Treasury Sub-Committee Inquiry into the Office for National Statistics
Comments on the Treasury's Green Paper Cm 3882
"Information Theory explains the basis on which purposive
action is conceivable and possible; but it contains no chapter
on political leverage" (Professor W J M Mackenzie) (1)
This evidence is substantially as submitted to the ONS as a response to the Green Paper "Statistics: a Matter of Trust". It concerns the part of the Treasury Sub-Committee's brief dealing with the integrity of our national statistical service, quality of outputs and freedom from political interference.
The Government is committed to an independent national statistical service as an essential step towards restoring public confidence - and the Green Paper discussed four options. My argument is that direct accountability to Parliament is the only effective option because ...
1. The Prime Minister emphasised, in his introduction to "Statistics: A Matter of Trust", the link between openness and trust. Mr Blair went on to speak, in the same breath, of both freedom of information and an independent national statistical service. In their response to the FoI White Paper the RSS said legislation on National Statistics could well be part of the legislation on freedom of information (2). The Labour Party's Manifesto made the same crucial linkage between access to information and the integrity of information; a single feature within the Government's major programme of constitutional reform.
2. That is as it should be. A great deal of governmental statistics are, at base, fairly subjective. That has always been the case but now leading edge science constantly questions, even further, our old notions of what is strictly measurable and what is not. This process will continue. And so we should not approach the next millennium trying to separate the business of measurement from the framework of debate. Success, integrity and public confidence all depend on this interaction. Separation will increasingly impair both the integrity of statistics and their most efficient and effective use in implementing the Government's programme.
3. And yet the Green Paper already marks the separation of these two vital aspects: openness and trust. A very pro-active stance on the dissemination of information by Whitehall was promised in the White Paper "Your Right to Know". Freedom of Information proposals now move towards a draft Bill but there is little indication that the mechanics of the dissemination of official data to Parliament or public has received serious thought (see my comments on "Your Right to Know": Public Administration Committee, HC 398-II). The list of "exclusions" grows and powers of the Information Commissioner weakened. Meanwhile "Statistics: a Matter of Trust" is published by a separate Department for a separate consultation process over a different time scale. The only expressed linkage is in the above introductory pledge by the Prime Minister.
4. All options correctly stress the importance of protecting professional standards and the professional competence of statisticians. However the Green Paper treats this important task as if it were an entirely technical matter. Hence Ministers could appoint "a Board" to maintain statistical integrity or Ministers would appoint a "Statistical Commission" to do "spot checks", and so on. But the notion that a few people (no matter how transparently chosen by Ministers) can provide absolute statistical judgements is naive and not compatible - I think - with a modern concept of statistical validation.
Correcting the Green Paper Bias
5. Direct accountability to Parliament will represent by far the most substantial change and therefore the greatest disturbance to long held attitudes and existing procedures within Whitehall. Perhaps for this reason the Green Paper raised a number of reservations which seem unnecessarily biased. I will answer a few of them ...
5(i) It is suggested that "this model would imply a substantial administrative workload for a Parliamentary Committee well in excess of that placed on most committees. In other areas of national activity where priorities have to be set, Parliament has preferred to delegate such decisions to Ministers" and that Parliament would prefer to delegate such work to Ministers" (Green Paper para 5.34).
The alleged difficult administrative task is analogous to Parliament's present control of the National Audit Office - with a planned gross budget of £47.8 million and 750 staff (plus consultants). Indeed the House of Commons and NAO already successfully administers an expenditure of £354.8 million and 2,061 staff (minus MPs) which actually exceeds ONS expenditure of £353 million - for 2,405 staff.
5(ii) "The NAO has a largely "watchdog" role, with much of the work reporting on the effectiveness and efficiency with which money is spent. Accordingly, much of the work considered by the Public Accounts Committee is of a non-party political nature" The inference is that statistics, on the other hand, involve political judgement and "a Parliamentary Committee would need to be perceived as removed from the political process" (Green Paper para 5.33). This undervalues PAC and NAO work and the integrity of cross-party Committees of the stature of the PAC. Moreover there is an extraordinary inference that PAC concern with "outcomes" is not party political whereas statistics may be - and that Parliament (as opposed to Ministers or a Ministerial Quango!) is much too close to the political process to appear objective!
5(iii) "It is likely that at least some departments would need to set up their own statistical units, independent of the National Statistical Office, for example to carry out policy-related work and work associated with departmental management. This would be wasteful of resources", etc. (Green Paper para 5.36). "It would need to be clear that any advantages it (direct accountability to Parliament) enjoyed over other models outweighed its greater likely cost" (Green Paper para 5.37). In fact no costings have been prepared. The overall Government Statistical Service (GSS) has a staff of 4,688 and no such dislocation or duplication would occur if the equivalent of 2,405 ONS staff were removed to the House of Commons - leaving the present balance of 2,283 with Whitehall departments.
Lines of Accountability & Devolution
6. Direct accountability to Parliament, therefore, does not need to affect Whitehall establishments geared to departmental work programmes, or their accountability to Ministers. Indeed it is difficult imagining that the present arrangements can result in effective co-ordination; where one Head purports to control all the inter-departmental deployment of the GSS staff across departments and also all ONS staff. Direct accountability to Parliament could involve only those staff responsible for the actual production of national statistics, registration, national publications (3) and surveys and the general servicing of departments. The reporting lines are clear.
7. The Green Paper notes that there will be implications for Devolution. There is already some evidence that the mass of people in Scotland, and possibly also in the near future in Wales and Northern Ireland, could react adversely to devolution if Members find an insufficient dissemination of information and, crucially, insufficient sharing of accountability for statistical definitions and relevant policy analysis. It will be important to show that a Government so committed to decentralisation may be willing to look more seriously at devolving some actual power to the Parliament at Westminster and also to Members in the devolved Assemblies.
8. This configuration will be further underpinned by state-of-the-art information technology - already going forward - to link the various departmental datasets - including those at the Northern Ireland Statistical and Research Agency, the Bank of England, etc. But as we contemplate action we should not lose sight of the Manifesto commitment for Freedom of Information and an Independent Statistical Service since no constitutional reforms will come about without facing up to major change in the present governmental systems and procedures. Presentation and "spin" are one thing, but if reforms are "for real" the prize is indeed a great one. Really effective FoI legislation (proactive dissemination of information) coupled with the devolution of independent national statistical service to Parliament and new Assemblies will be a convincing and dignified constitutional achievement; one commensurate with any of the great reforms of the past.
9. It would seem appropriate, then, if the Green Paper proposals, which may so closely involve the whole character and style of our Parliamentary Government, were considered fully not only by the Treasury Sub-Committee but by their colleagues in other relevant Select Committees and debated by Parliament.
10. On 25 April, 1995, Mr Jack Straw gave an excellent speech to the Royal Statistical Society which fully endorsed the RSS and National Executive Committee support for devolution of an Independent Statistical Service to the House of Commons: similar to the Green Paper Model D. I was grateful to Mr Straw for a copy of this excellent speech and for circulating it widely. I am therefore reproducing it in full as an Annex to these comments.
Des McConaghy, 17 July 1998
(2) see also Royal Statistical Society response to "Statistics: a Matter of Trust" Section 1, para 6.
(3) publications such as Social Trends, Regional Trends, Population Trends, Financial Statistics, Monthly Digest of Statistics and Annual Abstract of Statistics.
Mr Jack Straw speech to the Royal Statistical Society - on 25 April 1995 was annexed. It is available via the Royal Statistical Society's Website www.rss.org.uk
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