Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
WEDNESDAY 16 OCTOBER
20. But you singled out the Chancellor in that?
(Sir John Kingman) No, I will come to the Chancellor.
You asked me about ministers in general and I am saying that they
are pulled two ways. They believe in good statistics, but they
are also concerned about the policies of their department and
how they are going to convince the electorate that they are doing
a good job. This is all perfectly natural and we have to watch
out for examples where they get pulled too far in the political
direction. For instance, I wrote a fortnight ago to David Blunkett
about some things he had been saying about crime statistics.
21. Has that been published?
(Sir John Kingman) It is on our website and I am happy
to let you have a copy of that letter.
(Sir John Kingman) In terms of the Chancellor, I was
referring specifically to his role in relation to the Retail Price
Index where the Treasury have always retained a reserve power
for the Chancellor to intervene on scope and definition. What
we are saying there is that it is difficult for the public to
have confidence in the impartiality of that statistic if there
is an explicit power for the Chancellor to intervene. I believe
the Chancellor never has intervened, but the power is still there
and in that situation it is incumbent on the Treasury, and this
is coming back to the same point about explanation, to explain
exactly why that power is needed, the circumstances in which it
would be used and the safeguards that exist to prevent its abuse.
That statement has never been made and I believe that the public
cannot have full confidence as long as that explanation is not
made. Now, of course it may be that the Chancellor may decide
he does not need that power, in which case no problem, but if
he and his advisers believe it is necessary, and I think they
probably do, then they really must explain why so that the public
can have confidence that that power is there for a good purpose
and not to enable a Chancellor, and not necessarily the present
one, but a future Chancellor, to distort figures in the way that
Mr Healey famously did when he was Chancellor.
23. Sir John, who sets your Commission's agenda?
(Sir John Kingman) We do.
24. You do?
(Sir John Kingman) We do.
25. Yet you say in your Annual Report that you
look into some issues and are prompted to do so by either stakeholders
or by the media, so you are obviously not fully
(Sir John Kingman) Well, we are obviously influenced
by the issues that concern people who are interested in government
statistics. We set the agenda bearing in mind what are the issues
that are of public concern, what are the issues that are of political
concern and so on.
26. Do you not think you are at risk of being
used by, for example, someone in the media who wants to campaign
about something, approaching you and saying, "Here, this
is a big issue", knowing that you are going to pick it up
and then you pronounce on it? It seems more authoritative and
independent if the journalist was going to do it, but in effect
you have been employed by them to pursue their hare, have you
(Sir John Kingman) I think you will find that the
commissioners are people of independent judgment who know when
they are being used by outside pressure groups or the media.
27. Some of the big issues you have looked at
over the years, can you say whether any of them were suggested
to you by the media? For example, you did an investigation into
NHS cancer plans, asylum applications, Key Stage II statistics,
job statistics, hospital waiting statistics, child poverty, higher
education participation. Were those all ones that you and your
colleagues solely said, "We should look at", or were
any of those issues raised with you by stakeholders or the media?
(Sir John Kingman) Some of the ones you have cited
are obviously of high political importance and it would be irresponsible
of us not to concern ourselves with something like hospital waiting
times, for example. Others were raised with us by members of the
public. The Key Stage II study was actually suggested simply by
someone who wrote in. We have not done very much work on that.
Our concern in that area was to make sure that that member of
the public got sensible answers from the government department.
This is actually a function which, somewhat to my surprise, is
becoming quite important. People write in and say, "We wrote
to such and such a department", or to ONS, "with a sensible
suggestion", or question, "and we have not really got
a proper answer", so we can, rather as MPs, act as a catalyst
to ensure that the proper answer is given. Others of the list
you have mentioned were actually suggested by individual commissioners.
The cancer study, for instance, was suggested because it was felt
by commissioners that not only was it important in its own right,
but that it also had general lessons which would be useful more
28. In any year there could be a whole host
of subjects you could look into.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
29. Presumably you have to do an element of
(Sir John Kingman) We do.
30. What key criteria do you use in determining
which ones you will look at and which ones you will not?
(Sir John Kingman) Well, our concern is to raise public
confidence in those statistics which are of public interest and,
therefore, statistical questions which do affect the public or
important groups of users are obvious candidates for us to study.
31. That suggests, if I may interrupt you, that
the level of media interest is quite a significant indicator for
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, it is a very useful indicator.
32. Can you give us any examples of investigations
you did undertake which were media-prompted, as you indicate in
your Annual Report?
(Sir John Kingman) I cannot think of any which were
purely media. The hospital waiting list issue was largely a media-prompted
33. And you did not feel you were being drawn
in by the media by some point they wanted to make and they were
trying to employ you as some sort of ally in their case?
(Sir John Kingman) Actually what is much more difficult
to cope with is that when we do come out with something of interest
to the media, the media do not read our press releases, but write
what they think we have decided and that is a major problem and
it is one we have got to address. It is happening in the Network
34. We know how you feel!
(Sir John Kingman) Indeed.
35. Sir John, on the Code of Practice, you note
in your Annual Report that you are concerned about the Code and
how long it is taking and the fact that there are various protocols
to develop. How serious are the shortcomings in the Code as it
stands at present?
(Sir John Kingman) The Code is pretty good. It leaves
some issues undecided to which we must return and it is controversial
in particular in that it retains privileged early access to statistics
for ministers and their key advisers, but it does, on the other
hand, lay down groundrules for that access which are very valuable.
The protocol on release practices is going to be one of the key
documents in the future. It is unsatisfactory still because not
all the protocols have been published even in draft form and because
they will need to be complemented by statements of departmental
practice because some departments have particular ways of doing
things that need to be brought out into the open so that they
can be criticised, so there is still work to be done. The Chancellor's
role in relation to the RPI is another piece of unfinished business,
but nonetheless, those points should not be allowed to detract
from the fact that the Code is a major step forward. It really
is a milestone in the political development of this country, I
believe, because for the first time there is a public document
against which the performance of government departments in relation
to statistical matters can be measured, can be criticised, can
be brought into public debate, and I believe that is a very important
36. We will come back to the Chancellor and
the RPI in a second, but what are the other areas that you would
be worried about not having a protocol for, the Code being a summary
and whether it should be more elaborate?
(Sir John Kingman) As I say, the two protocols we
have got are certainly the most important, so I am pleased that
those are out. The remaining protocols are not as crucial for
this purpose as the departmental statements because it is a worry
to us that some departments still may not have raised their standards
and changed their culture in the way that we needed.
37. Have you the authority to probe that?
(Sir John Kingman) We certainly have the ability to
probe it. We do not have any authority to do anything, except
to issue reports and give advice to ministers and the public,
but we are certainly able to nag away at departments and we are
38. It is said in the draft Code of Practice
that, "To help establish this confidence in official statistics,
this Code of Practice sets out the professional standards that
will apply to National Statistics". Now, are we to assume
that the long period of gestation reflects some uncertainty about
what the standards are?
(Sir John Kingman) It reflects a reluctance on the
part of some government departments to limit their freedom of
action. There is no doubt that the Code does force departments
to change practices which they have developed over the years and
departments are never enthusiastic about making such change. I
think that is why it has taken the time that it has, but there
are benefits. The fact that not only all the relevant UK departments,
but also all the devolved administrations have signed up to these
principles is a very considerable advance and, for instance, I
know, because we have been told this in Edinburgh, that there
was very considerable discussion in the Scottish Government about
changing their practices to come into line with the Code of Practice.
39. What are those practices? Are they nefarious
practices or are they just another definition of different statistics?
(Sir John Kingman) The release practices are the easiest
ones to take as an example. The practice in Scotland was to give
a much longer period of privileged early access to statistics
to ministers and senior civil servants and they have now come
into line with the UK practice.
1 See www.statscom.org.uk. Back