Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
100. How do you see that being resolved?
(Sir John Kingman) We are having considerable discussions
at Secretariat level which I think will make the situation better.
We have to allow for the fact that the people we are seeking information
from are very busy and pressed but it is a question, as always,
of priorities. One of the points we have made repeatedly to the
National Statistician is that with the very substantial task that
he and his colleagues have there has to be a clear indication
of priorities, and I think that is something he is grappling with.
101. Is it the case that over the last year
there are areas of National Statistics which have simply missed
out on your scrutiny? Could you give some examples over the last
year of what you would have liked to have done but have not been
able to do?
(Sir John Kingman) Inevitably we have had to have
our own sense of priorities. We have concentrated on areas, some
of them because they have presented themselves to us and others
because we have decided specifically to study them. It would have
been absurd, for instance, if we had not looked at the Average
Earnings Index because in a sense that was how we came into being.
It would have been absurd if we had not given a lot of time to
matters connected with the Census. I would put it more positively,
not that some areas we have not covered but we deliberately concentrated
our attention on certain areas of importance.
102. Are these delays confined to the ONS itself
or are there other sources of statistics, like the devolved administrations,
where you have had similar delays?
(Sir John Kingman) We have necessarily been concentrating
on ONS. We have not had so much occasion to ask questions of other
departments or of the devolved administrations but I think that
will come. For instance, we have recently had a very successful
visit to Northern Ireland to see what are the particular problems
there. Departments have been as helpful as they could reasonably
be. There is one particular problem which you might like to take
note of which is inherent in the way we were set up, and I do
not quarrel with the way we were set up. We were told, you will
remember, to be completely open and transparent and that means
that we cannot be given confidential information. So if we ask
for information from a department or from ONS it must be given
to us in a form in which it can be made public and that inevitably
takes time. I think that is a price which is worth paying in order
that everyone knows what is going on in the Commission, but it
is something that can hold things up. A department will say "we
have got a document which answers the questions you are asking
but we cannot just give it to you because it contains information
that we could not put in the public domain" and, therefore,
they have to extract in some way from that document the material
that we need which can be in the public domain, and that is a
time consuming matter sometimes.
103. Have departments been using that as a shield?
(Sir John Kingman) No, I do not think so.
104. They have not been using that argument?
(Sir John Kingman) No, I think it is a genuine point.
It is much easier simply to take a document down from the shelf
and hand it over than it is to extract from it the information
which we need and which can be made public.
105. There were two or three issues we pursued
with you last time that I just want to check on. Resourcing is
one. You said in the Annual Report you were going to pursue that
vigorously. How have you been getting on?
(Sir John Kingman) For ourselves or the ONS and others?
106. For yourselves.
(Sir John Kingman) I will ask my Accounting Officer
(Ms Eastabrook) I think the reference in the Annual
Report was about ONS. Our concern was the point that Sir John
has just elaborated, that they cannot give us as much time as
we would like as quickly as we would like.
107. Have they reacted to that?
(Ms Eastabrook) We are working with them to find better
ways of doing it. There is a problem about finding better ways
of dealing with things, particularly to the extent that where
there is work that can be done by me and my small team I and my
team are trying to take that on rather than asking ONS to do it,
but there is a lot, particularly in areas where confidentiality
might arise, where we cannot do the work.
Chairman: It is the same problem as before.
108. Just one supplementary to the last couple
of answers. I am a little puzzled that the need for openness in
your own findings actually prevents you from seeing documents
which include confidential information. Would it not be possible
for you to receive the existing document with a proviso that the
particular passage not concerned with your work was not to be
(Sir John Kingman) No. That would be contrary to the
terms of reference under which we were set up. It is not just
our conclusions which are public but everything we do is supposed
to be public. That is something which is worthwhile, I think,
because you know and everyone knows everything that we know. That
is worth having and the price we have to pay is sometimes that
it is a bit awkward getting information in the right form.
109. There were two other issues. One was the
issue of direct access from the National Statistician to the Prime
Minister, if there was a serious issue he wanted to raise with
him that was to be direct rather than through the head of the
home Civil Service. You comment in your report that you would
expect this to be resolved and you would also expect the National
Statistician to inform you. Has he agreed to do that?
(Sir John Kingman) Yes. I think he will tell us if
on any occasion he requires access to the Prime Minister and that
is blocked by the Cabinet Secretary. I enjoyed your exchanges
with the former Economic Secretary but I think in practice this
is much more a matter of Whitehall status than it is of operational
significance. I am sure that if Len Cook needs to speak to the
Prime Minister he will find a way of doing so.
(Sir John Kingman) And he would tell us if that access
were to be blocked on any particular occasion. It is part of a
general request that we have made to him to be informed if his
professional integrity is in any way challenged by political pressure
and he has agreed to tell us of any such occasion, and he has
not told us of any such occasion.
111. I just want to be absolutely clear, you
started by saying you think he will or you are sure he will, now
you are saying he has agreed to tell you?
(Sir John Kingman) He has said that he will tell us
and I believe him when he says that he will tell us.
112. Fine, and this has not in fact happened
over the last 12 months?
(Sir John Kingman) He has not told us of any such
113. Finally I want to ask you about the issue
of scope that we touched on in our report. Again, you commented
that the scope should evolve over time. You have already made
clear your intention to advise on scope if appropriate, etcetera.
What have you done there?
(Sir John Kingman) We have not yet found any places
where the dividing line between National Statistics and those
things which are not in National Statistics seem to us to cause
any problem. We are keeping our eyes wide open so that we will
spot any such instances but, as far as we can see at the moment,
our initial judgment that the framework document threw the scope
very wide is still our general view, but we may well, as we visit
different areas of National Statistics find exclusions about which
we will want to advise Ministers, and also, of course, there will
be new statistics that emerge which may or may not be put into
National Statistics and we shall feel free to advise Ministers
on whether those should be within National Statistics.
114. Have you over the last year had representations
from other stakeholders seeking your support on the scope?
(Sir John Kingman) I do not think we have, have we?
(Ms Eastabrook) Not explicitly on scope.
(Sir John Kingman) We, of course, have
a lot of approaches which we take very seriously. If you look
at our web site you can see all the approaches listed and what
we have done about them and I think that is right, that none of
them are explicitly about scope.
115. As a Treasury Committee we spend quite
a lot of time discussing the issue of inflation and some of us
are not sure that we measure it very well. I know this is a matter
that concerns you. You told us when you were before us a year
ago that you wanted to get to work on the RPI. It comes up again
in your Annual Report where you are still saying that you want
to get to work on the RPI. Where are you at on this?
(Sir John Kingman) We have made some progress since
(Ms Eastabrook) We have commissioned a scoping studyit
is being undertaken by a member of the secretariat, as it happenslooking
at the whole area of price indices and deflators (so not specifically
the RPI) and interviewing various users and trying to get a feel
for the main user issues there. We are expecting the report by
the end of this month and it will go to the Commission for its
116. That is useful progress. Has that research
been given a specific number of questions to address? Has it got
terms of reference?
(Ms Eastabrook) It has got terms of reference.
117. Can you tell us briefly what those are?
(Ms Eastabrook) To assess whether, prima facie,
useful purpose would be served by a substantive study of methodological
and other issues of price indices and deflators.
118. That is asking whether there should be
(Ms Eastabrook) And what it should cover. And the
full terms of reference, which I can let the Clerk have a copy
of, include a reference to the question of the Chancellor's role.
Mr Plaskitt: If you could let us have sight
of that I think that would be interesting. We look forward to
returning to that issue when you have had the report I think.
Chairman: Nick Palmer?
119. About a year ago in our previous incarnation,
before my time, you told the Sub-committee that you planned to
do an Annual Report which would cover both the way that the Commission
fulfilled its remit and comment on the Annual Report of the National
Statistician. I believe that subsequently you decided to separate
those. Is that a long-term decision? Will there in fact always
be two reports?
(Sir John Kingman) I think there have to be because
both the report of the National Statistician and our Annual Report
are timed for the end of the Parliamentary session, before the
recess, and therefore we do not see the National Statistics Annual
Report in time to comment on it in our Annual Report. It is inevitable,
unless we were to wait a whole year, which would be foolish, that
we would respond separately. It does give us the opportunity,
though, 12 months later to make a second comment, a comment on
what the National Statistician has done about our comments on
his Annual Report so we can get into a cycle which is quite a
good iteration on this. I think actually you may find it more
helpful to do it that way.
1 Note by witness: One letter to the National
Statistician, referring inter alia to the question of why some
but not all hospital waiting list figures were included in National
Statistics, was copied to the Commission for information just
over a year ago. Back
See supplementary memorandum by the Statistics Commission,
Ev 38. Back