
Q37 Chair: Do you think we do enough to ensure that for big political events-like referendums, for example-there is enough preparation of the statistical basis for the arguments that are going to be had? It is part of our inquiry into statistics to ask whether the Scottish referendum will be properly informed. What is the Government doing to ensure that there is a proper statistical base? Otherwise, the referendum might descend into an argument about what the numbers mean or whether the numbers are accurate or whether the numbers are relevant. There could be a shared understanding of what the statistics mean and a debate about that, rather than a spat about whether they are lies or damned lies.
Nick Hurd: I take the point in terms of the importance of it. I do not think the Government’s premise is that we have an improper system of statistics at the moment.
Q38 Chair: Do you not think there is a case for you making special efforts to ensure that there is a proper statistical basis for a very important referendum about the future of this country?
Nick Hurd: I can certainly undertake on the part of the Cabinet Office to make sure those conversations take place and we are satisfied. As I said, our presumption today is that we do not preside over an improper system.
Chair: I am sure that is the case, but I am suggesting that maybe you should be proactive in that regard. We have galloped through a number of topics in short order. I do not know whether there are any other questions that colleagues wish to ask the Minister before he leaves.
Q39 Robert Halfon: Can I just come in on something very briefly? Touching on what the Chairman just said, if you look at the recent consultation regarding gay marriage, where there were 500,000 or 600,000 responses against and-whatever it was-70,000 in favour, do you think there is a role for the Government or the Statistics Authority to look at the responses that come in on major consultations like that and assess them statistically, rather than just qualitatively?
Nick Hurd: I am very happy to have a conversation with the Statistics Authority about that. That is a wider issue about the value of public consultation. I think that is a bigger issue than the statistical approach to them, but I am certainly happy to have a conversation with Andrew Dilnot to get his view on that.
Q40 Lindsay Roy: To pick up on a point the Chairman made about the referendum in Scotland, do you think there is more work needed to clarify the Barnett formula?
Nick Hurd: That is a longstanding issue, which will be decided way above my pay grade.
Q41 Chair: If you are the Minister for Statistics-I am sorry to press you on this-are you not the one who is meant to understand this? Are there not some issues that you need to get a grip of in order for you to be satisfied that there will be a coherent debate around a robust statistical base? That is what we very much hope you will do.
Nick Hurd: You have made that point and I have responded to it.
Chair: I do not think it is above your pay grade.
Nick Hurd: The debate needs a strong evidence base underpinning it; the Government is extremely committed to the integrity of our statistical system.
Chair: You said it was above your pay grade.
Nick Hurd: As we said right at the start, we are in a much better place than we were five or six years ago. Are we in a perfect place? No. Is that referendum extremely important? Yes. Will we be working together with all those involved to make sure that the public have that debate on the basis of very firm evidence that they can trust? Yes.
Chair: You said it was above your pay grade. My point is that I think you are a much more important person than you may think you are.
Nick Hurd: What I was trying to say to Mr Roy was, in terms of the whole question of the Barnett formula and how it works, that is a whole debate above my pay grade. In terms of the evidence base-the statistics on which that debate is had-I completely take your point about making sure that we are as good as we can be when we get into that debate.
Q42 Lindsay Roy: Have you had discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the statistical basis for the referendum?
Nick Hurd: No, not yet.
Q43 Paul Flynn: The purpose of setting up the Statistics Authority was to counter the distrust of Government statistics. Do you think trust and confidence in Government statistics has been improved in the last two-and-a-half years?
Nick Hurd: I do. I expect you to disagree with me, but I remember at that time there were fierce debates in Parliament about the Government’s approach to statistics, which was, in part, what prompted the legislation. I do not feel-you may disabuse me of this-there is quite the same degree of intensity about that now. My sense is that there is a feeling that there is more integrity and transparency in the system. There is certainly a better process in terms of prerelease access and things that were very emotive at the time. I feel we are in a better place; if this Committee feels differently, I am sure the report will make that quite clear and we will listen.
Paul Flynn: It is just that we are not overwhelmed with evidence from the statistical community-or anyone else-to suggest there has been that improvement.
Chair: Mind you, they are a demanding lot.
Nick Hurd: They are. They keep our feet to the fire and they always will.
Chair: I am certainly on a learning curve with regards to statistics, as I suspect you are too, Minister. We may well want you in front of us again later on in our set of inquiries, but we do regard this as a very important part of our work. Thank you very much for being so helpful this morning.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Will Moy, Director, Full Fact, Michael Blastland, freelance journalist, and Chris Giles, Economics Editor, Financial Times, gave evidence.
Q44 Chair: Welcome to this second session on the usability of Government statistics and the operation of the Statistics and Registration Services Act. Could I ask each of you to identify yourselves for the record?
Will Moy: My name is Will Moy. I am the Director of Full Fact, an independent factchecking organisation.
Michael Blastland: I am Michael Blastland; I am a freelance journalist.
Chris Giles: I am Chris Giles. I am Economics Editor of the Financial Times.
Q45 Chair: Mr Blastland, I think in our parlance you would declare an interest in that you have worked closely with the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot.
Michael Blastland: I know Andrew well. I suspect I am not alone in this room in that, but I do, yes.
Q46 Chair: It is a small world. First of all, would you like to give a reaction to what you have heard from the Minister this morning?
Will Moy: I think various elements of what he said may come up in particular questions. I was interested in his remarks on ad hoc statistics. I was glad to see the Committee pushing him on the Scottish referendum, but I think we can probably deal with them as they come up.
Michael Blastland: My sense is that there is a pretty vigorous debate about the quality of all aspects of the statistical system. I am surprised that the Minister is not quite as well acquainted with it as I would expect.
Chris Giles: I would share Michael’s surprise.
Q47 Chair: Do you think this is a problem with officials not briefing the Minister properly or what? He must have been prepared for this session.
Michael Blastland: I have no idea.
Chris Giles: I do not believe that anyone in the statistical community or anyone who knows people or deals with statistics officially in Britain could be unaware of the big dissatisfaction with the communication of statistics in Britain at the moment. The Minister is the first person in the field I am aware of who is not aware of it. That surprised me.
Chair: That is quite a strong comment to make.
Will Moy: I will certainly make sure, on Full Fact’s behalf, that he receives some of the representations that he appears not to have to date.
Q48 Chair: I am sure he will look forward to receiving those. One of the reasons we are conducting this set of inquiries is to raise these issues up the ministerial intrays, because otherwise these issues tend to get pushed down. Can I just ask each of you how easy it is to find the official statistics that you need? Is there a difference between the official statistics produced by the ONS and those produced by departments and other bodies?
Will Moy: I think the short answer is that it is very difficult. It can occasionally be easy; usually you have to know your way around. However, it tends to be difficult and frustrating. It is hard to know which producer to go to or whether to go to the ONS. It is hard to know whether there is more than one data set dealing with the same subject, and it is hard to know how those different data sets relate to one another. Of course, as soon as you get to the websites, you are in a magic roundabout all of its own.
Much has been said about the ONS website. I would simply say you can get lost very quickly. Regarding www.data.gov.uk, although I admire the sentiment-as a developer myself, I have been keenly following it ever since it was in closed beta-I think it has become an elephants’ graveyard where good data sets go to die. Departmental websites are variable; none of them, I do not think, is an outstanding example of how to communicate statistics.
Our official statistics producers are sitting on a treasure chest of data, which can inform and illuminate our public debate. Sometimes they are virtually sitting on top of it and daring you to get in. What they should be doing is presenting it and saying, "We have all this information; it can help you. It can help you as citizens; it can help you as businesses; it can help you make decisions about the Scottish referendum and all kinds of topics. Here is how it can help you."
If you look at something like Statistics Norway, that is what they do. If you go to their website, you will see there is a section on gender equality, for example. You can go and find out about that topic. These are the kinds of things people are interested in. There are also things like, "There are 123 people in Norway whose surname is Moy." I found that out because I went on their website and they have that engaging feature, where you can find out something you did not previously know. It is engaging; it is sharable; and it is interesting. They want you to share the treasure trove of information they have. I do not think that is what we see in the outlets we have at the moment.
Michael Blastland: I do not disagree with anything there. I used to work for a programme called More or Less on Radio 4, which deals with statistical issues in the news. Just before I left, I had an idea that I would get myself a couple of very bright maths graduates and shut them in a room and say, "See if you can find-I do not know-a longrun series of data since the Second World War of per capita GDP?" That is quite an interesting little number. You pop in every couple of days with some bread and water to make sure they are not dead-from the stultifying experience or something else. In fact, I would recommend it to members. In the unlikely event that you do find yourselves with a spare weekend, set yourselves a few challenges of discovering this data and see how far you get.
Chair: We are very spoiled in this House; we have the House of Commons Library to do it for us.
Michael Blastland: It is an exasperating experience. I regard it as a moment of failure when I have to phone somebody. It is a terribly inefficient way of doing it, when we have this webbased system, but I do find myself having to phone people, and I fancy that I know my way around the system reasonably well.
I did want to bring this to people’s attention, because it is in many ways a rather trivial book. It is called Olympic Britain and it is published by the House of Commons Library. However, there are a few data series in here, "National flourish: the causes of population change since 1922." That is a fascinating little piece of information. Then you look at the sources, and the sources are, "BR Mitchell, British Historical Statistics, 1988; ONS, Annual Abstract of Statistics, 1938-89." That is not one volume. It is has taken the House of Commons goodness knows how long to compile a very simple series of data. There is another one on participation in higher education. It is fascinating. Again, that is a longrun data series. Again, if you look at the sources, goodness knows how much you would have to delve through-a lot of it not even available online-in order to put together a longrun data series.
I agree absolutely with Will: these are treasures. You cannot have a sensible argument about where we are now without consulting this data. We cannot consult this data easily.
Chair: Well, the House of Commons Library does us a great service.
Michael Blastland: You are lucky.
Chris Giles: I will just make one specific point. I do not disagree with anything the other two witnesses have said. I thought I would conduct a test yesterday-both from an expert and a lay point of view-in relation to a question that would be a reasonable question to ask in a debate about society in the pub at the moment: is unemployment now higher or lower than it was in the mid-1990s? If you were a layperson, the first place you might go is to the ONS website. If I may, I will just go through the procedure of what you must do to answer that question.
If you go to the homepage, you click on unemployment on the right, which you might think would be the obvious thing to click on. It is not there; you do not get anything useful there to answer that question, but on that page you do see something called labour market statistics. You think, "That might be a good place to go." You can click on that and, again, you will not find the information. There is a pdf document of the latest unemployment statistics there, which, if you are still going, you might go into. You will get unemployment there, but only back to 2007. If you then go back to where you were, there is another unemployment tab on the left. You actually get a chart then but, again, only back to 2007. I could go through and give you another five or six steps before you would certainly give up. There is absolutely no way of getting an answer to that question if you are a layperson-certainly not if you are using a tablet in the pub.
If you are an expert user-which I think I probably am because I use the ONS website all the time-and you actually know the fourdigit codes for unemployment rate and level: the fourdigit code for the level is MGSC and for the rate it is MGSX. You would have thought that if you type that into the search box on the ONS website, you should be able to get the series very quickly. No. It takes eight clicks before you actually get to the data. That, as an expert user, is really very frustrating. It should not be anything like that.
Q49 Chair: That is a very fascinating account. Do you share my frustration that the Budget red book, which one would expect to contain some of this longrun data, is extraordinarily subjective in the data it contains? Should the Government not do something to pull together some of this key economic data at budget time and publish it in a simple form?
Chris Giles: I think the key economic data should all be very easily accessible in longrun form-not necessarily back to the 19th century, but clearly back to 1948, from where we have good national statistics. You can get GDP; you should be able to get unemployment; you should be able to get inflation. You should be able to get all of these very basic things that the public should need to know about in a very simple form. The ONS should put the form that it thinks is the best form up on its website, so that if you clicked on unemployment first, that would immediately be what you saw-in a longterm sense.
Q50 Chair: Why do you think the ONS does not do this?
Chris Giles: I have absolutely no idea. It seems to be the simplest thing they could do to improve their website in very short order.
Michael Blastland: It is a very simple principle in a hierarchical arrangement of data that you have a simple access point. Perhaps you could do it graphically; you could zoom in and call in other bits of information as your level of interest or expertise requires. It is baffling to all of us why it has taken so long to get anywhere near that. There are a few examples of the use of graphics-for example, population is not bad-but by and large it has been kicking around in the outside world now for a good few years and we have failed to exploit it.
Will Moy: I think the answer to your broader question is that the statistics producers-the GSS and the ONS-prize technical skills above communication skills. I think there needs to be a culture change so that communication is esteemed as highly and is as much an integral part of producing statistics for society as the technical skills of producing them.
Q51 Chair: Finally, do you think there is any example in the world where this is done very well by a government?
Will Moy: No.
Chair: There is no government in the world that does this well.
Will Moy: There is no government in the world that does it. Google is terrible at it. www.google.com/publicdata is embarrassing for Google, I am sure. Statistics is an unsolved problem, I think, of really high quality presentation. It will be solved in the next few years.
Chair: Are there any local authorities that are doing this well?
Will Moy: Not that I know of. There are individual good examples. I do not mean to say that nothing is done well, but if you are talking on the level of presenting a coherent picture of a country or an area, I am not aware of anything that I think fully takes advantage of the potential.
Michael Blastland: There is a key point there: it is very difficult for outside people to do it. It is the staff in the Office for National Statistics who know this data better than anybody. They know the wrinkles in it; they have very good conversations in the pub about what it means, but they have a tremendous reluctance to tell anybody else sometimes.
Chair: They do tell us in the House of Commons Library.
Michael Blastland: Perhaps that is true of the House of Commons Library. I am thinking of the ONS here. However, there is a reluctance to do more than just give the numbers. It is particularly hard for external bodies-who do not have that acquaintance with the data-to be able to give it the sort of interpretation it needs to provide an effective service. I agree with Will: by and large, these things do not exist.
Q52 Robert Halfon: In terms of your factchecking service, how do you decide which facts you will check?
Will Moy: At risk of a tangent-do cut me off if I go on too long-we try to check facts that our audience is interested in. We try to aim for an audience of the general public- people who are engaged with politics but not necessarily deep political enthusiasts. We try to maintain a political balance over time and between topics. We try to focus on topics we know the public are interested in. We track the Ipsos MORI poll of issues facing Britain today, of which the top trending issues are the economy, heath, crime, immigration and education.
Q53 Robert Halfon: Basically, you decide based on some polling and you own decisions on what things should be fact checked?
Will Moy: Yes, there is an element of news judgment about it.
Q54 Robert Halfon: Do you do the Channel 4 Fact Check?
Will Moy: No. We are separate.
Robert Halfon: That is nothing to do with you at all.
Will Moy: No. Unlike them, we check the media as well as political claims.
Q55 Robert Halfon: Surely there are ways to improve statistics. We had a session on digital engagement with a lady called Beth Noveck, who had written a book called Wiki Government about how they had crowdsourced the US Patent Office so that people could actually advise whether things were patented or not. It has been a tremendous success; they are looking to extend it in others areas of government. Because of the way that statistics are so open to different interpretations, surely the best way to do this would be to crowdsource statistics. Instead of you guys making a decision on what you look at on an opinion poll, you crowdsource people and see what statistics they would like and get them to participate in the statistical analysis. Of course, you would have the experts going through it, but would that not be a better way-it would also be trusted by the public-to engage people digitally in the compilation of statistics in a genuine way, rather than the great and the good compiling the statistics?
Will Moy: I think there is an element of truth in that. Actually, one of the precepts of Full Fact over the next few years is to involve far more other people-networks of experts-and become a centre where people can come together and do exactly that kind of work. The fact is that statistics are not just numbers. Statistics are the product of a careful and carefully designed process, which reaches a conclusion that is a set of numbers. The methodology is integral to statistics, and it is known by the people who produce them. The caveats are integral to statistics, and they are known by the people who produce them. It is the responsibility of producers to communicate those.
Q56 Robert Halfon: There will be people outside who have their own methodology and are intelligent enough to offer their input. Can I take the views of the other members of the panel?
Michael Blastland: I have heard Tim BernersLee, who is an inspirational figure in many ways, getting whole conferences to chant, "Raw data now." I am not sure he is that familiar with raw data. I am not sure if he would say that if he had seen a pile of raw data, which is a lot of zeros and ones in columns. It does take some ability to decipher this stuff. We could leave it to a freelance initiative.
Chair: The Daily Mail, for example
Robert Halfon: That is misunderstanding what I am saying. In the example of the US Patent Office, they still have the US Patent Office and regulations and so on, but they allow people to crowdsource. They found out there were thousands of experts on patents. It enabled the department to function much more efficiently. Surely you could democratise statistics in the same way. You would still have people checking it and so on.
Michael Blastland: You could. I am not sure I would want to democratise statistical provenance. I have some concerns about the volume. You would get a lot of volume, I think; I do not know whether you would get a lot of quality. I agree with you that there will be experts out there, and harnessing their expertise is something we ought to try to do. I am not quite sure how to do it. I have not seen the Wiki experiment in the United States; I would be quite interested to look at it. I come back to Will’s point: there is a great deal of method and expertise involved in understanding the way the data is generated. Numbers are not just out there to be gathered; the interpretation is a skilful thing.
Q57 Robert Halfon: What you are saying is that only the great and the good can design statistics, and that it should not be open to the people to get involved.
Michael Blastland: I am welcoming you to have a go, but I think I will go to the Office for National Statistics.
Robert Halfon: I would not have a go; I am terrible at numbers.
Chris Giles: I am very happy to let 1,000 flowers blossom, but I still want the ONS there to give me statistics I can trust.
Q58 Lindsay Roy: Are you aware of the criteria for inclusion in the category "official statistics"? I asked that of the Minister and he said that it is in the legislation. How is that different from management data, admin information and research?
Will Moy: This is a mess. Official statistics are very simply defined in the Act as any statistics produced by a Government department. That is an official statistic; a national statistic is an official statistic that has been assessed by the UK Statistics Authority and designated a national statistic. The big question is this: what is a statistic? At the moment, we seem to have got into a bit of a mire, where occasionally ministers seem to feel able to designate something as not a statistic because it is convenient so to do. Things can turn out as management information or research data when they absolutely, in our view, should not be. There have been occasions when the Authority has had to intervene to point this out.
Lindsay Roy: You are saying these are political decisions.
Will Moy: No, I am saying these are absolutely not political decisions. The only decision I am aware of in that chain is the factual decision as to whether something is a statistic or not and therefore an official statistic or not. That decision, to the extent that there is a judgment, is a professional judgment that needs to be made by the head of profession for statistics in a department, free of political influence. It is very important to trust in official statistics, but that is not a ministerial decision and should not be mistaken for one.
Michael Blastland: My sense is there is a squabble about it. The statistical authorities push to include more of the statistics that might be official or not in the official designation, but there is resistance and that resistance excites suspicion. You mentioned the kitemark earlier-the little green tick on official statistics-and I would be amazed if there were to be brand recognition in the public at large of that green tick higher than-I do not know-0.1%. I would be surprised if it were higher than 0.1% amongst journalists. An understanding of the distinction does not really exist in the public at large. As we have discovered, it does not exist at ministerial level. I would be surprised if it existed almost anywhere.
It seems to me that there is a choice: either we can try to demarcate those statistics we want to say are kosher-and all the rest is better or worse according to whatever politicians and others want to make of it-or we can try to say, as I think the public believes, that if the data comes from a Government source-any kind of Government source-then it is official. Is the Secretary of State not an official source for statistics? Nobody makes that distinction in the outside world. We either have to make it one or we have to bang the drum on distinguishing it. The effort at distinction, with the green kitemark, is invisible.
Chris Giles: I would agree with Michael on that. There are also spats between official bodies about things that are national statistics and have the kitemark. For example, for GDP, perhaps one of our most important statistics, a preliminary release is an official national statistic and does have the kitemark, yet the Bank of England, when they produce their quarterly inflation report, produce a backcast of the ONS’s figures, i.e. an alternative version of GDP based on the way they think it will be revised in the future. If you graph the Bank of England’s view of GDP against the ONS’s view of GDP-which we did, unfortunately, on the front page of the Financial Times quite recently-you do not get the same number and you can confuse people. There is a great confusion about national versus official statistics. I totally agree. I think the most important point was the point made by Michael: if it is a number or a factual statement coming out of a Government office or minister, it should be treated as kosher; if it is not kosher, there is a real problem.
Q59 Lindsay Roy: Can you cite any examples of official statistics that have been very well explained?
Q60 Chris Giles: I actually take a lot of trouble to try to find out about the explanation and methodology behind statistics. When I do go to the ONS and ask for a private briefing on how statistics are put together, I do find they are rather well explained, but I think I am in a very small minority of people who do that. I am also probably in a very privileged position in that they are willing to do that for me.
Michael Blastland: You do get moments of radiance, when you fall down in gratitude. The press conferences can be very useful. It is interesting that these are spoken, rather than written. I will give you a little example. John Flatley, the ONS head of crime statistics, said-I think it was at one of these events-that they were trying to understand the decline in murder rates. There is a common question about that decline-whether it is to do with medical advances, for example. He said he was sceptical of that explanation. He thought more effective treatment by surgeons of victims of stab wounds, for example, was not the main factor behind the fall, pointing to the fact that attempted murders were falling at a similar rate. Now, that is rather interesting. It is a good little insight. If you are very familiar with the data, you know that. You have looked at it; you have wondered about it. You feel it is a relevant comparison and you can offer it. Most people, I think, do not know where to start on a question like that. They do. When they do it well, they do it brilliantly and they do it with authority. They just do not do it often enough.
Will Moy: I agree with both of those points, and I think this goes to an absolutely crucial point, which is that the explanation is out there. Our statistics producers have it, but they very often do not share it. Most people we know get their news from the television; our statistics producers are absent from the television. There is a strong case for the National Statistician having a similar role to Robert Chote, when he got up, on TV, at the end of the Autumn Statement to explain what was going on. I think our National Statistician could usefully have that role. Heads of profession in particular Government departments could usefully have that role. Explanation is the key to statistics; it is not an optional extra. You must go where your audience is.
Michael Blastland: I have seen the National Statistician popping up a bit more of late.
Will Moy: It should be encouraged.
Michael Blastland: Yes.
Q61 Chair: Is there not a danger that a government statistician will always be seen to be vulnerable to influence, whereas someone like Robert Chote is regarded as completely independent, because he is.
Michael Blastland: I was thinking of the National Statistician in the Office for National Statistics. Their status is similar, however. I see no reason why the ONS’s National Statistician could not speak with the same authority and independence as Robert Chote.
Will Moy: With respect, it is for this Committee to protect that status.
Chair: Yes, I agree with that.
Q62 Lindsay Roy: What should the official producers do to explain statistics to nonexpert users? Is there a key role here for the media?
Chris Giles: I think there is an extremely key role for the media. The media is mixed, but the media often gets extremely poor information, particularly from the ONS in its written communications. If you bear with me, I have some examples that I would like to share with you.
Chair: As quickly as you can, please.
Chris Giles: These are not just my pet hates. This is from last week. I took two releases from last week, rather than thinking about the things that have gone wrong in the past year. Take the trade statistics from 6 December. In the press release, the top line of the trade statistics was, "Seasonally adjusted, the UK deficit in trade in goods and services was estimated to have been £3.6 billion in October, compared with a deficit of £2.5 billion in September." They also produced a chart, lower down in the press release, from which you can see the truth is that it bounces around a bit and is pretty stable. The top line of the press release makes a big point of how much it has changed within the month, so it is only looking at that tiny fall there.
Chair: I am afraid audiovisual aids do not work in this Committee. We can publish the chart if you table it as written evidence-but refer to it.
Chris Giles: I will now read you the headlines of the newspapers and explain how this was reported. Journalists often look at the top line of press releases, particularly from trusted sources like the Office for National Statistics. City A.M. said, "Yawning trade gap adds to threat of fourthquarter decline." The Daily Telegraph said, "Weak trade renews tripledip fears." The Guardian said, "UK trade gap widens in October: Office for National Statistics says the trade deficit in goods and services has jumped to £3.6 billion." Even in the Financial Times, though we did not have it in our top line, that statistic was in our second line.
This really matters. The ONS has to answer the straightforward journalistic question of, "So what? Why does this matter? What is important about trade here?" What was important in those trade figures was clearly not that it rose from £2.5 billion to £3.6 billion. My answer to that question would be something along the lines of, "Britain’s trade deficit shows little sign of closing as it remained broadly stable and close to £3 billion in October, its average in the past year." That would have been a fair representation of the data. Why the ONS chose to do a monthly change, I do not know.
Q63 Chair: That is very interesting. Why do you think they did?
Chris Giles: My fear is that they pander to the worst elements of journalism.
Chair: They think they need to get coverage.
Chris Giles: They know what journalists might well want and they give it to them.
Chair: That is a very strong thing to say.
Chris Giles: I say that is my fear. It is not something I know, but it is my fear.
Chair: We will put it to them.
Chris Giles: It is something to put to them. Can I give you an even worse example? This is family spending from 4 December. This, again, is last week. This is the result from the annual Living Costs and Food Survey. This is what determines the basket for the inflation indices. It tells us what people are spending in the UK. The headline was, "Household spending edges higher while spending patterns differ by income." The first half of that sentence is wrong. It edged higher in nominal terms, not in real terms. That was actually giving a misleading impression. The second half is empty. "Spending patterns differ by income" is a complete irrelevance to anybody.
That is not the worst of it. It goes on. In the first line it says, "The annual report from the ONS on household expenditure in the UK found that in 2011 average UK weekly household expenditure rose to £483.60, an increase of £10 on the level recorded for 2010." That is two pretty irrelevant numbers out of context, because we do not know what sort of households they are. Also, £10 out of what is essentially £500 is an increase of well under 2%, when we know inflation was running at 5%. That is a decrease.
Q64 Chair: Is there an error margin in these statistics?
Chris Giles: There will be an error margin, but that is not mentioned in the press release.
Chair: Would it be as much as 2%?
Chris Giles: It will probably not be; it is quite a big survey. It goes on to say, "The 2011 average expenditure is the highest recorded by family spending." They are going into record making. Actually, in real terms, it was the lowest in 10 years.
Chair: If you were the Minister for happy families, you would be quite pleased with that headline.
Chris Giles: You would be quite pleased with that headline, and you would be wrong to be pleased. It then goes on to say that transport costs were the highest category of spending because they make an elementary mistake in assuming that people with mortgages do not pay for their housing services, because they used a particular form of National Accounts definition of housing expenditure, which in this survey is not the appropriate definition. Those are actual conceptual errors in the press release.
Let us look at how it was then reported. The Daily Telegraph said, "Household spending rises as fuel prices soar." The Guardian said, "Household spending at record high fuelled by rising petrol prices." The Daily Mail said, "It cost £483.80 a week to run a British home in 2011." Sky was rather better; they said, "Household spending up but families get less." The Financial Times-this time we did it exactly right, I think-said, "Household spending falls to a 14year low," which is actually what the truth of that statistic was.
Chair: How interesting.
Chris Giles: I think that is a very telling example of how what the ONS put out in their press releases is really important, because the press follow it. It is not just the written press, which is not much easier to find on Google; the broadcast media will do the same. It is not a small point; it really matters. The ONS are fantastically bad at it.
Lindsay Roy: The point is noted.
Michael Blastland: I have a potentially slightly more benign explanation for the way the ONS organises its releases, although I am afraid now as well. I think to some extent they feel they are just giving the numbers. These are the latest numbers, so they give you the latest month and we put that at the top of the page. I think it is a feeling that there is a kind of purity about this-objectivity, if you like. However, I think that illustration shows us pretty clearly that there is no such thing as a purity. They have implied something about trends and the state of things now by emphasising the rate of change rather than the long run. You cannot make choices that do not imply some particular take on the data. You are always, to some extent, telling a story.
Q65 Chair: You are suggesting that they would say, "It is not our job to provide a gloss on this; we will just provide the raw facts."
Michael Blastland: Yes, but the raw facts are never raw. They are implying something about what is going on. I think they believe they are giving raw facts, but they are not. When you come back to their reluctance to say, "We should not get involved in that kind of an argument," they are involved-whether they like it or not. The way they present the first line of the data involves them in some statement about the data.
Will Moy: To take the constructive explanation one stage further, maybe they do not believe they are giving raw facts, but they basically do the same thing with every statistical release, which is compare the latest with the previous. In doing so, they are effectively implying that to some extent this is a mechanical process.
Chris Giles: But they do not.
Will Moy: We have hired thousands of capable statisticians to help explain our country to us; we should be saying to them, "We expect you to explain our country to us, not just give us the results of a mechanical processes."
Even more importantly than that, picking up on what Chris is saying, they have a responsibility to communicate effectively. That involves considering the impact of your communication on your audience. What the ONS should be doing is taking into account how their releases are covered and feeding that back into how their releases are drafted. On occasion, we have asked them to do this when we have picked up on misleading coverage. I have to say that the results have not been entirely helpful.
There was one example around jobs from back in the days of Gordon Brown’s slogan, "British jobs for British workers." Those statistics were particularly controversial and were a regular topic of coverage. They were being misunderstood in a slightly technical way. We went to the ONS and said, "If you put a little explanation in your release, people will stop making this mistake." We had to go to them, I think, three times before sufficiently high-up people decided not to do it. We then had to go to the Authority to say, "This is obviously what you exist for; why do you not change this to avoid this mistake?" They told the ONS to do that, and in future coverage the mistake was not repeated. That is a very simple pattern of behaviour, which serves the public well.
Q66 Chair: Does that not suggest they are aware of their political masters?
Will Moy: I do not want to tar all of them with the same brush; I have great respect for the people in the ONS and the GSS, but I think it suggests that too many of them believe that their job is finished once they have got the product out. They see themselves as a producing organisation, rather than a communicating organisation. Actually, their job is to instil understanding as much as to produce a technical product.
Q67 Lindsay Roy: You have given us examples of imbalanced interpretation.
Michael Blastland: Can we give you examples of that?
Lindsay Roy: No, you have just given them.
Michael Blastland: Yes.
Lindsay Roy: That is very helpful. Thank you.
Michael Blastland: Yes, although it is an interpretation on the premise that they were giving no interpretation. Had they thought about what interpretation they were giving, I think they would have given a better one.
Chair: That is very well put, if I may say so.
Chris Giles: If you ever ask the official statisticians what they think the most important statistic in a release is, they will not give the top line of the press release. What has happened to unemployment will not necessarily be the change in the threemonth labour force survey measure compared with the previous three months. They will, in words, give a long-run historical interpretation-yet their press releases do not do that.
Q68 Paul Flynn: Can I ask you whether you had a moment of radiance or desolation listening to our last witness?
Michael Blastland: I do not think I learned a great deal-other than that statistics, by and large, is not considered a big political priority.
Q69 Paul Flynn: Can I take up a point made by the Chairman? I am sure he did not intend to impute the integrity of statisticians, but I treasure a letter I had from Mrs Thatcher in 1988, regarding the move of the statistics department to a department that had a vested interest in fiddling the figures, saying that it was unworthy of me to suggest that politicians would interfere in any way with the purity and objectivity of the statistics. Since that time there have been many accusations.
The whole point of setting up the Statistics Authority was to increase public trust. If the many hundreds of my constituents who work on statistics find that the statistics are not trusted, their work is valueless. We have to establish trust. Are we making progress on that? Have things improved in terms of public confidence? The very valuable evidence you have given suggested that things are probably as bad as ever, because of those, press or politicians, who seek to manipulate the conclusions of the ONS.
Will Moy: I am not sure I am that negative. We have put into place some very important building blocks of trustworthy official statistics. That has been a long, ongoing process. Onora O’Neill’s analysis of what trust really means is that people, rather than taking things on blind faith, defer to the ONS, contest things for ourselves and reach our own conclusions about them-and thus we reach informed trust. That is a very important touchstone here. More and more that is becoming possible, so I think we are making progress. One of the big tests is whether misleading claims using statistics continue to persist. Therefore, the tests for this Committee are whether you will back up the UK Statistics Authority when they challenge misleading claims and whether ministers will be effectively stopped from making misleading claims.
In due course, we should be talking about the Authority doing a similar role in terms of opposition spokespeople. I am certainly not making a point that is partisan, even within a time period. Ultimately, trust consists of being able to check things for yourself and things that are not trustworthy being stopped. The buck, for that, stops with the Committee.
Q70 Paul Flynn: The Committee certainly supported Michael Scholar in his frequent criticism of the Home Office figures, primarily. I am sure we do the same for National Health Service figures and so on now.
Could you clean up this idea that the Statistics Authority are sensitive to the views of their political masters? Do you really believe that? Are they likely to react to what their political masters are saying, whether they are Labour or Conservative? There was certainly no sign of that from Michael Scholar, who was robust in criticising the previous Government.
Will Moy: Others will obviously have a point of view.
Paul Flynn: Andrew Dilnot was someone who had the enthusiastic support of this Committee, both as a statistician and also as a communicator.
Michael Blastland: I do think they need to keep their powder dry. You cannot go after everything. Michael Scholar’s great achievement was to pick his targets very carefully, so that he was able to establish the authority of the Statistics Authority in commenting on the general use of statistical data without looking as if he would become the kind of pedant who was perhaps politically motivated because someone out there would be adding up the criticisms of either Conservative or Labour or whatever. He chose his cases carefully. I think that must continue to some extent. There is an educative purpose in that. When you pick your cases, what can you demonstrate through them? Is this a case that is simply of high political salience? It is an egregious example? Can we learn something about the way this data has been abused or misrepresented? There are a lot of considerations when you say, "We will go after this one but not that one." I have absolute faith in Andrew. I have no reservations at all about his political independence. I suspect in the past there might have been members of the board who felt the heat from certain parts of Government when they pressed to take more statistics into official statistics, and perhaps parts of the Government machine said, "Keep away."
Q71 Paul Flynn: The hot issues are the problems. I can recall evidence from a man with a memorable name, Alfred Hitchcock-a policeman in London-on knife statistics, saying that knife crime had gone down in London, yet there were blazing headlines in the tabloids saying that it had gone up. The Government reacted and introduced some instant legislation to deal with it. The popular press-since you absolved the serious press of it-have a vested interest in creating their own fiction by using statistics that are completely false.
Michael Blastland: I have some sympathy with Will’s optimism here, because an increasing number organisations-his is one of them, actually; he cannot say this but I can-provide scrutiny elsewhere, and the capacity for embarrassment is a very important part of the process. If you can haul people up and pester them and pester them until they do something about it, which, among other things, Full Fact does, you might get somewhere. We have a lot more of those organisations. We have Full Fact. We have Channel 4 Fact Check. We have Ben Goldacre in The Guardian newspaper doing a similar sort of job. We have the Statistics Authority. We have the More or Less programme on Radio 4. There are far more of these places than there used to be, and there is a bit of a tide in this. It is almost fashionable in journalism now and I am encouraged by that.
Chris Giles: I am encouraged but my encouragement is quite limited. I still think we have a long way to go. I have no questions at all about the independence of the UKSA, but I do worry much more about how much other Government departments really care if they get their knuckles rapped by the UKSA. Does it really hurt them? Is the Prime Minister really chastened from what he said in the Commons the other day, whether or not he knew about the GDP figures under prerelease? I am not sure; I am not that confident. Though I think all the things that Full Fact and all of these other good bodies, including our own, do are important in trying to keep people honest, I have not noticed that it has necessarily got a lot better out there.
Chair: I can assure you that ministers hate receiving letters from the UK Statistics Authority Chairman.
Chris Giles: I am sure they say they hate it, but do they really hate it?
Chair: They really hate it.
Will Moy: The test, though, Mr Chairman, is whether or not they change their behaviour afterwards.
Chair: That is something that we are certainly considering as a Committee and we will be discussing.
Q72 Greg Mulholland: It has been a fascinating discussion. The written evidence from Full Fact said the goal of publishing official statistics "should be to ensure that users can get the information they need, in its full context," and went on to say it "should strive to present a coherent statistical picture in important or contentious areas of public debate".
Clearly, statistics are there to inform the big issues of the day and to lead to better and more honest information-but also better policy going forward. In the end, that is how we govern and are governed better. How do you think we should deal with this challenge, precisely going back to the discussion we have had about presenting some of the findings of statistics in a misleading way? How can we on one hand say that just having the raw numbers is not helpful? If you are saying we should contextualise, how can we contextualise and put those into the context of the big issue of the day, when, clearly, you get into the political domain and people are trying to communicate different parts of that? Is that possible, or does that actually lead to the kinds of problems we have heard about?
Chris Giles: I think it is completely possible. You need to use some good journalistic skills, so you have your data and you have certain forms that you use every time. So on the front page, you need a longrun chart, which you keep the same the whole time. You probably want a nearterm chart, because people, in news terms, do want to know what has changed recently. Otherwise you get a long, straight line, which looks very boring. You also want a correct headline in context. That needs to be written by someone pretty senior in ONS, who can actually defend, pretty categorically, why they have chosen that as the headline for a chart.
What I would also like is any special features that we need to know about. This is exactly what Michael was talking about in terms of the murder-rate example. If attempted murder has gone down as well, that is a very relevant feature. If in public finance statistics you know there has been a delay in winter fuel allowance payments, for example, that means that in that month in particular public spending is lower than you would have expected it to be. Some of those things must be brought up.
You want links to the methodology for people and then links to the full data online for people who really want the detail. You do not need a lot more than that; most people do not use a lot more than that. That is not very difficult. Instead of producing 105 pages, which is the length of the retail sales first release, you cut it by 95%. I mean 95%. If it were a release of about five pages, you would have time to make it rather more intelligent.
Q73 Greg Mulholland: Very simply, you would say: clear guidelines and consistency.
Chris Giles: Clear guidelines and consistency, but allowing the leeway for the top line to be determined by the statisticians who know about it. If politicians then want to make a big point and say there is political bias either way in this, it would be for them to have to defend why they are attacking the ONS, when they are trying to inform the public.
Michael Blastland: One other quality I would like to see in more of the statistical data is a willingness to be relevant quickly. We have a schedule of releases and we stick to it. There are good reasons for that. However, there are issues that come up from time to time that have no prominent place in the schedule of releases.
I will give you one quick example: disputes and strikes. We have had something like four years, as far as I can tell from my look in the media, of speculation about winters, springs autumns and summers of discontent. It has been relentless. Look at the data, which I have seen precious little of-either in the media or in political argument. It is astonishingly low. I mean breathtakingly low. There was a period before the strikes last spring when we had a 12month period in which there were fewer strikes in that whole year than there were in every single month of the Blitz, when we were all pulling together. It has been that low for possibly 20 to 25 years. There has been an absolute step change in industrial relations in this country and we know very little about it. In fact, regarding your point about whether we make policy on this, there have been discussions about whether we need further policy to do something about the threat of Britain being brought once again to its knees by striking and so on. We have had trade union leaders rattling the sabre talking about comparisons with the national strike of 1926-all in an entirely datafree zone.
The ONS has these numbers. They come out in the labour market release on page 22 or something like that-in the usual spot-to show the numbers of strikes or days of labour productivity lost this year. It is rather interesting and it is missing. The ONS knows about it; they know its historical trends. They could pull something together to say, "This is a very topical issue; lots of people are talking about it. Here are some common misconceptions about the data. Here is some information you might find useful." A willingness to be useful from time to time would be a great addition to Chris’ list.
Will Moy: If I may, I will pick up on some of the principles behind what you are asking. Chris dived into detail-I support what he said-but yes, it is possible to write non-partisan, informative content. Actually, the opposite of explanation is not being nonpartisan; it is being ignorant. I think we really need to be aware of the danger of ill communicated statistics. They are positively a problem. The Committee, I believe, needs to give the statistical producers a clear steer that we expect explanation and we do not see that as them being too political. We know that they know where the line is; we know that they know where to draw it; we know that they can exercise very careful judgment about being political and not being partisan. However, we do need explanation. That is, emphatically, their role.
Michael Blastland: The IFS does it.
Will Moy: The IFS manages that task extraordinarily well.
Chair: Sorry, one at a time.
Will Moy: Michael is right; the Institute for Fiscal Studies has a stellar reputation in this area. Full Fact is busily building ours. The Financial Times do pretty good non-partisan analysis and so do other bodies. It is not impossible.
Q74 Chair: Does the BBC do good nonpartisan analysis?
Michael Blastland: Variable.
Will Moy: Michael works for them and I used to.
Michael Blastland: It is pretty good at some times, less good at others. I do not think the motives are political, on the whole. I do not think that is true.
Will Moy: On the practical side, Chris is absolutely right to identify the need for good journalistic skills. I think it would be surprising if we suddenly found a lot of good journalistic skills were lurking untapped among our statisticians. If we want to do communication well, we actually have to hire people with communication skills. We have suggested that what is needed is what would be normal in any other publishing organisation, which is a subeditor’s desk through which publications go and which ensures house style and standards and is focused on what the audience needs, rather than the technical demands of production.
Chair: That is a very interesting suggestion.
Q75 Paul Flynn: Will the present national census be the final one? Is it not time to bury this expensive, misleading anachronism-yes or no?
Chair: That is topical.
Michael Blastland: I would rather leave that one to Andrew. Over the years it has been such a tremendous resource. Whether we have the technical ability to replace it in a much cheaper way I am not qualified to judge. It would be useful if we could. It is expensive. It is not a large cost, given the amount of public distribution money that hangs on it. If we cannot get it reasonably right by other sources, I think we would be in trouble. If we can, let us avoid the half billion or whatever it costs. It would be a simple thing for the authorities to satisfy themselves of: can we replace this data from other sources?
Q76 Paul Flynn: Wouldn’t we get the same information if we asked one tenthousandth of the sample that we ask? Would not we get more accurate information about the number of supporters of Jedi Knights, for example?
Michael Blastland: You are always going to have to survey people to some extent and they are always going to say stupid things.
Chair: On the population levels in London boroughs, for example, the census produced some real surprises. Is that not a justification for the census, or could those issues be tackled in a different way?
Michael Blastland: I do not know the technical quality of the alternative sources. That is the problem. The census has been magnificent over the years.
Chair: If I remember correctly, the London borough of Newham had several tens of thousands more people living there than anybody realised. These are very big numbers.
Michael Blastland: Yes, they would have a marked effect on the distribution of grants for various services. It sounds valuable to me.
Chair: On the other hand, shouldn’t the borough themselves have known?
Michael Blastland: I can only repeat the same answer: if you can find sufficiently good alternatives sources, yes, but who satisfies themselves that they are sufficiently good? I think I will leave that up to the Statistics Authority.
Q77 Chair: We are constantly assailed by this unofficial data problem. The most notable example was Sir Michael Scholar’s parting shot to the DWP, which was about research they had published about the number of claimants on outofwork benefits who were immigrants. What is the best way of addressing this issue? There is a danger of gumming up the machinery completely with procedural problems if every number must be filtered through the same official statistics framework.
Will Moy: Pardon me, but the official statistics framework only exists to make sure the numbers are actually sound and not political. These are not stringent and bureaucratic requirements; these are the basic requirements for numbers that you can actually trust.
Chair: You would argue that the Department was passing something off as research.
Will Moy: It has been a while since I looked at that particular example, but I have certainly seen examples of things I think were perfectly clearly official statistics that should have been judged against the code and were trying to avoid being judged against the code by being designated as either ad hoc, management information or research. It is a decision, to some extent, of professional judgment. I think it needs to be very clear that professional judgment must be insulated from ministers, from the press office and other political influences. If there is any doubt about that professional judgment, the heads of profession should consult the National Statistician or the Authority as appropriate to try to insulate it from departmental political pressures. If in doubt, the code should be met.
Michael Blastland: I would only add that there is a legitimate place for research. The ONS itself publishes what it calls experimental statistics; there is no problem with that. We are not confident enough to give them the green tick, but we want to have a look and we also want feedback from other people and experts on how good they are. There has to be some scope and freedom to do this. It is about the presentation. Are you claiming that this is giving you a definitive account of something that is going on out there or are you just saying, "We have had a bit of a prod around and this is what we have come up with"? The latter seems to me to be necessary and sensible-as long as you present it in that form.
Q78 Chair: The procedure is that if a department does some research and they want to publish it, it should go through the ONS. Is that right?
Michael Blastland: Or it should be very clearly labelled as an experimental piece of research that has not been validated by the ONS and for that reason may not be an accurate representation.
Chris Giles: I do not see a problem at all with a Government department putting out the equivalent of a working paper and essentially saying, "We have been musing about this." The Bank of England does it all the time. There is no problem as long as they do not then try to pass it off as official statistics. It is that passing off process, which ministers might get into, where it becomes problematic. That is quite difficult. If ministers do that, the response will be that it must go through the code and it will become a very bureaucratic process. I do not see a real difficulty if officials are going around and trying to do their job properly, investigating things in their area and putting out working papers on that to get wider views.
Will Moy: The key thing really comes in the press handling. If you generate something in a certain format just so that you can leak it the night before without getting an argument back and for over the code, that is really where most of the argument is.
Q79 Chair: Moving on, you are all, obviously, not happy with the way the ONS is engaging with users. How should they improve this?
Michael Blastland: It is not just the ONS.
Chair: And other official statistics producers. How should this be addressed?
Chris Giles: I will deal with what I think should happen at the ONS, because I deal with the ONS a lot. I like the ONS. I have been very critical today, but that is because I think that is what is more helpful for them to improve. I think they produce a lot of very good statistics, but I think they are let down on their communications. The two most important things they need to do, I think, are to sort out their first releases and their website. The website revamp was a complete disaster.
Chair: They need to engage with users. That is the question I am asking. How should they engage with users so they get feedback to improve their business? Most businesses use complaints to improve their business.
Chris Giles: They have used feedback, because we have certainly gone to filmed seminars where we have said similar things to what I have said today in front of a twoway mirror for statisticians to hear what people say about their releases.
Chair: Very good. I am very pleased to hear that.
Chris Giles: They are doing that. It is important. In recent weeks, statisticians have become very helpful-more helpful than they have previously been-in trying to engage with us as a unit. I think the ONS is trying very hard. The most important thing for its users is that it must think about them in three categories.
Q80 Chair: What is the message to the leadership? What do they need to do?
Chris Giles: If they have taken a decision to communicate better, it is that they need to really push it forward.
Will Moy: The short answer is that they are quite good at engaging with users in the sense of the Statistics User Forum, professional users of statistics, statisticians themselves. They are very good at that; that is a brilliant institution. I do not knock it at all; they deserve lots of credit that we are not spending a lot of time giving them today. Where they need to focus is on decision makers, the absolutely crucial users of statistics-you, ministers, and permanent secretaries, who Mr Dilnot, in a previous hearing, pointed out sometimes tend to use statistics as the garnish rather than the meat of their decisions. Also, they need to focus on the general public, who are the big missing audience in statistics production. They are increasingly looking for statistics themselves online; they need to be taken more into account.
Q81 Chair: I am still not clear on what the leadership of the statistics service needs to be doing in order to improve this?
Will Moy: They need to change the culture of the ONS and the GSS so they look at communicating by starting from where their audiences are. What do people want to know about? How do they want to receive that information? Those are the questions. If you applied that way of thinking about communicating, you would radically transform what the ONS puts out.
Michael Blastland: I agree. I think they must answer this question. Who are your users? It is a much broader community than they are accustomed to thinking of. There was a recent consultation on the PESA statistics, the Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis, by the Treasury. It invited consultation from anybody with an existing strong interest, i.e. Government bodies, businesses, local authorities, voluntary organisations and academics. In that list I do not think there was any sense of the general public. There is no sense of where you might expand; there is only a sense of where we are; Let us consult people we already have and decide whether they are happy.
Q82 Chair: Mr Moy, you suggested that they should build up a relationship with the Press Complaints Commission or, I presume, whatever succeeds it, in order that the regulation of the press should be much more concerned with how statistics are being used. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Will Moy: What we are concerned about is the case we had earlier this year, where the UKSA described a particular piece of coverage as misleading. The Press Complaints Commission reached a contradictory decision on it. By what authority they felt they understood statistics better than the Statistics Authority, I do not know.
Chair: What issue was this?
Will Moy: This was about reporting riot statistics. I could go into it but it is probably unnecessary.
Chair: Yes, I remember it.
Will Moy: It is clear, as members of the Committee have raised, that there are issues with the way statistics are reported in the press. Part of the responsibility for that lies with the way they are presented by statistics producers; part of it lies with the press. Some people have said the Authority ought to be going around shooting its mouth off at the press saying, "Fix this; fix that." I agree with Michael that this would be unhelpful. It needs to save its interventions for the relevant points.
There is a body, in the case of the press, whose job it is to uphold accuracy. It is a fundamental principle of journalism that everybody subscribes to. If the UKSA had a positive working relationship with whatever comes out of Leveson, with the Advertising Standards Authority, where necessary, or with the Committee for Standards in Public Life, which is also currently under review, all of these bodies, whose fundamental concern is trust in public life, can make sure that in the relevant areas they are the lead organisation and, where necessary, they take advice from the other organisations. They can all intervene in their different ways to uphold the standard, which is common across all of them, of accuracy and substantiation of what is said in public life. It seems to me to be a basic bit of co-operation.
Chris Giles: Can I just make one final point? For the leaders of the ONS and the UKSA I think there is one very important strategic objective they need to think about, which is that they in some ways need to turn themselves into accountants. Accountants have a test called a true and fair test. The biggest way in which the public are misled in the use of statistics is by things that are true-I read out quite a lot of things, like that family spending had gone up by £10. That was true, but it was not a fair representation of what was going on. True but not fair is as good as being untrue, in my opinion. It is that difficult boundary. When we do things wrong, we say, "Yes, but that was true." Ministers do this as well. They say, "That was strictly, definitively true." If it gave a misleading account of what is actually happening, that is as good as not being true. That is the test the heads of the UKSA and the ONS should be going around and doing to find out what is really egregiously wrong in the communication of statistics.
Michael Blastland: Also, they need to start again on the website.
Will Moy: It cannot be said enough. We do not need a website that is 10%, 50% or even 100% better; we need one that is 1,000% better. We need one that is actually designed in 2012 and not an upgrade of something that started in 1995.
Q83 Chair: I could invite you to make yourself clear. What do you have to say about pre-release? You heard the Minister.
Will Moy: It is wrong in principle. It violates the principle of equal access to official statistics. We paid for them. We are all citizens and we deserve to get them at the same time. It is wrong in practice: it leads to the kinds of problems we constantly see and will continue to see. I do not believe there is a real advantage to it. I believe that is the Committee’s standing position. I think you should say it again, and sooner or later it will change.
Michael Blastland: I have nothing to add except that possibly if there is really little to be gained, as I have heard ministers say on occasion-that they do not achieve any great advantage from it-then why do it?
Chair: It is custom and practice-it is cultural.
Michael Blastland: A custom and practice that excites suspicion is not a custom and practice you really want to continue.
Chris Giles: I just have one thing to add: I deal with quite a lot of marketsensitive statistics and I deal with the Treasury a lot, and I do not think I have ever had a well-informed briefing at 9.31 from the Treasury because they had prerelease.
Chair: That is something we will have to ask them about. Gentlemen, you have given us a really interesting session. Thank you very much indeed. It has been really exciting. I have enjoyed this enormously. Thank you very much indeed for your time.