House of Commons
Monday 8 January 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Jobcentre Plus does not operate a system of staff targets for benefits sanctions.
I wish Members a happy new year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principle of fairness underpins the rights and responsibilities agenda? In that spirit, to avoid claimants discovering that their benefits have been suspended only when they cannot take money out of a cashpoint, will he consider introducing a scheme whereby Jobcentre Plus directs such claimants to an independent adviser such as Citizens Advice or, in my area, Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre, to give them truly impartial help and support?
Yes. It is important that the eligibility rules for jobseeker’s allowance are consistently applied across the country, which is what we are trying to do. No one should find out that their benefit has been reduced, however, when they arrive at the cashpoint to withdraw it. A proper process should be followed, including a proper appeals process, and I would expect that to happen in every case.
We do not plan to introduce time-limited benefits, and I suspect that no Conservative Front Bencher does so either. Jobseeker’s allowance is already a time-limited benefit.
Will the Secretary of State at some stage consider the sanction of time limiting benefit? Is not it true that since we came to power the number of people in work has increased by 2.5 million, and that 2 million of those jobs have been filled by immigrants? The working age count, however, has fallen by only about a quarter of a million from 5.6 million to 5.4 million. Does not that suggest that we need to rethink radically our welfare reform programme?
Work is under way in the Department for Work and Pensions to consider the whole suite of welfare-to-work policies. It is right that we keep all aspects of those policies under review. My right hon. Friend, for whom I have a great deal of respect, urges me to pursue a course of action in relation to general time limiting of benefits that I do not want to follow. We have significantly reduced unemployment, which has benefited all our constituents, and we will continue to pursue the right welfare and economic policies to continue to reduce benefit dependency.
Last year, unemployment in Wellingborough increased by more than a fifth, and it is now more than nine years since the Government came to power. How will the Government’s policy on benefits sanctions help my constituents to find employment?
There must be a combination of the right macro and micro-economic policies and the right welfare reform policies, which make it clear to those who are claiming, for example, jobseeker’s allowance that they are required actively to seek work. When they are not doing that, such behaviour must have a proper consequence.
On an after-housing-costs basis, 800,000 fewer children are living in relative low-income households in 2004-05 than in 1997, and 2 million children have been lifted out of absolute poverty. Those reductions have been made possible by the introduction of tax credits, the success of the new deal and 10 years of sustained economic growth, all of which have resulted in those on the lowest incomes seeing larger proportional increases than the better-off. We will set out further proposals to reduce child poverty shortly.
I am grateful for that answer. In 2005, we were slightly behind our historic target of eradicating child poverty in a generation. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research that found that we need to spend a slightly higher proportion of our national wealth to get back on track in 2010? Does he accept recommendations such as the Child Poverty Action Group’s suggestion of higher universal benefits such as child benefit, or Save the Children’s suggestion of higher targeted benefits, with seasonal grants for low-income families? What options is he considering to get back on track?
I thank my hon. Friend for parts of his question. Matters relating to child benefit, as my hon. Friend and the House will know, are for the Treasury, not the Department for Work and Pensions. As I said, we are considering a range of new initiatives to allow the Government and our country as a whole to make further progress in reducing child poverty. I want to set those out shortly.
Despite the Government’s policies, two out of every five children in London still live in households in which the adults are not working. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity today to outline how the Government will change their policies, particularly in relation to children in London, to make them more effective in future?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the particular problems of London, and I agree with her assessment. London is the richest and most productive city in Europe, yet child poverty is unacceptably high in our capital city. As I said, we will set out a range of proposals in the near future to try to address some of those problems, including the problems of London. I would not, however, want any Member to draw the conclusion from these exchanges that child poverty had increased under this Government; it has not. It has fallen significantly, at a time when national income has been rising sharply. That is the complete opposite of what happened during the 18 years of Conservative government.
Does the Secretary of State accept that child poverty and poor housing often go together? Does he agree that had new Labour built as many council houses during its first 10 years in power as the Conservative Government did during their first 10 years in power, fewer children would now be living in poverty?
Obviously, there is a connection. The Government have a strong and proud record on social housing, on which we will seek to build. However—with respect to the hon. Gentleman—these are questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, not questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
The good parts.
Last November, the Conservative party released figures showing that since 1996-97 there had been a 400,000 increase in the number of people living in severe poverty before housing costs. On 29 November, the Secretary of State responded to that by saying that income after housing costs was the proper measure, and I note that he just used that term again.
Departmental publications are very clear on the point. “Measuring child poverty” states that the Government will use a before-housing-costs measure. “Delivering on Child Poverty”, published only last November, says:
“Relative low-income households are defined as those with income below 60 per cent of … median income before housing costs.”
Will the Secretary of State make it clear whether he is telling us that he has changed his policy on the future measurement of child poverty? Is “after housing costs” now the Government’s preferred and only measure?
No, it is not our preferred and only measure. It is right that we publish both before and after-housing-costs figures; but in the case of the group to whom the hon. Gentleman refers—those on incomes that are less than 40 per cent. of the national average—it is important to look at after-housing-costs figures, because people in those circumstances are likely to be receiving help with housing costs. The hon. Gentleman has arrived at his convoluted and distorted image of poverty in the United Kingdom not by comparing this Government’s performance with that of the last Conservative Government but by citing that Government’s performance, because his figures included the last four years of their record.
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, what we are trying to do is be clear about how the target is to be measured in future. According to the summary of households below average income consultation document, income before housing costs is the only measure of low income that the Government will use. It sounds as though the Secretary of State is trying to move the goalposts. We know the Chancellor does that when he has a problem with targets, but we did not know that the Secretary of State was on the Chancellor’s team.
Let me ask the Secretary of State about another aspect of Government policy. In a speech last month, he said that he wanted to
“shift the focus of the welfare system towards the family as a whole”.
What discussions he has had with the Chancellor about the tax credit system? According to the Joseph Rowntree Trust, a couple with two children must work for 74 hours for the minimum wage—between them—to clear the poverty line, while a single parent with one child will be comfortably above the poverty line after just 16 hours of work. That is forcing many couples to separate, to the extent that Government statisticians have created a new category—
The Government are not changing the method by which we collect and publish information on poverty, and on child poverty in particular. My comments on after-housing costs were made specifically in the context of those on below 40 per cent. of national income, which I think right and proper.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s wider questions about the tax credit system, I have had a number of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but I am not prepared to share them with the hon. Gentleman today.
Because of past limitations on pensions registry data, the information requested is not available. As we explained in our November report on speeding up the winding-up of occupational schemes, the pensions regulator has sent new scheme returns to all occupational schemes, which should provide better data in due course.
That was a pretty hopeless reply. Since 1997, tens of thousands of people around the country have lost their occupational pension, including the entire work force of BUSM in Leicester, some of whom are my constituents. Will the Minister now accept, and act on, the findings of the ombudsman’s report, which rightly highlighted the responsibilities of the Government, and will he show some real compassion to those who lost all their security in old age through no fault of their own?
Of course, what was pretty hopeless was the way in which the data were collected under the Government of the hon. Gentleman’s party—and, indeed, under this Government. We are now reforming that. I agree that we should have sympathy for people who have lost their pension scheme. That is why we have introduced the financial assistance scheme—for which, I think, the BUSM scheme will qualify, so there will be some help. Most Members will agree that the Government cannot underwrite all private risk; we must not get into a situation where we underwrite in retrospect things that we did not underwrite in advance.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Turner and Newell pension scheme is undergoing assessment for the Pension Protection Fund. I believe that the PPF will be the best possible outcome for the scheme. However, some of the work force past and present, of whom there are hundreds in my constituency, are concerned that if a better solution comes to light at the eleventh hour they will not be allowed to transfer out of the route to the PPF and to take up the new scheme. Will the Minister give an assurance that if a better solution comes to light members of the Turner and Newell scheme will be allowed to transfer to it at the eleventh hour?
My hon. Friend is right that the scheme administrators will have to do what is in the best interests of all the members of the scheme, and I want to pay tribute to the work that he has done over many years to campaign for the Turner and Newell members. That has, in part, led to the creation of the PPF, which means that people currently saving in occupational pension schemes know that there will be a safety net if such problems arise again. That is a good thing that has come out of what has happened, and which did not exist under the previous Government.
We all understand the impact that increased longevity and changes in the stock exchange and bond markets have had on the pensions industry, but what responsibility does the Minister think that the Chancellor should personally accept for destroying the aim of 30 and 40-year-olds to have a comfortable retirement?
Even the Conservative shadow Chancellor accepts that tax changes are not the main cause; as he said, the main causes were increased longevity, the fact that that was not always factored into people’s actuarial estimates and the performance of the stock market in the late 1990s, when it fell by £250 billion, which dwarfs any tax changes. What is important now is that we work for the future and ensure that everyone has access to a good employer contribution. That is exactly what our personal accounts policy will do; it will ensure that everybody, whether or not their company offers a pension scheme, will have access to a contribution from their employer to their pension, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s party will support that measure when it comes before the House.
The ombudsman says that the Government are responsible, the Public Accounts Committee says that the Government are responsible, and even High Court judges are now saying that the Government are responsible, so when will the Government accept that responsibility and pay compensation to those such as my constituent, Bob Duncan, who has lost 30 years of contributions, adding up to tens of thousands of pounds, because of negligent Government advice?
I have great respect for my hon. Friend but I do not agree that the Government were responsible. We did not underwrite the schemes. It is right, however, that we should have sympathy for people in such situations, and I hope that his constituents will benefit from the financial assistance scheme. I would be happy to meet the constituent he mentions, if that would be helpful.
Will the Minister confirm that taxpayers are now making each year a bigger contribution to public sector final salary schemes than the entire contribution that they are making to all the private sector schemes, both defined benefit and defined contribution? On 23 November last year, his colleague the Secretary of State said that if these trends continue the Government will have to review the deals on public sector pensions. Is that Government policy now?
No, my right hon. Friend did not say that. It is right that we continue to develop the policies on personal accounts that will allow people to make contributions to their pensions, which is exactly the point that I was just making. I think that the hon. Gentleman supports that policy, although to judge from his response to our personal accounts White Paper I am not sure whether he is still part of the consensus. The one thing that we should not do, which I believe is his policy, is to take billions of pounds out of private saving and therefore undermine it. If that is his policy, he will find it pretty unpopular.
Quite a few of my constituents lost out pre-1997 when their occupational pension schemes collapsed as a result of the fall-out of the collapse of the boot and shoe industry. Will he ensure that there is no artificial cliff edge in terms of a date, and that people get proper support, whether their occupational pension schemes collapsed pre-1997 or post-1997?
That might be quite difficult. We have set out the dates that people have to meet to qualify for the financial assistance scheme, and I would be very happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the example that she gives. The key point is that there is now a financial assistance scheme that provides help. The PPF, which was not available before, provides security for people saving in an occupational scheme, so they know that there is a safety net if such a thing ever happens again.
Does the Minister agree with his right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs, who told victims of the Albert Fisher pension scheme collapse that the Government were wrong to reject the ombudsman’s findings, or is this just another example of the Hazel Blears school of collective ministerial responsibility?
We have already made significant progress on incapacity benefit. After two decades of continuous growth—by the mid-1990s, the number of people on incapacity benefits had trebled—inflows have dropped by more than a third. However, we have more to do, and that is the purpose behind our Welfare Reform Bill currently before Parliament.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate local DWP staff in Glasgow on exceeding their targets to cut the number of incapacity benefit cases? However, I am mindful of the fact that the Secretary of State recently said that areas with a high number of claimants often have a high number of vacancies. DWP staff in Glasgow tell me that many applicants often have problems with basic literacy and numeracy skills, and that many are reluctant to admit to having these problems. What will my hon. Friend’s Department do, working with its partners, to tackle this very serious problem and to make sure that as many benefit applicants as possible can be ready for the job market?
My hon. Friend, who is all too well aware of the situation in Glasgow, is absolutely right. Despite real and significant improvement, Glasgow still has two of the top five parliamentary constituencies for the number of people on incapacity benefit. She is also right to say that renewing personal confidence and improving or refreshing skills is key. DWP staff in Glasgow and elsewhere, and private sector providers, are working hard to ensure that such support for literacy and numeracy skills is available. I have visited a number of such projects, not least those at Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers football clubs, who, in different environments, are working together in a way that they perhaps have not always done to ensure that people’s potential and aspirations can be unlocked. Adults going into the football stadiums can learn the skills that they perhaps missed out on the first time through formal education.
It was suggested in a press release last week that single mothers with new-born babies and people with the most severe disabilities should be treated as unemployed and should be made to look for work. Will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in condemning that claim, which is being made by the Opposition?
The Minister will understand—[Interruption]—if he is listening, that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is likely to go up as a direct consequence of the ill effects caused to them by their loss of occupational pensions. Will he please tell the House how he can on the one hand say that he is dealing with incapacity benefit, and yet on the other be part of a ministerial team that is ignoring the ombudsman’s report on occupational pensions?
I am not sure that I followed the logic, if there was any, of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point. The incapacity benefit test is based on medical assessment, not on someone’s pension entitlement. Nevertheless, I will do him the service of trying to respond to whatever element of a question he asked. We are determined to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefit by a net 1 million over a decade. We have already made progress through pathways to work and the progressive support that has been put in place, but the Welfare Reform Bill that is going through Parliament now—with belated cross-party support—will be an important additional element of our approach of no longer writing off anybody in the labour market.
How many people have now been claiming incapacity benefit for five years or more compared with 1997? Does the Minister agree that the fact that the figures are so much higher now is a prime example of the way in which welfare dependency has become so rife under this Government?
The facts on incapacity benefit are clear. If someone is on incapacity benefit for one year, they will be on it for nine years on average. That is the nature of incapacity benefit and, unfortunately, the culture of many families. However, we are addressing that through the Welfare Reform Bill. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggests about a culture of benefit dependency, 1 million fewer people are now on out-of-work benefits in the UK than a decade ago. The numbers on incapacity benefit are falling, the number of lone parents claiming income support is falling, the most recent figures on jobseeker’s allowance show that unemployment is falling and there are more people in work than ever before. That is in stark contrast to what went before during the 18 years of Conservative government.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the current system of assessment for entitlement to incapacity benefit has not been fit for purpose for many years and that therefore the new personal capability assessment, as set out in the Welfare Reform Bill, should be subject to effective, long-term and independent monitoring?
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience and authority on such matters and he is right to say that the present incapacity benefit assessment process has not served the needs of our customers or society effectively enough. In particular, it has indefensibly ignored the needs of those with learning disabilities. Work is now being done to ensure that we find a better role for those with learning disabilities in the labour market. It is essential that we have a better process to monitor the operation of the personal capability assessment and I look forward to discussing the details of that with my hon. Friend as the Bill continues its passage through the House.
The Department’s planned expenditure to March 2008 was settled in the spending review 2004. Departmental performance was reported in the autumn performance report that was published on 14 December 2006, copies of which are available in the Library. Over the comprehensive spending review period in 2007, we will extend the service we provide through the introduction of the new employment and support allowance and improvements in child support and pensions.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. My constituency is in an objective 1 area and efficiency plans from the Department and agencies that will lead to the loss of high quality jobs will deliver a bitter blow to the local economy. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that any future plans will not have a negative impact on customer service or remove much-needed local employment in low-income areas, such as mine?
We want to provide the best possible service we can to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of every hon. Member, and we work hard to try to do that. There are five Jobcentre Plus offices in his constituency, four of which are full time. One has become part time and, whenever such changes are necessary to improve the overall quality of the service we provide and achieve the best value for money for the taxpayer, we will always try to ensure that suitable and proper arrangements are in place—for example, for those of his constituents on JSA who may need to travel further to sign on.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State correctly announced the abolition of the Child Support Agency and its replacement by a new body that will be legally established in 2008 and operational in 2010. Will he give the House an assurance that that body will be properly resourced through his departmental expenditure, so that the problems that beset the CSA will not affect the new commission?
Yes, I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. The combined effect of the reforms will, I hope, be a drastically reduced inflow of new cases to the new child maintenance and enforcement commission. That in turn, I hope, will lead to a reduced need for investment from taxpayers’ resources in that new commission, but the resources needed to provide a proper high-quality service for all our constituents will be available.
As the Gershon review was about greater efficiency in the delivery of maintained departmental services and as we know that its implication is a net loss of about 30,000 jobs in the Department, will the Secretary of State tell the House what action he proposes, through training or other initiatives, first, to maintain staff morale and, secondly, to ensure that departmental services are not subject to further degradation?
It is possible both to reduce the total number of people employed in a Department and at the same time improve the quality of the public service that we provide. The two things are not necessarily contradictory, provided of course that they are done sensibly and properly. We are doing that. So far, I think that we have had to make only one person compulsorily redundant in the nearly 21,000 jobs that have been lost since the 2004 spending review, and we very much want to continue in that vein. In relation to the future, I agree strongly with what the hon. Gentleman said; it is important to maintain the morale of the Department’s staff, who do an excellent job in all parts of the country, and we work hard with the trade unions and others to make sure that that continues to be the case. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that maintaining the quality of the service we provide is our No. 1 priority. As well as reducing staff, we are transferring more staff to the front office so that they can deal with and interact with our constituents more directly. That is the right and proper thing to do.
Our welfare reform policies are about providing people with the skills and support they need to return to work as soon as they are able to do so. Everyone will be treated as an individual and with sensitivity—no one will be forced to work at the expense of their health. The underlying principle of the reform is that rights should be balanced with responsibilities.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In Hackney South and Shoreditch, we have the second highest number of incapacity benefit claimants of any London constituency, with 63 per cent. under 50, a high number of whom have mental health problems. Recently, I met some of those claimants, who have two main concerns: first, the time scale requirements for coming off welfare and going into work, which many of them want to do; and, secondly, the expertise of front-line staff at Jobcentre Plus. Can my hon. Friend answer those concerns for me and my constituents?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point in highlighting the high percentage of people with mental and behavioural conditions who make up the IB case load. The number may not be as high across the country as it is in her constituency, but the current case load is about 40 per cent. We are conscious of the fact that people with fluctuating conditions, such as mental health conditions, need the right advice and support at the right time, as well as recognition that, as my hon. Friend indicated, there will be occasions when a job opportunity may not work. We have to make sure that we reinforce the support we give to those who find themselves in that position.
What practical steps is the Minister taking for co-ordination with the Department of Health and mental health trusts in view of the evidence that has emerged from Lord Layard and others that the introduction of more psychotherapy would greatly increase the ability to work and reduce calls on benefits?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, as it allows me to say that DWP Ministers and the appropriate Ministers at the Department of Health are working closely on those matters, and not only at ministerial level—our officials recognise the importance of co-ordinating our approach, because we all share the ambition to ensure that as many people as possible, particularly those who have suffered from mental health conditions for a long time, should have the opportunity to move into work.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the number of scare stories circulating about the implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill and about the Bill’s implications, particularly for people with mental health conditions. Will she take this opportunity to reiterate the fact that no person will be forced to have medical intervention to avoid their benefits being cut?
I am pleased to advise my hon. Friend that the disability equality duty, which took effect on 4 December, will mean significant improvements to services for disabled people. My Department’s first disability equality schemes were published on 1 December, and they set out actions that we intend to take over the next three years to improve services for our disabled customers.
I welcome the answer given by my hon. Friend. I am sure that those of us who have a passionate interest in equality will welcome the huge progress made in this area over the past 10 years. Will she describe what impact she expects the new disability equality duty to have on services provided by local authorities, as many disabled people across the country receive such services?
It is crucial to highlight, as my hon. Friend has done, the importance for disabled people of local authority services across a range of activities. Most local authority people would accept that services were often geared to the provider and not to the individual. I hope that the new disability equality schemes, some 44,000 of which have been published, will allow local authorities, and public authorities in general, to review how they provide services, as they are legally obliged to do, and how they involve disabled people in the development of those services—they should not be involved only at the end of the process.
My hon. Friend will be aware that many disabled people are either denied or obstructed from using services simply because able-bodied people park their cars in restricted disabled bays. Given that local authorities and the police are somewhat limited in what they can do to stop this bad practice, will she offer any encouragement to disabled drivers who suffer the frustration of it?
I do not know what my hon. Friend is asking me to encourage disabled people to do. In a recent case, somebody let down the tyres on the car of someone who had parked in a disabled parking bay, but I would not recommend such action. However, he raises an important issue: if we accept as individuals that disabled people have the right to access services through the provision of specialist parking places, it is incumbent on all of us to recognise that such a service is provided specifically for disabled people, and that non-disabled people should not nip in and out of disabled parking spaces to suit their convenience. People should allow the serious mobility issues that the blue-badge scheme and similar schemes are meant to address to be dealt with.
The Minister referred to the responsibility of local government in reply to an earlier supplementary. She was right to do so, but if local government is to meet its obligations under legislation passed by this place, is it not essential that it should receive adequate resources to enable it to do so? Even if it wishes to raise money through the council tax, it is limited by capping, so it is in grave difficulty in dealing with these important groups of people.
First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and most others in the House would accept that this Government have invested in public services provided by local government. May I say to him that on the disability equality duty and the disability equality schemes, there is not necessarily an issue of finance? There is an issue of culture and process, and this is about getting public servants—be they in local authorities, the police service or the health service—to recognise that they need to involve disabled people at the beginning of their policy planning and not at the end.
We are trying to shift the balance away from provider-led services, which say to disabled people, “You will take what you can get and be thankful for it,” to a process that involves disabled people from the beginning. That is what the disability equality duty is intended to do. It is not a matter of money.
Could we not improve services for disabled people by working even more closely with specialist voluntary sector organisations such as DIAL UK, which runs disability information and advice lines? Should we not require each local authority to employ a designated access or disabilities officer, especially given their new responsibilities? Many local authorities do not employ someone with that specific responsibility. Will the Minister discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government?
In fairness, many public authorities have started to consider how to put in place people with a special and specific responsibility for disability equality. To echo what I said to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the issue is not just about giving responsibility to one person within a public authority; it is about a change of culture, and embedding disability equality within public authorities. That is what the disability equality duty is about, and that is why the disability equality duty was agreed to overwhelmingly as part of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
Payment Fraud and Error
We have made significant progress in reducing fraud and error in income support, jobseeker’s allowance and pension credit. In fact, fraud in income support and jobseeker’s allowance is at the lowest level ever recorded; it is down by almost two thirds from 1997-98. We are determined to reduce both fraud and error even further, and we will publish our strategy for reducing error in the very near future.
The Government admitted at the end of last year that in the past three years, due to fraud and error, they wrongly paid out £13 million in benefits to prisoners, and they also admitted that the problem is getting worse. Is that a result of fraud, incompetence, or a combination of both?
My hon. Friend will realise that there are different performance levels in different regions. What action is he taking to ensure that best practice, and therefore the lowest error and fraud rates, are rolled out across the country and become national practice?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we consider the performances of individual offices across the country, especially in respect of official error, we find different levels of performance, as he says. The Department is trying to put in place a twinning arrangement between the best performing offices and those that are still not performing as well as we would like, in order to ensure the spreading of best practice around the system. I am confident that that will help us to make even more progress in reducing error.
The total cost of customer fraud and error for the three benefits in question alone is over £500 million a year. A staggering £100 million a year of that is down to people claiming to be single, when they live with a partner. That is because the system sends the message: “Pretend to be single, and you’ll get much more benefit than you would as part of a couple.” When will the Minister get a grip on that dysfunctional system, and end the damaging discrimination against couples, both married and unmarried?
That is a bit rich coming from the Opposition. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, for the benefits concerned, the amount of fraud was £850 million in 1997, but it is now £250 million. The figure for official error was £280 million, but it is now £230 million, so right across the piece, on fraud and on error, the Government have made far more progress than was ever made under the previous Administration, and we will continue to do so.
Winter Fuel Allowance
I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that a coalition of charities called for an extension of the winter fuel allowance to those people under the age of 60 who are particularly vulnerable in cold conditions and who receive long-term benefits. Indeed, the Government’s own energy review accepted that there was a problem in that area. Has the Minister pressed the Chancellor to use some of the massive £1 billion increase in VAT receipts, arising from the increase in fuel bills over the past year, to extend the winter fuel allowance to such groups?
That is not my ministerial responsibility, so it is not my job to do so. The key things are that recent falls in wholesale prices should be passed on to customers soon and that we protect the most vulnerable. I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1996, only £60 million was spent on the problem, but now more than £2 billion is spent on it. I am sure that he welcomes that.
Will the Minister congratulate the excellent regional and county newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, on its campaign to highlight the fact that, given the inflation in energy prices, the winter fuel allowance buys rather less fuel than it did when it was set? It has urged county MPs to make a submission to the Chancellor—possibly the future Prime Minister—and I have agreed to do so. Will my hon. Friend allow his signature to be added to my letter?
I think that I would probably have to resign from the Government if I did that, so no, I will not give my hon. Friend that promise. The winter fuel allowance has increased far faster than inflation and energy prices. It was £20 when it was first introduced, but it is now over £300 for people over 80, which is a much faster rise than the increase in utility prices. The key thing is that the cuts in wholesale prices are passed on to customers, particularly the most vulnerable, as soon as possible.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about people who have made voluntary national insurance contributions and will not benefit from the new arrangements in the Bill? Is there not a strong case for those contributions to be refunded?
We have worked closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the issue. From the moment that they were put into the public domain, we wrote to people alerting them to the proposals, which appeared first in the White Paper and are now in the Pensions Bill. Obviously, we cannot take Parliament for granted and start to change the rules before the law is changed. We must change the law first, and that is the stage at which we will be able to make the change that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. The precedent, under both the previous and present Governments, is that contributions paid at the time should not be refunded, otherwise every time that we introduced a social security policy change we would have to make changes backdated many decades.
Will my hon. Friend accept a representation from me, and agree not to set any artificial capping on pension fund surpluses, as introduced by Nigel Lawson in the 1986 Budget? Does he not agree that that was the beginning of a difficult period for pension funds, and that such changes should be avoided?
My hon. Friend is right. That restriction on surpluses has, in fact, been removed by the Government. He is right, too, that those pension trends have been under way for many years. The number of people in occupational pension schemes fell under the previous Government, and that has been the case, too, under the present Government. It is important that we work on a policy to make sure that everyone has access to employer contributions to their pensions, and that is exactly what we are doing through personal accounts.
Following publication of the child maintenance White Paper on 13 December, a formal consultation is now under way that will end on 13 March. A report will be published following the end of the consultation detailing the representations received. As of 5 January, we have received 49 representations.
The hon. Gentleman should look at the White Paper, where he will find the answer to his question. The reforms will work in two ways. First, £120 million has been allocated to the operational improvement plan. The money is already going in, and improvements have been made. The backlog to which he referred, for example, has been reduced. Secondly, in the long term, the move to a system in which parents are encouraged to reach voluntary agreements on child maintenance, together with a more generous maintenance disregard for income support purposes, will produce a much more efficient and effective child support system, as well as one that is better administered.
Welfare to Work
I am delighted to say that the city strategy pathfinders have now submitted their delivery plans. We are considering all the plans, including Nottingham’s, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know, and will make announcements shortly.
I hope that the House will forgive me for teeing up this month, as in previous months, an opportunity for the Minister to let the House know about the flexibilities in the welfare to work scheme. As the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister have all underlined, it is important that such schemes are allowed great local and personal flexibility, not least in the ability to carry over savings that have been made under the welfare to work scheme. Will my hon. Friend inform the House whether any progress has been made in the past month?
This is the third month in a row that my hon. Friend has doggedly persisted in asking that important question. I can confirm that during the Christmas and new year break, officials and I have been looking at the detail of the submissions from city strategy consortiums, including proposals to devolve resources and proposals for local branding and more flexibility in training. It is an important package of requests, and our approach is that the city strategy will be an important devolved platform for the delivery of not only these plans, but an increasingly localised and personalised welfare state over future years.
It is estimated that up to 45 per cent. of people will still qualify for pension credit, a means-tested benefit, by 2050. How can people be encouraged to save for retirement, when it seems that means-tested benefits will remain such a central part of the Government’s future pension strategy?
I do not think that any party in the House has a proposal to abolish means-testing in the system entirely. The proposals will reduce the level of means-testing to about a third. We are confident that those are the right figures. The proportion of people on 100 per cent. withdrawal rates is much lower now than under the previous Government, so real progress has been made. We believe that personal accounts will be a very good way for people to save.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Wars: Parliamentary Approval
I receive many informal representations on this matter. In their November response to the Lords Constitution Committee report “Waging War: Parliament’s Role and Responsibility”, the Government said that they were keeping their policy in this area under review. I think the whole House will agree that we have to ensure at all times and in all circumstances the safety of our service personnel, but subject to that and to emergency situations, I cannot conceive of a situation where the Commons should not have a key role to play in decisions in respect of going to war.
The Leader of the House knows that since the beginning of the Iraq war, members of parties in all parts of the House have signed Remaining Orders which highlight the difficult situation facing any Government in consulting any legislature in any democracy about going to war. Will he take it from me that many of us appreciate the thought that he is giving to the matter, and that there must be some sort of formal settlement—some sort of procedure—which involves the Executive having the flexibility and the nimbleness to respond to aggression whenever necessary, and which recognises the needs of a democracy to ensure that a legislature can at least endorse that very important decision to take a country to war?
In return, I thank my hon. Friend for the seriousness and care that he is taking on the matter. When I used that phrase, I was in many respects echoing the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister before the Liaison Committee in early February last year, when he said:
“The fact of the matter is that I cannot conceive of a situation in which a Government”
“go to war . . . without a full parliamentary debate.”
That is in practice the convention that we have established. The issue remains whether that convention should be formalised or should be left, as many conventions are, as conventions.
I, too, welcome what the Leader of the House has said. However, will he forgive my saying that it is not a convention yet? We need a formal expression of what he has said either by way of a clear convention in this House or by way of statute.
I think that it is becoming a convention. In a different context, the Joint Committee on Conventions has said that conventions are, by definition, difficult to codify. However, the Lords Constitution Committee has ruled out the possibility of a statutory arrangement and has suggested that the situation should be bedded down by way of a resolution of each House or particularly of the Commons, since it would be for the Commons to make the final decision. We are looking at that matter with care.
I welcome what the Leader of the House has said, but surely it is implicit that as well as there being an affirmative resolution of the House of Commons to deploy troops, there needs after some years of deployment to be a reaffirmation of that decision by a vote in this House. And if we ever have to do this again, there needs to be an institutional mechanism by which this House has direct access to the security and intelligence services, because such information should not be given to us by Ministers.
They are two different things. There has been no military action, approved by this House or not, that has not been subject to the most extensive inquiry afterwards, which is the case with Iraq. Although my hon. Friend is not terribly keen on the Intelligence and Security Committee—
In one sense, it goes one better, because its establishment was agreed by Parliament and was enshrined in an Act. As anyone who has appeared in front of the Intelligence and Security Committee will tell my hon. Friend, the Intelligence and Security Committee operates as least as effectively as a Select Committee.
I, too, welcome the thoughtful way in which the Leader of the House has responded to the question. However, the decision to go to war is just one of the general prerogative powers exercised by Ministers. Will the Leader of the House accept that there is widespread concern that we need to redress the balance of power between Parliament and Government and that the balance of power has tipped too far in the Executive’s favour? If so, why have the Government so far refused to act on the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee, which stated in 2004 that the case for the reform of prerogative powers is “unanswerable”?
Quite rightly, prerogative powers have been reduced over time, because they go back to the period before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and are, by definition, rather anomalous. There are some areas in which those powers are easy to replace by statute, which has been going on. The powers exercised by prerogative are subject to much greater constraint by statute now. For example, I refer the right hon. Lady to the Human Rights Act 1998, which has made considerable statutory inroads into the previous exercise of discretion by Ministers. The situation happens to be more difficult in other areas. It is important to put the power of this place into proper perspective. In a recently published study, a former parliamentary clerk has pointed out that the powers exercised quite properly by this House over Governments are now far more extensive than they were, for example, 40 or 50 years ago.
We know what the Leader of the House really thinks, because in 1994 he said that
“the royal prerogative has no place in a modern democracy”.
I welcome what he has said, although I shudder to think that the convention is bedding in by there being more wars and therefore more parliamentary approval. Is it not extraordinary that in the United States, which is a democracy with an Executive President, war-making powers must be approved by the legislature, but in this country, where the Prime Minister and his colleagues derive their authority from this House, there is no formal arrangement for our agreement?
First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that it was this Government and this Prime Minister who ensured for the first time, back in September 2002—when the possibility of military action was there, but by no means a probability or a certainty—that in the event of a Cabinet decision to take military action, that would have to be endorsed by this House before it came into force. This Prime Minister did that; previous practice had been very varied.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should not look at the practice in the United States through rose-tinted spectacles. The truth is that it has been the subject of enormous controversy there. It is not the case that what anybody else regards as war has to be, and has been, the subject of prior decision by the United States Congress. As it happens, our practice is consistent with that of, for example, Australia and Canada. When we are moving in this direction, we need to take account of the fact that in Europe, where there is, as we accept, tighter parliamentary control, that has in some cases acted unnecessarily and irresponsibly to restrict the proper discretion of the military. We can move forward on this, but it requires a sensible approach on both sides of the House.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Fair Trade Products
As on a previous occasion when the hon. Gentleman asked a similar question, it is not possible to give a single overall figure within its terms. As he knows, the Fairtrade Foundation lists only a rather limited range of products available through catering distribution and supply in London. However, I am pleased to say that the House has spent about £45,000 on fair trade products since April and a further £40,000 on souvenir products from various ethical initiatives. The Refreshment Department is re-tendering for the supply of coffee to the House and has specified that all coffee must be approved by the Fairtrade Foundation.
More than 5 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America have benefited from the sale of fair trade products, some 1,500 of which are available in the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be setting an example in the Palace of Westminster, that we should have more products available, and that we should have a minimum target for such sales?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the benefits of the Fairtrade Foundation. As I said, only a limited range of products is available through the catering supply industry. Retail sale is a different issue in which the House is not involved. We are buying, where available, in all product categories bar one, and doing all we can to increase the volume of fair trade produce as time goes on.
A campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues has been running for more than a year to encourage people to switch off unnecessary equipment and lighting. The campaign has included regular presentations, guest speakers, two exhibitions and articles in the staff magazine, “inHouse”. It is reckoned that the most cost-effective way to control unnecessary lighting is for people to switch off lights when they leave rooms rather than to have automatic light systems that allow a time delay before switching lights off automatically.
I do not know who is responsible for keeping the lights on in Star Chamber Court throughout the day under the very expensive £450,000 glass canopy, but could they be instructed to turn them off during the day? For a Parliament that is meant to be interested in climate change, a remarkably large number of lights are left on throughout the daylight hours.
I will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about the covered walkway and ask for officers to investigate that. I repeat that the most effective way to save electricity is simply for everybody on the estate to be more diligent about turning lights off.
Orders of the Day
Statistics and Registration Service Bill
[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Treasury Committee, Independence for Statistics, Session 2005-06, HC 1111; and the Government’s response thereto, Seventh Special Report from the Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 1604; and Independence for Statistics: the Government response to public consultation, November 2006.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am pleased to open the debate on Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which, for the first time in Britain, legislates for the independence of statistics. I am encouraged by the broad welcome for the measure and the amount of interest in our plans from both major Opposition parties and the Treasury Committee.
The House has a central role in and responsibility for the new statistics system, not only in scrutinising—and, I hope, passing—the necessary legislation but in holding the new statistics board and the operation of the new system to account. In future, the new independent statistics board will have statutory responsibility for ensuring the quality, good practice and comprehensiveness of all official statistics. Unlike the Office for National Statistics at present, the board will be outside Ministers’ control and accountable directly to Parliament. I therefore hope that, alongside debate on the Bill, hon. Members will consider how Parliament can best discharge its new scrutiny functions for the independent statistics system.
It is 60 years since the last major statistical measure, which was the Statistics of Trade Act 1947. It is therefore a historic day in the development of the UK’s statistics system. The Bill sets out plans for many of the proposals that professional statistical interests have pressed on us. They include: the demand that we introduce new legislation to safeguard and reinforce trust in statistics; the demand that we introduce a statutory code of practice; the suggestion that we introduce new arrangements for greater sharing of administrative data; the request for tighter arrangements for pre-release access to Ministers and officials, and the suggestion that we develop the system so that it can be UK-wide rather than applying simply to England.
I commend the Government for introducing the Bill, which, as my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said, has been 60 years in the making. I also commend the work of the Treasury Sub-Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). I know that the Government have taken great heed of the Treasury Committee’s recommendations on statistics.
However, does my hon. Friend agree that the kernel of the matter is public trust and that perception of political interference must therefore be swept away? Will he give due consideration to the statistics from the Office for National Statistics and from the Department so that we not only have but are seen to have an independent Statistics Commission?
I said a moment ago that I welcomed and was glad of the Treasury Committee’s active interest. I pay tribute to the work of the Sub-Committee, which the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) chairs and the long-standing interest that the Committee has shown in the credibility and integrity of official statistics. Several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whom I am glad to see in his place, have pursued and followed the subject for a long time.
I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), who chairs the Treasury Committee, that we have taken the Committee’s report seriously. We have responded to several of the major recommendations, which I shall outline this afternoon. He is right that we need to reinforce not only the quality but the integrity of and trust in official statistics.
My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is well aware of the importance of nationally collected statistics to the provision of local services. Many in local government give a broad and warm welcome to the measure, but they express some concerns about whether the Bill as drafted will facilitate effective co-operation between responsible public bodies working for the public good. Will my hon. Friend say a word or two about that? Of course it is important to maintain the protection of sensitive data, but he spoke about sharing administrative data. Will he clarify what he means by that, and specify the exclusions?
I shall come on to the Bill’s proposals for data sharing. I hope that the essential feature will reassure my hon. Friend: any arrangements proposed in future for greater sharing of administrative data will need to be agreed between the Department responsible and the new statistics board—and not only that, as the provisions will be set out in secondary legislation, which I have ensured will be subject to the affirmative resolution process, giving the House a further opportunity to scrutinise and then approve such arrangements in future.
I am grateful and add my congratulations to the Government on introducing the Bill. However, going back to the need to gain public confidence in published data, I propose a comparison with the establishment of the Monetary Policy Committee. Under the previous Conservative Government, that committee was established without total independence, but the present Government, to their great credit, gave it complete independence in deciding its business. Would not the move to re-establish public confidence in statistics be advanced if the commission itself—rather than the House or the Government—could decide which series of data it published? In other words, I make a plea that today’s Bill be a Brown rather than a Clarke reform.
If my right hon. Friend examines the detailed proposals, he will see that the principal part of the system is not about the publication of data, which he is talking about, but the assessment and standards relating to that publication. He is right to point out that this is indeed the next step in the Chancellor’s reforms of the machinery of economic governance—[Interruption.] If I can finish my sentence, I shall add that the new system is based on the approach adopted by the Government towards the independence of the Bank of England, the setting up of the Competition Commission and the Financial Services Authority—all moves in which formal devolution of ministerial power was accorded to credible, independent institutions with a clear remit set by Parliament and the Government. That is very much the approach that we are adopting in the Bill.
On the question of data sharing, does the Minister accept that it is essential that information does not reside in silos and that relevant information can be compared and measured so that reality can be tested? It is important that that is made as clear as possible, and that the legislation is made as enabling as possible. The Leader of the House will be familiar with the example of local authorities and the police being frequently reluctant to share information, even for the purposes of crime reduction. Specific measures needed to be put into the legislation in order to underline the public interest in the proper sharing of data. Surely that also applies to sharing the details of much statistical information.
My right hon. Friend is right that there is indeed a strong public interest in greater sharing of administrative data, but I have to tell him that there is also a public interest in ensuring that the confidentiality of such data is properly protected. I hope that he will recognise that the clauses strike an appropriate balance between those two objectives. What is clear is that stronger sharing of administrative data can improve the quality of statistical data and analysis, and therefore improve our ability to make and judge the impact of policy while reducing the burden on those responsible for or required to complete the surveys on which many of our official statistics depend.
In the name of the 1,300 people who work in the statistics office in my constituency, I welcome the Bill. They have been distressed in the past by the collapse, due to the perception of ministerial interference, of much of the credibility of Government figures. Will the Minister guarantee that the Bill will enshrine the independence of the national statistician and the statistics board—or Y Bwrdd Ystadegau, as it will be called in Wales—so that they will be immune and untouched by any future ministerial or governmental interference of any colour?
The Office for National Statistics, particularly its programme to relocate much of its personnel and expertise to Newport, has found a very warm welcome in my hon. Friend’s constituency and city, and I pay tribute to Newport for that. I can tell my hon. Friend that the Bill achieves precisely what he is looking for: it enshrines in legislation an independence for the national statistician and the statistics board, which should contribute in the longer run to the rebuilding of greater confidence and trust in official statistics. Our job in this House—and our job as a Government who are prepared to relinquish many of our present powers—is to set up a framework in which to develop greater quality and integrity for our official statistics.
Statistics are collected on only seven of the eight indices of social exclusion listed by the social exclusion unit. No statistics are collected on family breakdown. Does the Financial Secretary agree that it would be tremendously empowering for local practitioners who are trying to deal with that issue if such data could be collected by local neighbourhood area? Will he undertake to look into that omission?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to elaborate on that point in the debate on social exclusion that will take place on Thursday. In the context of the Bill, however, the duty that will be placed on the independent statistics board will be to assess, comment on and publicly report to the House on the comprehensiveness and quality of the statistics. The board will take a view on the adequacy not only of national statistics but of all official statistics. I am sure that the point that the hon. Gentleman has made—and which he might develop in Thursday’s debate—will be taken into account by the statistics board when it comes to discharge its functions.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being typically generous in doing so this afternoon. I should like to take him back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who suggested that the statistics board should be given the power to decide which statistics should be national statistics. Why is that power to remain in large measure in the hands of Ministers? How can we hope to restore public trust and confidence in the system while it remains in their hands?
This is an issue that hon. Members will wish to consider carefully, both in this debate and in Committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that our national statistics now cover some 1,300 statistics, including all the most important economic statistics and many of the most important employment and public service data sets. These help to inform us about the state of the economy and society, and they are covered by national statistics. I hope that he would also recognise that the coverage of our national statistics system in this country is as broad as, and comparable with, that of any other developed economy.
The Financial Secretary has stated explicitly that the statistics board will be independent of the Government and accountable instead to Parliament. That sounds like a good idea, but we need to be sure that that represents something more than just an abstract constitutional doctrine and that it will have meaningful effect. Will the Financial Secretary therefore tell the House what, in practice, will be connoted by the term “scrutiny”? What will we get that we do not already have, in terms of the opportunity to ask oral questions in one form or another, or an opportunity analogous to the debate on the reports of the Public Accounts Committee for Parliament independently to consider the independent output of the statistics board?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is here, because the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will appreciate that his question relates precisely to matters that the House should consider for itself. It is not for me, or for the Government, to specify those arrangements. I have already said, however, that I hope that, alongside the passage of the Bill, there will be an active debate in the House about the nature of the scrutiny and the accountability that the House will require for the new independent statistics system and of the new board. The hon. Gentleman has a forensic mind for some of these matters, and I hope that he will help to lead that debate in the House.
The Financial Secretary asserted that the coverage of national statistics was very wide, and that the concerns about the narrow scope of the Bill being expressed on both sides of the House were therefore unjustified. Is he concerned about the Home Office’s statement to the House of Commons Treasury Committee that only 12 per cent. of its statistical outputs were accredited as national statistics? That shows that the scope of national statistics is limited, and unless the scope of the Bill covers all official statistics it will not restore people’s trust and confidence in official figures.
I should like to make two points. First, as I have said to the hon. Lady, the scope of the Bill is not narrow but includes all official statistics. The statistics board will have a duty in statute to assess, comment on and report to this House on quality, good practice and coverage in respect of all official statistics.
Secondly, the hon. Lady may like to know that this afternoon I placed in the House of Commons Library the updated list of national statistics, which totals nearly 1,300 statistics. Surely what is most important and practical is not that the board’s audit function, about which I think that the hon. Lady was talking, should cover all Government-produced statistics, but that it should cover the most important Government statistics. That is precisely what the national statistics system is designed to achieve.
The Bill makes it clear that the residual functions and responsibilities discharged by the Chancellor will be transferred to the independent statistics board. Only in the very narrowest circumstances, defined by the Governor of the Bank of England, will the Chancellor be involved in any way in future. We have decided that because of the potential impact on the gilts market and the public finances.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary, who has been extraordinarily generous in giving way this afternoon, for letting me intervene. He and others have already underlined the importance of the independence of national statistics if they are to maintain the confidence of the nation. Is it not also important that there should be consistency? For instance, coroners are entirely free to determine at their own will what counts as a drug-related death. If each coroner around the country records a death as drug-related for different reasons against different criteria, however, the statistics gathered on the back of such judgments will mean absolutely nothing. Will there not still be a role for the Government and Ministers to make sure that there is some consistency in how such things are measured?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting specific example, which, it strikes me, relates principally to policy decisions that will remain part of the delivery of the coroner service and will therefore be for Ministers to decide; arguably, that will be part and parcel of managing and administering the coroner service. However, in respect of the methodologies and professional standards by which such data may be gathered, I am sure that the statistics board will take a view, as part of its general remit, on good practice, and on the quality and coverage of the statistics system.
I should like to ask a more practical question. The national statistician talked about a lack of relevance to ordinary people’s experiences with respect to the consumer prices index. I am curious about how the changes will impact positively on pensioners, for example. They are experiencing inflation of up to 9 per cent., whereas the CPI shows an inflation rate of only about 2.4 per cent.
For the conduct of monetary policy and Government economic policy making, we clearly have to have a national index of inflation, and that is established by the CPI. As any close examination of the statistical composition of price indexes shows, over a period some prices of some items will go up and some will fall. That has been the experience of recent years. Clearly, we have to aggregate those figures. Our index serves our purposes well; it covers a very wide range and basket of items, which are constantly updated to reflect modern consumption and economic activity in this country.
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) once more. I shall then set out some substantive matters to the House as part of the opening of this debate, and—if he and other hon. Members will forgive me—try to make a bit of progress.
I do not mean to try the Financial Secretary’s patience, but the fact is that there is a lack of trust. We cannot be cavalier and simply say, “This is what it is.” When real people are experiencing a higher inflation rate than that described in the official statistics there is a problem, and I am curious about how the Bill will reconcile those two conflicting elements.
The overall inflation rate is the same for everyone. As I have explained, some items may be subject to greater inflation or deflation than others, and patterns of consumption may therefore impinge differently on different people. For instance, the cost of private education has risen considerably more than the general aggregate index—a fact that may concern Conservative Members. The single aggregate index that is required, however, demonstrates a system that is refined in the light of experience. In future it will be set out as a responsibility for the statistics board, and it will be more independent than the current system. Both the hon. Member for Sevenoaks and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire, as members of the Treasury Committee, have argued for that for some time.
The Bill follows major statistical reforms that the Government introduced in 2000, which established the position of the national statistician, the concept of national statistics and the functions of the Statistics Commission. It is right now to build further on those reforms. The Bill is a tribute to the work of the Statistics Commission: it draws on that work and develops the commission’s duties, particularly the duty to monitor and report on the quality and coverage of all official statistics.
The reason why it is right now to legislate for the independence of statistics and build on the reforms that we have already introduced is that statistics matter—the interest in today’s debate is testament to that—and in a rapidly changing economy and society, they matter more and more. They provide the data that help us to analyse and understand our economic, demographic, political, environmental and social worlds, and they form the evidence for debate, planning and policy. Importantly, in our modern democracy they inform the judgments that people make about the promises and performance of their Government.
Statistics are central to the business of government, but they serve us all. They are a much wider public good, with an ever-widening range of users and currency. However, while United Kingdom statistics are widely regarded as among the best in the world, perceived levels of trust in the figures in our system are lower than we would want them to be. We are legislating for a system that can develop in the light of experience and in response to changing demands from users, and can, through its operation, raise levels of public confidence in Government statistics.
We are legislating not just for the statistics currently produced by the Office for National Statistics, which encompass population estimates, labour market statistics and the production of the national accounts, but for the statistics produced in other Departments. In doing so, we are retaining the strongly decentralised nature of United Kingdom statistical production, a feature that has been a characteristic of our system for as long as statistics have been collected. We have been compiling official statistics— for instance, on imports and exports—for almost four centuries, and our first population census was conducted about 200 years ago.
The benefits of such a system are clear, and are widely recognised. Our approach was supported by the vast majority of respondents to our consultation last year, including the Treasury Committee and the Statistics Commission. Not one of the 79 responses to that consultation argued for the removal of the statistical role of Departments and the centralising of all production in some form of super-ONS.
I will come on to that a little later, if I am able to reach that point in my remarks, but let me say at this stage that many respondents strongly considered that arrangements for pre-release needed to be tightened and that arrangements for pre-release as they currently stand contributed to a lack of public trust in our statistics.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again. Given that the Bill purports to be about—and might prove in substantial measure to be about—independence, why is it that under clause 11 the Government judge that they should in effect be the exclusive arbiter, or “appropriate authority”, in deciding whether a statistic should enjoy the status of an official statistic? Why should that be determined only by the Chancellor?
If the hon. Gentleman looks more closely at the Bill, and in particular at clause 11, he will see that it is not for the Chancellor to determine that, but for Ministers. I think that he will also find that he is talking about not official statistics but national statistics—a point that was made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). I shall address the detail of that a little later.
In a decentralised statistical system—such as that which we have had in this country, which is well established and brings significant benefits—the most effective way to ensure both independence and the highest standards of integrity and quality is through independent setting of standards and independent assessment and reporting against those standards. That is precisely what the Bill would set up.
We recognised from the outset that there was no question of reopening—or of somehow undermining—the devolution settlement in respect of the United Kingdom statistical system, but, following the decisions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to be part of the new system, I am delighted that the Bill and the board’s remit cover the whole of the UK. The Treasury Committee report, and the evidence, was particularly exercised by that. That underlines the importance of what we are trying to accomplish. The new arrangements will help to deliver more coherence and more comparable statistics across the four countries in the future.
Let me turn to the main details of the content of the Bill. At the heart of the Bill is the creation of an independent board, as set out in clause 1, whose core objective is to promote and safeguard quality, good practice and comprehensiveness in respect of official statistics. It will achieve that objective by performing three principal functions. The first of them is the statutory duty to monitor and report on areas of concern about quality, good practice and coverage of all official statistics across Government and Government arm’s-length bodies. It will also carry out that function by developing and promoting definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for all official statistics.
Secondly, as set out in clauses 10 to 17, the board is required to draw up a code of practice that will set professional standards for the production of national statistics and assess and approve all existing national statistics against those standards. It must also assess any additional statistics nominated by Ministers as potential national statistics, and publish the results in respect of those statistics for all—especially Members—to scrutinise.
The third function that the board will perform to achieve its objective is to oversee the executive office of the national statistician, and we expect that office to discharge the board’s statistical production functions, which are currently undertaken by the Office for National Statistics.
We have an established system for judging our fiscal rules and the economic cycle. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Audit Office audits the assumptions that we make, and the data on which that is based are produced by the independent Office for National Statistics. The NAO has independently audited the start of the economic cycle and it will be asked to audit its conclusion. The hon. Gentleman must concede that the existing system has a significant element of independence and transparency and is fundamentally different from the way in which the previous Government conducted economic policy making.
On setting standards, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has now left his place, raised the question earlier of family life, and it is my view that such studies are best carried out in an interdisciplinary way. When the board looks at standards, will statisticians work with other researchers in a long-term study to ensure that we examine not simply snapshots of family life on a particular day, but what happens to families in the long term, so that we can properly inform and determine public policy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, the Bill deals with official statistics, but a good deal of other research is conducted and we should bear in mind the high professional standards of the national statistician and of the ONS. Given that there will be strong representation of the users of statistics among the non-executive positions on the board, I am certain that it will take into account precisely those interests and concerns.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his usual generosity in giving way. As he knows, it is my view that one reason why we have difficulties with pensions is that actuaries messed up their interpretation of growing life expectancy and did not advise pension schemes accordingly. Against that background, can he assure me that the statistics board will not be packed with actuaries—either among its three executive members or, most importantly, among its six non-executive members? The track record of that profession is at best mixed.
My hon. Friend makes the point that he often makes about his view of actuaries. I can give him that general assurance, and nor will the board’s six non-executive members all be statisticians. It is important that we have the strongest possible board and the widest range of user interests, in order to constitute the governance and authority that this independent body requires from Ministers. Furthermore, my hon. Friend may be interested to know that the board will be established as a non-ministerial department and that it will have a majority of non-executive members and a non-executive chair, who will be appointed by the Queen. We will ensure that its members are appointed in open competition, in line with guidance from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
As I was saying, we want the non-executive membership to bring to the board a broad range of skills and backgrounds—in business, academia and public service—in order fully to represent the range of interests of users of official statistics. That will be crucial in ensuring the board’s credibility, its ability to hold the national statistician properly to account for the running of the executive office, and its ability to discharge its wider responsibilities for the quality and integrity of statistics.
There, are, however, some criticisms of the approach that we are taking, so let me try to deal with them. First, some say—indeed, one or two Members have raised this issue this afternoon—that the scope of the system of board assessment and approval should apply to all Government statistics, not just to national statistics. A second argument that has commonly been made is that the board and not Ministers should have responsibility for submitting additional statistics for assessment and approval as new national statistics. I have looked very carefully at both the cases that have been made, and let me try to explain to the House why we have drawn the conclusions captured in the Bill.
On scope, first, the nature of statistics, how they are published, the sources of data used, the officials responsible and the methods of production are all widening and changing rapidly. In Government, we no longer just use the traditional collection methods of surveys and census: important statistics are increasingly derived from administrative and management systems. We no longer see statistics as a semi-academic discipline, with statisticians working in the isolation that implies. Increasingly, statisticians contribute with other analysts as key members of multi-skilled, multi-disciplinary teams. We also no longer expect professional statisticians to produce only formal series of statistics. Increasingly they offer expert advice on many other issues and other Government products with a statistical component.
The old definitions of what is and what is not a statistic are becoming blurred. In a modern statistics system, in which we have determined that decentralised production and the flexibility to respond to user needs are real strengths, what is most important and practical is not that the board, and its independent audit function, covers all Government-produced statistics, but that it covers all the statistics that are most relevant to policy formulation, delivery and accountability and, of course, those statistics that are most valuable to business, academics and a wide range of other users.
I trust that the House will accept that statistics produced and published by the Government differ in importance. Few would contest the importance of unemployment statistics for a wide range of purposes and users. Others may regard the results of the television export survey, carried out by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or the egg bulletin as less important. Still fewer would argue that regularly published data on departmental stationery consumption should be treated in the same way or with the same status as the jobless figures.
It seems strange that the Government are prepared to contemplate a range of official statistics that do not comply with a code of practice that is essentially ethical. The draft code produced by the Statistics Commission suggests that it will cover issues such as integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. Why produce official statistics that do not comply with such basic principles? What will be the value of such statistics?
The hon. Lady has got the wrong end of the stick. The point about the code and the responsibility of the statistics board is not only that it formulates the code, but assesses the national statistics and their production against that code. Clearly, with such a wide—and widening—range of Government data, it does not make sense to give the same attention or submit to the same process as the jobless figures, or the economic data that constitutes the national accounts, to some of the more minor examples that the hon. Lady, if she considers some of the 1,300 national statistics that I have placed in the Library, will accept should not be accorded the same status or importance.
Does the Financial Secretary accept that the difficulty is often not the type of statistics but the frequency? For example, the quarterly waiting list figures, which are national statistics and highly politically sensitive, would be subject to the code of practice, but the monthly figures, which come from the same raw data, would remain official statistics to be used or abused by the Department without the same degree of scrutiny. How can he justify the difference in approach?
As I said earlier, the purpose of the Bill is to create a framework that can evolve in the light of experience and changing demands from data users. I would expect the board, as part of its statutory duty to comment on the comprehensiveness and coverage of official statistics, which I have explained, to look at precisely those matters. I would also expect there to be a much stronger incentive and discipline for Ministers to look actively at submitting additional departmental statistics for approval as national statistics where they are central to the policy functions or delivery of programmes for which those Ministers are responsible.
The hon. Gentleman seemed to be perilously close to suggesting that some statistics currently collected and collated by the Government are not worthy of the process. I hope that is not his position, but he needs to clarify that statement. On the assumption that he does not believe that the Government currently collect an exhaustive supply of statistics and that he is, therefore, open to suggestions as to additional statistics that it would be useful to have, may I put it to him that if the board recommends that a new statistic relevant to policy be collected but a Department wishes to decline that request, it ought at least to have a duty publicly to state its reasons for so declining?
No doubt we shall return to such detailed points in our deliberations in Committee. However, in my view, where Ministers are also responsible for deciding about resources in their Department, including those devoted to statistical production, such decisions are about policy and resource rather than about professional and technical matters. They should thus properly be matters for Ministers, not for statisticians.
Does my hon. Friend agree that cynicism about Government statistics is not new? Alan Clark recalled in his “Diaries” his view that the only useful purpose of the Department of Employment was to meet once a month to fiddle the employment and unemployment figures, and that it was probably the biggest and most disreputable massage parlour in the kingdom. We should look to the responsibilities of not just one Government but all Governments and give credit to the Labour Government for their great work in restoring the independence of Government statistics.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks and his support for the work of the ONS more generally. I am glad that he takes an active interest in such matters; perhaps we may persuade him to follow a little more closely the Bill’s progress after Second Reading.
I want to make it clear that the board will be strengthened by the presence of the national statistician—a post that the Bill makes statutory for the first time, and which will have the title “national statistician” in light of the responses to the consultation.
The Financial Secretary refers to the welcome statutory basis for the appointment of the national statistician, but it is not clear from the Bill whether the national statistician will be appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister rather than the Chancellor, or indeed whether he will have direct access to the Prime Minister in the event of disputes, as, for example, Claus, now Lord, Moser used to enjoy and the service chiefs enjoy at present.
The national statistician will continue to be the Government’s principal statistical adviser and will continue, as she does at present, to speak out and comment publicly; but in future, under the Bill, the national statistician will be accountable and report not to Ministers—as she does at present to me—but to the independent statistics board. The board will be directly accountable not to Ministers but to Parliament. That reinforces the independence of the national statistician and, as I was about to make clear, it also reinforces the national statistician’s professional position. The national statistician will be the board’s chief executive and—this point may help the hon. Gentleman—the legislation will require that the board should publish its decision, and lay a report before Parliament, if it overrules the advice of the national statistician on professional matters. The national statistician will, of course, continue as the Government’s principal statistical adviser, and as the professional head of the Government statistical service.
In addition to spelling out the main provisions of the Bill, I can confirm to the House further details of our plans in three areas: transition arrangements; funding; and pre-release.
The House will appreciate that we are keen to ensure a smooth transition to the new system. Without prejudicing the views of this House in any way, may I say that we intend the system to begin in April 2008? I therefore aim to have appointed a shadow chair, with appropriate support for that chair, before the start of the new system, so that many of the crucial aspects of planning for the implementation can be steered and led by that shadow chair. I hope that the appointment will be made during the course of this year.
I have already made it clear that the funding arrangements for the board should reinforce statutory independence, and I have announced that the board’s funding will therefore be set outside the normal spending review process. The aim is to ensure that the board has a certainty of funding over several years, to aid long-term planning and to minimise the dealings that the board will need to have with the Treasury.
I can confirm that the Government will guarantee the board’s funding over five-year periods—considerably longer than the three-year settlements that apply to other Departments through the spending review process. The certainty will be guaranteed through the setting of a transparent formula for the annual resources to be given to the board in each of those five years. Following consultation responses and the recommendations of the Treasury Committee, I can confirm that we propose funding the census on a similar five-year period, integrated with the overall budget of the board.
I was not sure at which point in the debate I might seek clarification on an aspect of the census. I speak as chair of the all-party group on UK Sikhs. There is a considerable movement in parts of the Sikh community in the United Kingdom for separate census enumeration for Sikhs, who, under the Mandla case of 1984, are a racial group as well as an ethnic one. Using that as an example, will my hon. Friend say how representations could be made when the new system comes into force so that a question relating to that matter could be included on the census? At the moment, we make what might be termed “broadly political” representations, but I understand that there will be a different scenario under the board. Will he explain how the process will work and, in terms of the time frame, whether the 2011 census and the questions thereon will have been finalised before or after the new board is set up?
The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question is that technical queries about methodology and questions should appropriately be directed towards the national statistician. That is unlikely to change under the new arrangements.
Secondly, I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that something else will not change under those arrangements: after this year’s pilots of the 2011 census in five areas, the House will have the opportunity to consider the results of the pilots and the content of the census for 2011, which will be approved by this House, as has been the case in the past. My hon. Friend and the Sikh interests that he is concerned about will have the opportunity to make technical and professional representations. He will also be able to debate the decisions and proposals as part of the approval process for this House before the census is conducted.
I wanted to make a final point about funding. It will be for Parliament to hold the board to account for the way in which it allocates and controls its resources, in the same way as Parliament ultimately does for the rest of Government and for the Office for National Statistics.
The Bill provides for the reform of statistical pre-release access arrangements. In principle, there is a clear case for pre-release access to statistics for Ministers and policy officials, and the Treasury Committee supported that view in its report. The reason for allowing such access is that, when the statistics are released, Ministers need to be able to give an account of the implications on the policy areas for which they have democratic responsibility. That is what the British public have come to expect, and what the British media have come to demand. Additionally, in the case of market-sensitive statistics, Ministers may be required to announce policy changes to coincide with the publication and release of data; for example, mitigating action might need to be taken in respect of currency management in light of certain balance of payments or trade statistics, and the Government and the Bank of England might need to make announcements about the open letter system in light of inflation data.
I will come to the specifics of pre-release periods later. I think that that is the subject in which the hon. Gentleman is principally interested, but of course pre-release arrangements also cover the nature of the data that are to be pre-released, and the range of officials or Ministers that may have access.
The Minister referred to market-sensitive figures that are pre-released to Ministers. Was he concerned when the Prime Minister leaked unemployment figures to the Trades Union Congress before they were due for publication, resulting in a movement of the market?
All the established procedures were followed after that inadvertent indication of the unemployment statistics. If the hon. Lady looks at the reports of the Statistics Commission, which currently has the responsibility of investigating any apparent breaches of pre-release codes, she will see that although the perception is that pre-release arrangements undermine the integrity of statistics, such occurrences are in fact relatively rare. The commission investigated six breaches last year, and two breaches in the year before that, which was 2005. If she studies the reports, she will find that such breaches are inadvertent and generally involve not Ministers, but officials, and are the consequences of slip-ups in the system.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for giving way; he is being most generous with his time. In his justification of a continuation of the relatively lengthy pre-release period in the UK, compared to in other countries—a point referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—he mentioned the issue of currency policy. The foreign exchange control regulations were abolished by the previous Conservative Government, but are there any examples of the current Government implementing any policy on the back of statistics?
For any Minister accountable directly to the public and the House for policy areas that impinge on market-sensitive statistics, it is important that the principle of pre-release access is in place, so that if the circumstances demand policy decisions, they can be made. That is our view, which is supported by the Treasury Committee.
It is on that very point that I would like the Minister to respond. He said that there had been an “inadvertent indication of the unemployment statistics”, but the truth is that what we witnessed was a blatant abuse of Government statistics. Surely we must include in the pre-release arrangements something that can prevent such blatant abuses from taking place again, and that must mean ensuring a much shorter pre-release period—one more in line with those in other countries—than the one provided for in the current arrangements, or under the Bill.
I accept the general argument for tightening the pre-release arrangements, and the Bill and the secondary powers introduced under it will do just that. However, it is not simply a question of setting out the detail of pre-release arrangements, as they must be consistent, clearly understood and transparent. They must be independently assessed and reported on, including directly to the House, by the new statistics board. Over time, that will help to reinforce and increase trust and confidence in official statistics and pre-release arrangements.
I, too, am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his generosity in accepting interventions. However, he was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) an example of a Government policy that was announced as a result of access to statistics prior to their release. He prayed in aid the Treasury Committee report, which recommends that
“ministers receive pre-release access on the day prior to release, after the markets have closed”.
We are therefore discussing limited pre-release access, and not the 40 hours allowed under the Bill.
On Second Reading, we deal largely with the Bill’s principles. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has shown a consistent interest in Treasury matters, will serve on the Public Bill Committee, which will probably deal with detailed examples of what is, or is not, covered by pre-release arrangements. Ministerial access to pre-release data is a widely accepted and established international principle, with many countries, including Australia, France, New Zealand, Ireland and the USA operating a pre-release regime. As I suggested earlier, however, a number of respondents to the consultation argued that the concept of pre-release contributes to the perception of ministerial interference in statistics, particularly the terms and nature of the voluntary pre-release code. I can confirm to the House that we will tighten the system so that pre-release arrangements will have a special status. Unlike the rest of the code, the contents of which will be backed, but not prescribed, by statute, the new pre-release rules will be set out in secondary legislation under clause 11.
I have ensured, first, that they will be subject to affirmative resolution so that Parliament has a further opportunity to debate and approve arrangements in future. Secondly, we will place a statutory duty on the new statistics board to assess and report on compliance by Ministers and officials with the new rules. Thirdly, we will cut pre-release access to non-market-sensitive data from five days to 40.5 hours to align it with access to market-sensitive data. Fourthly, we will set out principles in secondary legislation to provide guidance for Departments and ensure that access is limited only to those individuals who require data for operational reasons. I am confident that the new arrangements will provide greater clarity and transparency and, crucially, will be more enforceable. They will help further to reduce perceptions of ministerial interference in statistics. Finally, as I have explained, the Bill establishes in general a statistical system that can be developed in the light of experience. We will review the operation of the new pre-release system 12 months after it starts.
Some of the safeguards that my hon. Friend announced, particularly the second one, are foreshadowed by clause 8, which usefully states that the statistics board may
“report any concerns it has about…good practice in relation to any official statistics…The Board may publish its findings or any report under this section.”
If the board believes that pre-release statistics have been misused by Ministers, it can make a public statement, as it is accountable to Parliament rather than to Ministers. Is that not another safeguard in the Bill?
My hon. Friend, with his customary close attention to detail, is right. The general duty that the statistics board will have in relation to coverage, good practice and the standard of all official statistics will allow it, as I indicated earlier, to report strongly where it perceives flaws or failures. In addition to that, as I made clear to the House, we will put a specific statutory duty on the new statistics board to report publicly to the House on the compliance of officials and Ministers with the new code on pre-release.
Furthermore, I can announce to the House today that the Government are committed to the principle of creating a central publication hub, which many commentators called for, through which all national statistics would be published under the new system, thereby separating statistical release from policy comment.
Let me mention briefly three other aspects of the Bill that have generally been widely welcomed. The first is data sharing and confidentiality. Clauses 35 to 43 provide for the flows of information that currently exist between the Office for National Statistics and other bodies to continue under the new regime. However, we are using the opportunity of the Bill to put in place a framework to allow data sharing for statistical purposes only, and we are also putting in place tougher sanctions and safeguards to protect confidentiality.
As was pointed out to us forcefully in the consultation, data sharing has the potential to bring real benefits in improved statistical analysis, and therefore to the evidence base for policy making and better resource allocation. It also, as I noted earlier, reduces the burden on businesses and individuals of completing surveys, particularly on information already held by Government. Following the strong support that we received for these plans in the consultation, the Bill includes in clauses 44 to 50 provisions to allow Treasury Ministers, a Northern Ireland Department or Scottish Ministers with consent from the Treasury to make regulations for increased data sharing between public authorities and the board.
All proposals to allow greater or new administrative data sharing will be subject to further debate and approval by the House. They will also be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Clause 36 contains comprehensive safeguards enforced by criminal penalties for the unlawful disclosure of information which identifies individuals or businesses.
A second aspect that has generally been welcomed concerns the registration function which is currently carried out by the national statistician and the Office for National Statistics as the Registrar General. The historically close relationship between the statistics and registration services inevitably means that there will be consequential changes to the registration service, which at present is administratively part of the Office for National Statistics. As part of our reforms, we must deal with that situation.
We have been considering in particular the position of the General Register Office and of the NHS Central Register within the machinery of government. I can confirm to the House that there was general support in the consultation for the proposals to separate the GRO and the NHSCR from the ONS, and to retain these functions under ministerial responsibility. The details are being worked out. The transfer is therefore not provided for in the Bill, but will be carried out by a subsequent transfer of functions order. During the period of transition, the statistics board will be able to provide services and continue providing services, should those be required, to the GRO or the NHSCR.
I do not want the Second Reading debate to pass without mention of one final aspect of the Bill. It is one on which I have worked closely over a number of years, but not as closely and not as long as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). We are using the Bill as an opportunity to establish proper employment status and rights for registrars in England and Wales. I know that my hon. Friend attaches great importance to that objective, which he has worked on for a long time—he has served with distinction as the president of the Society of Registration Officers.
Registrars provide a vital service, which benefits the whole community. However, while they are statutory officers appointed and paid by the local authority, they are not employed by the local authority. They can only be dismissed by the Registrar General, and consequently they do not enjoy the rights and protections that are taken for granted by other groups of workers, such as access to an employment tribunal. The Bill will make the 1,700 registration officers into local government employees and give them access for the first time to the rights and protections that are already available to others. It will also ensure that registration officers retain their current terms and conditions on transfer to local authority employment.
In summary, the Bill is a step forward in what will be a major and evolving programme of reform to our statistical system. It holds out the possibility of substantially improving the quality of and confidence in official statistics. We are introducing a framework that can lead to a world-class statistics system capable of meeting the changing demands of a modern economy and of a modern society for reliable statistics. I commend the Bill to the House.
In scrutinising this Bill, the Opposition’s goal is to restore public trust in official figures by taking politicians out of the process of the production and release of Government statistics and removing their power to manipulate and spin the figures for their own short-term political ends, which is a vital task in securing more honesty, integrity and trust in politics today.
The Financial Secretary and I are at one on the importance of the task that faces the House this afternoon and on the importance of statistics. The 19th-century Belgian statistician Quetelet once stated that
“The statistician keeps his fingers on the pulse of humanity and gives the necessary warning when things are not as they should be.”
More recently, John Hollis of the British Society for Population Studies has pointed out that
“National Statistics are vital to public policy and to decisions made throughout the public and private sectors. These decisions and policies affect the lives of each of us. Billions of pounds are allocated on the basis of National Statistics.”
Public trust in statistics must surely be at an all-time low—hence the hollow laughter that greeted Her Majesty’s announcement of this Bill in the Gracious Speech. According to an ONS survey, 17 per cent. of people—fewer than one in five—believe that official statistics are produced without political interference. I must say that I have not met many of the 17 per cent. who believe in the probity and objectivity of this Government’s treatment of official statistics.
Let us take just a few examples. Manipulation of NHS figures has become notorious under Labour, with trolleys having their wheels removed or being reclassified as “beds on wheels” to massage A and E waiting time figures. The Governor of the Bank of England no less recently criticised the Government for their failure to produce reliable migration figures and their inability to answer the basic question of how many people actually live in this country.
The hon. Lady has implied that this is a new phenomenon. The Royal Statistical Society has pointed out that
“for several decades now, a lack of trust due to a wide perception of political interference has devalued and undermined official statistics”.
I counsel the hon. Lady that she might do better to focus on the measures in the Bill to improve the reliability of statistics and public confidence in them instead of engaging in knockabout, because her party’s performance when it was last in government was absolutely disgraceful. I remember issuing a press release jointly with a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society complaining about 23 manipulations of the unemployment figures. Let us not chuck mud at each other but talk about making the situation better for the future.
I assure the House that I am going to consider in detail these provisions, some of which are welcome and a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, it is important to look at some of the problems that have arisen as a result of this Government’s treatment of statistics.
Just for balance, for which the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) is noted, let me point out, first, that all the adjustments were declared publicly in advance and they were not manipulations; secondly, that they did not all appear to reduce levels of unemployment; and thirdly, that the Government’s normal tactic is to blame us when they think they never did it and, when they think they have done it, to say that everyone else has.
Before we let the political knockabout go too far, should we not stick to some facts? I am using the ONS figures, which we accept that we can trust at least to some degree. When we look closely at those figures and people’s trust in them, it is clear that the more complex it is to analyse them, the less people trust them, while the easier it is, the easier it is for people to accept them. Figures on road traffic accidents are trusted because it is easy to count the heads of people who have died. It is harder to understand more complex figures, which is sometimes why people do not trust them. Let us not pretend that there is some political motive behind these changes—we should stick to the facts.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There is no doubt that there are problems in understanding complex statistics and that that makes some people hesitate to trust them. However, the much more serious problem is not the methodology or the complexity of the statistics but the way in which they are treated and released by Ministers. We need an ethical code to ensure that they cannot be spun, manipulated or subject to political interference.
The hon. Lady is saying that statistics should not be spun. She said earlier that confidence is at an “all-time low”, citing one statistic—17 per cent.—from one survey. She should know that in order to suggest that something is at an all-time low one needs a sequence of at least two statistics—it is not good enough merely to cite one.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if he talks to anyone on any average high street he will be told whether people believe Government statistics. As he likes empirical evidence, let me turn to more examples.
No less a person than Professor Adrian Smith recently concluded in an independent report for the Home Office that crime statistics needed “a radical overhaul” and that certain major crime category definitions were “confusing and misleading”. Moreover, grave concern has been expressed about the decision to keep so many private finance initiative and Network Rail liabilities off the nation’s balance sheet even where it seems clear that the bulk of the risk is being borne by the public, not by the private sector. At the general election, the Opposition made a strong appeal for independence for statistical services. The Shadow Chancellor included that as part of his “triple lock” to entrench stability into the economy. We share the view of the Statistics Commission:
“The statistical system should serve the long-term public interest, rather than the interests of the government of the day”.
We welcome the Government’s move in our direction and their acknowledgement that the 2000 reforms were inadequate. We also welcome their attempts to ensure that the new structures apply across the UK. The people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have as much right to integrity in statistics as the people of England. However, we regret that it has taken them nearly a decade to provide parliamentary time for this reform, and we believe that the proposals before the House today are still too weak to secure statistics that are genuinely independent of political interference.
We shall not vote against the Bill, but we will make the strongest efforts to strengthen it during its passage through Parliament. We want to ensure that the full rigour of the reforms applies to all official statistics, not only to those nominated by Ministers to become national statistics; to ensure a clear split between the people responsible for producing statistics and those who scrutinise them; to strengthen independence from Ministers; and to restrict radically Ministers’ pre-release access to statistics.
It is unclear what the hon. Lady is proposing rather than simply criticising. Is it still her policy that statistics should remain a function, National Audit Office-style, of Parliament rather than the Executive? We have examined that carefully and the only example that we can find of such a model is in Mongolia. Does she still take her statistics policy from Mongolia and her tax policy from Estonia?
Valuable lessons can be learned from the NAO model. We do not propose to base our policy on what happens in Mongolia, but I shall deal shortly with the way in which we would try to strengthen the board’s independence from Ministers by adopting elements that are currently used for the NAO.
Indeed. Perhaps I should quote directly from the Leader of the House’s speech in 1995. He said that the new independent statistics organisation
“should be placed at arm’s length to Ministers on a similar basis to that of the National Audit Office, and should report principally to a powerful Committee of the Commons”.
The Leader of the House clearly believed that the proposal was credible and I am sorry that the Financial Secretary disagrees.