Sir Jack Hibbert

Reforming government statistician
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Jack Hibbert was director of the Central Statistical Office and head of the Government Statistical Service from 1985 to 1992. As head of the newly merged CSO in the late 1980s, he oversaw its rapid expansion and was responsible for significant improvements in the quality of official economic statistics.

Born in Huddersfield in 1932, Hibbert was educated at Leeds Grammar School and the London School of Economics. After National Service in the Royal Air Force he joined the Exchequer and Audit Department in 1952, and transferred to the Central Statistical Office in 1960. After a period on loan as a consultant to OECD in 1981, he went to the Department of Trade and Industry as Director of Statistics, and in August 1985, Margaret Thatcher approved his appointment to succeed Sir John Boreham as director of the CSO and head of the Government Statistical Service.

Jack Hibbert took over the CSO after four years of cutbacks reflecting the Rayner review of statistics, conducted under the ethos that government should be considered as the pre-dominant customer for official statistics. But in the late 1980s, the Government cited misleading statistics when asked to explain its handling of the economy. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee recommended "a thorough review into the operation of various Departments involved in the collection of national accounts statistics". This review took the form of an efficiency scrutiny (the Pickford Review), and produced as a main recommendation the amalgamation into one organisation the collection and compilation of statistics for national accounts.

The resulting mergers occurred in July 1989 and the CSO grew from just under 170 staff to around 1,000. To quote from the official history of government statistics, Keeping Score (1991),

This was probably the most dramatic development to have taken place in the history of the CSO since its birth in 1941. It brought together in a single organisation the work of collecting a wide range of economic and financial statistics with the work of compiling the national accounts. It enabled the CSO to determine priorities which were more focused on the requirements of the national accounts.

Hibbert was a prime mover in these changes, and must go down as making and implementing some of the biggest changes in the history of British official statistics. He was knighted in 1990 and retired in 1992 after 42 years as a civil servant. In his farewell note, he said in typically modest but characteristically straightforward fashion,

I do not feel it would be unfair to claim that, in fact, we have put into practice during this recent period many of the things which, in the past, others have talked about but not actually managed to put into effect. The reorganisation and bringing together the CSO and BSO [the Business Statistics Office] into a single department, and the work on setting up an inter-departmental business register, rather than simply saying it would be a good idea, are two examples of what I had in mind.

In retirement, Jack Hibbert was almost immediately faced with the challenge that his wife Joan's affliction with Alzheimer's disease brought. For many years he faced the considerable personal demands with the same quiet fortitude and understanding that he had brought to his professional career. His later years encompassed a re-flowering of his social and professional interests. He found solace in new friends and companions and his partner Ann was with him throughout his mercifully brief last illness. He acted as consultant on national accounts for the Office for National Statistics, and his interest and skill in bridge was undiminished.

Robin Lynch