Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
WEDNESDAY 1 MARCH 2000
JOHNSON MP, MR
140. You told us this morning that you saw no
evidence compelling enough, your words, to mount on inquiry but
you told me in a written answer that you saw no evidence at all.
(Miss Johnson) We have not seen any evidence that
would lead us to think there has been a leak.
141. So there is no evidence?
(Miss Johnson) There is no evidence that would lead
us to think there had been a leak because if we thought there
had been a leak obviously we would have looked at the possibility
of the Cabinet Office, as they do, instituting in the usual way
a leak inquiry.
142. If the entire City gets the rumour it is
5.5 and an hour later it is 5.5, what more evidence do you want?
(Miss Johnson) Do you want to comment further?
(Mr Goldsmith) I am no expert at what goes on in the
smoke of markets but this sort of conversation does go on. We
know that and I am sure you know that. What we did do, as I said
earlier, was having heard of this rumour through the wires we
then looked at the markets and movements in the markets at around
the time that the rumour was purported to have started which was
about 8.30 which was just an hour before the figures were actually
published, and again markets oscillate and vacillate all the time,
and the conclusions we were able to draw with the help of other
people who had competences beyond those in our own office (but
our own economists were involved as well) were that we could not
conclude any movement in the market around that time was attributable
to an improper leak of an official figure. As I then said, nonetheless
although we could not see the need for, as the Minister said,
the full scale inquiry to which she just referred, we have started
having a look at our own procedures and processes in a belt and
braces way but not on the basis that we had evidence there had
been a leak, not at all. That has got to be made clear.
(Miss Johnson) It is to make sure that the internal
arrangements at the ONS are absolutely up to scratch. We believe
they are but we are keen to make sure that they are.
143. When a dealer is quoted in the Telegraph
as saying: "It was carnage. I received an e-mail saying the
earnings figure was 5.5 per cent. The market got the hell kicked
out of it." Is that not evidence?
(Mr Goldsmith) I think it is anecdote rather than
evidence. We talked to people in the Treasury, we talked to our
own economists, we talked to people at LIFFE, and all the conclusions
that those conversations led us to were that the market had not
moved as a result of improper leakage.
144. Can I return for a moment to the scope
of National Statistics. You said in the framework that you will
publish your initial decisions on what should be in there but
that will be up for review and there will be an evolutionary process.
You have said with respect to the RPI that that will not be compiled
by National Statistics. You have said on the floor of the House
I believe that is because it is of special importance to the UK
economy. Surely the argument is it is of special importance to
the United Kingdom economy and therefore should be compiled by
an independent body like National Statistics, not by the Chancellor?
(Miss Johnson) Of course ONS are responsible for the
compilation and indeed the presentation and publication of the
index and all its sub-components as well. I would not want you
in the last part of your question to go away with the impression
that ONS do not actually compile and present and publish this
particular vital economic indicator; they do. They of course take
the lead as well in advising on methodological issues but the
attractionand I have to say I think this is a considerable
attractionis it has been a long-standing arrangement that
it has been ultimately the responsibility of the Chancellor and
remained under his ultimate authority. It is not a new arrangement.
Quite the contrary, it is the carrying on of a long-standing existing
arrangement but of course the Chancellor of the Exchequer is directly
accountable to Parliament, also a point I made when we discussed
this in the debate in October, and therefore to the public and
to Parliament accountable for any decisions that are taken on
the scope or the definition of RPI.
145. If it is compiled by ONS and compiled by
National Statistics and you are celebrating your new framework
as the best way to establish and confirm people's faith in the
key statistics, surely the logic of your move is to make sure
that the RPI is guaranteed not by the Chancellor but by the Statistics
(Miss Johnson) This provides, in fact, a more direct
link with accountability and the ability to raise questions directly
to the Chancellor through the House of Commons than any other
accountability mechanism and it is just because of its importance
that this seems to be the right accountability mechanism. That
is why it has been a long-standing arrangement that this is the
way in which RPI has been provided for. Indeed, as I say, ONS
basically compile the statistic and indeed advise on the methodological
aspects of it too, so that it is ultimately a creature produced
146. You are not suggesting through that logic,
are you, that for the statistics that will be compiled by National
Statistics and guaranteed by the Statistics Commission, Parliament
will have less accountability with respect to those than they
will the RPI? Will the RPI have a higher level of accountability
than the other statistics?
(Miss Johnson) Because the Chancellor is so often
at the House of Commons and so available to be engaged in debate
in the House obviously there is the possibility that at any time
RPI could become the subject of debate in a way which I would
not really anticipate happening with National Statistics across
the piece because individual statistics will not be picked out
in quite the same way. There will be a wider arrangement and an
annual reporting arrangement rather than the possibility of debates
at other times and questions at other times of the Chancellor
and it is because this is such an important economic indicator
that it has always been treated in this way.
147. Just going back a minute, Minister, to
Jim Cousins' line of questioning in relation to the survey done
by the Manchester Low Pay Unit. I know you have promised to provide
him with a note but there is a discrepancy between the actual
vacancies on display and the official vacancy statistics. The
paper submitted by the Low Pay Unit to this Committee raises a
number of different issues relating to that discrepancy. I wonder
if you would be prepared in addition to responding to Jim Cousins'
specific issue, to respond to the general and specific issues
raised in this paper if we provide you with a copy.
(Miss Johnson) I have not seen that paper. I take
issue with your word "discrepancies".
148. Apparent discrepancies.
(Miss Johnson) Exactly. There are different sets of
figures produced unquestionably on a different basis.
149. I accept that.
(Miss Johnson) And we will supply some more information
about that. We are, I am sure, happy to take that away and endeavour
to provide any elucidation we can to this Committee in relation
to the questions raised within them, but without seeing them I
cannot guarantee we can deal with each and every one.
Mrs Blackman: That is why I am suggesting that
we provide you with a paper and I do mean "apparent"
discrepancies because there may well be explanations for different
arguments used and different submissions used in this particular
paper that you would wish to respond to anyway.
150. Minister, what possible reasons have you
got for ever opposing the idea that we put these new arrangements
on a statutory footing? What possible objections to putting it
on a statutory footing have you got?
(Miss Johnson) I think two-fold really. First of all,
I am seeking to achieve something that actually works and brings
about a practical change and delivers something and I think these
arrangements will do that but we have said that we will look in
a couple of years and review how successful this has been and
if we had any concerns at that time we could, of course, decide
to make a response to those, whether that be legislation or some
other response. Also I think I would say after a very long night
in the House of Commons one can only reflect on the pressures
on Parliamentary time for legislation and whether, in fact, we
can achieve the results we believe we can achieve well without
going to primary legislation and whether in fact it is a good
idea to go down that path of primary legislation where, as we
all know, there is a bit of a waiting list to get on to primary
legislation likely to cause delay in setting up the arrangements
because there is already a queue of legislation passing through
the House of Commons.
151. You probably did not realise, Economic
Secretary, in some of your answers today you have made a powerful
case for the need for these new arrangements to be put on a statutory
footing because more questions were raised by some of your answers
than the questions actually put. Let me just ask you this: if
in the existing ONS statistics, the existing set of time series
we have got for everything, a Minister wants to remove one of
those series, the Commission can raise an eyebrow or it may object,
but the Minister decides if he or she wishes to remove something
from that series. Is that correct?
(Miss Johnson) I hoped I had made it completely plain,
Sir Michael, in response to Michael Fallon's question, that I
think it is inconceivable that a Minister would be able to delete
something from National Statistics. The only situation in which
I could envisage something been removed from National Statistics
would be the concern about the quality of the data set which might
lead to temporary suspension or possibly permanent removal.
152. Who would define that quality?
(Miss Johnson) That is a matter for the National Statistician
because it will be a question of the statistical quality of the
153. You are saying that a Minister could not
make a decision to delete something without the agreement of the
(Miss Johnson) I am sorry, I missed the word?
(Miss Johnson) I am saying I do not see any scope
155. Can I ask the question. It is very important
we get this right, with respect. If a Minister wishes to delete
something from the statistics, you are saying the Minister cannot
do that without the agreement of the National Statistician?
(Miss Johnson) I am saying I do not see the role for
the Minister doing it, full stop. There is no scope for political
interference in terms of deleting statistics.
156. You are saying it can never happen. So
you are now saying a Minister could not delete an item or a series?
(Miss Johnson) Yes.
157. Could not ever?
(Miss Johnson) Insofar as it is possible to describe
"ever", yes but I do not foresee it ever happening.
158. You do not foresee it ever happening. But
if it were to happen I take it from your earlier responses that
could not happen without the agreement of the National Statistician
where there was a disagreement about quality and the deletion
was for reasons of concern about quality?
(Miss Johnson) I cannot envisage how that would happen.
159. I could.
(Miss Johnson) I admit to not being a particularly
statistically literate Minister but there are few Ministers in
a position to argue with the professional quality as defined by
a professional statistician be it their own departmental one or
in this case the National Statistician. I do not see there could
be a debate of equals there about quality. I would always expect
the initiative to come from a professional because that is what
we hire them for to say what the quality of that particular data
set was and if they had concerns about it to come forward at the
earliest possible time and say they believed it should be suspended
or removed. I cannot envisage the situation you spoke about ever
160. So a Minister could not make a deletion?
(Miss Johnson) That is what I think.
161. That is helpful. The second question, following
on from Mr Davey's and Mr Fallon's questions, if the Commission
strongly recommended that class size and hospital waiting list
figures should be included in the statistics, and the relevant
Minister said, " No, I do not want them", just for clarification,
you are saying that the recommendation of the Commission would
be made public, the reasons the Minister had for not wishing those
series to be included would be given but that is all that would
(Miss Johnson) I am saying that any role that the
Commission had in advising in some way would presumably be their
decision, but it would normally be made public and that any response
that a Minister was making to any advice that had been offered
by the Commission would be made public in response.
162. But if this new statistical service is
to be truly independent, all you are saying to us is that if it
makes a recommendation on the inclusion of class sizes or hospital
waiting lists and the Minister does not like it very much he could
say No and that is it. Would it not be more sensible to put all
this onto a statutory footing, particularly in relation to your
earlier question about deletion of statistics by Ministers. Would
we not all feel much more comfortable if we could have this in
black and white in the statute so we all know where we stand and
have a truly independent statistical service?
(Miss Johnson) I cannot comment for you, Mr Ruffley,
about what you would feel more comfortable with. What I can say
is what I believe to be the case and what I think is best in the
situation we are in which is that we have a statistical service
which has had no major overhaul for 30 years. We have undertaken
that overhaul and we have the possibility, and indeed we are now
making good progress towards developing something which has an
integrity and a credibility which I believe a National Statistics
service must have if it is to enjoy the public confidence which
our service (only in some areas) to a degree has not enjoyed to
the degree it should have enjoyed in recent times partly, or largely,
because of the result of the way in which politicians and politicians
from the previous Government engaged in meddling in some of those
figures and the abuse of some of those figures. I think that we
have made very good progress and we are making very good progress.
I am afraid I am a very practical person and I believe that the
outcomes we should be trying to seek as politicians on behalf
of the public are very practical outcomes. I think the arrangements
we are making here, the consultation and discussion, the massive
support we have had for that, the very large change we are making,
the appointment of the National Statistician and the Commission
and the arrangements we are making we have been discussing this
morning all point to the fact that we are making a major change
very successfully and it is doing that successfully which is the
proof of the pudding and I believe the proof of the pudding is
well demonstrated by the progress that we have made to date and
I do not believe that some alternative method would have been
a better one. Indeed, I think the results show this is the best
possible route we could have gone down.
163. I would just close by saying, first of
all, that I think Conservative Members would refute your utterly
absurd suggestion that there was political interference. You have
got a very bad case of selective amnesia if you do not think there
has been more political interference by this Government in the
workings and presentation of statistics than we have ever seen
in the 18 years before 1997. Be that as it may, Minister, could
I just say we will all be watching.
(Miss Johnson) I think 30 changes in the unemployment
count over 18 years is an impressive record by way of an attempt
to discredit the standing of statistics at the time and did very
much to contribute to a failure of credibility with the public
generally about the information which government then offered.
We are certainly tackling that problem and I think we are tackling
it very effectively.
164. On a personal note could I say I slightly
regret explicit references to party politics. I would like to
think an observer coming to these proceedings might find it quite
hard to judge what the party loyalties of individual particular
members of the Committee might be. That is the proper function
and conduct of a parliamentary Select Committee and that would
be understood by both the members and by the Ministers, as I am
sure you do. Because I am of a mind to take your view that openness
is one of the most powerful disciplines that can be asserted in
the conduct of public affairs, will it be the case that no final
decision will be taken about what the scope of statistics that
will be included in this procedure will be until the Statistical
Commission is in place and able to exercise its proper patrolling
of due process and the new Chief Statistician is also in place
and able to contribute to the debates and discussions on that
(Miss Johnson) It may be that that will be case but
I do not think I would give a guarantee that that will be the
case. However, I would not be concerned about it because the framework
will be coupled up with an initial list of statistics that will
be included within the scope of National Statistics. For all sorts
of reasons because there are many things going on and indeed ONS
perpetually look at the range of statistics and how they ought
to be developed and modified and which indicators are the ones
we ought to be going on. I see for all those and other reasons
that list evolving over time. I see it as a start of a fairly
organic process, if you will, rather than as a one-off, this is
it, and that is the close of the discussion, as it were. I do
not think that is the way it will be because I think naturally
if we are to get at the best we have to continually see these
things evolve and be perfected to reflect changes in our society
which statistics have to all the time to reflect if they are to
be useful and contemporary in what they are reflecting back to
us. I think those things are very important. I am, of course,
always delighted to witness the Select Committee operating in
the non-party political manner which you have just outlined, but
what I would say is I am here as a politician rather than as a
member of the Select Committee and I cannot alter that fact because
I am here as a Minister in front of you this morning, and in relation
to the points about the previous Government I think it is a fact
that it is part of the setting in which the changes which we are
now making have to be seen and so I make no apology for setting
them in that historical context.
165. You spoke of progress here. The Royal Statistical
Society called your proposals "deeply flawed". Do you
not accept this concern in the wider community when you have promised
an independent service when in the end it turns out that you are
going to define the statistics that are going to be national,
subject to the advice of the Commission that you have appointed
on the basis of a framework that is not statutory. To call that
an independent service is double speak, is it not?
(Miss Johnson) No, it is not. We have got a National
Statistician. We have got open and transparent arrangements that
support integrity and freedom from political inference and which
endeavour to guarantee the highest professional standards. I respect
the views of the Royal Statistical Society, of course, but I do
not think they have got this particular comment right. It is not
the only comment they have made, I have to say, it is just one
comment you are quoting and they have made other less critical,
if you will, comments and I hope that we will persuade them very
soon that that comment, if true at the time, is no longer true
of the arrangements that we are putting in place.
166. Could I just finally confirm that you will
be writing in response particularly to Jim Cousins' specific points
and Liz Blackman's in as far as you are able to do that?
(Miss Johnson) Indeed.
167. Minister, you will, I am sure, have picked
up the frustration of the Committee which has focused particularly
on the delays and continuing uncertainty about the publication
of the Framework Document and I am sure you will understand we
will therefore need to see you again once that has been published.
(Miss Johnson) Indeed, I will be delighted to come
and see you when it has been published. I have absolutely no problem.
Indeed, I could not say no in any event but I will be delighted
to come and discuss that with you once it is published.
168. We will be meeting quite often because
on 5 April you are coming to see us.
(Miss Johnson) Indeed I am, on the gilts inquiry,
169. In the meantime I hope you have some sleep!
(Miss Johnson) Indeed, and can I wish other members
of this Committee the same?