Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-106)|
WEDNESDAY 16 OCTOBER
100. In your foreword to the Annual Report you
say "It is vital that the statistical outputs of Government
should not only be trustworthy but also timely and well adapted
to the needs. . . " You go on to say needs inside and outside
the public sector. When we looked at the Census previously we
were told that there was a substantial request from the private
sector and the public sector for an income question which was
ultimately dropped. Were you part of the discussions involved
in that? What was your reaction?
(Sir John Kingman) No. We were set up too late to
influence the design of the Census form, which is unfortunate
but the decisions had all been taken by the time we were established.
A very important strategic question for future Censuses is whether
it is right to have more and more questions from one Census to
the next or whether you actually lose by having too long and elaborate
a form, that people just do not bother or turn against the idea
of filling it up or whatever. One of the questions when I last
appeared before you that I think we agreed about was that there
needs to be fundamental discussion about what sort of Census we
need in order to get the information that is needed both in the
public sector and the private sector. That discussion is going
on now and one of our concerns has been to keep the momentum of
that discussion because it is easy to think that 2011 is a long
way away but it will be upon us sooner than we think and we really
have to resolve these questions within the next few years.
101. On the question of the quality of National
Statistics you were quoted in the press in July when your Annual
Report was published as saying that recent controversies, and
that included Network Rail and pension fund double counting, had
raised important points about the quality of National Statistics.
Are you satisfied with the quality of National Statistics?
(Sir John Kingman) That is a very broad
brush question and I am not going to give you a broad brush answer.
There is a great deal of very good practice in the Government's
statistical service. In some respects we are world leaders. There
are also areas which give rise to considerable disquiet and you
have mentioned one area which we are very worried about, which
is the pensions statistics question. We are trying to get to the
bottom of the series of mistakes that occurred there which seem
to be somewhere around the interface between the Department of
Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics. What
we are going to do is to challenge the National Statistician to
take hold of the statistics in the Department of Work and Pensions
and to make sure that department operates to the highest standards
because we think that there probably are weaknesses in the culture
in that department which are giving rise to these successive difficulties
which on the face of it are unrelated to one another but probably
are grounded in the way in which statistics are seen in that department.
That is a job for Len Cook and we shall hold his nose to that
102. Sir John, you said you were not keen on
broad brush answers but you gave a pretty broad brush answer in
an article in the Financial Times. It quotes you as Chairman
of the Commission as saying that recent controversiesand
this is the operative bit"raised some very important
general pointsabout independence and about quality of national
statistics." The force of that coming from someone in your
position is to weaken general public confidence in national statistics,
is it not? Is that not somewhat irresponsible?
(Sir John Kingman) There is an inherent paradox in
the work we do because we are trying to increase public confidence.
If we try and do that just by saying, "All is well",
then we will have the effect of reducing public confidence. We
can only increase public confidence paradoxically by first shaking
it, by finding the areas where things are not as good as they
might be and insisting that they are put right. By doing that
we can gradually raise in the public mind the consciousness that
there is an effective watchdog and that therefore they can trust
the results that are coming up because they are being watched
by an independent Commission. In the short-term you are right,
we have to shake public confidence in order to build it up again.
103. I understand your answer, but you need
to get specific things and put those right and if they are not
put right public confidence will diminish. That is not the nature
of your comment. You said it raised some very important general
points about the quality of national statistics.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, the general points are to
do with the fact that in some areas the statistical mechanism
is not as robust as it should be and it is becoming more robust.
As I have said several times, the existence of the Code of Practice
will have an important effect in doing that. The mere existence
of the Commission has an effect. It has an effect, for instance,
in raising the status of the statisticians within particular departments
because they are seen to be part of a professional community and
not just isolated workmen in individual departments or branches.
We are gradually changing the culturewe being not just
the Commission of course but the National Statistician and everything
that is around the Framework for National Statistics. Things are
improving. They will only continue to improve if we insist on
the highest standards and refuse to take second-rate statistics
104. Sir John, the general public will not read
all that into this phrase. The general public will read into that
phrase that somebody who ought to know who is an authority on
this subject is casting doubt and aspersions on the quality of
national statistics as to whether they are right or not. Do you
still stand by it?
(Sir John Kingman) Of course I do. There have been
serious errors in the past. We came into existence largely because
of the mistakes around the average earnings index. Those were
serious mistakes. They may have misled the Monetary Policy Committee,
for instance, and there is no shying away from that. There have
been problems. Against the whole background of government statistics
and National Statistics they may be isolated incidents but in
this sort of sensitive area one mistake is one mistake too many
and we cannot afford that.
105. Do you fear at all, Sir John, that Len
Cook views your organisation as a somewhat unnecessary irritant?
(Sir John Kingman) I am sure there are days when he
is very irritated with us and we can cope with that, that is not
a worry. We are, in fact, building a relationship of mutual respect
and the ability to disagree in an honest and constructive way
which bodes well for the future.
Mr Laws: Great.
106. Sir John, I think you owe us a few bits
and pieces that you have offered to come back on. We would be
particularly interested when you do receive the joint statement
you are pushing for to have your comments on it.
(Sir John Kingman) Indeed, certainly.
Chairman: In the meantime I would like to thank
you and your colleague very much for appearing before the Committee
3 Note by witness: This may give the impression
that the Commission has already formed a view that the root of
the problem lies in cultural issues on the Department for Work
and Pensions side of the interface. This is not the case and it
was not Sir John's intention to give that impression. Back