Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
WEDNESDAY 16 OCTOBER
40. On the question of the RPI and the Chancellor,
the issue is that the Chancellor sees some of these figures two
or three days before they are published.
(Sir John Kingman) No, that is not the issue. The
issue is that the Chancellor retains a power to intervene on the
scope and definition of the RPI.
41. But, Sir John, these figures, when they
are published, are a reflection of national policy, particularly
in the economics sphere. Why is it particularly wrong for the
Treasury to try to ensure that the way in which the national statistics
are composed is a proper reflection of the policies that are being
(Sir John Kingman) I am not arguing that it is wrong.
I am arguing that the reasons for that power in relation to one
statistic and one statistic only need to be publicly explained.
That is all.
42. What sort of explanation will satisfy you?
(Sir John Kingman) An explanation which sets out what
are the reasons for having this particular rule in relation to
this particular output, and which explains the way in which the
Chancellor might use that power, and the safeguards that exist
to prevent abuse of that power. Clearly the Chancellor is not
going to say, "I do not like the figure that the statisticians
have produced, I am going to put in my own figure", it would
not be anything as crude as that, but there is clearly an interest
in the Treasury in maintaining the stability of the index so that
it does not get revised in too radical a way which would upset,
for instance, the index-linked gilts and everyone's pension and
so on. That needs to be explained.
43. But is not the ultimate guarantee of the
intent of this the integrity of yourself and the National Statistician?
There has been mentioned a somewhat elaborate process of having
a public register of occasions on which ministers are consulted
about proposals. Surely, the ultimate surety is your willingness
and independence to stand up and say, "Oi, this is not fair"?
(Sir John Kingman) I am sorry, you are changing the
subject. You are moving away from the Chancellor's role in relation
to the RPI to the more general question of ministerial access
to statistics prior to publication.
44. No, I am talking here about the proposal
that if the Chief Statistician consults ministers then there should
be a register of the occasions when ministers have been consulted.
(Sir John Kingman) That is right and that will now
happen and that will be available to us and we will be able to
advise ministers and Parliament on whether proper use has been
made of those.
45. All I am suggesting, Sir John, is that that
is rather an elaborate and bureaucratic practice and what you
are trying to ensure is the integrity of the statistics, and this
is the guarantee of their integrity, a combination of you, the
Commission and the Chief Statistician in his organisation, rather
than this elaborate register?
(Sir John Kingman) The object of having these procedures,
which you describe as "bureaucratic", is to ensure that
if there is some leak or some spinning prior to publication of
the statistics, then the public knows who had prior access to
that information and can ask the question of who it was who actually
46. Let's take that point that you are pressing,
that somehow or other it is not appropriate that ministers should
have a sight of statistics. It is plainly going to be the source
of a lot of questioning. They will be asked to comment almost
immediately they are published. Why should they not have two or
three days' notice? That is not detracting from the quality or
integrity of the statistics, is it?
(Sir John Kingman) The Code of Practice says that
they should have that access but that it should be accompanied
by safeguards to make sure that the access is not abused by someone
getting hold of the information and leaking it in advance and
spinning it in a particular way. I can give you a very good example.
The results of the Census were known to key people in Whitehall
before they were published but there was no leakage at all. The
only speculation in the press turned out to be totally inaccurate
and uninformed and everyone who had access to that information
avoided the temptation to use that information in the wrong way,
and that is an excellent thing. I think it shows that the Code
of Practice, on which the ink was barely dry on 30 September,
is already having a salutary effect and that is something to be
47. Are your anxieties now covered by the Code
of Practice as it stands?
(Sir John Kingman) No, I have explained that we want
to be sure that all the departments are operating to the same
high standards as the ONS, and this is something we will not be
able to judge until the departmental statements that have been
promised within the next few months are available to us.
48. Is this attitude what is colouring your
attitude towards legislation where you have said in the Annual
Report that on balance you are in favour of legislation? What
would the legislation cover that is not covered by the Code of
Practice and the interplay of your Commission and the Office of
(Sir John Kingman) I cannot answer that question yet
because we are in the middle of a consultation about the issues
that should be covered in the question of whether there should
be legislation. That is something we will be reporting on when
we have considered the views that are going to be presented to
49. But your Annual Report on Page 11 says:
"The balance of arguments we have heard so far is strongly
in favour of legislation."
(Sir John Kingman) That is right, that is a factual
statement which is correct. If I can just indicate what is the
strongest argument that has been put to us so far. It is that
all these arrangements that have been brought in in the last two
yearsand I think we all agree represent important steps
forwardthe wider power of the National Statistician, the
explicit Code of Practice, the existence of the Statistics Commissioncould
be put into reverse by a government that wished to do so, merely
by administrative action. There is nothing permanent, there is
nothing entrenched about that. The Statistics Commission is not
even a legal entity, we cannot employ our staff or anything. So
all of these are fragile in that sense and if they are thought
to be good then they surely ought to have legislative backing,
but that is the issue that we are going to look at, we shall present
a report with the arguments for and against and we shall try to
indicate what should be covered in the legislation. We are investigating
what happens in other countries so that we can learn by the experience
of other countries and so on.
50. Sir John, could I ask you about the early
ministerial access to statistics because you highlighted, I thought
rather pertinently, the fact that there could be a temptation,
so far avoided, for individuals in Whitehall, not necessarily
ministers but those who work for them, to get early sight of some
key statistics and put their spin on in advance and therefore,
I would argue, behave improperly. That is something we want to
avoid. That temptation is not put in the way, as I understand
it, of governments and officials in the US, Canada, Australia
and many European countries. What are the arguments for not following
that international practice of actually forbidding early sight
(Sir John Kingman) I think that is a question you
ought to ask the National Statistician because he produced the
Code of Practice which keeps early access.
51. I do understand that but you are the watchdog
and I have a great deal of respect for your views. I just wondered
why you thought they were bucking the trend.
(Sir John Kingman) The Commission is not arguing for
early access. The Commission is saying that ministers appear to
have decided firmly that there should remain early access and
therefore we are saying there should be proper safeguards to make
sure that that privilege is not abused. If it is abused despite
the existence of the Code of Practice, then that will indeed call
into question whether the only way forward is to do what other
countries do and have no early access, but that is not what the
National Statistician proposed.
52. Have you asked the National Statistician
why he does not wish to follow international practice?
(Sir John Kingman) I would rather not give you hearsay
evidence. You are going to have Len Cook before you, I am sure
it would be better if you let him speak for himself.
53. Just finally on that point before we get
on to the RPI, am I right in thinking from your evidence today
that there are no examples of information that is disclosed two
or three days early being misusedmisused in the sense of
being spun in the newspaper or briefed about by government officials
or special advisers?
(Sir John Kingman) There have certainly been examples
in the past of that.
54. Would you like to furnish us with examples?
(Sir John Kingman) There are many cases where you
wake up in the morning and the Today programme on the radio
says, "Government statistics to be announced later today
will say that such and such . . ." Clearly these have been
leaks from somewhere and it has been impossible in the past to
investigate those because there was not a background of regulation
against which to measure them but in future it will be because
it will be known who saw this information prior to publication.
It will be possible to ask, possible for committees like yours
to ask if you are so minded, just who it was who leaked that information.
We shall keep a close eye on that certainly. What I am saying
is that first appearances are that the existence of the Code is
tightening up procedures within departments. They are more conscious
of the need to make sure that the papers are not widely duplicated
and sent round to people who do not understand the limitations
on their use and so on and that is all to the good. That is the
sort of culture change which I have been talking about.
55. That is a very helpful answer and certainly
we shall pursue that. The Code will enable you to monitor quite
closely what might appear prima facie to be improper use
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
56. You are confident that you have got the
resource and the manpower to actually monitor such leaks and chase
up and harry ministers and say "Who had sight of this? We
are quite unhappy with this. It has been spun in an improper way
or with a particular slant on it". You think you have got
the resources to clamp down and apply the Code rigorously?
(Sir John Kingman) It is in the nature of things that
when something like this happens it will be widely known and it
will be known to us. We are not resourced and we do not have the
authority to carry out a leak inquiry so we would have to rely
on the normal processes of Whitehall to get to the bottom of that.
57. Oh dear. It was going quite well until then.
(Sir John Kingman) But we can ask embarrassing questions.
Really that is our only power, to ask embarrassing questions.
58. All power to your elbow in asking embarrassing
questions where it is justified. That is a very helpful set of
answers. Can I just ask you about the specific issue of the involvement
of the Chancellor in the RPI and the public register issue. Is
it sustainable, do you think, for ministers to demand that they
keep this reserve power? Can you give us some indication who,
apart from ministers, are saying that this reserve power is important
and it should be kept because at first blush to many of us it
should not be kept?
(Sir John Kingman) I am not aware that there has been
any serious discussion of the issue. What we are trying to do
is to bring the arguments out into the open. There may well be
very compelling arguments. The RPI is clearly an extremely sensitive
statistic and it may well be that there are strong arguments about
the way it should be handled but they are arguments that need
to be made. We are simply saying "Please HM Treasury, please
National Statistician, explain why this special statistic is to
be treated in this special way." Then we can all have a debate.
There is no reason why there should not be political debate and
debate in the Commission and so on but we need to have the arguments
put and if the arguments cannot be put then it does raise the
question as to whether the arguments are strong ones.
59. Are you aware, apart from the RPI, of other
occasions when ministers are consulted about proposals impinging
on Government policy, which I believe is the term of art used
in relation to the RPI? Apart from the RPI are there any other
occasions when ministers are consulted in this way?
(Sir John Kingman) No, I think it is a unique case.