WEDNESDAY 16 OCTOBER 2002
Mr Michael Fallon, in the Chair
SIR JOHN KINGMAN, Chairman, and MISS BARBARA BUCKLEY, Secretary, The Statistics Commission, examined.
(Sir John Kingman) I am Sir John Kingman, Chairman of the Statistics Commission, and on my right is Barbara Buckley, Secretary to the Commission. Jill Easterbrook, our Chief Executive, is on leave and offers her apologies.
(Sir John Kingman) Of course when I wrote that foreword, we still did not have the Code of Practice in place. That now fortunately is in place, though there are still protocols and departmental statements to come and we still have to work out with Len Cook how best to make that Code of Practice part of the culture of the Government's statistical service. We are starting now on the consultation which will lead to a report on whether we think there should be statistical legislation. That is going to be a major job. We have been working quite hard on the problems around the Census, which I am sure you will want to come to in more detail, and there are quite a lot of other issues which have cropped up in different parts of government, so we found ourselves quite busy.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, that is a very major part of the work.
(Sir John Kingman) No, it has taken far too long to get to this point. We have wasted more than a year by the delay that it has taken to get the Code agreed around Whitehall and put into effect, but we are where we are and now we must make the best of it and make sure that the Code really does lead to a change in culture that will increase public confidence.
(Sir John Kingman) ONS are certainly trying very hard and of course you have to distinguish ONS as an office from the National Statistician with his wider remit for the whole of government statistics. I am sure that when you talk to Len Cook he will tell you, and it will be true, that he is trying to ensure that the same high professional standards operate in the departments that do their own statistical work as he is imposing in the Office of National Statistics.
(Sir John Kingman) Well, of course the fact that it has taken so long to get the Code of Practice must be a sign that not all ministers are totally convinced. We do not know what discussions took place within Whitehall, but I think it is not unnatural that members of the Government and their advisers are sometimes a bit chary of insistence that they meet higher standards in using and issuing statistics.
(Sir John Kingman) It clearly is the job of ONS to interpret and apply the international conventions. There is no point in having international conventions if they are not used, but they do not tell the whole story. What we have been trying to tease out is the whole picture so that politicians and the public generally can see the true reality of what has been set up in Network Rail. We looked very carefully at the way the relevant people in ONS applied the international conventions and we came to the conclusion that they had done an honest and rigorous job with the information that they had available to them. They made it clear that if further information became available, they would want to look at the issue again, and it is clearly right that they should do that. They also relied heavily on an assurance from the most senior accountant in the Department of Transport that the government guarantees were unlikely to be called upon. Now, we have tried to discover what lies behind that advice. We are assured that it was given by a politically-impartial accountant. I have no way of testing that assurance, but certainly the Comptroller and Auditor General, applying different criteria, has come to a different conclusion and we in the Commission think that there needs to be a full reconciliation of his view with the view of the people in ONS. We were promised some time ago a joint statement by the National Statistician and the Auditor General. That has not appeared. I wrote to both of them on the 1st October, saying that their failure to produce such a statement made it difficult for the public to have confidence in what is going on and I have not had any replies from either of these busy gentlemen, but I hope that will be coming soon. Clearly there are different criteria and we have met a number of instances in our work where this is the case. What we are saying is it may be valid to have different criteria, but you need to explain what is going on. The whole picture needs to be put in terms that can be understood.
(Sir John Kingman) Well, both parties are applying the criteria which it is their job to apply and are coming to different conclusions. They have to explain, I do not think it is for us to explain, but they have to explain what it is that is different about the different criteria and why one set of criteria is useful from one point of view and another set from another point of view. It is something which is not uncommon in commercial life. A company which has activities in the UK and the US has to produce accounts very often in two different formats for the two different systems and it is required that they should show a reconciliation of those. I think we are talking about the same thing. When two different criteria are applied, it is confusing and the obligation is on those who make the determination to explain the difference between the criteria and the underlying reasons for the different judgments.
(Sir John Kingman) I do not think it is for us to tell the Auditor General what he thinks. We have got to tease out what he thinks, preferably in the form of an agreed statement, but if they cannot agree, they will have to do their best to explain to us and we will then try and explain to the public just what is going on. I regard this very much as unfinished business. Although the press like to say that we have decided that Network Rail is a private company, we have not at all. What we have said is that the narrow, limited operation of the European system of account has been properly carried out and, as far as we can see, without political influence or partiality, but that is a very narrow conclusion and we want to see a proper public explanation of the realities of the situation, including the point that I have made, just why it is that it is believed in the Department of Transport that the guarantees will not be called upon. I think that needs to be explained and it has not yet been explained.
(Sir John Kingman) They are clearly regarded as necessary, but that does not mean they will be called upon. They are presumably some sort of belt and braces, but that is something that has never been properly explained and it must be properly explained.
(Sir John Kingman) We are still on the case.
(Sir John Kingman) Well, he is clearly right to say that it is his job to make these determinations. It is our job to assure the public, if we can, that he is doing his job in an impartial and professional way. I think he got slightly carried away with his enthusiasm in that particular case, but obviously from time to time we will disagree. We, as the Commission, need to distinguish between saying that someone like the National Statistician has perhaps made a mistake or saying, on the other hand, that the National Statistician is allowing political pressure to influence his professional judgment, and that second one would be a very serious accusation and it is one that we are not making. We have no evidence that Mr Cook's decisions are influenced by political pressure, but we do not always agree with his decisions and that is an honest disagreement.
(Sir John Kingman) We are concerned that that independence should be entrenched. It exists de facto at the moment, but not de jure and that is one of the issues that we shall come to when we are looking at legislation because it is one thing to say that the present National Statistician is doing a highly professional job and is independent, but it is another thing to say that we can offer any guarantee that that will continue to be the case. In the absence of legislation, I do not think we can offer such a guarantee.
(Sir John Kingman) Well, 100 per cent is a big number, but we have no reason to suppose that there is any political influence on their decisions.
(Sir John Kingman) I do not think anyone can have 100 per cent confidence in anything.
(Sir John Kingman) I am not going to start inventing numbers.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
(Sir John Kingman) I do not think that is happening and I think that if ministers or others were to try to do it, it would be counterproductive. As you see from the reports, Mr Cook's vocabulary is quite extensive and I think he might well use it if people tried to influence his professional judgment.
(Sir John Kingman) I think ministers are inevitably pulled two ways and I am not pointing the finger at any particular minister. On the one hand, I believe that all our ministers understand the need for good, impartial, high-quality statistics.
(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.
(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.
(Sir John Kingman) We do.
(Sir John Kingman) We do.
(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.
(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.
(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 widely.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
(Sir John Kingman) We do.
(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.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, it is a very useful indicator.
(Sir John Kingman) I cannot think of any which were purely media. The hospital waiting list issue was largely a media-prompted matter.
(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 Rail example.
(Sir John Kingman) Indeed.
(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 step forward.
(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.
(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 doing that.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 did this.
(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 wholeheartedly welcomed.
(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.
(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 us.
(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 years - and I think we all agree represent important steps forward - the wider power of the National Statistician, the explicit Code of Practice, the existence of the Statistics Commission - could 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Sir John Kingman) There have certainly been examples in the past of that.
(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.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
(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.
(Sir John Kingman) But we can ask embarrassing questions. Really that is our only power, to ask embarrassing questions.
(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.
(Sir John Kingman) No, I think it is a unique case.
(Sir John Kingman) I think so.
(Sir John Kingman) The Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee go right back to the 19th Century and were set up in political conditions very different from those that obtain today. His power and authority and influence have developed over many, many decades. The National Statistician post has only existed for two years. We are a very young business. I think that there would be considerable advantage in the National Statistician being responsible in some sense to Parliament and having a committee like the Public Accounts Committee that could take his reports seriously, but you can imagine that is an issue which would rouse mixed feelings in government departments and in the Cabinet and whether it is serious politics you can judge better than I can.
(Sir John Kingman) I would favour anything that gives the National Statistician clear independent authority so that he can make professional judgments untrammelled by any suspicion of political partiality.
(Sir John Kingman) That would be a very powerful means to that end. It is not the only way of achieving it but if it could be done it would be a very quick and certain way of achieving it.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
(Sir John Kingman) I have not come across any examples of that during the time the Commission has been in existence but I think you can find plenty of examples in the more distant past in which there was spinning of statistics and I mentioned one notorious example when Dennis Healey was Chancellor.
(Sir John Kingman) No, I am not saying that it is a widespread disease but it is a disease to which we are susceptible if there is not some safeguard. If information is around in a government department there is always a risk that someone will pick it up and say "I had better have a word with a journalist about this to make sure that it is presented in the right way". The temptation is clearly there. I am not saying that people have given in to that temptation recently because I think that the whole publicity around National Statistics has made people more careful of these things and that is entirely to the good.
(Sir John Kingman) I shall be more satisfied when I have seen the departmental statements.
(Sir John Kingman) This is something that we are looking at quite carefully and there are certainly problems. The ONS does not have the resources to do a proper job at the regional level and the further down you go into more detail, the more you come across problems to do with greater proportional errors in small areas, the possibility of disclosure problems, and the sort of problems that have come up in relation to the Census where people have been very surprised at simply the population, let alone more subtle information at a local authority level. I do not want to make definitive statements about this. It is a very important and a very difficult area, and it is one that we are working on with the National Statitician who has his own problems with it.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, you should but I do not think you should jump to conclusions yet because we need to do more work on it. It is a worrying area. I think you will find that Len Cook will also agree that he is worried about it. We have got to find ways of getting reliable information at this level. One suggestion that is not very helpful is to have this data produced in departments rather than in the ONS, which actually could have some short-term attractions but would be much more difficult to control in terms of quality, and I think we really do need to bring in the expertise that exists in ONS firmly to bear on the regional problem. I would like to have more time on this one before being definitive about it.
(Sir John Kingman) Perhaps my colleague would like to say a word about the work that is going on on it.
(Miss Buckley) We have received a review very recently on government accounts and indicators which we are looking at. There are some other reviews due by the end of the year. We shall need time to study those and then we will be able to report back with our views on them.
(Miss Buckley) That is probably a realistic timescale. Until we have seen the reports that come out, it is difficult to put a time on it.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
(Sir John Kingman) All the experts tell us that these are all very difficult areas fraught with various traps and we must make sure that we give some advice that will be helpful to finding a way forward.
(Sir John Kingman) I really do not want to go into detail about this because it is so complicated, but just the sort of thing that you get from the fact that people live in one place and work in another, for instance, and you have to make allowance for that all the time, whereas when you are operating at a national level the statistical majority of people live in the same country that they work in statistically. Once you have cross-border flows of different sorts - people and money and so on - then you have got to find ways of making allowance for that. Also the smaller the area the more, as I say, the proportionate errors mount up. You do not get the same law of averages operating. But these are difficult technical questions and I do not want to pose as an expert on this.
(Sir John Kingman) We will certainly make sure you get them.
(Sir John Kingman) I think I would rather let you have a note on that if I could because if I try to explain it now I shall get it wrong, frankly.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes. Our concern in that case has been that all the research which is going on in that sort of area is being used properly by the department and they have given us assurances that it is. We are trying to ensure that that is put on paper in a way that satisfies the original inquiry. As I say, I would really rather let you have a written note about this if you are interested in the details.
(Sir John Kingman) Indeed.
(Sir John Kingman) Exactly so. There is a lot of research, a lot of academics have been in touch with us with interest about this. There is a lot of educational research. It is not fundamentally a statistical question. Our concern has been to make sure that the results of this academic research are available to and used properly by the policy makers in the department. As far as we can tell that is happening but it is quite difficult to be sure of that. You cannot ask the Statistics Commission whether there is great drift and so on, those are not statistical questions, they are educational questions which are extremely difficult. They can sometimes have a statistical component but it would be wrong for the Statistics Commission to pontificate about that.
(Sir John Kingman) I do not think I can really help on that, I am sorry. I think you are going outside the proper sphere of the Statistics Commission.
(Sir John Kingman) I wrote to Len Cook on 1 October, I wrote several letters to Len Cook on 1 October, and noted that there was a report in 1999 which investigated accusations that test standards were being deliberately manipulated and concluded that there was no evidence of that, but I went on to say that we know that the Office for National Statistics is having a quality review on education performance statistics starting sometime next year and we are really encouraging him and the department to take this seriously. "I would be grateful if you could ensure that this area is examined in the near future and let me know what the timescale will be."
(Sir John Kingman) I would like to offer you a note that summarises the various lines of correspondence that have happened already and obviously this letter will be a part of that.
(Sir John Kingman) We do not have the resources to go hospital by hospital and check what is going on and what we are trying to do is to look at the ways in which the hospital statistics are being put together, the checks on them and so on, and also the work that the National Audit Office, which does have the resources, is doing on hospital waiting lists. There is obviously a possible overlap between the interests of the Commission and the interests of the National Audit Office because they are concerned that when these numbers are put out they do actually contain everyone's figures and there are not miscountings or deliberate deceptions about the figures. And it is certainly suspicious that there are still substantial seasonal variations in the waiting list which is linked to the dates when the performance statistics are produced. So there is room for concern and what we are trying to do is to work with the National Audit Office so that their big battalians can look at the sort of questions which worry us about the validity of the statistics themselves. That is something where the National Statistician also has an important interest, so the three of us are trying to work together.
(Sir John Kingman) We have seen seasonal dips each year and we have not had an election each year, so it is clearly not just an election phenomenon.
(Sir John Kingman) It may be a phenomenon - and I only say "may be" because this is still very much under study - to do with the dates that affect people's performance pay and that sort of thing. These are the sorts of hypotheses which the National Audit Office and we are interested in.
(Sir John Kingman) I think if there were any serious suspicions that that sort of thing was happening, that is something we would be very interested in.
(Sir John Kingman) No, I did not say that.
(Sir John Kingman) What I am saying is we and the National Audit Office are working on it and that they are the people who have the big batallions that can investigate this at the hospital level.
(Sir John Kingman) That is right.
(Sir John Kingman) This is a very important area because it is clear that the system of targets has come to stay in our political life. The Government will lay down targets and will tie Treasury funding to the achievement or otherwise of those targets and inevitably choosing particular targets which will be defined simply enough for people to understand will distort the service. Whatever you choose people will play to those targets rather than to other things which have not been included in the targets. The temptation will then be to have more and more targets and many of these will be very difficult to measure.
(Sir John Kingman) I think our main function, our core function, is to ensure that where a target has been laid down the statistics which decide whether that target has been met should be statistics in which people can have confidence. That has two aspects. It involves ensuring that the targets that are laid down are actually measurable and, secondly, ensuring, as with all government statistics, that the statistical outputs are high quality and not distorted. You are asking us whether we would want to move into a different area of actually criticising the targets themselves. Strictly speaking I do not think that is part of our terms of reference although it is almost impossible to exclude that sort of consideration when you start looking at targets.
(Sir John Kingman) It is something about which every citizen would have concern. I do not know whether the Statistics Commission would be regarded as having a particular expertise in that area that would influence ministers. After all, the choice of targets is typically a highly political matter and we can give advice but whether our advice would be thought to have any value in that sort of case I do not know.
(Sir John Kingman) We can give advice on anything but we are better to concentrate on those areas where we have some demonstrable expertise.
Is that something that would be of concern to the Statistics Commission that you might comment on?
(Sir John Kingman) I have not seen that letter but that sounds to me a letter that would concern us because if statistical information is to be of any value it must be the real information and not information which is tapered in order to avoid lurches. I have not seen the letter. If I do, I think it is something the Commission ought to consider.
(Sir John Kingman) Certainly. We are charged with looking at the scope of national statistics and there are some very curious border lines in the National Health Service area as to which figures are national statistics and which are not. We have not done a lot of work so far on the scope of national statistics simply because it was pointless to do so before we had the Code of Practice which said, effectively, what it means to be a national statistic. Now that we have that Code, there are a number of areas of which I think the Health Service will be one where we will want to look at the boundary between national statistics and management information which is not national statistics. Clearly every organisation collects numerical information, some of it of a very trivial sort which it would be ridiculous to put within the discipline of national statistics, but where exactly you draw the line does need careful consideration and the sort of example you cite shows how important this is in the NHS area.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, I think it was a surprise to everyone.
(Sir John Kingman) It certainly produces very important questions that need to be answered. If a scientist measures the same thing in two different ways and gets quite different answers he should not say which is right; he should say what is the reason for the discrepancy and let us try and understand it. On the face of it, the Census results ought to be more accurate than the extrapolations that are done between Censuses. If that turns out to be the case when there has been more detailed study that will not be at all surprising and it will be a caution to us about using the extrapolation techniques. This, of course, has very important implications for the question of what the next Census, if any, should look like because clearly if our methods of looking at births and deaths and migration are not sufficiently accurate to give us a figure within a million, a true figure, then they should not be used over a ten-year period to make important policy decisions. But I think there are still a lot of questions to be answered about this last Census in relation to the people who may have been missed both by the Census itself and by the subsequent Census coverage survey. The estimates about missing people are normally taken from an assumption that there is independence between these two exercises. In fact, there are likely to be particular categories of people who are missed out both by the Census and by the coverage survey and whether that is part of the explanation of the million difference between the two figures is still a question for discussion.
(Sir John Kingman) Yes, the fact that you did not get Census returns from a million people is not at all surprising and is in line with international experience. The techniques for what they call "imputation", although they are very easy to make fun of in the press, are in fact very well grounded in statistical principle. It is important to realise that the estimate of the total population size that results is a statistical estimate. The experts have estimated that it is a figure plus or minus 100,000, so that needs to be borne in mind in using the figures. Of course when you break those figures down to smaller areas you get larger proportional errors. That is all within the scope of standard statistical methodology, there is nothing to worry about there. I think the discrepancy between the estimate that arises from the Census and the estimates that have been made over the ten years since the last Census do need very careful study. I suspect that some of them will turn out to result from mistakes, not mistakes but poor methodology in 1991 which formed the base of the extrapolations. If those were then, of course, the extrapolations from them are bound to be wrong. I think it is important, and ONS agree with this, to understand where these discrepancies come from and, of course, to break them down at the local level as well because they do seem to be concentrated in certain areas where there is particular difficulty.
(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.
(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 particular grindstone.
(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.
(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 culture - we 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 as satisfactory.
(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.
(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.
(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 today.