Sir David Norgrove interview: new chair of UK Statistics Authority on elections, the misuse of numbers and working for Margaret Thatcher

Written by Jim Dunton on 8 June 2017 in Interview
Interview

Former Treasury economist Sir David Norgrove is no stranger to number crunching and dealing with tough politicians. Now the new chair of the UK Statistics Authority tells Jim Dunton about the challenges ahead for the statistics watchdog, and what he thinks Thatcher would have made of Brexit

Photo credit: Photoshot

Sir David Norgrove doesn’t have much truck with the 19th century witticism that subdivides falsehoods into “lies, damned lies and statistics”, which is probably just as well for the new chair of the UK Statistics Authority. Twisting data to substantiate an argument is the villainy, he remonstrates, rather than number-crunching per se. “You can lie with anything, can’t you?” Norgrove says. “You can lie with words just as easily and perhaps more often. Anything can be misused.”

All the same, recent months have been something of a high tide for dressed-up numbers, particularly among politicians. One of the more memorable moments of Norgrove’s pre-appointment grilling before MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee earlier this year was his blunt criticism of the use of statistics in the EU referendum debate. Norgrove said he believed the £350m figure repeatedly used by the Leave campaign as the gross amount of money the UK contributed to the European Union every week had been “an egregious use of statistics”. He was also happy to describe the Treasury’s Remain-oriented estimate of the immediate impact of a decision to leave as “an overstatement”.

Sixty-nine-year-old Norgrove has praised the diligence of the outgoing UKSA chair, broadcaster and economist Andrew Dilnot – whom he succeeded in April. But he brings a different skill-set to the organisation, and a CV sold short by the word “varied”.


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A former HM Treasury economist who rose through the ranks to become private secretary to Margaret Thatcher during her Downing Street years, he subsequently spent more than a decade in senior roles at Marks & Spencer before a brief spell as a shepherd in New Zealand and – less randomly – a return to the public sector in the UK.
This latest incarnation has seen him chair the Pensions Regulator, the Low Pay Commission and serve as deputy chair of the Family Justice Board. The two latter roles laid the foundation for the knighthood he received in 2016’s New Year’s Honours.

As UKSA chair, Norgrove is responsible for delivering on the watchdog’s mandate of informing the public about social and economic matters; assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy; regulating quality; and publicly challenging the misuse of statistics. The latter role usually happens through the publication of letters. The notorious £350m “sent to Europe every week” was a recurring theme in correspondence from Dilnot last year. He subsequently issued a public statement expressing his “disappointment” over the continued use of the figure.

Norgrove is sanguine about the extent to which the UKSA can enforce its will. “You can’t stop people misusing data: all you can do is point it out and hope that either they respond or that the public pressure forces them to respond,” he says. “Parliament hasn’t given us – and probably shouldn’t give us – the power to censor a number and say ‘you must stop using that figure’. I think that would be almost an undemocratic way of behaving.”

Norgrove believes that the circumstances of the EU referendum were also particularly unusual. “In the case of the £350m, I thought it was clear that the Brexiters didn’t really mind about the number so long as there was focus on it,” he says. “So the controversy about the number was helpful to their cause because it kept people discussing it, and most people don’t see a big difference between £350m and – say – £100m because [either way] it’s a lot.”

There is a hierarchy of ways the UKSA can flex its fact-police muscles, ranging from the wording of its letters to who authors them, and Norgrove is clear he doesn’t want to be creating new records for literary output. “Letters from me should be the last resort,” he says. “Ed Humpherson, who is head of the Office of Regulation, will do most of those letters to officials. But if it’s particularly bad, or if it’s a very senior person or a minister who’s misused data, that role will likely fall to me.”

“There’s always been a tendency to look for the evidence that supports the policy rather than the other way round. That’s not going to end any time soon, but statisticians have an important role in trying to head that off”

As the UKSA is a non-ministerial independent statutory body, Norgrove says his “nuclear option” would be to take an issue of particular concern directly to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly. “Supposing a cabinet minister, or the prime minister, or a senior civil servant was absolutely refusing to respond [to our concerns] and continued to misuse data, and was continuing to put pressure on the Office for National Statistics to misuse figures,” he says. “In the end, if there was no other way, you’d go to the Commons and say ‘you need to step in here’.”

Even then, Norgrove struggles to imagine such a situation arising in the run-up to the EU referendum “because it was so political, and involved people in the Commons on both sides.”

Norgrove recognises the UK’s decision to leave the European Union will shape aspects of the UKSA’s work throughout his five-year term as chair. “A lot of the data that we produce is going to be – if anything – more important,” he says. “For example with Brexit happening, what’s happening to growth, what’s happening to investment, what’s happening to trade, what’s happening to migration, those are four things which – although they’ve always been important – are going to be a central focus over the next five years. As will be any effects the process of Brexit is having.”

He also expects lessons to emerge from the EU referendum to assist a future Scottish independence vote, in the not-unlikely event that one occurs on his watch. “We haven’t reached any conclusions,” Norgrove says. “But the question will be how far UKSA and ONS, together with Scottish colleagues, endeavour to get a statement of the key figures that are going to be relevant, so that people don’t argue about what the size of the trade flows are between Scotland and England, or the rest of the UK. What people do with them then, of course, is a different matter.”

Despite being keen to point out that he is not a statistician, Norgrove is not short of opinions on the quality of government data and its scope for improvement, particularly relating to social change.

“The Low Pay Commission relies hugely on data from ONS in terms of what’s happening to pay – and not just what’s happening in aggregate, but what’s happening in different regions, different industries, different groups of people, whether they’re disabled or minorities or whatever it might be,” he says.

“Tracking that – mostly from the annual survey of hours and earnings – was invaluable. It was fundamental to making our recommendations on the minimum wage.”

Equally, the review of family justice Norgrove chaired in 2010-11 left him aware of important data gaps. “Some areas have lots of adoption, some don’t; some areas have lots of fostering, some place children back with their parents quite a lot or with relatives,” he said. “We don’t have a very good ability to track and relate the decisions that are made about children through to the outcomes for them, and ask ‘how were they influenced by what’s happened to them?’ I think there’s a real opportunity to begin to use data to make decisions based on outcomes not on process.”

He also sees better use of existing administrative data as a way to bolster the nation’s understanding of itself without conducting original and costly research. “The ONS send out five million forms every year, but there is a potential to substitute administrative data for new surveys,” he says. “Data that the Home Office collects as people leave the country can be used in principle to improve the quality of data about migration. What’s the size of the population? We can start to get at that from knowing the total number of people registered with doctors, or how many National Insurance numbers have been issued. There are difficulties, but you can get more regular knowledge rather than having to wait 10 years and sending out the census form.”

Which is not to say that Norgrove sees an end to the census. He is even upbeat about the likelihood of the 2021 census throwing up the return of “Jedi Knight” as an alternative religion, following a trend inspired by Star Wars fans that in 2011 saw 176,000 respondents describe themselves as followers of the fictional faith. “People will have fun with it,” he says. “Someone will try to make a point and get some publicity from it, but it’s how we manage things that is important.”

As well as a greater reliance on pre-existing data-sources, Norgrove predicts a move away from paper and towards tablet devices for surveys. He also has high hopes for the ONS’s newly-established Data Science Campus in Newport, which currently has a 26-strong team tasked with spotting future trends in the demand for data. “We’re trying to think in advance about the data people are going to need over the next few years, what kinds of areas people are going to be interested in and how we make sure we’ve got the data for that to help inform the discussion,” Norgrove says.

The team, created following Charlie Bean’s independent review of UK statistics, is targeting a range of time-limited projects focused on particular areas suggested by academics and industry. UKSA says its numbers are set to swell to 60 by the end of March next year.

One of Norgrove’s aims for his time at UKSA is to raise the status of statisticians in government departments. “The ONS has increasingly played a role in doing the analysis and interpretation of the numbers, but it only produces about 20% of the data series that come out of government, so 80% is produced by departments,” he says. “There’s always been a tendency to look for the evidence that supports the policy rather than the other way round. That’s not going to end any time soon, but statisticians have an important role in trying to head that off. If you’ve got the knowledge and the expertise, then you’ve earned the right to be at the table making your point. It doesn’t mean that you’ll carry [the argument], but you should be at the table.”

At his January job interview with PACAC, Norgrove scored some points when quizzed about his ability to stand up to authority. He responded by listing “a huge range of very difficult people” he has worked with, including Margaret Thatcher, former chancellor Denis Healey, and former justice secretary Michael Gove. For good measure, he then threw in billionaire retailer Philip Green and French trade unions – whom he faced during a time when M&S was closing stores across the Channel.

“Parliament hasn’t given us – and probably shouldn’t give us – the power to censor a number and say ‘you must stop using that figure’. I think that would be almost an undemocratic way of behaving”

“I was very junior when I was working with Denis Healey,” he tells CSW. “I had one or two meetings with him when he was fairly robust with me; many more of course with Margaret Thatcher. She could come across sometimes as a bit capricious, but she was mostly challenging. Once she trusted you, she trusted you – and that was challenging too. I actually thought Michael Gove was great in terms of his commitment to family justice, but he was very challenging in terms of what we were recommending in the Family Justice Review and thereafter.”

Norgrove was Thatcher’s private secretary between 1985 and 1988, when he quit the civil service. Did she have a role in his decision to jump ship to the private sector?

“No, not really,” he says. “From 1978 to 1980 I worked in Chicago in banking on unpaid leave from the Treasury. I didn’t want to be a banker, I knew that, but I enjoyed the freedom of the private sector and I actually enjoyed trying to make a profit – the sense that if you could justify spending the money, you could get it.

“My wife and I knew that we wanted to come back and live in the UK; I thought I would come back into the Treasury for a while and go back into the private sector, but the Treasury offered me a series of interesting jobs – working on the budget, working on defence spending, and then going on to No. 10, and that was too much fun, too interesting to leave, so I actually stayed a lot longer than I expected.”
Bearing in mind his close working relationship with Thatcher at the height of her powers, CSW cannot help asking what Norgrove thinks the Iron Lady would make of the last 12 months in British politics.

“I have wondered about that,” he replies animatedly. “I don’t know…I mean, her heart certainly would have been for Brexit, I think. But it’s hard to know whether her head would have been because she was the person who signed up to the Maastricht Treaty. Despite being very hostile to Europe and its ways of thinking, she signed up to Maastricht. Whether she would have allowed her heart to overrule her head, I don’t know.”

He adds: “It’s also very different making decisions about how you’re going to vote to making decisions if you’re prime minister."

Norgrove has an enthusiasm for his new role that is driven by a lifetime consuming economic statistics that he believes equips him to add value to the UKSA, and a desire “not to go out to grass just yet”. The fact that he is seldom happier than when trekking in mountains may have some lurking symbolism, too.

Barely 72 hours after he issued his first letter as UKSA chair – a call to political parties to avoid the misuse of statistics during the snap general election – Boris Johnson was renewing his commitment to the Leave campaign’s £350m figure on live radio. Life on the beat with the numbers police is unlikely to stop being an uphill struggle any time soon.

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