The Chief Minister has confirmed that key laws underpinning how Statistics Jersey operates are in conflict – but maintains he is determined to resolve it.
In his first public comments on the matter while in BBC Jersey’s ‘Hot Seat’ on Friday, Senator John Le Fondré admitted to “contradictions between two laws, which in my view need to be resolved, no question”, but denied there had been a “row” over fixing them, instead describing a “discussion going on” as the group that oversees Statistics Jersey’s integrity “didn’t think that the changes were heading in the right direction.”
He said that he was “very very clear” that Statistics Jersey should remain independent and that the conflict, revealed by Express this week, was something he had also “been very clear to officers for quite some time” about sorting.
“As far as I’m confirmed, that legislation has to be with us during 2021, bearing in mind we’ve also had delays through covid i.e. before the elections.”
The key legal issue is that a law granting the unit statutory independence in 2018 says statisticians should be able to make comments on Government figures – but their employment status as civil servants puts limits on them doing so.
Pictured: Statistics Jersey is responsible for putting out impartial reports on many different aspects of island life.
Initial proposals to change the law put forward by Government were described in Statistics User Group meeting minutes last September as “not a step forwards, [and] if anything a step backwards”, which were not in line with international standards and left the Chief Statistician “constrained.”
The role of respected Chief Statistician Dr Duncan Gibaut, whose departure comes just months ahead of the 2021 census, is now being replaced by a new Director of Statistics and Analytics, who will oversee Statistics Jersey, on top of a new ‘analytics’ team within the Government’s Strategic Planning, Policy and Performance Department – something Assistant Minister Deputy Kirsten Morel wants to see reversed over fears the Government link could create a conflict of interest.
Both on the radio and in a later email to States Members, in which he suggested Express “drew the wrong conclusions”, Senator Le Fondré did not address concerns about the nature of the new post.
Maintaining that the outgoing Chief Statistician “supported a restructuring of senior posts in Statistics Jersey” in his email, he went on to justify the change as being on the basis of creating “a full career ladder for local statisticians, so they can move from entry level statistician right up to director.”
He added that “one of our local statisticians has been promoted to the role of Head of Statistics Jersey and Principal Statistician ('Deputy Chief Statistician') - so the new senior structure is therefore already starting to benefit our local professionals.”
Senator Le Fondré went on to say that he had not yet signed off on any law changes – which will be subject to Ministerial and Scrutiny review – but “will ensure that any amendments continue to protect and promote statistical independence, including for post holders.”
Deputy Morel – who is currently drafting a proposal to sever Statistics Jersey’s financial tie with Government and make the Chief Statistician a sole post – said he found the Chief Minister’s response far from satisfactory.
“He talks about independence without describing the structure… He doesn’t explain how independence is being maintained. I think you can end all of these questions if you just set up the Statistics Unit as a grant-funded body.
“I don’t understand why you would want to undermine the role [of Chief Statistician] in any way at all by linking it with Government. It needs to stand alone and stand clean.”
Pictured: Deputy Morel was not convinced by the Chief Minister's response, as it failed to address why the Government had decided to create a single post to run both Statistics Jersey, which should be independent, and a Government department.
Reform Jersey leader Senator Sam Mézec said on Twitter that Senator Le Fondré’s email “raises more questions than it answers, and has not convinced me at all that they are not having their independence taken away.”
He told Express the need to restructure the role by linking it to another area of Government remained unclear and was something he was troubled by.
“One of the reasons I’m concerned is the fact we haven’t had an income inequality distribution survey for a few years now… The last one was horrifying. We keep getting told by Ministers that they are making progress, but they are not giving us any evidence of that. If [that data] starts coming from a policy department, we won’t trust it.”
With Statistics Jersey playing a vital role in helping States Members make informed voting decisions and providing data upon which they can base new proposals, Senator Mézec also said he was shocked that the Government didn’t inform politicians of the Chief Statistician’s impending departure and his successor’s different set of responsibilities before now.
“Given that relationship with States Members is so important, why weren’t we told just as a matter of fact and who is the person we now need to contact?”
He also said he felt strongly that Statistics Jersey, who were previously based at one of the top floors of Cyril Le Marquand House with a lockable door, should have their own premises, rather than continuing to work within Government HQ.
Pictured: Reform Jersey leader Senator Sam Mézec said he was troubled by the lack of announcement on the Chief Statistician's departure and the restructuring of the role.
“As well as a great view, they had a space for themselves. The Broad Street office is all open plan, so people can look over their shoulder or hear them on the phone.”
Senator Mézec's Reform Jersey colleagues are also probing the issue, with Deputies Rob Ward and Geoff Southern due to ask questions on the matter at next week's States Assembly meeting.
"The independence of Statistics Jersey is fundamental to us and as a party, we will do what is needed to support that independence," Reform's leader added.
Former Treasury Minister Senator Philip Ozouf, who has fiercely defended Statistics Jersey’s independence, described the issue as “totemic” on Twitter and pointed out the need to comply with international standards on statistics.
Standards set out by the United Nations Economic Commission, which were shared by the former Senator, state that “producers of official statistics… have to be free of conflicts of interest” and should “be perceived by all users as acting impartially, so that all users can have trust in the results as unbiased representation of relevant aspects of the society.”
Senator Le Fondré said on the radio that Dr Gibaut would be officially stepping down on Tuesday.
Adding to the many tributes that have been paid to his 20 years of work by States Members and members of the public alike, the Chief Minister added: "[I have a] huge amount of time for him, fantastic chap and I have many or sometimes very frank discussions in terms of understanding in detail, which, if you know him, that’s where his passion and enthusiasm lies and I really am sorry to see him go."
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