Examination of Witnesses (Questions 225
THURSDAY 16 NOVEMBER 2000
JOHNSON, MP AND
225. Minister, thank you very much for coming.
May I begin with one or two general questions? First of all, are
you yourself, from the perspective that you see the changes, happy
with what has happened and are there any further improvements
you want to see?
(Miss Johnson) Perhaps I could start
by making a few opening remarks to set the scene. I will not spend
very long doing this but it might be helpful to set the context
down for our discussion this morning. Perhaps first of all I could
introduce to you with pleasure Len Cook, who is of course the
Director of the Office for National Statistics and the new National
Statistician. Len's appointment in the summer as our first National
Statistician coincided with the biggest overhaul of official statistics
since the 1960s and over the coming years Len has a key role in
making a success of the new arrangements in modernising our statistical
infrastructure and in driving up the quality and the confidence
in official statistics. The Statistics Commission, on which Sir
John Kingman has been speaking to you a few minutes ago, is obviously
also an essential part of that particular change. I believe that
the Framework document is the key to the new overhauled arrangements
and the discussions that we had here in March which anticipated
the launch of the Framework of National Statistics in June, but
of course the Framework is now in place and we have had the launch.
It has been warmly welcomed by the Royal Statistical Society and
the Statistical Users' Council and the breadth of the initial
scope of National Statistics has been applauded. National Statistics
can now take forward our goal which is of statistics of assured
quality and transparent, free from political interference. I believe
that we have had some notable successes even in the short time
since June. There is £20 million of spending review monies
which have been allocated to ONS for the production of data across
the PAT 18 (Policy Action Team) Report which relates to local
information. There is a new web site which is a truly interactive
forum for stakeholders and we can talk a bit more about that.
And of course the Statistics Commission which I mentioned earlier
is a key to greater independence; it is now up and running, and
there is a lot more to come. I hope that we can review the progress
today and I welcome the opportunity to discuss future developments
226. You talk, Minister, about "free from
political interference" but the scope of the National Statistics
and the priorities of the ONS are laid down by Ministers.
(Miss Johnson) The scope is a matter, as we discussed
at considerable length before, for Ministers ultimately to decide,
but for the Statistics Commission to comment on and make comments
about and, as I am sure Sir John has been explaining to you, they
are perfectly free to do that.
227. But the Government of the day still has
the whip hand so far as the nation's statistics are concerned?
(Miss Johnson) Obviously there are resource implications
in deciding that things will go into National Statistics, or there
could be. I made a number of comments before when I was at the
Committee about the constraints which affect issues of scope,
but essentially the Framework says that the scope will include
all public access databases and publications produced by the Office
for National Statistics and many of the key public interest statistics
produced by other departments, and that it will evolve over time
and that is why the document that you have, that came out with
the Framework, is actually entitled Initial Scope. The
National Statistician will take a lead in advising on methodological
questions relating to scope and definition but also Ministers
will take those final decisions in the light of the costs and
benefits involved. As I say, there is a weighing up there and
obviously one of the weighings up is a resource issue which can
only be taken by Ministers.
228. Some of my colleagues will have further
questions on it, but you talk about it being just a resource matter.
It could also, in theory, be a political matter as to what the
decision is as to what the scope of the statistics is.
(Miss Johnson) I think that the reason for looking
for ministerial decision is connected with benefits from different
ranges of statistics. Just as we have made announcements in relation
to the PAT 18 data and decided to go forward with an investment
in it, there is obviously a decision there in that the benefits
from having small area data will be quite considerable and therefore
we ought to go ahead with a development like this. It always involves
a considerable injection of resources and a lot of work on the
part of ONS, and therefore that decision has been made. Those
are the sorts of decisions that we believe will be the ones that
are rightly made by Ministers but the Statistics Commission will
help Ministers by telling us of any widespread concern about the
quality of statistics and, in responding to them, those responses
will be transparent and publicly made, both their remarks to us
and our responses to them. I think it will be obvious and clear
to people, transparent, what responses have been made by Ministers
in relation to particular issues.
229. What really has changed as a result of
this? Have we just seen a sort of re-vamping exercise or is there
a real change in the ONS in the way it works?
(Miss Johnson) There is a very large change. It is
perhaps something that will come out in a number of ways this
morning. First of all, to have a large initial scope of National
Statistics which has been very well received is a change. The
initial scope goes beyond the Government's statistical service
range of outputs that was initially around. For example, it includes
labour market trends, it includes things like animal health statistics
from MAFF, it includes all of the Northern Ireland Civil Service
statistical outputs as well. It will be the first ever coherent
statistical work programme across government. It is not simply
an aggregation of departments' own plans for doing this. It is
a truly joined-up and collaborative approach which we have got.
I have already mentioned transparency in response to your earlier
questions but there are new standards of transparency and openness.
We are planning to see committee minutes and papers put up on
the web sites for everyone to see, and of course all the Statistics
Commission activity will be in the public domain. As I mentioned,
the ministerial responses to those will also be in the public
domain. We have boosted the consultation arrangements as well.
This is a really strong element of the new arrangements. There
are draft work plans and programmes on quality assurance reviews
which are being publicly consulted on through the web site and
there are ways in which users can interact with that web site.
The web site itself is a major development. Increasingly we all
know that the future will be a future via a web site sending on-line
information and we are providing a fantastic start in what we
have done on the web site. There is a way for users to engage
and to have discussion with ONS and with National Statistics through
that web site. Of course we have abolished all charges for the
use of electronic data for not-for-profit end users, and that
has been very widely welcomed.
230. Can you tell us, Minister, when the National
Statistics Code of Practice will be published?
(Miss Johnson) Work is going on on the Code of Practice.
I think it is fair to say that good progress is being made. It
would not surprise you if I said that obviously having a new National
Statistician arriving from elsewhere as well, coming into the
United Kingdom, has meant that he has had to start work on that
from the time of his arrival. We have got 15 government departments
involved in the discussions on that, so work is being developed
at the present time and we hope to be able to publish the Code
in due course.
231. It is a bit strange, is it not, that this
was not published before the new arrangements were set in place?
(Miss Johnson) I think the order of it was a very
natural order, which was to get the framework in place and the
Initial Scope document out, and then to move on to what
ought to go into the Code. We had to make progress before Len
Cook's arrival on other matters obviously; otherwise a number
of things would not have happened, but we did want to wait for
the new National Statistician to be in place to take forward the
work that is very important on professional integrity to develop
that Code of Practice.
232. The Royal Statistical Society have expressed
their concern, that there is no apparent end point. They do not
know, nor apparently are we going to know, when exactly this Code
is coming out.
(Miss Johnson) The fact that they do not know when
it is coming out is because there is not at the moment a date
as such for it. I think it is important for us all to recognise
that it is in development and it will set high professional standards
applicable to all National Statistics. We also need to go through
the process of looking at exactly what the Code will contain,
and that process of consultation is under way. The National Statistician
is sounding out the views of all interested parties beyond Government
including the Royal Statistical Society, and of course the Commission
and a wider public, and all of those interested parties, those
stakeholders, need to be involved in having an input before he
reaches a decision on it. The Code would normally contain standards
relating to broad things, for example, those set out in the UN
Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics relating to things
like the objectivity, the methodology, release and presentation,
impartiality and confidentiality of supplied data.
233. So there is a systematic process of consultation
(Miss Johnson) There is indeed, yes.
234. Mr Cook, you have come from New Zealand
where all this is on a statutory basis. Here it has been decided
that the new arrangements should not be put on a statutory basis.
What are the advantages of not putting it on a statutory basis?
(Mr Cook) I have discovered that legislation in the
United Kingdom does not happen immediately. Other than that I
suspect that the passage of time is something that will make it
clear that there is a clear time for debate on legislation. I
do not know whether there are significant advantages in not having
it in law, and I am not too sure what are the significant disadvantages.
I guess to me the key aspects of the change in terms of transparency
and the other accountability mechanisms in the United Kingdom
will give us a significant shift from where we are at now. I guess
the most important judgement in the end is the difference between
what people perceive we have had, what we are going to and what
we will additionally get from legislation. I am not too sure I
am too good in my short time here at judging the real value of
legislation in the United Kingdom. I do have a personal view on
235. You do?
(Mr Cook) Yes, in terms of the importance of statistical
legislation because of my background, but that is very much more
based on my past than my sense of what is relevant in the United
236. So personally you prefer it to be statutory?
(Mr Cook) That is my experience and I have found that
a very effective working environment. I have been here and I think
the new environment, the clarity of the role of the National Statistician,
is going to be very important in being clear who is responsible
for defending and being accountable for methodology in the United
Kingdom. I think that is as clear as it would be in legislation.
I am not sure that any law would define it more exactly. The placement
of ONS and giving the National Statistician a very strong methodological
team to support that through the creation of a critical mass at
ONS that has not existed in other parts of the United Kingdom
statistics before is another part of that in terms of supporting
the professional standards.
237. So you would prefer it to have been on
a statutory basis?
(Mr Cook) My natural instincts are for that, yes.
238. Minister, could you say when the second
edition of this Framework for National Statistics will be updated
and the scope of the National Statistics will be published?
(Miss Johnson) We do not have a date for that at the
moment. Perhaps I could add a timescale to the remarks in response
if I may, Mr Beard, to what Mr Fallon was saying earlier on in
his comments about legislation. The framework of course sets out
that the Statistics Commission will advise on the need for legislation
after two years of the existing arrangements, so I think it is
worthwhile just adding that as an addendum to Mr Cook's remarks
to you. We do not have a date for upgrading or reviewing the Framework.
I think there is a very big programme of work in place now developing
the Code of Practice. There are a lot of managerial issues within
ONS which Len Cook is taking forward. The immediate priorities
are to tackle some of those very important issues and to get those
addressed. Obviously, as time wears on, and I am sure the Commission
will be looking at these things themselves, they would welcome
a review but at the moment we have a very big work programme in
239. The scope of the National Statistics is
expected to evolve over time. How would you expect this evolution
to happen? Have you any view of what the final thing will look
like when it has evolved?
(Miss Johnson) I suspect it will grow in time. That
is a sort of innate response that I have. I believe that we will
find ourselves faced with a number of areas where there is pressure
for additional statistical work to be done. There is ongoing interest
in various data and increasingly over time my guess is that we
will try where resources allow to respond to those needs for additional
information and collect the data and hopefully some of that will
be further added to the scope of National Statistics, and obviously
some of it can be done by departments and is done by departments
on some occasions. I think there will be increasing interest in
it. One of the main areas where we will already see an increase
is that with all the PAT 18 work that is going on there is going
to be a very big increase in local area data as a result of that