As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 1
Access to the Prime Minister
‘The National Statistician shall have right of direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving the integrity of official statistics or a dispute with a government department regarding official statistics.’.—[Mrs. Villiers.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Role and objectives of the National Statistician—
‘(1) The role and objectives of the National Statistician shall include—
(a) producing statistics;
(b) co-ordinating statistical planning and production across government departments; and
(c) promoting consistency in the production of statistics across the United Kingdom.
(2) The National Statistician shall be the Government’s chief advisor on statistics, including on matters relating to the planning, production and quality of official statistics.
(3) The National Statistician shall provide professional leadership to all persons within government who are engaged in statistical production or release.’.
Amendment No. 42, in clause 5, page 3, leave out lines 18 and 19 and insert—
‘(b) employed to operate independently of the Board with scrutiny and oversight of the role provided by the Board.’.
Amendment No. 8, in clause 6, page 3, line 38, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
Amendment No. 9, in clause 7, page 4, line 21, leave out subsection (1).
Government amendment No. 48
Amendment No. 1, in line 22, after ‘safeguarding’, insert ‘for the public good’.
Amendment No. 43, in clause 8, page 4, line 39, at end insert—
‘(4) The Board shall have responsibility to monitor and assess the performance of the National Statistician against the assigned responsibilities.’.
Amendment No. 10, in clause 18, page 8, line 17 , leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
Amendment No. 11, in line 19, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
Amendment No. 12, in line 21 , leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
Amendment No. 14, in line 25, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
Amendment No. 45, in clause 28, page 12, line 17, at end insert—
‘(5) The National Statistician is to be the Government’s principal advisor on statistics and shall provide professional leadership to all persons engaged in statistical production and publication.’.
Amendment No. 15, in clause 29, page 12, line 19, leave out ‘Board’ and insert
‘executive office created under the provisions of subsection (5), below’.
Amendment No. 39, page 12, line 27, at end insert—
‘(3A) The National Statistician shall—
(a) promote the coordination of statistical planning and production across government; and
(b) promote the production of statistics that are consistent across the UK.’.
Amendment No. 46, line 28 , after ‘may’, insert ‘not’.
Amendment No. 47, line 29, leave out ‘not’.
New clauses 1 and 3 and amendments Nos. 8 to 15 in this group seek to clarify the respective functions of the new statistics board and the National Statistician. I am happy to say that they have much in common with amendments Nos. 39, 43, 45, 46 and 47 from the Liberal Democrats. There is little in the Bill about the role of the National Statistician. Dr. Ivan Fellegi, who is one of the most highly respected statisticians in the world and who is chief statistician of Canada, told the Treasury Committee that the weak role assigned to the National Statistician in the Government’s proposals was “a major shortcoming”. The Select Committee felt that the proposals needed major strengthening on that point and the Opposition agree.
We would like the Bill to clarify and strengthen the role of the National Statistician in three key areas. First, it should be the National Statistician, not the board, who should be responsible for the production of the Office for National Statistics statistics, so that executive and supervisory functions are separated. Secondly, the Bill should emphasise the National Statistician’s duty to co-ordinate statistics in order to mitigate some of the inevitable drawbacks of our decentralised system for statistics. Thirdly, we wish to see the National Statistician’s status and authority as the leader of the Government’s statistical services acknowledged and enhanced by the Bill.
If I may, I will speak to new clause 1 at the conclusion of my remarks, since it is interlinked with my third point and various elements of the other amendments in the group. I turn first to new clause 3 and amendments Nos. 3 to 15. We believe that the National Statistician, rather than the board, should be responsible for the production of official statistics, but not for all official statistics—only for those now produced by the ONS. We do not call for an end to the decentralised model that currently operates in the United Kingdom for producing statistics, but we do seek to ensure that there is a separation between those responsible for producing statistics and those responsible for regulating and scrutinising that production process.
In a number of instances, as we have acknowledged throughout the debate in Parliament, the Bill represents a step in the right direction—a step that we believe is too timid, but, nevertheless, one that will in the main help to enhance the credibility of Government statistics. However, in this context, we believe that the Bill involves a step backwards. It removes one of the limited existing safeguards in relation to the Government statistical system. The Bill proposes to merge the Statistics Commission and the ONS. Under the Bill, the commission’s function of scrutinising statistics and the ONS’s function of producing them will both be carried out by the new statistics board. The Opposition believe that losing a fearless and independent watchdog and combining scrutiny and production functions will significantly undermine the effectiveness of the Government’s proposals. Amendments Nos. 8 to 15 seek to take the board out of direct involvement with statistical production. They remove key production functions from the board and vest them in the National Statistician, leaving the board tasked with scrutinising her activities and those of the ONS, and to a lesser extent those of the departmental statistical services.
I am following the points about independence and objectivity with great interest. What does the hon. Lady think is the purpose of statistics?
Statistics have many purposes, one of the most crucial of which is informing decision making in government, in local government—I know that that is a matter of importance to the right hon. Gentleman—and in business. Statistics allow international organisations to assess the performance of the UK economy. Official statistics have a range of vital functions.
Let me turn to the objective of our amendments. There is considerable confusion in the statistical community about the way in which the Bill allocates functions and responsibilities to different entities, especially regarding the allocation of functions between the board and the National Statistician. In short, it is not easy to say exactly who will do what and who will be accountable to whom. When I asked the Financial Secretary to give the Public Bill Committee an example of a similar institutional structure that was in operation in the UK or internationally, he was not able to provide one and said that there were no direct comparators. He effectively acknowledged to the Committee that the proposal in the Bill represents more or less uncharted territory.
On Second Reading, the Minister was asked a question about the person to whom queries about the way in which the census deals with matters relating to the Sikh community should be addressed under the new structure. He said that such a technical query relating to methodology would be dealt with by the National Statistician at present, and that that would be unlikely to change under the proposed structure. However, the Bill expressly provides for the board to have a role in considering that type of methodological question. It is true that the Government have tried to provide for a separation of the functions of the board by creating a new statutory head of assessment. They claim that that will mean that production and scrutiny functions will be kept separate during day-to-day operations. However, such a separation is inconsistent with clause 29(1), which makes the National Statistician the chief executive of the board. That measure leads one to expect that she will have an executive remit on all the board’s activities, whether they are assessment or production. We have tabled amendments to address that situation.
The problem of the blurring of the functions of the board and the National Statistician is exacerbated by clause 29(4), which gives the board the right to substitute its decision for that of the National Statistician. I believe that that problem is highlighted by Lib Dem amendments Nos. 46 and 47. The Government’s attempt to provide for an internal split of responsibilities is insufficient to deal with the concerns expressed by many during the consultation about the conflict of interest to which the structure proposed in the Bill will give rise. As the North East Regional Information Partnership has pointed out, the board “will not be detached”. In short, the board will be judge and jury in its own case.
The problem is best illustrated by considering what would happen if a complaint about a decision were made by a member of the public. At present, someone making a complaint about a decision made by the ONS can go to the Statistics Commission, if the ONS refuses to respond to his concern. Under the new structure proposed in the Bill, a complainant will take his concerns to the board. However, the board would have been responsible for making the decision about which the complaint had been made. In a real sense, the board would have been the entity that made the decision, given that the Bill merges the ONS into the board. The board would thus be asked in such a situation to rule on whether its own decision was correct. The chairman of the board could regularly find himself in the embarrassing position of having to issue a rebuke or correction to himself. If the board decided that the approach was correct, a complainant could well feel that the failure to impose a sanction resulted from not an impartial assessment of the correctness of the approach taken, but the board’s desire not to admit fault in its statistical production. No doubt the statistical production kitemark is being produced with the board’s imprimatur. The Royal Statistical Society has pointed out that it is difficult to envisage how the board will be able to command public confidence in its impartiality in such a situation.
The practical problems with such arrangements have been debated at length in the House in the context of the BBC. Many people, including the Burns panel, have stated that arrangements whereby the BBC regulates its own output are unsustainable. The conflict that we are discussing is even more stark than the conflict in the case of the BBC, as the BBC’s regulatory function is confined to its own output, whereas the board’s remit is wider. It would be difficult for the Statistics Commission to hold the statistical system to account as effectively as it has done if it had responsibility for running the Office for National Statistics, too.
The concern was expressed repeatedly during the consultation. To take just two examples, Jill Tuffnell, head of research for Cambridgeshire county council, said on behalf of the Central and Local Government Information Partnership that a much clearer divide was needed between scrutiny and operational functions. The statistics users forum stated that it did not believe that it was good governance, or conducive to restoring or maintaining public trust in the system, for the same body to be responsible for the delivery of statistics and for ensuring quality and adherence to standards. It said that the proposed removal of the Statistics Commission would eliminate a check on the system and replace it with a system that at least appears to be weaker.
We hope that the Government will listen to the concerns of the experts who use official statistics every day, and we can see small signs of movement in Government amendment No. 48. In Committee, the Government had the embarrassment of having to vote down an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) about the purpose of the board. The amendment said that the board should seek to ensure that the statistical system served the public good. I was surprised that the Government sought to vote down an amendment of that sort, but they have tried to remedy the problem in amendment No. 48. However, although that amendment might give us more of a clue about the objectives of the board, it does nothing to deal with the structural problems that I outlined.
I might have got lost somewhere in the hon. Lady’s amendments, but I understand the separation that she seeks to achieve through them. I might have missed something, but having read her amendments, I do not think that they would remove the National Statistician from the board. If I am right about that, and her amendments would leave the National Statistician on the board, is that not a contradiction in her argument? I do not think that she has tabled an amendment to remove the National Statistician from the board; why is that?
I did not table such an amendment. To be honest, I puzzled over the issue in Committee, but on balance I think that there is an argument for keeping the National Statistician on the board. I acknowledge that if one took a purist approach, perhaps one would want complete separation, and that would involve taking the National Statistician off the board. I concluded that if I were to propose such a complete and radical rewriting of the Bill, it would not get anywhere, so with compromise in mind, I tried to target the functions that cause the most problems, but I acknowledge that that is not an ideal approach.
I heard my hon. Friend’s explanation of her thinking. Does she think that there is a qualitative difference between the National Statistician being a member of the board, and her being its chief executive, which, I understand, is what the Government propose?
Yes, certainly. My amendments reflect my particular concerns about clause 29, which makes the National Statistician chief executive of the board. The clause makes explicit her executive role in relation to the board’s activities, and I think that that is the issue of greater concern. That is why I tabled an amendment to address that point, but did not go as far as tabling an amendment to take the National Statistician off the board altogether.
I shall now turn to the second of the three points to which I referred at the start of my remarks. It relates to new clause 3(1)(b) and (c), and the Liberal Democrats’ amendment No. 39. The Opposition believe that it is crucial that the National Statistician is given the explicit remit of co-ordinating the Government’s statistical system. The plea for co-ordination has been made strongly by a number of groups, including the Royal Statistical Society and the statistics users forum. The decentralised system has a number of important strengths, but it comes with in-built disadvantages, too. In cases in which critically important statistics are produced by different Departments, there is a self-evident risk of inconsistency, duplication and inefficiency. In the 1990s, for example, I am told that it took an enormous effort to get the neighbourhood statistics project off the ground because it pulled in data from so many Government sources.
The new clause provides a strong co-ordinating role for the National Statistician, which would help to minimise inefficiency and duplication. It would provide momentum and political drive for co-ordinated projects such as neighbourhood statistics, and it could provide critical direction and coherence for the diverse work of the Government’s statistical systems.
We believe that that co-ordinating role should extend to the promotion of the consistency of statistics across the UK. Concern about the fragmentation of data has been expressed by many organisations, including the Society of Business Economists. The problem did not start with devolution, but devolution has certainly heightened concerns about the inconsistency of statistical data across the UK. There is an increasing pull from devolved assemblies to fragment statistics, but there is an insufficient counter-balancing pull from the centre to promote consistency, which led to serious problems in the 2001 census, according to John Pullinger, who was heavily involved in that census and is now chief of the Royal Statistical Society national statistics working party. According to the statistics editor of the Financial Times, Simon Briscoe, the census left the Office for National Statistics enfeebled by the pressure to fragment data across the UK. The RSS told the Treasury Select Committee that the problem was serious and worsening.
It should be a matter of concern to the House that academics such as Dr. Kadhem Jallab of Tyne and Wear Research and Information have pointed out that differences in the index of deprivation have made it impossible to compare levels of poverty in Newcastle and Glasgow. Alison Macfarlane, professor of perinatal health at City university, told the Treasury Committee that she had to source information from 18 different data sets to compile what she described as a very basic set of maternity indicators. May I make it clear that the Opposition do not seek to impose a one-size-fits-all model on the UK? Of course, the devolved areas will wish to produce statistics tailored to their particular needs. Different regions and local areas may well wish to do the same, but if statistics are collected and compiled on similar topics, consistency should be encouraged wherever possible. If wise and informed decisions are to be made on the impact of health, education, housing and social deprivation on the whole of the UK, we need a core of statistical indicators common to the entire country so that we have empirical evidence on which to base those decisions.
Amendment No. 9 would leave out clause 7(1), but how would new clause 3 improve clause 7(2)—I do not think that the hon. Lady tabled an amendment to remove that provision. The explanatory notes are as helpful as ever, and paragraph 47 on page 8 refers to “timeliness and comparability”. Surely, her proposal is already in the Bill?
Perhaps I did not make myself clear. Amendment No. 9 would remove clause 7(1). The objectives that the hon. Lady seeks to achieve in new clause 3 appear to be addressed by clause 7(2), which she is not seeking to remove. I suggest that the new clause is, in fact, redundant, because the objectives that it seeks to achieve are encompassed in subsection (2).
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s clarification. Clause 7 refers only to the board. The change that we would like to see is the National Statistician having a remit to drive forward consistency and co-ordination of statistics. I apologise if I did not understand the hon. Gentleman’s point initially. The Bill provides for the board to perform certain functions, but we need a clearer steer that the National Statistician should be involved with them. That is the purpose of this group of amendments.
The Opposition’s new clauses and amendments highlight a number of important duties for the National Statistician to carry out, but there can be few of greater importance than the third and last point that I shall raise in relation to this group. New clause 3(3) and Liberal Democrat amendment No. 45 propose that the National Statistician should be acknowledged in the Bill as the Government’s chief adviser on statistics and should provide professional leadership to all in the Government’s statistical service.
New clause 1 would give the National Statistician direct access to the Prime Minister. If the reform is to succeed, the National Statistician’s writ must run throughout the Government’s statistical services, not just in the Office for National Statistics. In a decentralised system, we need a strong figure to promote good practice and ensure that Departments do not slip below the appropriate ethical and professional standards in the production and release of statistics.
Ensuring that the National Statistician has the ear of the Prime Minister and access to the Prime Minister, and ensuring that Departments know that she has the personal backing of the Prime Minister, is key to giving her authority to maintain high standards of integrity and impartiality in relation to departmental statistics, and to help her eliminate the mistreatment and manipulation of statistics, which the Bill is designed to stop.
The National Statistician’s leadership role is crucial. Departmental statisticians should account to her, as well as to their direct bosses. They should look to her for a lead on technical matters, but more importantly, they need to be able to look to the National Statistician for support in maintaining the highest standards of statistical quality and integrity. When they are under pressure from their line managers in Departments to compromise on those standards, they should be able to refer to the National Statistician for guidance and backing.
It is critical that the power and the status of the National Statistician should act as a counter to the political pressure on departmental statisticians that might be exerted by Ministers and policy officials. That is one of a number of reasons why the Opposition amendments in this group could do so much to strengthen the reform and make it work to protect Government statisticians from political interference.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for generously giving way, particularly in the circumstances of her approaching her denouement. Clearly, there is an important distinction between the technical quality of statistics and the question whether they are duly representative. I did not have the privilege and the salivating experience of serving on the Standing Committee, so I hope that my hon. Friend will understand my ignorance on this point. What if, to put it in simple terms, the National Statistician has a particular view about what ought to make up the basket of items that constitute the basis of the retail prices index, and the Chancellor or the Prime Minister takes a different view? Will we get to know that the National Statistician has a view? Will it be in the public domain? Can we debate the issue and hold Ministers to account on the matter?
One of the changes introduced by the Bill is to pass responsibility for the RPI from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the board. I hope that the National Statistician would be involved in exactly the kind of technical decision to which my hon. Friend refers. It is important, as he says, that those decisions are made transparently and that we can debate them. It is a positive feature of the Bill that it will transfer powers over the RPI and such decisions to the board. It is important that those decisions should be taken, in effect, by the National Statistician. My hon. Friend’s question illustrates the problem that we are dealing with, in that the Bill provides for the board to take the decision, whereas the National Statistician has the technical expertise to do that.
I hope that the Minister and the House will consider the amendments, which would considerably strengthen and clarify the institutional structures set out in the Bill and improve our chances of restoring trust in official statistics.
Anybody who believes in an evidence-based approach to public policy must welcome the Bill and our debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) was disappointed to miss the opportunity of serving on the Committee, which was one of the best that I have had the pleasure of taking part in. The Minister made good responses, took away and reflected on some of the important issues that were raised, and has responded positively.
In that context, I particularly welcome amendment No. 48, in the name of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which gives a clear sense of direction and purpose for the board and for the chief statistician. Statistics are now clearly defined as being there to “serve the public good”, which is an important principle to have in the Bill. The definition of “the public good” is particularly useful in its reference to
“informing the public about social and economic matters”.
That means that it is about informing general public policy debate, and I have no doubt the standard of that debate will thereby be improved. It also gives the board the remit of ensuring that statistics are used in
“assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy.”
That sets in a proper context the duties of the board as originally stated in the Bill. I give three cheers for what the amendment achieves. Earlier, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) confirmed, in response to my intervention, that she sees statistics as having the purpose of informing decision making. I welcome that, because it means that Members on both sides of the House are clear about the wider purpose of statistics. Amendment No. 48 is not controversial in that sense, but sometimes an uncontroversial amendment is nevertheless very important. This amendment means that the Minister has responded positively to our discussions in Committee.
New clause 1 is not really a matter for legislation, although the authority of the chief statistician is very important, as underlined by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. New clause 3 rather misses the point, because it treats statistics as if they are an end in themselves, but of course they are not. Similarly, amendment No. 24, which we come to in a later debate, refers to “statistical purposes”. The crucial point is that statistics need to be useful and to help to inform the public debate; indeed, that is the most important development in the Bill as it comes before us today.
I know from personal experience and from discussion with those working at a local and a regional level that good-quality data and the ability to share and use it effectively is an essential aid to public services. That applies across a wide spectrum of activity, be it developing local economies, tackling crime and disorder, understanding what is needed to improve community cohesion, or the effective delivery of health and social care. It is worth saying that all those apparently separate issues are closely inter-related when dealing with policy at the most local level.
My own experience at ward and sub-ward level as a youth and community worker and a local councillor before entering Parliament, as endorsed and reinforced by my experience as a Member of Parliament, is that people rarely take seriously the evidence that exists in statistics. By “people” I mean local people, those in institutions, professionals, and those who are responsible for public policy. A comprehensive approach that overlays nationally available figures from the census and other sources with specific local statistics, including figures on health, criminal activity, unemployment and so on, can provide powerful evidence of the need for change.
I have seen such an evidence-based approach, led by a doctor and scientist in Cardiff, reduce violent crime and lead to Cardiff becoming one of the safest cities, which has been of no small benefit to the NHS as well as to potential victims. I have seen an evidence-based approach help to give the youngest children a start in life. I have seen it focus a variety of agencies on a realistic joint programme in a deprived area. I have seen it enable us to measure the effectiveness of intervention, instead of wringing our hands about how difficult it all is. Those are important products of the proper use and application of statistical information.
That practical use of statistics can be almost invisible even at local authority level, never mind at the more rarefied levels of academic research. That is why I am keen to ensure that the needs of those who believe in action research—or the link between research and action—the needs of the grass-roots workers who can make such a difference to the health of the local community, and the needs of the community itself receive proper attention as the system for improving statistics is developed. As an MP and a Minister, my experience has been that many national statistics are collected to be consistent and objective over many years but not to tell us anything that is useful or that informs the development of public policy.
Amendment No. 48 would therefore give the board the clear function of improving the use as well as the gathering of statistics. For those working at a local authority level and below, we need to maximise the value of our investment in statistics by ensuring that four or five principles are pursued. The National Statistician and the board need to champion the development and use of national and official statistics for local policy and public service delivery purposes, as implied in amendment No. 48. The National Statistician and the board must strive to ensure that statistics can be and, wherever sensible, are collected and presented on a consistent basis at local as well as national aggregated level.
I both understand and appreciate the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks. May I put it to him, however, that it would probably be an unwise assumption—and it may not be his—that one should simply allow a trickle-down of national figures to the local level? For example, in the field of special educational needs, it is not much good expecting an individual local education authority simply to extrapolate and form its policy on the basis of national averages. What we need to move towards is a situation in which LEAs are expected as a matter of course properly to conduct and update audits of their own community, the better to inform both their policy and perhaps their lobbying of Government.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. My point is not that everything needs to be done at the most local level, but that if information is not collected and available in order to be aggregated upwards, we will not have the instruments to interpret what is happening, whether at a regional or higher level. I agree that the information must then be used at the appropriate level. My basic point is that if the information is available right down at the grass-roots level, where some of the real problems of society are to be discovered, we can aggregate upwards in a way that suits any service. In relation to issues of disability and special educational needs, he is right that a more strategic level is appropriate.
At all levels, the ability to cross-reference and use statistics to describe and understand the complexity of modern society is invaluable. For example, identifying and helping vulnerable children is much aided if people working locally can bring together health, education, crime and social care data to create a fuller picture. That does not provide a complete answer, but it is a powerful diagnostic tool. That implies a need to collect information at the most local level.
The National Statistician and the statistics board actively need to foster the best and widest use of public investment in statistics for public benefit purposes. That is why I am delighted that Government amendment No. 48 makes that clear. They need to tackle any unnecessary blockages to that end, commensurate with genuine data protection and confidentiality requirements. For example, they should work to remove unnecessary barriers to data access and sharing; they should ensure that the definition of “approved researcher” includes those working in local authorities and other local service providers, as well as those undertaking policy work and practical interventions for organisations in the third sector; and they should ensure that there is a robust, simple and non-bureaucratic system to provide ease of access for approved researchers.
My particular concern is to ensure that statistics are fit for purpose in terms of their effective use at local and sub-regional level, as well as at national and regional level. Statistics are not an end in themselves, but the means to an end, such as crime reduction, improved quality of life or better service delivery. I hope that that will be translated into action by the National Statistician and the board, so that there is a proportionate but effective focus on ensuring that relevant national and official statistics provide evidence of, for instance, local variations and different service needs. That would be greatly welcomed by all those concerned with local policy developments and service delivery, and it will reflect well on the Government and Parliament. It is in that context that I appreciate the thought that my hon. Friend the Minister has given to the matter and the way in which he has tabled amendment No. 48.
It is always best to keep the wording of any Bill as simple as possible, which is why I did not press some of the amendments that I moved in Committee to a vote. Underlining something by making the wording too emphatic can, by implication, make other things seem less important, or even exclude them by implication. So I did not press some of the amendments, especially given the Minister’s welcome assurances in Committee that the measures set out in the Bill embrace the need for statistics to aid local and, indeed, very local policy making. He has carried his words in Committee into action by tabling amendment No. 48. I both welcome it and commend it to the House.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that there are many good aspects to the Bill. We all welcome the move towards strengthening the independence of Government statistics. I also agree that there are some things to which the Government have listened. Amendment No. 48 may reflect that. I think that it subsumes what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) was trying to achieve, and that is progress.
There has, however, been no movement on the main issues of substance, and I entirely agree with the arguments developed by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). There are serious deficiencies in the Bill, and some of them lie in the area covered by this group of amendments. They stem from the basic strategic judgment that the Statistics Commission and the Office for National Statistics can be combined. The Government make a good case for that on one level. There is something to be said for combining two quangos in one on cost and efficiency grounds, providing it is clear that the roles are properly demarcated—the Chinese walls are clearly defined—and that the different jobs are clearly specified.
One of the problems from the outset has been that it is not clear that those distinctions are being properly made. The hon. Lady quoted the Treasury Committee on the need for the role of the National Statistician to be spelled out with more detail and clarity than is the case. That still remains an issue. More worryingly, the Bank of England expressed the view at an early stage in the consultative process that the role of the National Statistician was unclear under the Government’s proposals. That still remains the case.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other concerns is that the role of the National Statistician has effectively been downgraded as a result of the proposals? That is why the principal role of the amendments is to ensure oversight of the production of statistics and the people generating them, as a way of preventing that role from being undermined.
Yes, that is right. The National Statistician is an enormously important job and the Bill should reflect that explicitly.
We are particularly concerned to take on board the constructive criticisms of the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistics Commission, which argued that there must be a “demonstrable separation of powers” between the National Statistician and the non-executive members of the board. There is no fundamental reason why they should not work together as part of the same structure, provided that that separation of powers is made absolutely clear.
Our amendments are designed to complement the arrangement favoured by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, and I do not think that they conflict with it. They have specific aims, the first of which is to define the roles of the National Statistician and the board. Amendment No. 42 states that the National Statistician is to be
“employed to operate independently of the Board with scrutiny and oversight of the role provided by the Board.”
That makes it clear that delivery and scrutiny are separate functions, even within the board itself. Amendment No. 43 states that the National Statistician must be accountable to the board, whose role will be to monitor and assess his or her performance.
Amendments Nos. 39 and 45 are designed to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), in defining more fully, and stressing the importance of, the National Statistician’s role. They make it clear that the National Statistician is the Government’s principal adviser on statistics, and that he or she is there to give professional leadership to Government statisticians as a whole. They also make it clear that the National Statistician’s role is to co-ordinate statistics across Government, and to promote them consistently across the United Kingdom. I do not think that any of those definitions conflicts with the way in which the Government see the National Statistician’s role; they merely make it explicit.
Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 are, perhaps, particularly crucial. They concern the placing of the word “not”, which is rather important. Clause 29(4) currently states
“The Board may direct the National Statistician… not to exercise a particular function, or… as to how he”
—although in this case it should be “she”—
“should exercise a particular function.”
That cuts across what should be the Bill’s aim, which is to separate the functions of the National Statistician and the non-executive members of the board.
I did not serve on the Committee, but I think that the hon. Gentleman’s point strikes at the heart of the matter. If the National Statistician, or the body producing the statistics, is in any way controllable, and can be ordered by the Government to remove a set of statistics or review the way in which statistics are presented, surely the independence that is the Bill’s aim falls apart?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. What I am not clear about—perhaps the Minister will clarify it—is whether that is due to an oversight, or deliberate. Subsection (4) states explicitly that the board can intervene to direct the National Statistician as to how he or she carries out the operational part of his or her task. That is clearly wrong, and I do not think it is what the Government intended.
Having reflected on what the subsection could mean in practice, I discussed with a former National Statistician how it would have applied in the context of the Railtrack classification. I was told that that decision had been extremely difficult and complex, and that a whole manual of national accounting must be consulted when such decisions are made. Had the Bill been in force at the time of the Railtrack decision, and had a non-executive member of the board been involved in the operational side of it, someone with a different opinion could have applied for a judicial review, because the non-executive board member would have been wholly unqualified to deal with such a difficult, technically demanding function.
Probably only two or three people in the United Kingdom are competent to handle such decisions, but there are people overseas who could perhaps be involved in an advisory capacity. The purpose of the board, in its supervisory role, would be to ensure that good practice was followed—that the overseas advisers were enlisted, and that the National Statistician followed the correct procedures. In no circumstances should the non-executive members of the board be involved in such decisions. As the proposed legislation is currently drafted, the door is open for there to be intervention in operational matters. That would not only be contrary to the spirit of the legislation, but it could leave the Government open to expensive and damaging litigation.
I urge the Minister to think carefully about the current drafting of the clause, as it is wholly contrary to the spirit of the Bill. What I have said lays bare the difficulty that Opposition Members are having in respect of trying to make sure that the legislation properly defines the scrutiny role of the board as opposed to the operational role of the National Statistician.
I shall shortly speak to amendment No. 1, which stands in my name, and Government amendment No. 48, which has, I think, been tabled in response to it. However, I shall begin by addressing new clause 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers).
I support the new clause, and I will be surprised if the Minister does not agree to it. It is extremely important that there be the right of direct access to the Prime Minister. Lord Moser, who served four Prime Ministers, was emphatic in his evidence to the Select Committee that that is an essential weapon in the armoury of any National Statistician who is involved in any dispute with either the senior statistician or, indeed, Ministers in other Departments.
So the Government have not accepted a broader supervisory function for the National Statistician, the right of direct access is all the more important. Not only does it reinforce the leadership role that my hon. Friend has sketched in new clause 3(3), but if the Government are not going to concede a supervisory function, there should certainly be that safeguard for the National Statistician. When it is necessary—which will be very rarely, as Lord Moser made clear—it is essential that that right exist.
It is also important to have that right of direct access to the Prime Minister because it is direct. It is not to be exercised through the Cabinet Secretary. That is important, because the department will be retained within the aegis of the Treasury. It will not be transferred to the Cabinet Office. It will not be brought any closer to the Prime Minister. For that reason, the right of direct access is particularly important.
The National Statistician might get into a serious dispute—for example, with the Chancellor himself. The Treasury is the Department that will fund the new board and appoint its members, but there could be a dispute about a matter. Let us speculate about what could be the subject of such a dispute: the definition of private finance initiative liabilities, for example, or the cost of public sector pensions, or the net investment rule. As there could be a dispute, the National Statistician must have the right of direct access to the Prime Minister.
I also support new clause 3, which sets out the proper role for the National Statistician and the board. It is extraordinary that that is not done in the Bill itself. We found that out in Committee. We had to supply amendment after amendment in order to insert into the Bill that key leadership role. Perhaps to make her amendment more compliant and to give it a chance of success, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet has not included the key word “supervisory” in it, but that is the matter that we are talking about. In the end, the National Statistician must be able to exercise some leadership role across the Departments—across the statistical divisions of those Departments. That is why new clause 3 is so important.
I note that my hon. Friend’s drafting covers all statistics and not simply official statistics. I support that; it is important. She specifies a clear duty of co-ordination across the different Departments of State and also the promotion of consistency between the territories, which we might hear a little more about later in our debate.
The National Statistician must be not only head of profession, but the champion of statistics—and also of the public good, which I will address. That means that she must have an interest in the way in which statistical functions are carried out not only in her own office but in the statistical divisions of each of the Government Departments. She must be interested in whether they have the necessary funding, for example, or whether they are devoting the resources that are required, or whether the right priorities are being set inside those Departments to deliver the statistics that are needed. I support new clause 3.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, in the light of the aims that he has just referred to, new clause 3(1)(c) is somewhat infelicitously worded? It does not mention the production of official statistics—the issue that he directly referred to—so if it were passed, the National Statistician could have the very strange role of promoting the production of consistent statistics from private companies, charities and so on.
I certainly prefer the term “statistics” to “official statistics” because, as we debated endlessly in Committee, it covers a wider range of data. It had not occurred to me that new clause 3(1)(c) as drafted might refer to the production by companies of private or commercial statistics. However, it makes pretty clear exactly what is required—that statistics, if they are to be produced by the different territories, must be as consistent as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is right to want to give that duty to the National Statistician.
I turn, if I may, to my amendment No. 1 and Government amendment No. 48. Let me say straight away to the Minister that he has kept his word. In Committee, we introduced the concept of “public good”, and he has offered up a definition of it and acted to put it on the statute book for the first time. I thank him for that. It is important, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said, to get that wider objective on the statute book. Any criticisms that I now make of the Minister’s drafting should not detract from the general welcome that I give to getting those words in.
In amendment No. 48, the Minister refers to
“the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good.”
That is all very well, but on looking at that phrase more carefully, we note that he is referring to
“statistics that serve the public good”,
rather than to statistics whose purpose is to serve the public good. That is not simply a nit-picking point. It implies, of course, that some official statistics will not be serving the public good—that another set of statistics is not involved with the public good. That is a little unfortunate, and perhaps the drafting can be improved in that regard.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that some statistics might be needed because of the requirements of international institutions, for instance? Such statistics would be for the purposes of international comparison, and would not therefore have to meet the test of “public good” in a local or national context.
Yes, I do, but given the way the amendment is drafted, a whole series of other statistics that we do not know about might not be included in the definition.
Secondly, subsection (2) of amendment No. 48, which defines “public good”, includes this wonderful paternalist wording that could have been written by a civil servant in the late 1940s. The public good is defined in the context of
“informing the public about social and economic matters”,
“the development and evaluation of public policy.”
In other words, the Minister is defining public good as the good of Whitehall. My amendment is a little simpler and a little more forthright. It makes it clear that the whole exercise should simply be for the public good, and that we should not try to confine it to what is in the best interests of Whitehall.
However, I want to be charitable today to the Minister. He has included in amendment No. 48 the one phrase that perhaps saves him—“includes in particular”. So the amendment does not exclude other issues; it could go wider, and I believe that it should.
I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman’s objection to the wording. Serving the public good surely depends on a wider test of the public good than what Whitehall considers it to be. The second element specifically mentions
“informing the public about social and economic matters”.
Again, those must be wider and more objective than what civil servants and Whitehall consider to be of interest.
That may be, but the point that I am trying to make is that this particular drafting is Whitehall-centric. It is about how Whitehall will be
“informing the public about social and economic matters, and…assisting in the development of…public policy.”
That is not a reference to the right hon. Gentleman’s local community, to Cardiff city council, but to those who are in charge of public policy. My point is that there is a much wider public interest—that of all of us who are citizens in an informed democracy. We have the right to accurate information and independent, rigorous and truthful statistics. If the public are to measure the performance of those who govern them, it is essential that statistics—and the public good—be defined more widely. Statistics belong to all of us, not simply to Whitehall or Ministers.
No, I am not going to give way again.
I support new clauses 1 and 3 and I welcome, with the criticisms that I have made of it, amendment No. 48. Even at this late hour, the Minister should have another look at the simpler and more forthright version that I have set out in amendment No. 1.
I wish to make two brief observations on this group of amendments. The first relates to the comments made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) about amendments Nos. 46 and 47. Similar amendments were discussed in Committee and I shall repeat an observation that I made then, because it still holds true. Both those amendments are very helpful, but flawed.
They are helpful because they expose one of the difficulties in the Bill. Essentially, the Bill provides details of the role of the statistics board, but does not especially say what the role of the National Statistician will be. Clause 29(2) states that the National Statistician may exercise certain functions of the board. However, clause 29(4) allows the board to reserve powers for itself instead of allowing the National Statistician to assume all the powers of the board, which I think would be the result of amendments Nos. 46 and 47. That would not be desirable, but the amendments are helpful because they identify the flaw in the Bill, which is that we do not know what the role of the National Statistician will be. We will have a board, and that will do certain things, and some of its powers will be delegated to the National Statistician, but the Bill does not give much guidance on that point. New clause 3 is also helpful as it attempts to define the role and objectives of the National Statistician.
My second observation relates to the fact that since the Committee stage the Treasury Committee has visited the Republic of Ireland. Those of us who went, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), met the Irish statisticians, who made several observations to which I am sure we will return during the course of the afternoon. The Irish statisticians identified an example of some of the pressures on them. The question arose as to whether cigarettes should be included in determining inflation and the equivalent of the retail prices index. Health campaigners argued that cigarettes should be excluded on health grounds. The view of the statisticians—rightly, in my opinion—was to resist that argument, because the point of statistics, as we have discussed this afternoon, is to provide a true figure. Such questions of morality should not be part of the decision about what is included in a particular statistic. The Irish statisticians were able to resist that pressure. In looking at the Bill, it is a worthwhile test to assess that everything has been done to ensure that the statisticians are in a position to resist that type of extraneous non-statistical pressure to influence statistics.
New clause 1, which deals with access to the Prime Minister, also relates to the status of the National Statistician—an issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. It is important that the National Statistician should be a respected major figure in public life.
New clause 3 relates to the role and objectives of the National Statistician. The fact that those are made clear and are now an integral part of the Bill will help the National Statistician to retain the necessary integrity and strength to resist any pressures. Amendment No. 48, which relates to the role of the board, also assists in that process. Once again, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks that that specification is helpful and welcome. The public good test is definitely worth applying to the Bill as a whole. As I say, both new clauses 1 and 3 would be beneficial to the Bill in achieving that objective.
As at each stage of consideration of the Bill, we have had a very well informed, informative and useful discussion—in this case, of a group of two new clauses and a series of amendments. Before dealing specifically with the new clauses and amendments tabled by the Opposition, I would like to speak to Government amendment No. 48, which has been tabled for consideration in the light of the debates and strong case made in Committee in support of similar amendments—tabled then by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). The provisions are also a response to the points raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). I appreciated the three cheers that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth gave for the amendment. He is right that it is important and I hope that he is also right that it is non-controversial. I also welcome the support of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks and others who have spoken in the debate.
The new provisions in amendment No. 48 strengthen the board’s overarching objective, requiring it to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. Although I am not seeking to define exhaustively the many ways in which official statistics serve the public good—a point that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks was anxious to hear me make—clause 7 highlights some of the key ways in which official statistics do so. They help inform the public about the economy and society in which they live; they play a crucial role in the development and evaluation of public policy at all levels—national, regional or local— and they are official statistics, the statistics of the Government.
The amendment is designed to include clearly in the board’s statutory objectives an important point of principle, which was always the Government’s intention, though perhaps not explicitly stated—that the availability of comprehensive, high-quality official statistics produced according to good practice is not an end in itself, but that statistics exist to serve the public good in the widest sense.
Official statistical information is a rich and vital source of information in any modern democracy. It serves everyone from school children, local community groups and business to academics, the voluntary sector, researchers in a wide range of organisations and, of course, the Government themselves. The amendment is an explicit reflection of the Government’s belief that official statistics exist for the public’s benefit, and not solely to inform and assist the Government in their work.
By including the revised objective, the board will be required to give recognition and consideration to the ways in which statistics serve the public good in carrying out the functions for which it is responsible, such as monitoring and reporting on quality, comprehensiveness and good practice, as well as drawing up and assessing statistics against the code of practice. I hope that Members will agree that the amendment strengthens the Bill and that it represents a welcome step forward.
I shall now turn to the new clauses and amendments tabled by other hon. Members. In many ways, they illustrate an attempt to alter the core model of governance that we have adopted in the Bill. They cover matters that we discussed in detail in Committee, and touched on at some length on Second Reading as well. However, it is worth retreading some of that ground on Report, and trying to elaborate on the issues in a way that I hope will enable us to deal with some of the concerns behind the amendments and new clauses.
To summarise, our model for setting up the statistics board and its relationship with the National Statistician and the executive statistics office involves the creation of the new independent statistics board that is at the centre of the Bill. That reflects our commitment to two central principles. The first is to devolve, where appropriate, ministerial power in statute to credible institutions set up independently and given a remit by Parliament and the Government. The second principle involves leadership by a board, which means sharing accountability across a group of individuals with a range of skills and expertise who report directly to Parliament rather than to me as the Minister. It is our belief that that is a better approach than vesting all authority in one individual. It is consistent with best practice in corporate governance, be that in the private or the public sector. It also reflects the importance of statistics in terms of involving more than simply a matter of technical excellence in production. It is therefore important that a board of broader composition reflects the wider range of users and the purposes of statistics.
From the point at which we first started collecting import and export data more than 400 years ago, and from when we conducted the first population census about 200 years ago, the decentralised system of statistical collection and production has been viewed as a strength of the UK system. Given the unique features of our long-established and strongly supported decentralised system of statistical production, we wanted to establish a single oversight board to set standards, to scrutinise the statistical system, and to provide the top layer of governance for what is at present the Office for National Statistics but which, in the context of the Bill, will be the independent national statistical service.
A key reason for doing that was to avoid creating what might otherwise be competing independent centres of statistical expertise, which might ultimately confuse and undermine confidence in the system. Under our chosen model, the board will be able to draw on the professional advice of the independent statutory National Statistician, rather than requiring its own separate independent professional adviser, which clearly would be the case were we to set up two separate centres or institutions.
I would point out to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) that we are creating a model that is best suited to the purposes of the UK statistics system for the future, but we are not entering entirely uncharted territory. At the core of the new system lies a familiar model—the unitary corporation or board responsible for discharging the functions conferred specifically by the Bill.
Normally, a board delegates functions to its executive arm. In this case, however, the executive authority is conferred directly to the executive office. That is not unusual: officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can exercise the functions of HMRC commissioners. What is unusual is the requirement for the board to have regard to the National Statistician’s advice. That requirement recognises the National Statistician’s professional status. Moreover, the board must set out in a report to be laid before the House any instances of when it departs from the technical and professional expertise and advice offered by the National Statistician. In many ways, the model and approach being adopted in the Bill will be familiar to those who understand the role played in Government Departments by accounting officers.
Effectively, the Bill removes Ministers from the accountability structure for the ONS—in all the hours of debate on the proposals, I have not yet heard anyone argue that I should keep my current job in that regard—but the oversight role is absolutely fundamental. That is why the new statutory board will undertake the role currently performed by Ministers.
The Minister is talking about oversight, but clause 29(4) states:
“The Board may direct the National Statistician…not to exercise a particular function, or…as to how he should exercise a particular function.”
Does he agree that the board’s role therefore goes beyond mere oversight? The Bill states that the board must “have regard” to the National Statistician’s professional advice, but does not clause 29(4) drive a coach and horses through that?
I shall explain in a little while how the person who is legally accountable to Parliament for a particular decision must have ultimate responsibility for the function. I hope to make it clearer how that will be discharged, but I will certainly welcome a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman if he is not satisfied with my explanation.
We have ensured that, within the single structure that we propose, there is a clear separation between the production and scrutiny responsibilities. The Treasury Committee urged us to do that, and I believe that the Bill largely achieves it. The National Statistician is required to establish the board’s executive office, and appoint its other members and staff. We expect the office to undertake the statistical executive production activities on a day-today basis, just as the ONS does now.
The Minister says that the National Statistician will, in effect, run the executive office—in other words, that that office will effectively take on the function of the ONS. If so, why will he not accept amendment No. 15, which would make the National Statistician the chief executive of the executive office, rather than of the board as a whole?
Because the amendment would restrict and diminish the important role of the National Statistician. The Bill reinforces her status in some important ways and makes her role clear. It also gives her role statutory backing in a way that has not been the case previously.
The assessment function, on the other hand, will be operationally independent of statistical production within the executive office. A statutory postholder—the head of assessment—reporting directly to the board will lead the assessment function and all staff working on assessment. Statistics produced by the executive office—in other words, the current ONS—will be assessed according to the same standards, processes and rigour as statistics produced anywhere else in the Government. Given the importance of the board’s establishing its credibility and reputation as an assessment body, I have no doubt that it will insist on applying the highest standards to statistics produced by the National Statistician’s executive office, despite suggestions from Opposition Members that that may not be the case. It certainly will be the case, because nothing less will do—as will be apparent, should there be any suggestion of dual standards in the application of assessment and approval functions conducted by the board.
I understood my hon. Friend to say that the executive office would be roughly akin to the current ONS. I seek his assurance that he will look into whether there is adequate funding for the ONS now, and the executive office in due course, to carry out those tasks. My hon. Friend may be aware that the Public and Commercial Services Union—the trade union for many ONS staff—is worried about Gershon cutbacks, Lyons relocations and things such as the closure of the public search room at the Family Records Centre and race equality proofing in the distribution of posts outside London. Will my hon. Friend make sure that the new executive office is adequately resourced?
My hon. Friend is right: the PCS is concerned about such issues in relation not only to the ONS but across Government. I understand the union’s concern, but on the other hand the Government have to set those important objectives across all Departments. He may remember from previous proceedings on the Bill that I gave a commitment that our approach will be to take the funding of the new independent statistics board out of the normal comprehensive spending review process. We shall put it on a five-year footing, with an annual formula approach. I assure him that I am considering very carefully indeed the resource requirements so that the new independent statistical system led by the statistical board can do the job we are asking it to do.
New clause 1 seeks to establish that the National Statistician will have direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving the integrity of, or a dispute with, a Department regarding official statistics. As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks informed the House, we had a long debate about the proposal in Committee but, as I said then, I do not accept that it is a necessary addition to the Bill. It is not always widely appreciated that the National Statistician holds a rather exceptional position and currently has right of access to the Prime Minister, through the head of the civil service, specified and formalised in the terms of the framework for national statistics. I have been unable to discover a comparable post in which such right of access is formalised in that way. It is not the case for the chief medical officer, the chief scientific adviser, the head of the Government’s legal service or the head of the Government’s economic service. There is no precedent for going further and codifying such right of access in legislation.
Let me make it clear that we intend the National Statistician to continue to have that right, but it is neither appropriate nor necessary to put it into legislation. Exposing, cross-examining or dealing with any Department or Minister who may be failing to follow the advice or requirements of the statistics board is the role of the board, and it is for the board to report the matter publicly to the House.
I hope that Members recognise that it will be the role of the House and of Parliament to play a more active part in holding Ministers and Departments to account, in a way that is consistent with what this House and the other place are set up to do. In the Bill, we reinforce the potential for Parliament to play that part in holding Ministers and Departments to account.
The hon. Gentleman, better than anyone in the House at present, will understand the nature of the framework for national statistics, which we introduced in 2000. He will recognise—because we are legislating now—that that is not a statutory framework. Nevertheless, the access that the National Statistician has through the head of the civil service is set out under the terms of that framework. That is the simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
New clause 3 apparently seeks to clarify the roles, responsibilities and objectives of the National Statistician as compared with the board. Although I understand some of the thinking behind it, in my view the proposal is unnecessary. I hope that I will be able to demonstrate to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and others that it is likely to subvert, not strengthen, the governance model and to blur, not clarify, the lines of accountability.
I want to say clearly to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) that the National Statistician’s role under the Bill and the new system is not being downgraded. I hope to go on to explain that it is also not unclear. First, let me deal with the question of the National Statistician’s role and status. It is hard to argue that, taken as a whole, the Bill and the proposals for the new system downgrade the role, as opposed to strengthening it. For the first time, it will be a statutory post. The National Statistician will be the chief executive of what is currently the Office for National Statistics. She will continue to be the chief statistical adviser to the Government and to the board on all professional and statistical matters. She will be head of the Government statistical service. She will be a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with the other board members for the ultimate decision making, rather than, as now, advising me as the Minister ultimately responsible to Parliament. Finally, the post will be a higher status Crown appointment, rather than, as now, a post that is appointed simply by Ministers. I hope that that will settle once and for all the suggestion that the hon. Lady has recycled from others and that was often made at an earlier stage in our consultation.
On the question of clarity, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) is right: there is no intrinsic reason why the National Statistician cannot operate in the same organisation as a scrutiny or assessment function if we get the arrangements right. I hope that if I say a little more about how the board and the National Statistician’s duties will operate in practice it may allay some of the concerns that have prompted the remarks this afternoon and the amendments and new clauses. Once the board is established, I fully expect the chair of the board and the National Statistician to set out in more detail some of these points in published documents that outline their ways of working and their respective overall goals and objectives. These are not matters for statute or matters to pin down precisely at this point. The matters for statute relate to establishing legal responsibilities and clear lines of public accountability.
In its role and capacity as the top layer of governance for the statistics office, we expect that the board will primarily provide strategic oversight and set the direction. As I have said, it replaces the role that I currently undertake in relation to the Office for National Statistics. I am clearly not involved in the day-to-day operations. The majority non-executive board will similarly provide support for, and exercise a challenge function in relation to, the National Statistician and her executive team. That is a well established and usual role for non-executive members of boards.
I would expect the board, as I do now, to contribute to, comment on and sign off several of the long-term strategic documents and plans, such as high-level business plans for statistical production. I would also expect it to play a central role in making decisions about managing high-level risks. Examples of that might be plans for the census, plans for improving the statistics that are available to track migration and population in this country, or even several of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), such as questions of relocation and where the headquarters of the ONS should be located in future. We expect the board to sign off the code of practice and assessments. However, the work done to prepare the code and undertake the assessments would be carried out not by the board, but under the guidance of the National Statistician and the head of assessment respectively.
The chair of the board will clearly be a significant figure under the new system. I would thus expect that person to provide strategic leadership and a clear vision for the board. I would expect the chair to help to ensure that the board collectively holds the National Statistician and his or her staff and the head of assessment to account for delivery. I would also expect the chair to act as a public spokesperson and ambassador for the board with the Government and the wider statistics community and in the public area. Finally, and importantly, I would expect the chair of the board to be called before any parliamentary Committees to report on, and account for, the activities of the board.
I have outlined the five roles that we see for the National Statistician—or the five ways in which the position is being reinforced. The National Statistician will have a number of key complementary roles. Let me give a little more detail to put some meat on the bones of what I have said before. As the board’s chief professional adviser, we would expect the National Statistician to advise the board on statistical and professional issues, including the content of the code of practice. We would expect the National Statistician to support the board in the discharge of its scrutiny functions by advising on technical matters, such as the use of classifications, definitions and methodologies. Of course, as I have said, although the board might take a decision not to follow the professional or technical advice of the National Statistician, it will be required to report on that publicly, including to the House.
I would expect the National Statistician, as the board’s chief executive, to establish a management team and staff the executive office to undertake statistical production and many of the current activities of the ONS. I would also expect that person to provide leadership to that office, which might well be established as an executive agency of the board as the ONS is an executive agency of the Treasury. The National Statistician might thus provide managerial and operational leadership, including on such matters as pay and rations. Finally, as the head of the government statistical service, I would expect the National Statistician to be leading the professional development of staff across government and taking responsibility for the recruitment and development of a sufficient supply of good quality professionals to staff our government statistical service.
In business and every other walk of life, the ultimate power that any individual—or perhaps Minister—has over any organisation is the ability to appoint and dismiss members of a board or an organisation. Who will have the ultimate power to appoint people to the board?
As I said earlier, the appointment of the chair of the board will be made ultimately by the Crown, on the advice of the Prime Minister. All appointments will be subject to the established procedure of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
In her role as the head of the government statistical service, the National Statistician would have responsibility for guiding the heads of profession in the Departments on the full range of professional matters. The Bill establishes a clear, single accountability structure, under which the board and all who work for it will strive to achieve the same high-level objective of ensuring the availability of good quality statistics that serve the public good. Accountability will be provided by the board. New clause 1 and the amendments are more likely to muddy the lines, and to put that confusion into statute, than to help.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again so generously. I asked who would appoint members of the board, and I think that I heard him say that it was the Crown, but clause 3(2)(b) says:
“at least five other persons appointed by the Treasury.”
Will he confirm that the Treasury will make the majority of appointments to the board?
The chair will be appointed in the way that I explained, but members of the board will be appointed through the established OCPA process. They will be appointed formally by the Treasury, because under the Bill the Treasury has residual functions that are required of the Government, relating to the independent statistical system and the independent statistics board.
Turning to amendments Nos. 8, 10 to 14, 46 and 47, we expect the National Statistician to undertake executive functions, including statistical production, through the executive office that the National Statistician is required to establish. Under clause 29(2), the National Statistician can exercise all the board’s functions, with some limited exceptions, so as to ensure a clear separation from the board’s assessment function.
There is another protective lock on the professional primacy of the National Statistician’s role. The National Statistician will advise the board on all statistical matters. If the board overrules the National Statistician’s advice on technical issues, it will be required to publish the reasons and report them to Parliament. That is the importance of the National Statistician’s role as the board’s chief professional adviser.
Ultimately, the National Statistician and the executive office exercise the functions of the board under the board’s direction. The board will be the legal entity statutorily responsible for the exercising of the functions established in the Bill. That provides the Government with a structure that allows corporate oversight of executive and assessment functions, while allowing us to maintain a single centre of expertise for statistics. As I said, the board replaces the role that Ministers currently play in overseeing and supporting the National Statistician, and it is therefore the board, not Ministers, who will be held to account for delivering the statutory functions of the Bill.
If the board is given statutory responsibility, and is accountable for delivering those functions, it must ultimately have responsibility for them, even though in most cases the board will have the functions discharged by the National Statistician and her executive office. I repeat that I believe that we have introduced the right system, overseen by the board. Ultimately, accountability will be shared by a group; it will not rest with one individual, albeit an individual as distinguished and well qualified as the National Statistician.
Amendment No. 39 would require the National Statistician to promote statistical planning and production across Departments. As we discussed in Committee, one of the Bill’s great strengths is the fact that the devolved Administrations have all decided to join in with the new arrangements. The Government recognise that consistent, UK-wide statistics are important, beneficial and desirable. The consistency will mean that statistics about the devolved countries can be combined to produce UK figures; it will mean that if there were different Administrations, we could compare their circumstances. As I made clear in Committee, some divergence is to be expected. That is a product of devolution—not just the recent devolution settlement but the different legal, political and administrative systems and policies that are in place in the four nations, many of which existed before devolution. It may therefore not be appropriate or desirable for statistics to be as consistent as possible.
Amendment No. 45 would require the legislation to state that the National Statistician should be the Government’s chief adviser on statistics and “provide professional leadership” to all persons working on statistics in government. I have dealt with the status of the National Statistician and her important range of roles. I have already said that we intend the National Statistician, as now, to be the head of the government statistical service, providing professional leadership to people working on statistics in government. In the decentralised system that we have chosen to retain, it is inevitable that statisticians will continue to work in Government Departments. It is not appropriate to legislate within the civil service structure for lines of accountability between staff working in a Department and the National Statistician working in another Department. We do not do that with the government economic service, government scientific services or the government legal service. The question is not about professional status or authority but simply whether it is right or appropriate to legislate for lines of professional accountability across Departments.
In the next group of amendments, we will look at the code of practice, which makes it clear that standards should be adhered to in the production of national statistics. If there is a chain of accountability to the board and ultimately to the National Statistician, is it not logical to provide a professional chain of accountability for statisticians working on national statistics in ministerial Departments?
There is a strong professional connection and a line of accountability on professional matters. The amendment poses the question of whether it is appropriate to legislate for those circumstances, and my argument is that it is not.
Finally, amendment No. 15 seeks to make the National Statistician chief executive of the executive office, rather than the chief executive of the board. I do not accept that that is necessary or helpful, as I made clear in Committee. The board, as a corporate body, needs a chief executive, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will accept. The chief executive need not be operationally involved in every aspect of the board’s activities to discharge that responsibility, and the Bill ensures that she is not. There are detailed provisions in the Bill on the role of the National Statistician specifying, for example, where her advice must be followed by the board, and activities in which she cannot be involved. She cannot, for example, approve the final form of a code or take part in the assessment of statistics produced by her office. Those provisions give the clearest possible guidance to the National Statistician and the board on their respective roles.
In Committee, I made the point—and it has been made again today—that it is relatively common for Parliament to authorise a body to undertake a dual role. A local authority, for instance, is empowered both to promote development within its boundary and to grant planning permission. When it does so, it must structure itself to perform both functions as best it can, bearing in mind its overriding responsibility to act fairly, impartially and without bias. The fact that the chief executive may have to distance themselves from the conduct of a planning application does not disqualify them from being responsible as chief executive of the planning department for ensuring effective governance and operations. There are similar examples in central Government. The Department for Transport, for instance, may wish to develop transport networks, and it may be required, too, to consider orders that permit developments under the Transport and Works Act 1992. Similarly, the fact that the National Statistician is expressly distanced from decisions relating to the board’s own statistics assessment does not bar her from ultimate responsibility as chief executive to the board. In many cases, public policy and individual decisions can present a certain amount of tension, but there is no reason why they cannot be accommodated in a single organisation, or why they should be less transparent because of that fact, especially where proper separations are established, as is the case in the Bill.
I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and others who tabled amendments and new clauses will reflect on the response that I have given to their concerns and will not press the amendments. I hope that they will support Government amendment No. 48.
I do not propose to press the new clauses and amendments in this group to a Division. We had a chance to divide on them in Committee and we have a fair idea what the decision of the House is likely to be. However, we remain concerned. I am grateful to the Minister for his lengthy response to our arguments. It is helpful to have a clearer picture of the various roles. His statement this afternoon will be useful to those in the statistical community who are worried about that, but he has not answered all our concerns.
The Minister dismissed the proposed separation of executive and scrutiny functions on the grounds that that would necessitate the creation of two competing centres of statistical expertise. The amendments seek a compromise which would not require that. Even if the functions were separated and there were two boards, the practical difficulties would not be insurmountable.
The Minister also said that he was confident that the board would be able to make impartial decisions on the activities of the ONS, regardless of whether the board was ultimately responsible for those decisions. In many respects I share the Minister’s confidence. I believe that the board will be able to do a good job, but we are talking about restoring trust. If the board is the entity responsible for making the decision that it reviews, that may undermine the credibility of its decision-making process.
It is the perception rather than the actuality that will be a problem. That is highlighted by the point that the Minister made very clearly—that the board is the legal entity that is responsible even for all the delegated functions, including production. So the awkward situation arises where, for example, if someone wanted to make a complaint about the ONS, various options would be open to them. One might be to make a complaint to the board. They might also consider judicial review. Which body would be the subject of review in the courts? The board itself would be the relevant legal entity. The board could find itself adjudicating on a complaint which was ultimately directed at itself in the High Court. There are continuing tensions, despite the attempt to separate internally the functions of scrutiny and production of statistics.
Finally, I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). The Minister said that it was recycled, but the fact that a point has been made before does not mean that it is not valid. As the Minister confirmed, the National Statistician has access to the Prime Minister. She has a remit to co-ordinate and she is the Government’s chief adviser on statistics. She performs those functions at present. The Bill is designed to put the statistical services and their structure on a statutory footing, yet the key functions that the National Statistician currently performs are left out. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne makes a good point, in that the omission of those important functions is effectively a downgrading of the status of the National Statistician. I am sorry that the Minister does not support our amendments and new clauses. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 4
Legal obligation to obey the code of practice
‘The Board, the National Statistician, government departments, the Scottish Administration, Welsh Ministerial authorities, Northern Ireland departments and any other person acting on behalf of the Crown in the production or publication of official statistics shall—
(a) comply with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics; and
(b) consult the Board on matters of interpretation of the Code where appropriate.’.—[Mrs. Villiers.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 16, in clause 10, page 5, line 11, leave out ‘National’ and insert ‘Official’.
No. 17, page 5, line 19, at end insert—
‘(4) In drafting the Code and supervising compliance thereto, the Board shall have regard to the duties set out in section 26 of this Act.’.
No. 44, line 19, at end insert—
‘(4) All those who produce National Statistics must conform to the Code of Practice unless the Board accepts and publishes any case for deviation, consulting the Board on matters of interpretation as necessary, and reporting any breach of the Code to the Board.’.
No. 18, in clause 12, page 6, line 15, leave out
‘At the request of the appropriate authority’.
No. 19, page 6, line 16, leave out ‘National’ and insert ‘Official’.
No. 20, line 17, leave out ‘in relation to any’ and insert
‘by the authorities responsible for producing’.
No. 21, leave out lines 19 to 22.
No. 22, leave out lines 29 to 44.
No. 34, line 44, at end insert—
‘(9) The Board shall have the authority to initiate an assessment process to designate any set of official statistics as National Statistics with the provision that the board must inform the appropriate authority before initiating the process.’.
New clause 4 and amendments Nos. 16 to 22 would extend the full rigour of the reforms to all official statistics. We agree with the Royal Statistical Society, which stated in a letter to the Chancellor last year:
“The new arrangements should cover all official statistics not just those which are currently the responsibility of ONS or labelled National Statistics.
If statistics produced by the major policy departments on topics such as crime, education, health and social security are omitted, then this will erode public confidence, rather than enhance it.”
Our amendments would abolish the confusing two-tier system between national and other official statistics. They would give the board the authority to regulate the statistical activities of all Government Departments by applying the code of practice across all Departments. They would address one of the most significant weaknesses in the Government’s proposals. It is startling that the Bill does not oblige anyone to comply with the code of practice, despite the Government’s promise to put the code on a statutory footing. New clause 4 would remedy that by imposing a legal obligation on Departments to obey the code of practice. I am pleased to see that the Liberal Democrats’ amendment No. 44 would go in the same direction.
As the Minister stated in Committee, the Bill as drafted does not give the board a supervisory or regulatory role at all, but gives it a function that is “much softer in nature”—one of assessment and audit, not supervision. As drafted, all the Bill does is require the board to produce a code and to empower it to carry out assessments of particular statistics against the terms of that code. As Professor Tim Holt has pointed out, the Bill leaves it to Ministers to decide whether the code of practice is to apply to them, because clause 12 leaves it in their hands to nominate statistics for assessment by the board as national statistics. It is up to them whether the board can carry out even the limited assessment function permitted it by the Bill. That specific point—the starting of the assessment process—is addressed by the Liberal Democrats’ amendment No. 34, which would enable the board to initiate an assessment. That would provide a welcome limit on ministerial power in this area and would be an improvement on the Bill, but it does not go far enough.
Only the imposition of a legal obligation on Departments to obey the code would give the board the authority to ensure that good practice is observed right across Government. At present, clause 7 gives the board the objective of promoting and safeguarding good practice, but not the authority with which to do that effectively. In Committee, the Minister stated repeatedly that he expected the board to promote the code as a model of good practice, but only if the amendments were accepted would the board have the supervisory and regulatory tools to ensure that the code is applied and obeyed across Government. As drafted, the Bill leaves the board only with the power of exhortation—the power to name and shame Departments that transgress. In the Treasury Committee, Dr. Fellegi pointed out that that is little different from the current powers of the Statistics Commission and status of the existing code of practice.
The Government have admitted that the current structures are inadequate to restore trust in official statistics. Leaving Ministers to determine which of their Department’s statistical activities are subjected to the code and to the scrutiny of the board will leave the coverage of the reforms patchy and inconsistent. The British Society for Population Studies has described the national statistics system as having been
“applied in a piecemeal way to individual datasets”.
If it is left to Ministers to decide which statistics are brought into the national statistics system and subjected to the code of practice, many important indicators could be left out of the scope of the reforms. I am informed by the Library that in the seven years since the 2000 reforms, there has been a net addition of only 25 new national statistics. Distinguished statisticians such as Lord Moser have described that aspect of the Government’s proposals as a significant flaw.
If this reform is to succeed, it must, as the Statistics Commission has stated and the Minister has acknowledged, address the whole Government statistical system. There is no good reason why any lesser regime should apply to Departments than to the ONS. That makes no logical sense when it is acknowledged that the more significant problems have occurred outside the work of the ONS. As the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association has pointed out, the social statistics produced by Departments on crime, education and health are part of the very currency of political debate in this country. If the reform subjects those to a lesser degree of rigour and scrutiny than other official statistics, it will fail in the goal set by the Government. As the Statistics Commission has sagely pointed out, that will risk public confidence in such statistics being undermined rather than strengthened by the Bill.
We are not talking about trifling, insignificant exclusions: a number of important and politically sensitive figures are currently outside the scope of national statistics. I do not propose to trouble the House with the long list that I read out in Committee, but I shall pick 12 or so examples. Excluded statistics that would not be covered by the code of practice under the Bill as drafted include: figures on the end-of-month prison population count; quarterly figures for cancelled operations and time spent in accident and emergency; annual figures on NHS bed availability; business survival rates for firms still registered for VAT after three years; annual progress reports on the UK fuel poverty strategy; and armed forces medical discharges. Many important statistics from the devolved areas fall outside the national statistics framework: in Scotland, alcohol-related, health and mortality statistics on various topics and cancer audits and waiting times; in Wales, figures on detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983, and data on cervical screening and exclusions from schools. Those are significant figures that deserve impartial treatment.
In Committee, the Financial Secretary based his counter-arguments on a claim that some statistics were more important than others. In essence, he asserted that not all statistics were important enough to be subject to the code of conduct. That argument has several flaws. First, if it is worth collecting and relying on a statistic, surely it is worth doing it according to standards of impartiality, objectivity and accuracy, as set out in the code of practice.
Secondly, it is difficult to know in advance which statistics will be significant, and which will not. For example, on Second Reading, the Financial Secretary referred to the egg bulletin as not significant enough to warrant application of the code of practice. As various salmonella scares have shown, however, statistics relating to the safety of food, including eggs, can be of critical importance.
Thirdly, the decision as to which statistics are significant enough to merit the application of the code of practice is simply too important to be left to Ministers. In Committee, the Financial Secretary rightly placed great emphasis on the boundary between important statistics and those that he dismissed as insufficiently significant to merit compliance with the code. He said that that
“cuts to the heart of the proposals in the Bill and the concerns that some have expressed.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2007; c. 207.]
He is right: it does. Under the Bill as drafted, the boundary between national and other official statistics marks the boundary of the scope of the reforms. The Financial Secretary wishes that boundary to be determined by Ministers, so that they can say, in effect, to the board, “thus far and no further”.
The Financial Secretary said in Committee that he hoped and expected that the system put in place by the Bill would evolve. Given the approach that he takes, we know who will decide the nature and pace of that evolution: the very Ministers whose intervention this whole reform is designed to reduce. That aspect of the Bill significantly undermines the good intentions of the reform and retains significant ministerial power over official statistics. In Committee, the Financial Secretary said that he felt there would be a
“stronger incentive…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.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 8 January 2007; c. 33.]
If he really believes that, he lives in a happier and less cynical universe than the rest of us. As Dr. Fellegi pointed out to the Treasury Committee, the possibility of enhanced and exacting scrutiny can hardly be much of an incentive to opt into any system. Anyway, if Ministers were so keen to take on that kind of scrutiny, why are the Government so resistant to calls for the expansion of the scope of the code of practice to cover all statistics?
The second assertion that the Minister advanced in Committee was that the Opposition’s approach was
“a certain recipe for rendering the board ineffective.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2007; c. 205.]
That is predicated on a misunderstanding of how the new clause and amendments would work in practice. They would not require the board to carry out an individual assessment process in relation to each and every number produced by a Department. Instead, they would give the board the power to monitor and supervise the activities of Departments when they produce and disseminate statistics. We want the code to apply to people, not numbers. The new clause and amendments would transform the code from a box-ticking exercise to be carried out in relation to a particular set of statistics into a code of behaviour to guide the people who produce statistics—the statisticians and officials who produce and handle statistics at the ONS and in Departments.
Assessments can be part of that supervisory process, but there is nothing in the amendments that would place an obligation to carry out an assessment on any one particular statistic unless the board considers it to be proportionate and sensible so to do. After all, the Financial Services Authority has a 10,000 page, 6 ft wide rule book that it applies to the entities that it regulates, but it does not oblige the authority to check every transaction to regulate compliance effectively.
The Minister’s third assertion was that imposing the code on all Government statistical activities would lead to a disproportionate burden, but why can we not trust the board to produce a code that does not impose disproportionate burdens? It has an explicit duty to minimise compliance cost under clause 26. To make that duty even plainer in this context, amendment No. 17 would require the board to have specific regard to that duty in drafting the code and supervising compliance with it. The underlying thrust of the reforms is that we can trust the board to take crucial decisions relating to the production and release of statistics. In that case, why is the Minister so reluctant to trust it to take a common-sense, proportionate approach to drafting the code and to its impact on statistics of differing degrees of importance.
In Committee, the Minister described the approach taken in this group of amendments as “extraordinary and absurd”. Although he may disagree with the principle, he is wrong to dismiss as absurd and impractical a position that has the support of such a long list of experts in statistics. As well as Lord Moser, the RSS, the Treasury Committee, the Statistics Commission and others to whom I have referred, virtually all those who expressed a view during the consultation wanted the scope of the Bill widened significantly. That includes organisations such as the Audit Commission, the Market Research Society, Professor Denise Lievesley of the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the First Division Association, the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association and the Greater London authority data management group. Even the Government’s own chief social researcher, Sue Duncan, has expressed a degree of sympathy on this point.
The House should have some sympathy for the Financial Secretary. He is in a difficult position. His hands are clearly tied by his colleagues who want to limit the scrutiny that the board can exert over its departmental activities. His hands are tied by Ministers who are determined to keep the board away from certain sensitive statistics. If he is sincere in his wish to give genuine independence to statistical services, I urge him to stand up to his colleagues and take his reform to its logical conclusion; to allow the board to throw light on the statistical activities that Ministers would rather were kept in the shadows; and give the board real teeth to supervise the production and release of all official statistics, not just those that Ministers permit them to assess.
I shall speak mainly to amendment No. 34. The heart of the debate is whether there should be a two-tier system of official and national statistics. The Liberal Democrats have a bit more of a relaxed view on that than the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). Obviously it is important to ensure that the best standards are adhered to; on the other hand, are national standards really necessary for statistics collected from a survey of grey squirrels or the like?
We accept that there are different levels of statistics. However, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, the devolved statistics are often the most controversial and often involve the greatest problems. The public are often particularly suspicious about the quality and authority of such data. Crime statistics have been especially controversial, as have statistics on health and education. The question is, how can we avoid such controversy?
Amendment No. 34 is fairly simple. Its aim is to confer some symmetry to the way in which national statistics are considered, and to decisions on whether statistics should be designated as national statistics. In Committee, the Financial Secretary said:
“I would expect the board, as part of its statutory duty under the Bill, to comment on the comprehensiveness and coverage of official statistics and”
“to comment also on any official statistics that it believes should be national statistics.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 18 January 2007; c. 152.]
Amendment No. 34 proposes to take that a step forward. It makes the point that if it is possible for Ministers to submit statistics to be designated as national statistics, the board, for the purpose of symmetry, should be empowered to initiate the process. That is fairly straightforward, and I think that it can be justified on the grounds that it is symmetrical and does not allow Ministers the veto power that the Bill currently gives them.
While I am minded to support the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet if she presses her new clause to a vote, the key issue for us is not whether there should be two tiers of statistics, but that there should be symmetry, and that at the very least Ministers’ powers under clause 12 should be matched by the board’s powers to initiate the process. That would prevent the perpetuation of the problems of the past, when statistics have been deemed to be lacking in credibility and have not won public support because of apparent ministerial interference.
I think that our amendment is reasonable. Our intention is to help the Minister, because I suspect that when the Bill goes to the other place, a view similar to that of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will be outlined. I hope that he will consider the amendment in a spirit of compromise.
New clause 4 is extraordinary, in the sense that we should not have to insert it into the Bill. It was always a weakness in the original framework for national statistics that the code was voluntary: no one had to comply with it. It is true that the Statistics Commission was able to pick out the worst reported, apparent or real breaches of the code in each year, and to name and shame particular Departments. It always seemed to be the same Departments, those dealing with health and housing, and the Scottish Executive was cited as well. They are all there in the annual reports of the Statistics Commission.
The naming and shaming of Departments is not in itself an insignificant process, but it is extraordinary that just when we are putting all this on to a statutory basis, the code of practice should remain voluntary. In other words, no one need comply with it. I consider that a serious weakness in the Bill: it means that the code of practice for statistics across Whitehall will have fewer teeth than the highway code that we must all observe when we drive our cars.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) would be right to press her point, and I hope that she will do so.
It has often been asked during the Bill’s passage why the code of practice will not apply to all official statistics, and I still do not feel that we have had a satisfactory answer. We should also ask what impact the Bill will have on official statistics that are not national statistics. We received an answer of sorts in Committee from the Financial Secretary. He said that
“we also expect the code to be one of the board’s main vehicles to promulgate the standards and definitions that it is required under clause 9 to produce and promote across all official statistics. I stress the importance of that point, which has perhaps not been clear before”.
He was right to stress that because it had not been clear before. The Financial Secretary went on:
“It is important to note that, although the code’s formal status is as a statement of practice against which national statistics or candidate national statistics will be assessed, we expect the board to promote it as a code of good practice across all official statistics.”—[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 18 January 2007; c. 151.]
That raises a particular difficulty because there is, of course, no sanction. The board is able to threaten nothing against the producers of statistics if they are in breach of the code, because the sole sanction in the Bill is that a statistic will either be assessed as a national statistic or it will not. That is a weakness. There is no sanction against official statistics and the producers of official statistics if they fail to meet the required standard, which is regrettable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made an important point about the argument that we cannot have a large number of official statistics being treated as national statistics and the code applying to them, because that would impose too much work on the statistics board. That is a strange position to adopt because we do not usually produce laws or regulations and then simply say, “Well, if too many people could breach it, we won’t bother to enforce it.” The board should apply the code as it sees fit in those areas where it considers that to be proportionate and appropriate, but everybody should try to comply with it. The other position is rather like saying that one should obey the speed limit only where there is a speed camera, and that as it is not practical to have speed cameras everywhere we will not have speed limits in places where we do not have them. That is a flawed approach, and that is why new clause 4 is eminently sensible and necessary.
When the Bill was published, many people wanted to support it not because it would necessarily bring every statistic into the realm of national statistics, but because it would at least increase the efficacy of every statistic by bringing it into the code. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) is right that there was little incentive for Ministers to bring certain statistics—perhaps some of the more dodgy ones—within the remit of the code on national statistics. I have used the example of Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland—GERS—throughout our series of debates about this matter. GERS was invented as a political construct at the outset, and there was a disincentive to have a code for it. It was inaccurate because it was designed to be inaccurate.
I am very taken with new clause 4 as it does not force every statistic into the remit of national statistics, but it does force all statistics to adhere to a proper code, which is an eminently sensible thing to do when we want to have information that has efficacy, that we can all trust and that can be guaranteed.
I shall refer to the example of GERS yet again, but I will not repeat the many criticisms that I have previously made of it. Instead, I shall address a recent event. A Scottish Parliament Committee inquiry discovered that Dr. Andrew Goudie, the Scottish Executive statistician, considered not publishing the report this year because of the inaccuracies contained in it, particularly the near £500 million inaccuracy in the allocation to Scotland of UK non-identifiable expenditure. If such statistics are at least forced into the code, we would end up with a situation in which never again does a senior statistician consider withholding the publication of a document because it is flawed. Instead, we would have statistics that we can all trust and rely upon. We might not have absolute unanimity on the way that statistics are measured, but at least in Scotland, England and the regions of England we would have figures that we could trust.
As I recall, Dr. Goudie gave, in his submission to the Scottish Parliament, a clear indication that one of the difficulties that his team was operating under was that the Treasury had failed to release some of the information that he required in order to examine the accuracy of the particular set of non-identifiable spending statistics. Could it possibly be that the Treasury failed to give information to the Scottish Executive statisticians?
Perhaps it is for the Treasury to answer that. What I do know from the publication of the most recent GERS—that of 2004-05—is that the 2003-04 income tax survey results had to be used, thereby making the already invalidated document even more wrong than it had been in previous years. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and say to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) that we like new clause 4, we like the idea of statistics being accurate and being forced into adhering to a code, and if she wishes to press the new clause to a Division we will certainly support her.
I, too, shall speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). I am a great believer in Schumacher’s saying that small is beautiful, but I am also I am a great believer that simplicity is beautiful. However, it is in the Treasury’s DNA to make things more complex when they only need to be made simpler. I do not understand the false dichotomy that the Treasury insists on setting up between what it calls official statistics and national statistics. The Bill appears to entrench a two-tier system, which cannot but undermine public trust. As my hon. Friend has said, it cannot be a coincidence that the statistics that the Government choose to be official rather than national statistics are those that relate to matters such as crime, health and education. The Government have decided that all the important matters that our constituents care most about should be stuck in a bucket called “official statistics” and not “national statistics”. New clause 4 would remove that false dichotomy between national statistics, which must adhere to a code of practice, and official statistics, which do not.
Opposition Members—I include SNP Members—agree that the code of practice should apply regardless of the origin of the statistics. Furthermore, the statistics board must have sufficient powers to coerce Government Departments, or else Ministers will simply ignore it, or at the very least the board must have the right to assess which statistics should count as national statistics.
The debate on this subject has been shorter than debates on it in previous proceedings, but it has nevertheless been useful. I hope that Members will accept that statistics produced and published by government—by more than 200 Crown bodies—differ in levels of importance and that the Bill has a wide definition of official statistics. The definition of official statistics that we have used is wide in order to allow the board to monitor and report on the ever-increasing range of official statistics and official statistical information that is being produced across government. For that reason, it is important that we give the board a starting point for its process of assessment and approval. That starting point is those statistics that are designated as national statistics—a concept that has been established since the reforms of 2000. We are also giving the board, and the system, a way to evolve in the future, as the board will report on its views about the comprehensiveness and coverage of the system and official statistics can be nominated to the board for assessment.
I should point out to the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) that there is no false dichotomy: there are already two-tiered—indeed, multi-tiered—official statistics. He surely would not argue that figures such as population data, the gross domestic product and unemployment figures are of equal status and importance to other official statistics produced by the Government and covered by the definition in the Bill, such as the income derived from unclaimed lost property or the number of TV licences held by particular Departments. Surely the crucial feature is not that all official Government statistics be assessed and approved, as the hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing, but that all the most important ones, designated as national statistics, are. It is for that reason that I do not accept amendment No. 18.
On the contrary, there will be clearly identified and published national statistics and the board will be charged with drawing up a code of practice, with assessing the production and handling of those statistics against its standards, and with approving them as national statistics. That will make the system clear and efficient rather than adding confusion and complexity, and it will allow the board to concentrate on what is most important, namely, giving the Government, the public and a wide variety of other data and statistics users greater confidence that the most important statistics are given the most scrutiny by the board, and giving them the confidence to rely on those statistics.
The Minister still seems to misunderstand my new clause and amendments. They do not require the board to carry out a detailed assessment of every statistic produced by the Government, and we acknowledge that there are different levels of importance within statistics. What we are saying is that everyone in government who is responsible for producing and disseminating statistics should comply with a code of ethics and good practice.
I think that we are making some progress. The hon. Lady will recognise that clause 8 sets out the board’s objective and allows it to monitor the whole sweep of official statistics and to comment in specific or general terms on any concerns that it has. She will remember that I made it clear in Committee—indeed, she quoted from those proceedings—that we expect the code of practice established by the board, particularly for the purpose of assessing and approving national statistics, to be the general standard and to become the wider expectation of the way other official statistics are handled. However, the crucial issues are the recognition that some statistics are more important than others, that the board devotes the proper and fullest attention to those that are most important, and that we are establishing a flexible framework at the outset that can evolve in the light of experience and of the changing needs of our society and economy regarding statistics.
We are starting with a list of almost 1,300 statistics already designated as national statistics, which will change over time. Additional statistics can be put to the board for assessment and if it judges them to be up to scratch—if they satisfy the standards that the board sets in its independently drawn up and approved code—they can be independently approved as national statistics.
In a decentralised system, responsibility for submitting statistics for assessment must ultimately lie with Ministers. We are responsible for making policy and, as such, we are arguably best placed to know which statistics are most critical to the development, delivery and evaluation of the policies for which we are responsible and accountable. We are also accountable, ultimately, for allocating and managing resources within the Department, including resources devoted to statistical production. I see this as essentially and primarily a policy and resource decision. It is more appropriate for Ministers to take such decisions, rather than the board, which is why I do not accept amendment No. 34.
Has the Minister consulted the Statistics Commission on how the Government could respond to this idea? If it said that the wording of the new clause merely needs to be tidied up, and that it is perfectly all right to accept the sense of it, will he go back to the commission before he abolishes it and find a way forward to which all parties in this House can agree, instead of Ministers simply saying that what they want is what is going to happen?
I have not had any formal submissions from the commission on this proposal, although I do not know whether the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has. It played an active part in the consultation and many of the proposals in the Bill reflect the concerns and points that it raised. It is also working in great detail on proposals for the new code of practice. That work will be extremely valuable to the board and its chair once it is set up and it has to finalise the code of practice for which it will be statutorily responsible.
As I have said, the process set out in the Bill will provide a strong incentive for Ministers to look actively at submitting additional departmental statistics for approval as national statistics. That independent stamp of approval will be important—indeed, central—in giving credibility and confidence to the policy functions and delivery for which Ministers are responsible. If I seem a little too optimistic in my view of how Ministers might react, I should point out that the board, through the Bill, has a responsibility to judge and report its view of the comprehensiveness and coverage of the statistical system. In discharging that responsibility, I fully expect it to take a view on whether statistics not currently designated and approved as national statistics should be so designated. I also fully expect Parliament to play a much stronger role in choosing to call to account Ministers or Departments that do not follow that advice. That seems to me a very public, very important and proper parliamentary form of accountability and scrutiny that reinforces the system, going much further than what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) characterised as the current “name and shame” system.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that correction. If the code has been complied with, it “must” designate them as national statistics, but
“otherwise it must decline so to designate them.”
Am I right in thinking that if a statistic is declined for designation as a national statistic, it is downgraded to an official statistic, and that it is then up to Ministers to decide whether it is put forward again for consideration as a national statistic? Will the Minister confirm that the ministerial veto still exists in these cases, and that the board will not have the power to compel Ministers to put such a statistic forward for such consideration, even though it might previously have been a national statistic?
The hon. Lady’s understanding is partially correct. Any statistic that the board has subjected to an assessment process that fails to meet the standards or to abide by the terms of the code of practice will not be eligible for approval and will not get the board’s approval as a national statistic. In those circumstances, it will no longer be a national statistic.
It has been suggested that the House should have a greater role in holding Ministers to account when, for example, the board determines that some statistics should be national, but they have not been put forward. Given that there have been detailed criticisms of Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland in this House since 1995—for 12 years—and that the Treasury is looking into some of the detailed problems only this year, what confidence can we have that, after a 12-year wait to get one accurate statistic, any number of others of equal importance in other parts of the country will be considered any quicker?
The short answer is that we are setting up an entirely new system, based in statute, with a powerful independent board to drive the system, so there is a greater potential role for this House—and Parliaments in the devolved nations—in holding Ministers and Departments to account in respect of these matters.
I shall deal now with new clause 4. Under clause 8, the board has a statutory duty to monitor the production and publication of official statistics and the power to comment on concerns about the quality and good practice in relation to those statistics. I must tell the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, however, that I remain of the view that it is simply not appropriate to impose in a blanket way the full provisions of the code on those working in literally hundreds—certainly above 200—Crown bodies that may produce statistics that fall under the definition of official statistics.
As I said in Committee, the range of statistical information produced by the Government falls into the definition of official statistics in the Bill. It is extensive, increasing and constantly changing, particularly with more statistics now increasingly derived from management and administrative systems such as the delivery of benefits or education and not just from the traditional statistical methods of surveys and censuses. Those statistics genuinely pose additional challenges as the primary purpose of the system that produces the data is not in itself statistical.
It would be disingenuous and unrealistic for us to argue that all such statistics would be able to meet at all times and in full the standards set out in the code of practice, including any and all of the quality standards that the board may choose to impose. Surely the key is having an active programme of assessment that concentrates on the most important statistics for all users so that we will all know that the board has independently adjudged and assessed those statistics against its standards and that those standards have been met. Surely that is a more effective, more transparent and, ultimately, more accountable and stronger system of ensuring the quality and integrity of statistical outputs.
I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will not press her amending provisions to the vote. If she does, I must ask my hon. Friends to resist them.
I am very disappointed that the Minister persists in restricting the remit of the board merely to promoting the code of practice as a model of good behaviour, effectively leaving the only enforcement power as naming and shaming of Departments that do not comply with it. For that reason, I shall press new clause 4 to a Division and urge the House to support it.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.
The House having divided: Ayes 207, Noes 289.
Confidentiality of Personal Information
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 41, in page 14, line 40, at end insert—
‘(1A) Personal data may be disclosed by the National Statistician under subsection (1)—
(a) to approved researchers;
(b) to other authorities for uses consistent with the functions of the Board and the National Statistician under the provisions of sections 48 to 50;
(c) with the consent of the person to whom it relates;
(d) under a community obligation for statistical purposes; and
(e) to service providers under the provisions of section 38.’.
No. 24, in page 15, line 12, at end insert
‘and only where the information is being made available for statistical purposes’.
Government amendments Nos. 60, 27 and 61.
Once again, we are trying to be helpful with these amendments. We believe in the principle that individuals and companies must have absolute confidence that any information they provide when national statistics are collected will not be used in a way that is disadvantageous to them. Consequently, all those who receive and manipulate the data must be governed by the same set of rules.
The Royal Statistical Society has raised concerns that, as drafted, the Bill fails to provide effective protection to confidential information or to ensure that anyone who discloses or uses such information unlawfully is subject to clear penalties. Moreover, Len Cook, the former National Statistician, has said that there is no consistent protection of individual records at the moment. For example, household survey records are not protected by existing legislation such as the Census Act 1920 or the Statistics of Trade Act 1947. In many areas, the confidentiality of personal information is protected only by custom and practice. The amendments would rectify that.
Amendment No. 40 makes it explicit that personal information should be used only
“in relation to the exercise of any of the functions of the Board”.
The amendment therefore specifies how the information must be used, and how it must not. Amendment No. 41 deals with how personal data are disclosed by the National Statistician under clause 36(1). It ties in with other clauses to achieve consistency throughout.
In principle, we think that there are great advantages to sharing as much data as possible, but people need to be confident that the information will not be abused. The amendments pay attention to the experience in Canada, whose chief statistician gave evidence to the Treasury Committee. He explained that the Canadian Statistics Act gave Statistics Canada unrestricted access to all administrative records held at any level of Government and any organisation. However, he also said:
“Of course, the other side of that coin is extremely strong confidentiality guarantees, which are spelled out and which allow no exceptions. Not even the intelligence community, not even the police, not even the courts in the course of a prosecution can have access under the Statistics Act.”
The Government amendments propose some reasonable exceptions in relation to court access to information.
As Len Cook has said, the problem is that there is no consistency about how information can be used. For example, personal information provided to the census is covered quite robustly, but survey data are not.
Government amendment No. 61 exempts the intelligence services from the provisions in the Bill, but that is a very narrow area. Our amendments are a constructive attempt to remove ambiguity. People must be certain that the information that they provide will be kept confidential. If the Bill is clear about how that data can be used, and how such data absolutely cannot be used, it will help to build public confidence in our system of statistics, and data can be employed in a more useful way.
I rise to speak to amendment No. 24, which picks up the theme raised by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) about the need to safeguard the confidentiality of personal data supplied in a variety of forms to the board.
Clause 36 sets out the parameters for the disclosure of personal information supplied to the board. It does so by creating the general presumption that such information cannot be disclosed, and then by setting out, in subsection (4), the circumstances where it can. The first such exemption, in subsection (4)(a), is where there is a legislative requirement that permits or enables personal information to be provided to others. Our amendment No. 24 would limit the data that could be accessed by other Departments to information that had been made available for statistical purposes. Therefore, data supplied through surveys for statistics put together by the ONS board could be used by others only for the same purposes.
One of the reasons behind the Bill is to promote the integrity of statistical data. If people believe that information can be shared generally with Government Departments, they may choose not to complete statistical returns. That will undermine the completeness of the data set, and the quality of the statistics produced by the ONS board.
There are precedents for amendment No. 24. For example, clauses 40 and 41 deal with NHS registration data, which are supplied to the board on the understanding set out in subsection (5) of those two clauses. They state that the data
“may only be used by the Board for the production of population statistics.”
That gives us a precedent that we can follow in relation to other data.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne said that much personal information is protected only by custom and practice. The ONS code of practice in respect of the confidentiality of statistics includes a commitment that the
“National Statistician will set standards for protecting confidentiality, including a guarantee that no statistics will be produced that are likely to identify an individual unless specifically agreed with them.”
However, the code of practice contains the following caveat:
“Where information identifying individuals must be given up by law, it will be released only under the explicit direction and on the personal responsibility of the National Statistician.”
Clause 36(4)(e) refers to a court order, but legislation has led to the disclosure of information in other circumstances. Annexe A to the protocol on data protection and confidentiality contains a list of a dozen fairly wide exemptions to the prohibition on release. For example, on census data, exemptions relate to census records that are more than 100 years old and to prosecutions under the Census Act 1920. There are specific and well-defined exemptions to the prohibition on sharing personal information.
My concern, however, is that clause 36(4)(a) will open up the scope for wider sharing of confidential personal information to other parts of the Government and go beyond the exemptions set out in the protocol on data protection and confidentiality. It would be helpful if the Minister explained whether there is any intention to share data beyond the categories set out in the protocol. It is important that we follow, where we can, the precedents set in clauses 40 and 41, to give people who complete surveys confidence that their data will remain confidential except in limited circumstances, principally related to statistical purposes. If we do not provide that safeguard, there will be erosion of people’s trust that the data they supply will remain confidential, which in the long term could undermine the completeness and quality of official statistics.
Survey data have been mentioned by several Members, including the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). Are not such data covered by clause 36(1), which gives a blanket block on release, subject to some of the other provisions of the clause? Surely an individual’s information would be protected.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but the devil is in the detail. Subsection (4) lists the exemptions to the general prohibition and my concern is that paragraph (a) in that subsection is sufficiently widely drafted that people will not have confidence that their data will be used only for statistical purposes. Our amendment No. 24 would narrow the scope of the provisions and replicate the existing restrictions under clauses 40 and 41. The hon. Gentleman is right about the broad principle, but I am concerned that the exemptions could be used to promote or enable more data sharing.
My thanks to the hon. Gentleman.
My understanding is that existing legislation is already covered by clause 36(4)(a), but that proposed legislation for additional exceptions would be a matter for Parliament at the time. When considering such legislation, it would be for Parliament to decide whether to allow further exemptions on to the statute book. Historically acquired exemptions are already set in statute; future exemptions would be debated in Parliament if and when they were proposed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but this is our once in a generation opportunity to legislate on statistics. In other Bills that permitted data sharing, my proposal would be the sort of provision that gets tucked away at the end and rarely has proper scrutiny in the House. The Bill is valuable because it codifies existing custom and practice on confidentiality, so it is important to take this opportunity to make clear how we expect data to be used.
I turn now to Government amendments Nos. 60 and 61, which the Financial Secretary will address in some detail. It is rather difficult to make comments about them before hearing his speech, but given the way our debates are structured there is no other choice. I understand that the intention behind the amendments is to continue the current practice whereby the intelligence service has access to information from the ONS. I have some questions for the hon. Gentleman about the continuation of that access and whether we need amendments Nos. 60 and 61.
Given that clause 36(4)(e) permits the sharing of personal data when there is a court order and that (4)(f) enables the statistician to release data for the purposes of criminal investigation, are those powers not sufficient to enable the sharing of the data required by the intelligence services without the amendments that the Government propose? Secondly, within the constraints of the debate, will the Minister tell us what type of data is currently being accessed by the intelligence services? I realise that the issue is sensitive, but it would be helpful to know what he intends the provisions to cover. Is there any intention to broaden the type of personal information currently shared?
What protocols cover information passed to the intelligence services, and will they remain after the Bill gains Royal Assent? There must already be a process governing the sharing of data between the ONS and the intelligence services. Can the National Statistician veto the supply of information to the intelligence services? Will she be able to do so when the Bill has been enacted? One gets the impression that she can do so under the existing protocol. It is important that the Minister clarify, where possible, why the amendments are needed.
The thrust behind amendment No. 24 and the concerns raised about amendments Nos. 60 and 61 are to ensure that we have adequate controls on the confidentiality of data and that any changes made under the Bill do not weaken it, thus leading to survey respondents and others doubting the continuing confidentiality of that information.
This group of amendments relates to the confidentiality and data-sharing provisions of the Bill. As I said in Committee, the confidentiality clause works with the data-sharing provisions later in the Bill—at clause 44 and subsequently—to ensure, first, that existing data flows can continue; secondly, that specific exemptions can be granted, subject to strict safeguards; and, thirdly, that there are stronger sanctions for disclosure than at present, so that breaches of confidential information obligations will be punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. The clause balances the need for flexibility in future data sharing and the need to protect the basis on which any personal data might be used by the board.
Before turning to the amendments tabled by the Opposition, I beg to move amendments Nos. 27, 60 and 61—
I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker. I meant to say that I wanted to speak to amendments Nos. 27, 60 and 61 before turning to the amendments tabled by Opposition Members.
Amendments Nos. 60 and 61 permit disclosure of personal data by the board to the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ in the interests of national security. In effect, that replicates the current position, which is understood and accepted to be that where the intelligence services can make a principled case for access to information—in cases where there is no specific statutory bar on disclosure of the information—restrictions on disclosure could be overridden in the public interest. The current position could not continue without our amendments, because the Bill does what it is designed to do; it tightens the provisions for data sharing, allowing the board in future to consider disclosure only in the specific circumstances set out in the exceptions under clause 36(4).
If clause 36 remained as currently drafted, the board could face a criminal prosecution if it made a disclosure in the interests of national security. Amendment No. 60 will ensure that the statistics board is not restricted in making a disclosure to the security services in the future, should that be regarded as necessary for the purposes of the national security.
I recognise that the amendment may raise questions and I apologise to the House for its being tabled on Report, rather than being part of the Bill’s consideration in Committee. We have spent a considerable time ensuring that we adopt the right and proportionate approach. The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) asked whether paragraphs (e) and (f) of clause 36(4) cover the needs in such circumstances. The intelligence services have pointed out that the criminal investigations exception, for instance, does not permit the sharing of information by the board in circumstances in which there may be a need to identify potential suspects following a tip-off that does not in itself provide sufficient grounds to launch a criminal investigation. Given that there is already an exemption for criminal investigations or proceedings in clause 36(4)(f) and the fact that ONS can at present make disclosures for the purposes of national security if a good enough case is made, it is difficult to argue that national security disclosures should not be permitted.
Let me make a couple of other points that I hope the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will find helpful. There is a process that means that the ONS currently, and the board in future, will be in a position to decide not to disclose information. I hope that the points that I will make will help to settle any wider concerns that there may be. First, the amendment will allow, and not compel, disclosure by the board. There would be a discretionary gateway under which the board would be free to disclose information, if it was satisfied the disclosure fell within the terms of the Bill. Secondly, in practice, as would happen now if ONS were to receive such a request, the intelligence services would have to make the case for disclosure and the board would have to consider the matter on a case-by-case basis. Thirdly, it would be for the board to decide whether a particular disclosure was permissible under the Bill. I can therefore assure the House that the provision would not give the intelligence services the ability to go on a general fishing trip. The onus would be on the intelligence services to demonstrate their case. We expect that, in practice, they would need to submit a business case to the board to support each disclosure request, just as they, and criminal investigators or police authorities, would do now if they wanted such information.
Furthermore, I can assure the House that the amendment is considered compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. Although it may engage article 8—the right to privacy article—of the European convention on human rights, because it provides the discretion to disclose information to the intelligence services, any interference can be considered justified under paragraph 2 of that article. Any disclosure that occurred could be justified as being in accordance with the law and necessary in a democratic society for a legitimate aim. May I turn to amendment No. 27?
I am glad that my hon. Friend is in his place. This is what I call the Marris amendment. It responds to a point that my hon. Friend made in Committee. He suggested, to some dismay in the parliamentary counsel offices, that clause 36 was “infelicitously worded” and that we could helpfully consider clarifying subsection (5). I am pleased to offer the amendment as a way of tidying up what he spotted in the Bill. His concern may not be immediately clear to the rest of the House, so I should explain that the subsection as it stands states, that an
“‘approved researcher’ means an individual to whom the Board has granted access to personal information held by it for the purposes of the statistical research.”
As he pointed out in Committee, it is unclear whether the phrase “for the purposes of statistical research” grammatically qualifies the noun “access” or the verb “held”. I hope that the amendment clarifies that.
I will turn to what might be regarded as the more substantive amendments that were tabled by the hon. Member for Fareham and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). The hon. Lady is right in many ways. The provisions and safeguards for the disclosure of data are not currently consistent and that is part of the purpose of these parts of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman based his remarks on a concern that, if data were shared generally within Government, respondents to surveys might be increasingly reluctant to provide the data that we all require. Clause 36(1) is important because it contains a strong general prohibition on the sharing and disclosure of personal information. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) called it a blanket block.
There was concern about the interplay with clause 36(4)(a), in the context of sharing information with other Departments. Essentially, subsection 4(a) is an exception to subsection (1). It allows the sharing of data in circumstances in which the House has already considered and enacted provision for such data sharing to take place. In many respects, it would not be appropriate—and perhaps not possible—for the Bill to override the will and settled determination of the House in a variety of other legislation.
The particular concern, however, was clearly for the future and related to the sharing of data within Departments. The desire of the hon. Member for Fareham in relation to amendment No. 24 is to restrict the provision to apply to disclosures for the purposes of the board, or in other words the purposes of data handling. He may remember the discussions that we had in relation to clause 44. It provides for arrangements to see increased data sharing—to the board from Departments and to Departments from the board—in circumstances in which those personal data-sharing arrangements are clear, agreed and specific, the data sharing takes place only for statistical purposes, and supplementary regulations subject to the affirmative procedure are brought before the House, so that the House will have the chance to scrutinise and approve any such arrangements in the future. In that way, we will be able to strike what I started by saying was the balance between the desire to see data sharing for specified and justified purposes, and a concern to see personal data protected with proper confidentiality safeguards.
Amendment No. 24 would modify clause 36(4)(a), which permits disclosure by the board when
“it is required or permitted by any enactment”.
The amendment would mean that that would apply only when the information was being made available for statistical purposes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we do not want to limit the provision to allow disclosure only for statistical purposes because that may prevent existing data-sharing practices that occur in the specific cases where Parliament has previously debated and decided that data sharing is in the public interest. For that reason, I hope that he will not press his amendment.
Amendment No. 40 would allow personal information that was held by the board, its employees, or any other person who had received such information from the board to be used only to pursue the board’s functions. I must say to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that the provision would limit the board too much because if there were other legitimate interests at stake, the board would not be able to disclose. For example, it would not be able to disclose for the purposes of criminal investigation or in response to a court order. Both those exceptions are identified in clause 36(4). She will appreciate that although those purposes are outside the functions of the board, they are necessary, important and in the public interest.
The purpose of amendment No. 41 is not quite clear to me. It seems to have been designed to allow the National Statistician to disclose personal data in specific circumstances, but if that is the case, the amendment is redundant, because the same exceptions regarding the confidentiality prohibition that cover the National Statistician, as a member of the board, are in place under subsection (4). I am not certain whether it is the hon. Lady’s intention that the amendment should remove three of the exceptions in subsection (4): that in paragraph (d), which will allow the board to disclose personal information that has lawfully been made public; that in paragraph (e), which will allow data to be shared if the disclosure occurs in pursuit of a court order—clearly, if the board was subject to a court order and there was no exception to allow the confidentiality restriction to be lifted, board employees would be subject to conflicting legal demands—and that in paragraph (f), which will allow for disclosure of personal information for the purposes of criminal investigations or criminal proceedings.
I hope that I have been able to give a full explanation of the Government amendments and our concerns about the Opposition amendments.
My hon. Friend referred to regulations that will be made under clause 44 and said that they would be subject to the affirmative procedure. Will he remind me where in the Bill it says that regulations made under clause 44—the power is quite wide—will be subject to the affirmative procedure?
If my hon. Friend has failed to find the information, I can assure him, as I assured the Committee, that it is our intention to use such a procedure. I will ensure that he is directed precisely to the relevant reference, if he and I cannot immediately find it at this point in our proceedings.
I thank the Minister for his contribution. The intention behind amendments Nos. 40 and 41 was to try to clear up any ambiguity that might exist about the extent to which clause 36 will apply. I hope that our debate on the Floor of the House has helped to clarify the matter and to address several concerns that have been drawn to my attention.
When we tabled the amendments, our motivation was to attempt to reinforce the spirit of what the Bill tries to achieve. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the integrity of statistical data is not compromised so that we can encourage the production of data of the highest possible quality. Some of the evidence that Finnish representatives gave to the Treasury Committee showed that public confidence in data would allow broader data sharing across government. Indeed, that could make the collection of statistical data cheaper, in addition to bringing about other benefits. I think that the Minister’s speech will have done a lot to reassure people who brought concerns to my attention.
I welcome the way in which the hon. Lady is responding to the reassurances and information that I was able to give her. I agree that the debate has been useful in clarifying the situation. Will she help me by accepting that the regulation-making powers in the Bill are usefully set out for my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West in clause 62?
I am sure that the whole House is pleased to hear that additional clarification.
It was our intention not to try to block any existing exceptions, but to try to rationalise them, where there is no consistent practice. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments made: No. 60, page 15, line 19, at end insert—
‘(fa) is made, in the interests of national security, to an Intelligence Service,’
No. 27, page 15, line 23, leave out from ‘access’ to end of line 24 and insert
‘, for the purposes of statistical research, to personal information held by it.’.—[John Healey.]
New Clause 5
Pre-release access to official statistics
‘(1) The Board shall prepare, adopt and publish a Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics.
(2) The Board may at any time revise the Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics and, if decides to do so, must publish the Code as revised.
(3) In preparing or revising the Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics, the Board must consult—
(a) the authorities responsible for the production and release of official statistics falling under the provisions of section 6(1)(a), and
(b) such other persons as it thinks fit.
(4) The Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics shall have regard to the following matters—
(a) the circumstances in which, or descriptions of statistics in relation to which, pre-release access may or may not be granted;
(b) the persons, or descriptions of persons, to whom pre-release access may be granted;
(c) the period, or maximum period, during which pre-release access may be so granted;
(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.
(5) The Board shall publish annually—
(a) a list of statistics to which pre-release access has been granted under the provisions of the Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics and the dates of publication; and
(b) a list of all persons granted pre-release access under the provisions of the Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics.
(6) The Board, the National Statistician, government departments, the Scottish Administration, Welsh Ministerial authorities, Northern Ireland departments and any other person acting on behalf of the Crown in the production or publication of official statistics shall—
(a) comply with the Code of Practice for the pre-release of official statistics; and
(b) consult the Board on matters of interpretation of the Code where appropriate.’.—[Mr. Hoban.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 23, page 5, line 20, leave out Clause 11.
No. 35, in clause 11, page 5, line 21, leave out ‘may not’ and insert ‘shall’.
No. 36, page 5, line 32, after ‘granted’, insert
‘up to a maximum of two hours before general release’.
No. 37, in clause 17, page 8, line 11, leave out subsection (4).
I will speak to new clause 5 and amendment No. 23, which would remove clause 11 from the Bill.
The Government have set out in the Bill a series of measures to improve people’s confidence in national statistics because they are aware of people’s concerns about the existing system. One of the principal areas of concern is the use to which pre-release access is put. There is worry that, because of pre-release access, Ministers and civil servants have the power to shape the presentation of data, or, to use the words in Committee of the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow), who is sadly not in the Chamber, to give “the statistics … serious treatment.”
We spent some time in Committee discussing pre-release access, so I do not need to repeat in detail the arguments and examples that were cited to illustrate the problems surrounding such access to statistics. However, let me cite one quote that we heard in Committee, which characterises people’s concerns about pre-release. Liam Halligan, the economic editor of The Sunday Telegraph has said:
“I can tell you from personal experience that pre-release is constantly used by the government to divert the media away from numbers which make for uncomfortable reading. It allows pre-emptive spin, with government departments sometimes putting out data designed to contradict evidence about to be revealed by the industrious, independent boffins from the ONS.”
There is thus a strong belief that pre-release is used to enable the Government to manage the news agenda—to divert attention from what some might call the inconvenient truth.
It is fair to summarise our debate in Committee by saying that there was broadly a consensus that pre-release access to market-sensitive statistics was appropriate for Ministers. However, there was a sharp distinction between those who thought that the mechanics of pre-release access should be determined by the board, and those who felt that that was a matter for the Government. There was a distinction between Committee members who opted for a permissive approach to pre-release in the amount of time given to Ministers and civil servants to consider the treatment of statistics, and those who preferred a shorter period of access for a much tighter group of people.
New clause 5 represents a more robust approach to pre-release than the Government seek, because it would give the board, not the Government, the power to draw up the code on pre-release, albeit after consultation, rather than leaving it to Ministers to draw up regulations that would subsequently be approved by Parliament.
Our new clause gives the board the power to define:
“(a) the circumstances in which, or descriptions of statistics in relation to which, pre-release access may or may not be granted;
(b) the persons, or descriptions of persons, to whom pre-release access may be granted;
(c) the period, or maximum period, during which pre-release access may be so granted;
(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.”
Those are all vital issues that affect how pre-release is used.
Clause 11 requires the issue to be addressed in a code, but our new clause 5 goes further: it would require the board to publish a list of statistics that are subject to pre-release, and the people to whom pre-release access is given. Those two measures will add to the transparency surrounding the release of statistical data. They pick up on the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) in Committee. He spoke of the difficulty of finding out who had access to statistics prior to their release. He cited an example in which, although 40 people had prior access to unemployment data, he was able to find that out only by trawling websites.
The new clause would put into primary legislation a commitment that the Financial Secretary made before Committee about the as yet unseen secondary legislation. He said that the secondary legislation would cover the two issues that I have addressed, but it is unfortunate that, although the Bill has reached Report, we have yet to have sight of that draft secondary legislation. Pre-release arrangements are lax, and they provide a framework that enables people to use the time before the public release of data to put a gloss on those data for the media. They soften the media up before data are published.
By asking the board to define the code, we are giving it the power to produce guidelines that will enhance the integrity of the publication of statistics. That will enhance the credibility of the process for users, and it will give the statistics a chance to speak for themselves, rather than being obscured by spin and presentation. When giving evidence to the Treasury Committee, the Financial Secretary himself said:
“I would certainly accept that the pre-release arrangements contribute to the perception of interference in statistics.”
Our proposals would ensure that the arrangements for pre-release were determined independently of Government but in consultation with them and the devolved Administrations, and they would tackle the perception of interference with statistics.
Pre-release is one of the crucial issues to do with the Bill, and it determines the way in which people perceive the process to work. Although the Government have made some progress by seeking to formalise the arrangements through secondary legislation, subject to the affirmative procedure, it is important that the power to determine the mechanics for pre-release should be in the hands of the board. The board has been given many powers in the Bill, but it should be given one further power: the power to ensure that it can set in place the mechanics for pre-release.
It is only by tackling such issues that we will start to mitigate some of the cynicism about the Government’s production of statistics. If the board is given the powers that we propose, it will put the release process at arm’s length from the Government. It will ensure that more people have confidence in the statistics that are published, and that we move away from the current position, in which it seems that whenever sensitive statistics are produced, a process of softening-up takes place. To reflect on the comments made by Liam Halligan, people’s attention is diverted from figures that might prove inconvenient to the Government, and directed towards more favourable figures. It is important to let statistics speak for themselves; they should not be subject to pre-emptive spin.
I shall simply say a few words in support of the amendments in this group that are in my name and the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). Essentially, they support and complement the comments of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). The subject of pre-release is, certainly at this stage of our proceedings, the cause of one of the biggest differences between the Government and the Opposition, and there is a degree of frustration about our inability to make progress in clarifying the safeguards surrounding pre-release.
So far, the Government have defended their position on the rather fundamentalist grounds that pre-release is justified in principle, and therefore a whole raft of current practices are justified. Today, we will not dispute the principle of pre-release; there is good reason for it in certain instances where highly sensitive economic data are concerned, and for limited periods. When the statistical community has commented on the practice, it has usually conceded that point. For example, the Statistics Commission acknowledged in its submission that
“There is a recognition…that for key data series there will be a need for Ministers to have…some advance warning”,
but it went on to say:
“In most countries, the prior access is about half an hour—that’s a huge difference and it does mean all sorts of mischief gets done”.
The issue, therefore, is not the fundamental principle of pre-release, but the time and the circumstances surrounding it.
The hon. Member for Fareham quoted Liam Halligan’s eloquent piece on the subject, but to take another topical example, comment was recently passed on the British crime survey. The Government are in the habit of releasing crime data statistics and accompanying them with the comment that they are “the best source” of data. Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary college, University of London, one of the Government’s chief advisers on statistical matters, produced a scathing criticism of that interpretation of crime data. He notes that it
“flies in the face of common sense.”
That same professor produced an excellent report for the Government on mathematics education, so he is clearly not at odds with the Government on fundamentals. He makes the point that there has been a simple misuse of economic statistics through the pre-release process.
The question is how best to define the boundaries of pre-release. In our exchanges in Committee, there was a to-ing and fro-ing of arguments about other countries’ practices. I cited what I thought was probably the best example of good practice: the United States. I quoted the Royal Statistical Society as saying that the President of the United States had half an hour’s warning of key economic data, and I said that that demonstrated how tough and restrictive its arrangements were. The Minister subsequently wrote to me—I am grateful for his letter—to correct the Royal Statistical Society and me, and rightly so. He pointed out that the President of the United States has overnight access to data. Clearly, even the best experts can get things wrong.
The Minister’s letter proves his point in a way, but in a wider sense it does not, because the letter makes it clear that in the American experience, pre-release is not only restricted to overnight access, rather than 40 hours, but it is restricted to a very limited range of statistical indicators, and very few people in the United States have any access to the data. He made his point, but he reinforced the perception of the promiscuous way in which the British pre-release system is used and abused, across the Government.
The other example of a fairly permissive system is Canada; most other countries have either no or very little pre-release, but the Canadians allow overnight access to data, which is reasonably generous. However, they also restrict considerably the uses to which pre-release can be put. They limit considerably the number of people who have access to the data, and they limit its use by non-statisticians. Therefore, the question is not the principle of pre-release—we concede that there is a case for it, for the purposes of this argument—but how to apply proper boundaries to it.
I suspect that when the debate gets to the House of Lords, a strong case will be made by people who have much more direct experience of the matter than we do. I should like to quote Lord Moser, who has been cited on several occasions, and who takes a hard line on the subject. He argues that
“pre-release should basically be abolished.”
He goes on to say that he thinks pre-release should be
“perhaps something over one hour, so that the minister can be prepared to answer questions… I would leave it to the new board to decide whether there should be any exceptions. My own view would be to start from no exceptions.”
I suspect that when the Bill reaches the other place there will be amendments along the lines that he suggests.
We propose something less radical, so I hope that the Government would find it easier to live with. First, we propose amendment No. 36, which, by interposing a couple of words in clause 11, would effectively make pre-release subject to the professional judgments of the statistics board, rather than subject to the current opaque arrangements, the details of which we have not yet seen.
Secondly, we would provide for pre-release of up to two hours. By international standards, that is generous—it is twice as generous as the period recommended by Lord Moser. It provides a limitation or cap on pre-release data, so the Government should not find it too difficult to accept. It is in a spirit of compromise that we suggest acceptance of the principle of pre-release while imposing boundaries on the process itself and the time.
We discussed this subject extensively on Second Reading and in Committee. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General to the Chamber. I was pleased that on Second Reading and in Committee the Financial Secretary said that he would review the operation of the Government’s framework, assuming that it is accepted tonight, in 12 months’ time. However, I must tell my right hon. Friend—I believe that she will reply to the debate—that I find the general sense of the Opposition’s proposals attractive. A pre-release period of 40.5 hours for non-market and market-sensitive information is far too long. I do not know whether it should be as short as two hours or 30 minutes, as suggested by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), but a 40.5-hour period for non-market-sensitive information—that is my understanding of the regime—is far too long. If the amendments are not accepted, I encourage my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to undertake a thorough review in 12 months’ time, because the present time limit is too long.
The arguments against the Government’s approach on pre-release have been made throughout proceedings on the Bill by Members on both sides of the House. I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), and I look forward to seeing him in the Lobby. The Government’s arguments may be delivered by a different voice, but I suspect that they will be familiar.
I wish to return to the subject of the Treasury Committee’s visit to the Republic of Ireland, to which I referred earlier. We met members of the Central Statistics Office in Dublin who, unprompted, raised concerns about the Bill, specifically the proposals on pre-release. They pointed out that under the office’s code of practice, it decides the rules of pre-release—it is not left to the Government, and there is no carve-out. It is odd that the thing that causes the most concern—the perception of ministerial interference, which damages the credibility of statistics—is the very thing on which there is a carve-out in the Bill, which allows ministerial control. The Irish statisticians were concerned about that, and they reflected the view of the international statistical community. I did not know that there was such a community, but it is concerned about the Bill, especially the pre-release provisions. It is not surprising that strong concerns have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House, so I hope that the Government will reconsider their position.
We have had a brief and succinct debate that, in many ways, retreads the detailed arguments that were made in Committee. May I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for his remarks about my letter? It is important, as I said in Committee, to make sure that everyone has precise, accurate information about international comparisons. I appreciate the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), particularly about the length of pre-release access. He clearly supports the principle of pre-release, and he accepted that we propose to tighten the system, but he urged us to go further. I welcome, too, the contribution of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), who brings his expertise as a member of the Treasury Committee to bear on our discussion. I acknowledge the contribution of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), although I would not necessarily choose to quote as an authority on the subject the editor of The Sunday Telegraph.
It is encouraging that there is consensus on the principle of pre-release access. Indeed, there was consensus on our proposals in the Treasury Committee report on the Bill. It is accepted that provision is required to codify access and make it clearer, and more enforceable and consistent. Beyond that, there are differences in two principal areas. First, what is the best way of making that provision and, secondly, what are the appropriate time limits to set on pre-release access? I hope that I can deal with the detailed points that have been made on both issues and, in doing so, explain the Government’s approach and the step forward that we have taken. We are setting up, in the Bill in general and in these provisions, a new system that can evolve in the light of experience and of the emerging and changing demands of the statistics system. I can reassure the House, as I did in Committee, that we will review the operation of pre-release arrangements 12 months after their introduction.
There is clear, international acceptance of the principle of pre-release access to statistics. Indeed, I explained in Committee:
“Pre-release access allows the Government to account for the impact and implications of policy when important new statistics are released.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2007; c. 188.]
That is at the heart of the case for pre-release arrangements. The public have a right to expect, and the British media have come to demand, that Ministers account for the impact and implications of policy when statistics are released—not hours afterwards or in the days that follow. The provision therefore provides an important safeguard, as it enables the Government to consider, particularly in the case of market-sensitive data, any contingency measures that may be needed alongside a statistical release to guard against a disproportionate or costly market or public reaction.
May I point out, as I did in Committee, that it is not only a question of market-sensitive information? It might be a question of health-sensitive information. If statistics come to light that suggest that there is a rapidly developing health problem, such as avian flu, in one part of the country, Ministers and the Department—in this case, it would be the Department of Health—would have a chance to react and put measures in place so that when those statistics came into the public domain, there would not be as much panic, if I can put it that way, because Ministers could say that they were aware of a cluster of avian flu cases, and had taken steps to address the issue. It is not simply a question of market-sensitive information.
As is often the case, my hon. Friend is right. In many respects, these are “in case” provisions. If he consults the record, he will see that I said that measures are needed so that, if necessary, we can take steps or release further information alongside a statistical release to guard against a disproportionate or costly public as well as market reaction.
I acknowledge that the hon. Members for Fareham and for Twickenham accept the principle of pre-release, but they both advocate the acceptance of amendments that aim to allow the board to determine pre-release arrangements. Let me make it clear, as I have done before, that I and the Government disagree with that approach. I shall explain.
I do not mean to throw the Financial Secretary’s words back at him, but he said in Committee that Parliament, not the board, should ultimately approve the rules and procedures relating to the pre-release of statistics in the final form prior to publication. If so, why not put pre-release on a statutory footing in the Bill now, instead of avoiding the issue and hoping that it will go away?
The hon. Gentleman served on the Committee. If he hears me out, he will hear me emphasise again that we do propose to put the pre-release arrangements on a statutory footing, because of their special importance. Unlike the proposals from the two Opposition Front Benches for those arrangements to be captured in the code of practice, we propose an approach that sets them out in statute, in regulation, not in a code that is backed by but not set out in statute, as advocated by the hon. Gentleman’s party.
Given the importance of pre-release for the rightful accountability of Ministers to Parliament and the public, as I described, and given the recognition that concerns about pre-release arrangements and pre-release practices have contributed to public scepticism about the way the Government handle data, a special provision that brings the detail of arrangements back before the House and captures them in regulation that will be subject to the affirmative procedure of the House—in other words, debated before they may be approved by the House—is the proper approach, rather than saying that this is a matter for the statistics board, its code of practice and its sole decision. A code that was backed by statute but not spelled out in statute would arguably have less force.
Given the importance of pre-release, the Bill has been drafted to ensure that the pre-release arrangements as they are currently set out and operated will be tightened, as well as being given special status in the new system. What I announced previously remains the Government’s firm intention—the Government will tighten the current pre-release arrangements. The length of time that pre-release is available will be aligned at 40.5 hours for all national statistics, not just market-sensitive statistics. The new, tighter arrangements will be set out, as I said, in secondary legislation. I also announced that the order will include principles to provide guidance for Departments and to ensure that pre-release access is limited to those individuals who require the data for operational reasons.
Consistent with the Government approach of designing a general statistical system that can be developed in light of experience, I have given the House an undertaking that we will review the operation of the system 12 months after its introduction.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continuing generosity in giving way, and I am grateful to him for the assurances on the review, which will prompt me not to vote for any of the amendments should a Division be called. However, will my hon. Friend address new clause 5(5), which is about the board publishing an annual list of statistics to which pre-release access has been granted, and an annual list of persons to whom pre-release access has been granted? From what we have been told, particularly by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), it seems to be difficult for members of the public or parliamentarians to gain information about who has that authorisation and which statistics fall into that category.
The present arrangements involve the publication of the list of national statistics and of the arrangements that Departments have in place for pre-release. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The arrangements are somewhat patchy and variable between Departments. Part of the purpose of introducing a new, tighter system is to ensure that it is more consistent across Government. I have made it clear and will repeat in a moment that I expect the board to monitor carefully and to make its findings publicly available, in order that it and others can assess whether the terms of the new system for pre-release are being met.
I believe strongly and argue to Members participating in the debate that it is important—unlike the rest of the code, the content of which will be backed by but not prescribed in statute—that clause 11 provides for legislation to prescribe the principles and rules for access to official statistics in their final form ahead of publication. As has been acknowledged in the debate, I wrote to members of the Committee in advance of the Committee’s discussions about this, setting out my expectations as to the types of issues that those principles would seek to deal with. I have placed a copy of that letter, dated 19 January, in the Library of the House so that others may more easily consult it.
The issues are similar if not identical to some of those identified in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Fareham. Unlike the proposals from the Opposition Front Bench, the order developed under the Government’s proposals, by virtue of the current clause 62, will be subject to further scrutiny, discussion, and approval under the affirmative resolution procedure of the House. That will ensure strong parliamentary scrutiny of and input into the proposed arrangements, with Parliament’s consent being required before any order becomes binding. Given the importance that all Members attach to the pre-release arrangements, that seems an appropriate approach.
Importantly, and again unlike the proposals from the Opposition Front Benches, compliance with the new arrangements will be independently assessed and reported on, including to the House, by the board. Over time, this will help to ensure that the arrangements are consistently interpreted, consistently applied, better understood and more transparent, with a stronger role for Parliament in ensuring that Ministers and Departments are properly abiding by the terms of the arrangements that the House has authorised.
I expect that over time, as they become well established, the new arrangements, together with the creation of a central publication hub to separate statistical releases from policy statements, will reinforce trust and confidence in official statistics and in the new and tighter pre-release arrangements.
On the substance of new clause 5, which the hon. Member for Fareham proposes would replace clause 11, I have already explained why the Government remain certain that Ministers, rather than the board, should be charged with preparing the new pre-release arrangements. Our proposals, unlike those in new clause 5, provide for independent assessment of compliance with the rules and for the parliamentary scrutiny of the arrangements before they come into effect.
Clause 11(4) lists a number of subjects that may be provided for in the new order. As I explained, it is the Government’s intention that the secondary legislation should include rules and principles covering those topics. As I have also explained in some detail, the Bill provides for the scrutiny of these arrangements. It is for Parliament to have the capacity to ensure that the new arrangements are suitably comprehensive. Setting out such a list in a prescriptive fashion on the face of the Bill would add nothing.
The requirement on the board to publish information on who receives pre-release access is contained in subsection (5)(b) of new clause 5. It is a good example of the over-prescription of the contents of pre-release arrangements tied up in statute in primary legislation. Under the current protocol on release practices, Departments are required to publish lists of who is entitled to privileged early access and for how long for each statistical release. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made. I expect that to continue in the new system and to be clearer and more consistent.
When one considers that the last significant primary legislation on statistics was in 1947, the risk of codifying in the Bill arrangements that may prove too inflexible or inappropriate at this stage, and in this detail, is obvious to all. We may not wish to, or be able to wait a further 60 years to alter any primary legislative steps that we take in this narrow and detailed area. I also expect the secondary legislation covering the rules and principles for deciding the number of officials in each Department who receive pre-release access to tighten these arrangements and to make them more consistent across Government.
Subsection (6) of the new clause would require statistical producers to comply with the new arrangements and to consult the board on matters of their interpretation. Compliance and consistent interpretation will be much more effectively achieved by assessment, monitoring and reporting by the independent board, according to the published and ratified pre-release arrangements and reporting back to this House where necessary.
The Minister is essentially asking us to wait and see and saying that all our anxieties will be put at rest once we have seen the secondary legislation. Can he tell us when will we see it, and what will be the Government’s line on pre-release periods, beyond the assurances that he has already given in Committee on the timing of pre-release for official, as opposed to national statistics?
The principal point that I am urging on the House is not that it should wait and see but that the importance of pre-release arrangements requires us to adopt an approach that does not incorporate them in a code of practice produced by the board. As far as I can see at this stage, I have given, in my letter and in my explanations to the Committee and to the House, an indication of what we expect the regulations to cover. As soon as we are in a position to produce the draft regulations, we will do so.
Contrary to the approach proposed in the new clause, the Government’s approach brings with it a much sharper and more meaningful sanction for non-compliance. The board can remove national statistic status from statistics that are found to have been prepared or handled in a manner contrary to the code of practice, including in relation to pre-release arrangements.
In summary, I cannot accept amendment No. 35, which would compel the board to include in the code of practice matters relating to pre-release access to official statistics. Nor can I accept the proposed limit on pre-release hours. I do not believe that two hours is sufficient to take the kinds of measures that might be required. Many countries, including Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Japan and the USA, provide for pre-release access well in excess of two hours; indeed, they receive access to certain statistics at least on the day before general release. Particularly in times of economic instability, that enables the Government to consider and plan contingency measures or to release further clarifying information that may prevent the sort of disproportionate and costly public or market reaction that concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West.
Amendment No. 37 is consistent with the Liberal Democrat amendments that would give power to the board to include pre-release access in the code. That would allow the board to make changes to the existing code provisions on pre-release. I cannot accept the amendment because I do not agree that pre-release arrangements should be for the board to determine. It is proper that that is seen as part of the accountability of Ministers to the public and to Parliament. The proper process is to bring such proposals back before the House and subject them to the established procedure for affirmative regulation, thereby providing further scrutiny, securing the House’s approval, and ensuring that the House subsequently plays a more important and active role in ensuring that the standards and rules that we set out are met.
I hope that the new clause will not be pressed to a vote, but if it is, I must ask my hon. Friends to oppose it.
Such is the interest in pre-release that Members have flocked to the Chamber to see the Minister refuse to take the right step in terms of transferring the responsibility for pre-release out of the hands of Ministers who will draw up the regulations and into the hands of the independent board that will supervise other aspects of the production of national statistics.
I believe that it is important that the regulations on pre-release are codified, that people are consulted on them, and that we accept the principle that there should be pre-release access to statistics. However, we do not accept the continuation of the Government’s control of the process, which has led to people viewing national statistics with increasing cynicism because of the pre-emptive spin that is so often applied to that information. We want to ensure that the rules concerning pre-release access are controlled not by the Government but by the board. I therefore wish to put new clause 5 to the vote.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 49, in page 2, line 6, at end insert—
‘(c) at least one person appointed by Scottish Ministers.’.
No. 57, line 6, at end insert—
‘(c) at least one person appointed by Welsh Ministers.’.
No. 3, line 7, leave out ‘Treasury’ and insert ‘Cabinet Office’.
No. 50, line 10, leave out paragraph (a).
No. 4, line 10, leave out ‘Treasury’ and insert ‘Cabinet Office’.
No. 58, line 12, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 5, line 12, leave out ‘Treasury’ and insert ‘Cabinet Office’.
No. 6, line 14, leave out ‘Treasury’ and insert ‘Cabinet Office’.
No. 7, line 16, leave out ‘Treasury’ and insert ‘Cabinet Office’.
No. 51, in page 11, line 13, clause 27, leave out
‘with the consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’.
No. 59, line 20, leave out
‘with the consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’.
No. 52, line 39, leave out subsection (9).
No. 53, in page 21, line 4, clause 45, leave out subsection (7).
No. 54, line 7, leave out ‘and the Treasury’.
No. 55, in page 24, line 16, clause 49, leave out subsection (7).
No. 56, line 19, leave out ‘and the Treasury’.
Amendments Nos. 2 to 7 would transfer the residual ministerial functions from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. I understand the concerns behind the other amendments, tabled by the Scottish National party, which would reduce the Treasury’s powers in matters relevant to the devolved Administrations. It is difficult to get the balance right between those Administrations and the Government in this context, but there is a need for some institutional co-ordination across the country and across the structures. As it stands, I do not think that there is a case for removing the input from the centre. I am not, therefore, minded to support those amendments.
On amendments Nos. 2 to 7, we would have preferred the residual powers to be taken out of ministerial hands and transferred to Parliament, and to set up the new system along the same lines as the National Audit Office. Those arguments were not accepted in Committee and we shall not press them, but we see this option as second best. The Minister dismissed similar amendments in Committee on the basis that the ministerial functions were not significant and that the point of the Bill was to take all significant powers away from Ministers and to vest them in the independent board. It is true that the Bill will reduce ministerial involvement in the statistical system, and that is welcome. That move does, indeed, reduce the significance of the choice of Department to carry out the residual remaining functions. However, the residual functions left with Ministers are still significant. Most important of all, clause 3 gives Ministers the power to determine the size of the board and to appoint its members. There are also important powers in clause 27, which gives the Chancellor significant powers on direction in the event that the board fails to perform its functions, and in clause 62, which contains important functions in relation to secondary legislation and orders. We are not raising a theoretical question; we are talking about powers that are genuinely important for the way in which the new structure for running statistical services will operate.
There are three key questions that we should ask when considering the amendments. The first is, which Department is least likely to interfere with the priorities and the work of the board?
I am coming to that. As the right hon. Gentleman says, we must also consider which Department is likely to be of the greatest assistance to the board and the National Statistician when they require the assistance of a Department in standing up to other Departments when those Departments’ standards in producing and releasing statistics fall below par. The third question is which Department would be the most effective in arguing the case for the board and statistical services in determining the appropriate level of funding.
The Opposition believe in every case that the answer to those questions is the Cabinet Office and not, as is provided by the Bill, the Treasury. In this we share the view of many who expressed concerns during the consultation, including a number of distinguished academics, as well as the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistics Commission.
On the first question, we believe that the Cabinet Office is less likely than the Treasury to seek to exert political influence over the priorities and work of the board in a way that is out of line with the Bill’s goals. We base that conclusion on the fact that the Cabinet Office has no direct interest in a particular type of statistic, whereas, naturally, the Treasury does. For obvious reasons, the Treasury has a particular focus on economic statistics. As a major consumer of statistics, it is not disinterested. The potential for a conflict of interest is exacerbated by the fact that the measurement of the Treasury’s performance in critical areas of economic and fiscal policy is heavily dependent on the statistics and judgment of those who are responsible for producing them. The Cabinet Office, on the other hand, has no such conflict of interest, a point made by Lord Moser to the Treasury Committee. It is neither a major consumer of statistics nor is its performance heavily linked to statistical analysis.
My understanding is that the Cabinet Office deals with social inclusion, for example. In fact, the Minister responsible for that is my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden). In determining whether any Government have made inroads on social exclusion—something that the hon. Lady’s party at last, I am glad to say, welcomes—surely the conflict potential would also apply to the Cabinet Office.
I certainly agree that whatever Department we choose, we are unlikely to eliminate entirely the possibility of conflict, but it is more intense in relation to the Treasury than it would be in relation to the Cabinet Office.
We have to bear it in mind that the Cabinet Office has a long-recognised remit to co-ordinate the activities of different Departments, which would also equip it appropriately for the functions that we are considering. The Treasury may try to exert considerable control over Departments to an unprecedented degree, but cross-departmental co-ordination is still the formal responsibility of the Cabinet Office, acting on behalf of the Prime Minister. The co-ordinating role features prominently in its departmental objectives. As has been emphasised throughout the debate, the work of the board can and should go beyond scrutinising the economic statistics traditionally associated with the ONS. The board’s work should encompass a wide range of social statistics on crime, education, health and social exclusion, which are produced by a range of Departments. It is therefore appropriate that the Department tasked with residual ministerial functions should have an eye for cross-departmental concerns. With the insight that one would expect from an organisation with a long and distinguished history, the Royal Statistical Society, which has contributed so helpfully to the debate, tells us that what we need is “an honest broker”. I think that we are more likely to find one in the Cabinet Office than in the Treasury.
Secondly, we must ask which Department will give the board and the National Statistician the most effective assistance in bringing other Departments into line when they fail to live up to the code of practice. That returns us to territory that we covered briefly when discussing the role of the National Statistician. The House would do well to listen to the advice given by Lord Moser, whose wisdom has been called upon a number of times this evening. Giving evidence to the Treasury Committee, he was adamant about the importance of a link with the Cabinet Office, in which he saw a re-emphasis on the direct link with the Prime Minister, to whom that Department reports. He said
“This is a very real link… I would see the Prime Minister quite regularly and he would take serious interest. That obviously was a great strength, especially vis-à-vis other departments. So it was much less difficult to influence other ministries when it was known that behind me was the Prime Minister.”
Lord Moser has made clear his view that the decision of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to shift responsibilities relating to the ONS from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury was a mistake. One of Lord Moser’s more controversial successors, Len Cook, pointed out:
“Almost all of the current concerns involve departments where only the Prime Minister has authority to challenge ministers.”
Today, we have an opportunity to rectify the error made by my right hon. and learned Friend. We may now have a Chancellor who is perhaps considerably more powerful than the Prime Minister, but there is no guarantee that that will continue to be the case. It would therefore be valuable for the board and the National Statistician to have the direct backing of both the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister.
Thirdly, we must ask which Department will be most effective in arguing the case for the board and statistical services in determining the appropriate level of funding. We believe that the Cabinet Office would be the most effective, for the simple reason that it is not the Treasury. It can provide a ministerial voice outside the Treasury to argue the case for statistical services. It is well known that each Department must argue its case for funding with the Treasury. Under the structure envisaged by the Bill, that would involve one Treasury Minister strolling down the corridor for a chat with another Treasury Minister. There would be no external pressure on the Treasury. Even institutions at arm’s length from the Government, such as the BBC, tend to rely on a Minister to speak up for them on funding matters, although of course they have the opportunity to make their own case directly as well.
The Minister dismissed similar arguments in Committee, on the ground that there would be no debate on funding between Ministers of the kind that I have described because the Bill would take the board’s funding out of the normal spending round. We believe that funding decisions should be taken out of the hands of Ministers and transferred to Parliament. If that were done, my third question would become irrelevant. There would be no need for a Minister to speak up for the board in the spending round because Parliament, not the Treasury, would make the decision. Sadly, however, that is not how the Bill is drafted. All we are told about funding is that it will be determined on a five-yearly basis by a “transparent formula”. What the Minister has told us so far about the funding arrangements is insufficient to give me confidence that the board will not need a Minister to stand up for it in negotiating with the Treasury.
There is a fourth reason why we think the Cabinet Office would be a better home for the residual ministerial responsibilities in the Bill. Here I pray in aid the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that in transferring residual responsibilities to the Cabinet Office we would demonstrate that we were making a visible difference. Tom Griffin, the former director of statistics at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, said:
“To sever the link with the Treasury now…would be a very visible move towards independence.”
Severing that link would constitute a further break with the current arrangements, which all now agree have not worked satisfactorily. We believe that it would make a useful contribution to building trust in official statistics, and we commend the amendments to the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the speech of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). She gave three reasons for seeking to change accountability in Government. When any such change is made, it must be recognised that breaking one set of relationships in favour of another means that they must be reconnected in a different way. It is never quite as straightforward as it appears. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that the interest of the Cabinet Office and that of the Treasury—and, indeed, the interests of a variety of other Departments, as well as the interest of the Prime Minister of the time—are important in all this. The overall oversight of the Prime Minister in seeking integrity in the way in which statistics are prepared is certainly important, but I do not think it will ever percolate down into the detail. The lead of a specific Department and a specific Cabinet Minister is therefore very significant.
What I found most disappointing about the hon. Lady’s speech was the negative and defensive nature of her three questions. First, she asked which Department was least likely to try to interfere. I realise that after 10 years in opposition the Conservative party has become rather negative in its approach to all sorts of things, and has done some of the things for which it castigated the then Opposition until 1997.
I am more interested in the positive, and that is what I shall argue for. The defensiveness and the defeated tone of the Opposition’s contribution is a little sad. In fact, the use of objective statistics in the development of public policy ought to be welcomed by all parties as creating an opportunity for an objective, open debate about some of the important issues of our time. Everyone should welcome that positive aspect, which is really what the Bill is all about.
The hon. Lady’s second question was, I concede, more positive, in that she asked which Department was more likely to be effective. However, she brushed over that fairly lightly. Thirdly, she asked who would argue the case for funding most vigorously. Arguing for funding in Government is always challenging, and I would have thought that arguments within the Treasury were more likely to be successful than the arguments of those of us who have had the experience of arguing from outside that august institution. Certainly that is the perception of Ministers in every other Department.
I think that that is a rather negative reason for keeping those powers within the Treasury, and I concede that the hon. Lady has a point.
However, I would rather answer a different question, which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet did not raise in her introduction, namely, which body would be the most keen to ensure that an evidence-based approach to public policy development is pursued within Government and within all institutions of government—agencies of Government, local government, local health boards and all the other institutions that provide service and spend the money that is voted to them by Parliament? That question addresses an issue that is at the heart of the Bill.
The whole point of statistics—this was my reason for welcoming Government amendment No. 48—is to make sure that there is an objective basis for policy development and for the way in which we tackle real problems and link different issues. That is why I am so keen that we should be able to do local overlays at ward and sub-ward level of the impact of health situations, educational attainment and criminal justice and youth justice activities. All such matters must be joined in order to create healthy communities. Communities exist fundamentally at the local level. National statistics are important, but the more that they inform the quality of life of individuals in the street, the borough or the village—or whatever kind of local community we are talking about across the country—the more we will be using statistics positively.
Therefore, the hon. Lady’s questions address subsidiary issues. I agree that it is important to make sure that there is not inappropriate interference by Ministers, but the idea that there is such interference is media and Opposition mythology. Over 10 years, during most of which time I was a Minister, I have never seen the slightest opportunity for interference with statistics or for meddling with them. If the hon. Lady knows about anything that I missed during that 10-year period, I would be very interested to learn about it. What I did find on a variety of occasions was that it was necessary to ask the people preparing the statistics—in the Home Office, for instance—“Why can’t you answer this particular question, which is important for the development of public policy?” Let me give the example that I mentioned in Committee. When the Labour party came to office in 1997, it had a commitment to halve the time it took to get young offenders before the courts. For my part, that commitment was well informed by my experience, when I chaired the juvenile bench, of having young offenders come before me who did not have a clue what accusation they were answering to on that particular occasion. They might have been accused over a period of time of having committed a long string of burglaries, and they would say, “Sorry, mister, but which one are we talking about?” The hearing that followed would be totally irrelevant to their lives, and certainly to the amendment of their future ways and career.
Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker.
What should we do if we cannot answer questions such as that about the length of time that it takes to get young offenders before the courts, which we raised at the Home Office in the past? On that occasion, the officials had to answer the question about young offenders by saying, “Dunno”, and statistics did not provide material for the delivery of public policy. We had to spend the first six months identifying how long it took to get young offenders before court in order then to be able to say, “Right, we now know what it is we are going to halve.” We delivered that during our first period of Government. That was an enormously important use of intelligent information—of statistics—in order to make a real difference in reoffending and therefore in the quality of life of people, communities and potential victims.
I want statistics to be objectively prepared, independently verified and totally objective and dependable for everybody, regardless of whether the individuals using them are in Government, in Opposition, in agencies or local government, are ordinary members of the community, researchers or people involved in policy development—in the third sector, for instance. Therefore, accountability for the residual functions ought to lie with the Department that has the most comprehensive view about value for money in the public sector and the need for objective evidence to be driven by asking the right questions and ensuring that the management is right. If the new board fails, that will be a disaster for public policy, so it is important that the Ministers who are responsible for it do not interfere—I agree with the hon. Lady about that—but that if there is a need to intervene and say, “Things have gone wrong and need to be put right”, they are Ministers in the Department that is most enthusiastic to make sure that that happens.
I know that in the past 10 years, under the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury has taken considerable interest in a wide range of issues affecting many Departments. However, things might change when the Chancellor of the Exchequer changes. Therefore, I am still not clear why the Treasury is a better Department to perform the role in question than the Cabinet Office, which will have that kind of overview role and which is less likely to change in that way.
Actually, there has been less change at the Treasury than at many other Departments over the past few years. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) says, its leadership has been more dependable and continuous than the Liberal Democrat leadership.
The way in which the current comprehensive spending review is being prepared—I hope that the Opposition parties are taking that issue seriously—shows that there is a serious level of engagement. An example is the contribution being made by the third sector, the social enterprise sector and voluntary and community groups. I honestly think that the level of engagement is more serious than in previous spending reviews from 1997 onward, and infinitely more serious than in earlier reviews. The Treasury is therefore positively engaged in the policy development process, so it will be concerned to ensure that the statistics on which that policy is based are identified and objective and address the real interests of the public. The public interest test has to be about the long-term interests of the public in every constituency in the country that we Members of Parliament represent.
I suggest that there is nothing to be gained by pursuing the three questions that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet asked, but there is a great deal to be gained by trying to nail down—as I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will in responding to this debate—the Treasury to ensure that it is fully engaged in ensuring that the public will benefit in every respect as a result of it being the Department responsible for the residual functions, as the Bill sets out.
I agree with a lot of what the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said about what the objectives should be, but despite what he said in answer to my intervention, I am still not clear why the Treasury is better able to perform this role than the Cabinet Office. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) are very similar to those that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and I tabled in Committee; however, I understand that they are a fall-back mechanism, and that her preferred configuration has not been pursued.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said in Committee, the point behind our amendments is not Treasury-bashing. We have always made it clear that the Treasury has taken some very important decisions that have signalled a willingness to give independence to important institutions such as the Bank of England. Indeed, perhaps that is what is disappointing about this provision. The Treasury was willing to send the clear signal that there would be full independence for the Bank, and a similar approach to national statistics—giving this residual power to the Cabinet Office, which is one step away from the Treasury—would be an effective way of underlining the fact that the Bill takes important steps toward creating a more independent statistics system.
Although there is a degree of ministerial control over appointments to the Monetary Policy Committee, we have not seen cronyism or the making of political appointments. We welcome that of course, but it does mean that the structure is such that that will continue to be so. For that reason, it would be better to include in the Bill a clear statement of independence, if possible, and to shut down any possibility of an organisation’s saying that the opportunity exists to erode such independence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham also previously pointed out that there is a potential conflict of interest. If the Treasury takes on its new role as the guardian of statistics, we should remember that it is also a massive consumer of statistics. The Cabinet Office already takes on many roles in the overview of government, and it has the potential to resolve conflicts of interest. Such conflicts of interest would be less obvious if the Cabinet Office were given this power. Reference has been made to the need for a positive attitude in the collecting of evidence-based information. I do not see why any other Department would be able to perform that function less ably than the Treasury.
What I am saying is that all these points have been made on Second Reading and in Committee. At this stage, there is no strong argument against having the board based in the Treasury, but, having said that, I am not convinced by the argument that it should stay just within the Treasury. The fact that the Department is a massive consumer of statistics does not necessarily qualify it as the guardian of them.
On that basis, if, ultimately, the National Statistician is appointed by the Crown, it makes sense logically for accountability for that power to go back to the Prime Minister. That would be more rational and symmetrical. I thus have considerable sympathy for the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet.
I have to say that I find the Opposition’s arguments singularly unconvincing and somewhat contradictory. There is talk of the Cabinet Office having some sort of cross-cutting overview role, but the Opposition then leap from that to suggest that somehow the Cabinet is more disinterested in statistics than the Treasury. That seems to be a contradictory position to adopt.
I agree that the Cabinet Office has an overview role. In our modern form of government, so, in a sense, does the Treasury, whoever is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but that in itself may be no reason for shifting statistics from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. At best it is a kind of equality of arms. As to the co-ordinating role of the Treasury and the wider implications of that—though not the specificity in respect of what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) said; she did not use such words, but spoke in terms of the possibility of control freakery in the Treasury—we saw only last week the not very edifying spectacle of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) running around as shadow Chancellor trying to assert that very role within the Conservative party, saying “Nobody makes spending promises except me”. That is the co-ordinating role of a Chancellor of the Exchequer—in this case, a shadow Chancellor—in our modern constitution.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred to the Cabinet Office as an “honest broker”. I have been a Member for only six years, but I have sat on five Finance Bill Committees, and I have to say that I find the implication behind that remark—that the Treasury is not honest—rather disturbing. I have not found the Treasury to be dishonest. Although the Cabinet Office might indeed be an honest broker in terms of the hon. Lady’s amendments, I have not found the Treasury to be in any sense a dishonest broker. Perhaps the hon. Lady has some contrary evidence, but she seems to have a rather starry-eyed view of the Cabinet Office.
Certainly the Cabinet Office reports to the Prime Minister. The hon. Lady may or may not be aware that it has its own Cabinet Minister—the former Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), a very senior Member of Parliament. Furthermore, the Prime Minister is also the First Lord of the Treasury, so, according to the hon. Lady’s model, we are back in the Treasury. What is more, the Treasury reports to the Prime Minister, as do all Cabinet Ministers and their ministerial teams. That is the nature of our modern constitution.
The Financial Secretary said earlier in the debate—he certainly said it either on Second Reading or in Committee—that the new board and the associated machinery operating it will receive five years’ funding to be decided outside the comprehensive spending review. If I were a body whose dealings with the Government were to conducted in a manner similar to that proposed for the board—partly at arm’s length—I would be quite pleased to be within the Treasury because that is the Department with the cheque book. I would consider that I would get a better deal from the Treasury than from other Departments such as the Cabinet Office. That is not to say that the Cabinet Office could not do it, but the Treasury has the money and the Cabinet Office does not. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet acknowledged the five-year funding commitment, to be decided outside the comprehensive spending review, but it is worth repeating it because it rather undercuts her argument for moving the board from the remit of the Treasury to that of the Cabinet Office.
The hon. Lady’s proposal for the board’s funding to be decided by Parliament, not by the Treasury, is a novel approach to our democracy. It has always been my understanding ever since I was in this place that, yes, funding requests are decided by Parliament, but through estimates and other procedures. They are put down by different Departments, so which Department would propose the new board’s request for resources to Parliament? Under the architecture of the Bill, as I understand it, the board itself would not make such a request for funding to Parliament. The idea of direct funding by Parliament being somehow different if the board and its machinery were in the Cabinet Office rather than in the Treasury therefore completely falls by the wayside.
The visible difference to which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred relates to another point that she made in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) about the perception of ministerial interference. Perhaps she will tell us what other countries operate in the manner that she proposes. Another of the proposals put forward by the official Opposition involved a system that operated only in Mongolia, so far as the Government could ascertain. What are they doing in Mongolia?
I cannot say what they are doing in Mongolia, but I did look into this issue and, to be fair, the arrangements are pretty diverse. The countries that I researched seemed relatively evenly divided between those that had a link with their Treasury and those that had a link with their Cabinet Office equivalent.
That is helpful, and perhaps the hon. Lady will be able to help me further. My understanding of StatsCan—as we Canadians like to call Statistics Canada—is that it comes under the Treasury board. It might not, but the chief statistician of StatsCan has been prayed in aid repeatedly during the passage of the Bill, and I wonder what they do there.
In regard to ministerial interference, the real question is one of perception. I do not accept the proposition that there is ministerial interference in our statistics, if that is what the Opposition are suggesting. That seems to be the implication of what they are saying, although they have not said it directly. I will not accept that unless they can produce firm evidence of it. The architecture of the Bill is indeed about beefing up the new board, and rolling the ONS into it under the executive committee—or whatever it is called—in the new set-up. Having that board and its committee within the Cabinet Office would do nothing more, or less, to alter perceptions of ministerial interference, such as there might be.
At best, the proposals relating to the Cabinet Office represent a break-even proposition—in which case, why change anything? At worst, they would be destabilising, in that they would take away something from the Treasury that it has dealt with for a long time. As I said earlier, if the board is inside the Treasury, it is more likely to get adequate funding than it would if it were in the Cabinet Office. That is not a slight on the Cabinet Office; it is the Treasury that has the cheque book. We want the board to be adequately funded, and when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary earlier, he assured me that it would be. I believe that there will be adequate funding, and it is just as likely—if not more likely—to come from the Treasury than would be the case if we were to shift the whole thing over to the Cabinet Office. I would vote against the amendments if they were pressed to a Division.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 49, which is tabled in my name, and to amendments Nos. 50 to 59, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends. Before I do that, I should like to comment on the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who said that she was not minded to support the amendments. I was reminded of a story about a friend of mine, who is a member of the judiciary. He suggests that, when considering the outcome of a court case, it is always best to hear the evidence led first.
The arguments for the amendments were well rehearsed in Committee. However, because they involve important points of principle regarding the ability of the devolved Administrations to act independently of the UK Government in relation to statistics relating to matters over which the devolved Administrations have sole competence, and because the amendments are also designed to temper the interference of the Treasury generally and the Chancellor specifically in matters that ought to be none of their business, I will reprise the arguments in a little more detail.
It is also worth saying that, while my amendments in Committee related only to Scotland, those in the group under discussion today relate also to Wales, and the issues generally relate also to Northern Ireland. I am grateful to colleagues from the nations and the Province for their interest in and support for the amendments.
Has the hon. Gentleman noted that his colleagues from Wales are so interested in the topic that not one of them has joined him to debate it? Those of us in the Chamber who represent Welsh constituencies note with interest that interference in Welsh affairs has to depend on a Scottish voice.
I note the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I tend not to make comments on such matters, although they have been related to me in the past. However, there is not one Scottish Labour Member in the Chamber, which is not unusual in debates such as these. I will relay the right hon. Gentleman’s comments to my friends in Plaid Cymru.
The fundamental propositions in the legislation relating to the amendments are as follows. First, clause 3 gives the impression that an appointment to the new board will be made from each of the devolved Administrations, but the measure permits nothing of the kind. In fact, the Bill states that the appointments will be made by the Treasury.
Secondly, the legislation purports to allow the devolved Administrations the authority to step in if things go wrong in the future, to direct, if the board has failed either
“to comply with its objective, or…to perform any of its functions relating to…devolved statistics”.
In certain circumstances, the provision will allow the Administrations to take over those functions. However, that power, like the power to appoint, is not what it seems. The power to direct can be used only with the direct consent of the Chancellor himself, as set out in clause 27(2). Given that such direction could be carried out only after failures relating to statistics that are the direct responsibility of the devolved Administration, the requirement for the Chancellor’s consent represents an overbearing and unnecessary interference in the day-to-day operations of the devolved Administrations in the production of their statistics. That is the aspect of greatest concern to me, and I shall return to it. It is wholly wrong to allow the Chancellor the power of veto to stop a devolved Administration exercising, rightly, the power to direct if the new board fails to carry out its responsibilities for devolved statistics.
Thirdly, the Bill appears to offer the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland the power to instruct the disclosure of information to and from public bodies and the new board. However, those powers, too, are not all they seem. The powers for Scotland under clauses 45 and 49 can be used only with the consent of the Treasury. Like the power to direct, the power of disclosure applies only to information required for statistics in areas under the direct authority of the devolved Administration. The legislation for Wales is different, not least because when the Treasury wants to make disclosures relating to Wales it must, as described in clause 44(8), first seek the consent of a Welsh Minister.
My amendments address those three issues. They would give Ministers in the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales both the respect that their mandate should allow and, more important, the full range of powers that they ought to have to carry out their work armed with the best, most accurate and relevant statistical information they need.
Amendments Nos. 49, 50, 57 and 58 are designed to take particular cognisance of the needs of the nations by ensuring that a member from each of the devolved Administrations is appointed to the new board. Amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 59 would confer the right to direct without the Chancellor’s veto. Finally, amendments Nos. 53 to 56 would ensure that the power of disclosure in Scotland could be exercised as required in relation to wholly devolved statistics. I want to remove the unnecessary Treasury veto.
Earlier, I said that my most serious concerns were about the need for the consent of the Chancellor in relation to the power to direct, so I look forward to the Minister’s response to the amendments on that subject. However, the Treasury has shown some willingness to move. Amendment No. 26, which will be discussed in the next group even though it relates directly to the group under discussion, gives a welcome transparency about direction. My difficulty with amendment No. 26 is that that welcome transparency would apply only after consent had been granted, not in advance.
I hope that the Financial Secretary can go a little further tonight and show a little more movement. If he could tell the House that consent will routinely be granted in normal circumstances, that would be helpful. Better still, if he could tell the House the specific circumstances in which consent would normally not be granted and perhaps give an example, that would be welcome. If he could tell us that consent would not be granted only in circumstances in which the public disclosure of a direction against a particular set of statistics would be market-sensitive or the set of statistics against which a direction was made would be market-sensitive—if those were the sorts of conditions or criteria that would apply when consent to direct was not given—it would go a long way towards soothing my concerns over the requirement for consent from the Chancellor before a direction could be given by one of the devolved Administrations in the case of a failure by the new board.
The Treasury Committee said that public perceptions about the independence of the board will depend more on the actions of the board members than their method of appointment. The Government agree. The quality of the board’s membership will be crucial in ensuring the board’s independence, its credibility and its ability, if necessary, to challenge Departments on the quality and integrity of their statistics. That places a premium on ensuring that the appointments process selects the right calibre of people from the right variety of backgrounds, who can bring the right range of expertise to the work of the board. To that end, we have given a range of commitments about how we will go about that appointments process, including the commitment that all board members will be appointed by open competition in line with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments guidance. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee has endorsed that approach.
Amendments Nos. 49, 50, 57 and 58 on appointments would allow a member of the board to be appointed by Scottish or Welsh Ministers, rather than being appointed by the Treasury in consultation with Scottish and Welsh Ministers. The board is to be a UK-wide body that represents a range of users. Members of the board will be appointed to represent a wide range of interests in statistics and to represent the public interest as a whole. They will collectively represent the interests of users across the UK. Members who are appointed after consultation with the devolved Administrations will not be on the board simply as delegates or simply as territorial representatives of those countries, although of course it is important that there are members on the board who understand the particular needs in relation to statistics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I hope that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) accepts that direct appointment by Scottish or Welsh Ministers could make it much more difficult to appoint a board that, as a UK body, appropriately represents the needs of all users. We want the board to be small and cohesive. Ultimately, that argues for a requirement for one authority to be responsible for all appointments. It is, however, right—it is in the Bill—that Scottish and Welsh Ministers, and in due course I hope Ministers in Northern Ireland, should each be consulted on an appointment to ensure that the board has an understanding specifically of Welsh or Scottish devolved needs in relation to statistics. Scottish and Welsh Ministers have agreed their role in the appointments. They are content that it offers the appropriate safeguards in relation to their role in devolved statistics.
I am one of the few people in the House who has experience in this respect. It was always my experience that Ministers in this Parliament and this Government respected entirely the role of devolved Ministers in making recommendations of the sort that has been indicated.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s contribution, because he is able to give the House that sort of insight and assurance with a particular authority that is not open to many of the rest of us.
Let me turn to the particular concern of the hon. Member for Dundee, East, which is addressed by amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 59. I am not sure that it is fully appreciated that the powers in clause 27 are designed to protect the public interest so that if, and only if, the board fundamentally fails to deliver for any reason, the Government can intervene—always publicly, in writing and as a last resort—to ensure that the board’s obligations are met. The hon. Gentleman cited some circumstances in which there might somehow be a reluctance to intervene because a set of statistics were market-sensitive, but such circumstances would not be those with which the clause was designed to deal.
There are powers for the devolved Administrations to direct. If the Financial Secretary is telling us that consent to direct would not be given for the reasons that I suggested, why is the requirement for the consent of the Chancellor in the Bill at all?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman, who seemed to be paraphrasing me, an absolute assurance that a direction would not be issued in a particular set of hypothetical circumstances. However, I will explain why the Chancellor’s consent is important.
Clause 27 is designed to address a serious failure in the responsibilities and duties of the board that would amount to a dereliction of its duties under the Bill. The clause rightly gives Scottish and Welsh Ministers the power of direction with respect to their areas of responsibility—Scottish or Welsh devolved statistics—with the consent of the Chancellor. It is right that the Chancellor’s consent should be required for such directions to be made as a last resort, because any such failure relating to Scottish or Welsh statistics could affect the position of statistics throughout the UK. It would be important to ensure that the accountability for such last-resort action were shared and that the directions to the board were consistent with each other. The consent will ensure that directions are co-ordinated and that the Bill will not create powers of direction that might be conflicting. I hope that the hon. Gentleman sees the sense of, and the basis for, the provision.
The hon. Gentleman also tabled amendments Nos. 53 to 56, which would remove the requirement of the Treasury to give consent when Scottish Ministers made regulations to break down the barriers to data sharing between Scottish public authorities and the board for statistical purposes. The provisions on data sharing set out a mechanism through which data may be shared, for statistical purposes only, between the board and a public authority, and vice versa, via secondary legislation.
The key point regarding the amendments is that the mechanism in clauses 45 and 49 mirrors that in the other clauses on data sharing. The mechanism allows regulations to be made to allow data to be shared with the consent of both the Treasury, as the body with residual responsibility for the board, and the Minister responsible for the other body involved in the data sharing. That will ensure that the Ministers responsible for both the body disclosing the data and the body receiving the data are content for the regulations to be made, which will be an important safeguard in our data-sharing mechanism.
Throughout our proceedings on the Bill, including in today’s debate, I have stressed the importance of the independence of the board—we have examined that in great detail. If the provisions on independence are effective, the question of who has residual responsibility will become much less significant. I have made it clear before that I think, on balance, that the board could benefit—it is right to see this in positive terms, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) urges—from having the Treasury as a link with the Government.
The functions are better discharged by the Treasury for several reasons. I think that all would accept that the Treasury has a long experience of working with and understanding statistics. It has a role in co-ordinating performance reporting and monitoring across government. I strongly disagree that the Treasury is somehow interested in only economic statistics, because more than any other Department it has an interest in ensuring that we have a good evidence base, including statistics on departmental policies, given the importance of statistics to reporting on departmental performance and to understanding the levers for the successful reform and development of public services, in which the Treasury plays a leading and co-ordinating role. The Treasury is well placed to play a co-ordinating role across Government, as it does on so many other occasions, such as during the spending review or the Budget process.
Given that background, I maintain that the Treasury is well placed to play a constructive part with respect to the board and its future role. The Treasury Committee took that view in its report, and the Government concur, so I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) will not press her amendment.
I will not press my amendment today. Obviously, I have listened to the debate, but I apologise to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) for suggesting that my mind was closed to his amendments even before I had heard his arguments. However, he will acknowledge that those arguments were aired in Committee. Sadly, he has not changed my mind today.
The point made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) about the importance of stability struck me as sensible. He expressed the concern that a shift to the Cabinet Office would involve further instability, but given that we are creating an entirely new structure, I do not think that that is a significant factor.
I assure the House that I am not a Treasury-basher, although I was accused of being one. However, I am of course happy for Treasury Front Benchers and shadow Treasury Front Benchers to engage in robust political debate. I certainly understand the importance of the Treasury’s being involved in pursuing a value-for-money agenda across the Departments. Treasury-bashing is not the motivation behind the amendments at all; the issue is simply the practical consideration of which arrangement would work best. I acknowledge that the argument has two sides, and that the international pattern is mixed. If anything, I think that the Treasury is the home Department in a slightly greater number of countries. I acknowledge, too, that the Treasury Committee came to a different view.
There is not a serious divide between the two sides of the House on the issue, and I acknowledge that it is not as significant as the important matters that we discussed today. I will therefore not press the amendment to a Division, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
This group of amendments deals with a number of issues, both substantive and technical, that were raised with me in Committee, and that I said I would take another look at. They relate to the dismissal of board members and laying directions before the House, and there are some consequential amendments relating to Scotland, too.
Let me start with Government amendment No. 25. We had an animated debate in Committee that gave me unexpected insights into the domestic lives of certain Committee members and their disciplinary regimes for children. I rejected the idea of putting the naughty step on a statutory basis, but I agreed to look again at the grounds on which, in clause 4, a non-executive member of the board can be dismissed for misbehaviour. I hope that Members will accept the amendment, which specifies that there are grounds for dismissal if a member
“is unfit for office by reason of misconduct”.
I hope that that is helpful, and that hon. Members find it clearer than the previous designation of misbehaviour.
Turning to Government amendment No. 26, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) proposed in Committee an amendment suggesting that a copy of any direction made under clause 27 be placed in the Library of each House of Parliament. I needed to consider the position of the devolved Administrations, so amendment No. 26 requires that copies of any direction issued to the board under clause 27 be laid before Parliament and the relevant devolved legislatures.
Government amendment No. 30 ensures that the Registrar General for Scotland continues to have access to patient registration information currently held on the NHS central register for England and Wales, because it is our intention to transfer that register from its current home in the Office for National Statistics.
Finally, Government amendments Nos. 28, 29, 31, 33 and 32 allow a translation of freedom of information and ombudsman legislation into Scotland, so that the provision for such action in Scotland is consistent with that in England.
It being Nine o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
Amendment agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.
Amendment made: No. 48, in page 4, line 21, leave out from beginning to end of line 22 and insert—
‘(1) In the exercise of its functions under sections 8 to 19 the Board is to have the objective of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good.
(2) In subsection (1) the reference to serving the public good includes in particular—
(a) informing the public about social and economic matters, and
(b) assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy.
(3) The Board is accordingly, in the exercise of its functions under sections 8 to 19, to promote and safeguard—’.— [John Healey.]
Amendment made: No. 26, in page 11, line 35, at end insert—
‘( ) Where the Chancellor of the Exchequer gives a direction under this section—
(a) he must lay a copy before Parliament, and
(b) he must notify the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department of Finance and Personnel for Northern Ireland of the direction, who must lay a copy before the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively.
( ) Where the Scottish Ministers give a direction under this section—
(a) they must lay a copy before the Scottish Parliament, and
(b) the Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay a copy before Parliament.
( ) Where the Welsh Ministers give a direction under this section—
(a) they must lay a copy before the National Assembly for Wales, and
(b) the Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay a copy before Parliament.
( ) Where the Department of Finance and Personnel for Northern Ireland gives a direction under this section—
(a) it must lay a copy before the Northern Ireland Assembly, and
(b) the Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay a copy before Parliament.’. —[John Healey.]
Freedom of information
Amendments made: No. 28, in page 16, line 20, leave out ‘this section’ and insert ‘subsection (1)’.
No. 29, line 21, at end insert—
‘(3) Section 26 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (asp 13) (prohibitions on disclosure) does not, by virtue of section 36 above, apply to personal information which—
(a) is held by a Scottish public authority who has received it directly or indirectly from the Board, and
(b) is not held by that authority on behalf of the Board.
(4) In subsection (3) “Scottish public authority” has the same meaning as in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.’. —[John Healey.]
Amendment made: No. 30, in page 28, line 11, at end insert—
‘( ) Section 57 of the Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 (asp 14) (which provides for a central register kept by the Registrar General for Scotland for health and local authority purposes) is amended as follows—
(a) in subsection (2), in paragraph (d), after “department” insert “or an NHS body”;
(b) after that subsection, insert—
“(2A) In subsection (2)(d), “NHS body” has the same meaning as it has (apart from in Schedule 15) in the National Health Service Act 2006 (c. 41).”’. —[John Healey.]
Investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner
Amendments made: No. 31, in page 28, line 28, leave out ‘In Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (c. 13)’ and insert
‘The Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (c. 13) is amended in accordance with subsections (2) and (3).
(2) In Schedule 2’.
No. 32, line 31, at end insert—
‘(3) In the Notes to Schedule 2, after the paragraph relating to the Ministry of Defence insert—
In the case of the Statistics Board, no investigation is to be conducted in relation to any action taken by or on behalf of the Board in the exercise of any of its functions where the function is being exercised only in relation to Scottish devolved statistics (within the meaning of section 63 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007).”
(4) The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 (asp 11) is amended in accordance with subsections (5) and (6).
(5) In section 7 (matters which may be investigated: restrictions), after subsection (6A) insert—
“(6B) The Ombudsman must not investigate action taken by or on behalf of the Statistics Board in the exercise of any of its functions unless the function is being exercised only in relation to Scottish devolved statistics (within the meaning of section 63 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007).”
(6) In schedule 2 (persons liable to investigation), after paragraph 91 (Security Industry Authority) insert—
“91A The Statistics Board.”’.—[John Healey.]
Amendments made: No. 61, in page 30, line 34, at end insert—
‘“Intelligence Service” means—
(a) the Security Service,
(b) the Secret Intelligence Service, or
(c) GCHQ (within the meaning of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 (c. 13);’
No. 33, in page 31, line 20, after ‘authority”’ insert ‘(except in section 37(3))’.—[John Healey.]
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill establishes an independent statistics system in the UK that will help to deliver the Government’s principal objectives of a high-quality and high-integrity system, clearly defined roles, responsibilities and accountabilities and greater transparency, flexibility and value for money, as well as important independence from Ministers and a more central role for Parliament. There is no doubt that statistics matter. As well as informing us all about our economic, political, social and environmental worlds, they are crucial in a modern democracy to the judgments that people make about the promises that Governments make and their ability to keep them. In a rapidly changing economy and society, statistics matter more and more to a wider and wider range of users.
The UK statistics system already has great strengths, and its technical and professional capability is recognised as world class. The modern world places demands on our statistics system and, alongside developing consistent quality, we must improve public confidence in official statistics. The new statistics system set out in the Bill will help us to achieve both. It can evolve in the light of new, shifting statistical demands and experience, and it is the next step in the Chancellor’s reform of the machinery of economic governance, which began in 1997 with the statutory independence of the Bank of England, followed by independence for the Competition Commission and the Financial Services Authority. Each reform, like the reform in the Bill, set out in legislation independent, credible institutions with a clear remit from Government or Parliament, with decisions taken at arm’s length and full reporting with maximum transparency.
The quality and coherence of statistics across the UK will be improved, and we welcome the full participation of all the devolved Administrations in the new approach. We have retained as the basis for the Bill the framework for national statistics—perhaps the most radical reform of statistics for 30 years—that we introduced in 2000. We have retained, too, the long-established, well-supported decentralised system of UK statistics, whose considerable strengths were widely acknowledged by respondents to our consultations, by the Treasury Committee and by the Statistics Commission. We want to use the opportunity offered by the Bill to make the Office for National Statistics—the single largest producer of national statistics—independent of Ministers. We believe that independence for the ONS and independent scrutiny and oversight of the statistical system as a whole are most effectively delivered by a single institution—hence the central importance of the independent statistics board in our arrangements.
The board will have the core objective of promoting and safeguarding the quality, and comprehensiveness of official statistics as well as good practice. Following our proceedings on Report, it will do so in the wider public interest.
We need the non-executive membership of the board to bring a wide range of skills, backgrounds and expertise to its work from business, academia, public service and other fields. The members of the board will be crucial to the credibility of the board and its ability to hold the National Statistician properly to account for the running of the executive office and, where necessary, to challenge Government Departments and Ministers on the quality and integrity of the statistics for which they are responsible.
Crucially, the board will no longer be answerable to Ministers. It will answer directly to Parliament. Parliament will therefore play a central role in the future of our statistics system and will play an important role in holding the system to account. It will also set arrangements whereby the accountability function will operate. Ultimately, it is for Parliament to decide the arrangements that it wishes to have in place and the relationship that it wishes to strike with the board. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House takes an active interest in that, and is considering the comments that have been made throughout the proceedings on the Bill.
The Bill’s provisions, importantly, set out a way of enhancing data sharing in a way that has been widely welcomed by those in the statistics field. Stronger sharing of administrative data can improve the quality of statistical data and analysis, and our ability to make policy and judge its impact, and it can reduce the burden on those responsible for completing the surveys on which many of our statistics depend. The Bill provides, therefore, for the increased sharing of personal data between the board and other parts of Government where that sharing is for the sole purpose of statistical production and analysis. Of course, it is vital that the confidentiality of such data is properly protected, so we are taking the opportunity in the Bill to increase the safeguards and sanctions on the disclosure of personal data, including a tough criminal sanction for its unlawful disclosure.
We are using the Bill as an opportunity finally to establish proper employment status and rights for registrars in England and Wales. This is a matter on which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has campaigned tirelessly in his years in the House. The Bill will make the 1,700 registration officers employees of local government and give them access for the first time to the rights and protections that are already available to others. It will ensure that registration officers retain their current terms and conditions on transfer to local authority employment.
This has been a thorough and productive scrutiny process. I hope hon. Members who have given so much to the work of scrutiny have found it as constructive and useful as I have. I thank in particular the hon. Members who led from the Opposition Front Benches—the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). I thank also the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie).
I hope Members will agree that, even though we may not have reached a meeting of minds on some of the detail, there is much more on which we agree in principle. I welcome the support that has been given for a number of particular proposals in the Bill. Whatever our remaining differences, I hope all Members will agree that there is no doubt that the Bill leaves the House in better shape than when it started. That is the proper role of Parliament, and Members have played a full part in its scrutiny and improvement. I commend the Bill to the House.
We have finally reached Third Reading. There was a point when we wondered when Report stage would ever appear on the agenda, but eventually it did, after several weeks. From the lack of attendance for part of the debate today, it seems that much of the House thought that it had not yet arrived.
The scrutiny process has indeed been useful. We would like to have seen many further changes to the Bill, and we hope that the debate will continue in a lively fashion in the other place.
We will not vote against the Bill tonight because we agree with significant aspects of it. We welcome the reduction in ministerial influence over the statistical services; the establishment of an independent board to oversee Government statistics; the new code of practice; the fact that the reforms will apply across the whole of the UK, including the devolved Administrations; and the extension of employment rights to registrars.
We have long called for politics and spin to be taken out of official statistics, which is vital important if people are to trust them. It is also vital to secure this goal if we are to entrench economic stability in our economy. Like a doctor taking the temperature of her patient, any Chancellor desperately needs to know the unvarnished facts about the state of the economy. No Chancellor should ever make the mistake of believing his own propaganda. However, although the Bill goes in the right direction, towards the calls made by Conservative Members for independent statistics, it is too timid to achieve the crucial goal of ensuring that official statistics are, from now on, free from political interference.
The Bill should be all about letting go. It lets go of certain functions and passes them to independent institutions. However, if the Government want real economic reform, they should prise away from Ministers the powers over statistics to which the Bill allows them to cling—the power to keep statistics out of the scope of the code of conduct, the power to determine the budget for statistical services, and the power to determine pre-release rules.
Let me take a canter through some of the issues of interest and controversy that we have discussed over the past few weeks of scrutiny. We have acknowledged the importance of using administrative data for statistical purposes. I am delighted that that is confirmed in the Bill. There is consensus that such data can be a rich source of information for statisticians and can cut costs for Government and for business because of the reduced number of surveys that will be needed if administrative data can be relied on. Throughout the scrutiny process, however, we have sought assurances from Government on the confidentiality of administrative information. As we have made plain, we would strongly resist any attempts to divert census or other administrative data into the forthcoming national identity database, and we urge Parliament to continue to monitor the use of personal data for statistical purposes with great care to see how the arrangements operate in practice. As well as the self-evident privacy concerns that we have discussed, and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) referred, we must also recognise that any failure to safeguard confidentiality would threaten statistical projects if it deterred people from disclosing sensitive information.
We have debated extensively the institutional structures proposed in the Bill. The Opposition remain concerned that the proposal to merge the functions carried out by the ONS and the Statistics Commission represents a step backwards in our progress towards a better and more impartial statistical system. We are concerned about the loss of the independent watchdog. Moreover, granting to the successor to the commission responsibility for the production of statistics will damage its credibility in providing impartial scrutiny of the statistical system.
It is also a matter of regret that the Minister has resisted calls for the Bill to enhance and strengthen the status of the National Statistician, which is a key part of a successful and independent statistical system. Only if she is viewed as the leader of the Government statistical service, with real clout to promote excellence and best practice right across the system, including within Departments, will this reform achieve the goals that the Government have set for it. Only then will she be able to provide the professional backing to enable statisticians to resist pressure from Departments to slip below the highest standards of integrity and impartiality. Only if she has the power to push for co-ordination and consistency will this reform address and mitigate some of the inherent drawbacks of our decentralised system and help to deal with the fragmentation problems that, as the Minister acknowledged, have existed in relation to data following the devolution process.
Perhaps the most significant weakness in the Bill is the fact that it effectively gives Ministers the right to decide whether the new code of practice and the full rigour of the reforms will apply to their departmental statistics. If they choose, they can keep the board away from important indicators and figures on public services. It is not sufficient for the Minister merely to say that he expects the board to promote the code as a model of good practice for all Departments, since he is giving it inadequate tools to ensure that those Departments are brought into line if they fall below the standards required by the code.
The Bill would have been greatly strengthened had Ministers’ power over funding the board also been removed or constrained. Every Member of the House knows that the person who sets the budget or writes the cheque has significant power in any organisation. Under the present Chancellor, more than any other, the Treasury has cast an ever-lengthening shadow over a vast range of Government activities. Any Minister will be familiar with bruising battles over funding. Yet, under the Bill, the statistics board will have no Minister outside the Treasury to fight its corner for a share of resources. Earlier, we were told that, being internal to the Treasury, the board was likely to get a better deal. I am not sure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs would agree with that, given the settlements that it has received recently. The Gershon process also seems to indicate that those departments directly linked to the Treasury do not get a special deal or more favourable or generous treatment.
The Minister has promised us that the new independent framework would cover financial arrangements but has failed to tell us how that process will work. He has promised us a transparent formula for funding but so far has failed to be at all transparent about it. The longer he spoke on that in Committee, the more concerned the Opposition became. The Bill gives Parliament no role in relation to funding beyond ordinary methods of scrutiny. The Opposition believe that Parliament should call the shots on funding. Putting the budget in the hands of a Joint Committee of both Houses would provide the expertise, gravitas and impartiality to ensure that the funding process could never be politicised by Ministers. In that way, we could have imported some admirable qualities from the structure that governs the National Audit Office.
The Minister spoke repeatedly, with warmth and enthusiasm, about the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, and yet Parliament’s role in relation to the statistical service under the Bill seems no stronger than it is in relation to any ordinary department. It is a matter of regret that the Government have rejected a structure that would have put Parliament in the driving seat in relation to the statistical system and its funding arrangements.
Pre-release is emblematic of so many of the defects in our current system. Our current rules give pre-release access to more statistics, to more people and for longer periods than any other country in the developed world. They give Ministers far too much scope to use early access to statistical information to manage the news agenda and discount bad news in advance. That kind of activity can do so much to undermine trust in official statistics. In that area, the Government’s reforms in 2000 probably made the situation worse by reinforcing ministerial control over pre-release rules and reducing the constraint that the head of the government statistical service had previously been able to place on pre-release access.
We have acknowledged the case for limited pre-release access to data. If the reform is to succeed, however, we believe that pre-release rules should be tightened. Even more importantly, we believe that the board should have the final say over what those rules should be. Sadly, sympathetic as he might be, the Minister no doubt has his hands tied by Ministers in other Departments who are anxious to maintain the political advantages that the current system gives them. Rather than entrenching ministerial control on pre-release rules into statute as the Bill proposes, we should trust the board to get the decision right on that. Neither I nor the Minister should make that decision; neither of us is truly disinterested. If the Government really want to let go of statistics, painful as that is, they should let go of pre-release as well—not to see it abandoned, but to let the board decide what the rules on pre-release should be.
Today, we are making progress towards the independence for statistical services that the Opposition would like, but not enough. Today could have been an historic day for economic governance in the UK—but it will not be. It could have been the day when we set the statisticians free of political interference and took the spin out of statistics for good—but it will not be. The Minister has steadfastly resisted our calls to make that final jump, that final break with a discreditable past and the manipulation and dissembling that has become such a notorious hallmark of this Government. It would take an act of political courage—not to say political irony—for the Government who have elevated news management to the level of a political creed to be responsible for entrenching impartiality, objectivity and honesty into all official statistics. Sadly, the Minister will not, or cannot, take that step. The Government cannot quite let go. If the Government will not listen to us and will not listen to the hundreds of concerned experts and stakeholder groups, I hope that they will be forced to listen to a message loud and clear from the other place—that their reforms are welcome and go in the right direction, but that they are not sufficient and must be significantly strengthened before the British public can again place their trust and confidence in official statistics.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary mentioned the registration service. I thank hon. Members for not tabling amendments against that aspect of the Bill—not one amendment was tabled against that part of its contents.
I shall be delighted on 9 May when I visit Leicester for the annual conference of the Society of Registration Officers, of which I am the patron for England and Wales. I have addressed nine previous conferences in all parts of the country. On occasion, I have had to hang my head down because I have been so full of excuses for why my Government have not delivered employment rights to the more than 1,700 registrars and superintendent registrars who work so ably across England and Wales in every register office, which all of us need to use—sometimes in tragic circumstances, but mainly in happy circumstances when we have births or marriages in the family.
This year will be my 10th address. I will be delighted to say that my Government have at last delivered what registration service officers have been asking for—the chance to go to an employment tribunal if they are unfairly dismissed or sacked. It does happen. I have seen some sad cases where people have had to leave the service under a cloud and they have not had the rights that nearly all other workers have throughout the land.
As my hon. Friend said, registration officers are employed, appointed and housed in local authority offices. Those offices are sometimes not very good. The office in Bolton is now delightful, although it did not used to be. The pensions are also provided by local authorities. It is therefore proper that the responsibility for discipline should move to the control of local authorities. The Society of Registration Officers has been asking for that for a long time, and recently it has been supported by Unison. Those people who have been campaigning with me for that, and those who have been campaigning include the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services as well, will be delighted by this evening’s events.
On a lighter side, it was a privilege to listen to hon. Members who know far more than I do about statistics. I learned a lot during the course of the Bill’s passage through Committee. It occasionally got difficult to listen, though, so I started to count the number of times that people tripped over the word “statistics”, and particularly over the word “statistical”. I commend the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers)—she tripped over the word “statistical” only once this evening. I am concerned, however, about the Bill’s passage in the other place because there are more dentures there. I imagine that when Members in the House of Lords start to pronounce those words, false teeth might flow all over the Chamber.
I have lobbied a lot of Ministers and I have been travelling on two parallel tracks. One is with the Department of Trade and Industry—I will not deal with that now—which is where the responsibility for employment legislation lies. The other relates to my lobbying of successive Economic and Financial Secretaries who have been responsible for the part of the Office for National Statistics that concerns me. I commend my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who has listened not only to me but to Unison and the Society of Registration Officers, and has allowed us to deliver something extremely important to more than 1,700 people who have awaited this legislation for some time. My own detailed history of this campaign dates back to 1985. I shall not bore Members with it this evening, but it has been a long battle. SORO’s campaign dates back even further—it has waited a very long time for this moment.
The Bill does something more important than delivering what I have described; it also paves the way for the first major reform of the civil registration service since the service was set up as long ago as 1837. I think that all Members would agree that it is time the service was brought into the 21st century, as I am sure it will be. What worried registration officers was the possibility that as we reformed the service, local authorities might realise that they needed fewer of them. Some battles, in my view unnecessary, might have arisen as a result of that. However, as we have now given registration officers the right to go to an industrial tribunal, if local authorities try to remove them from their posts they will feel far more confident about the major reforms of the civil registration service that are just around the corner.
The Treasury tried to initiate some of those reforms through a regulatory reform order, the largest ever committed to the new Committee that came into being in 2001 under the Regulatory Reform Act of that year. Sadly, under the chairmanship of Peter Pike, the former Member of Parliament for Burnley, the Committee rejected the move. I know that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary now intends to use secondary legislation as a way of reforming the service. I thank my hon. Friend, and I look forward with confidence—as, I am sure, do SORO and Unison—to reform of a service that has long been in need of reform.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on the success of his single-minded and single-handed campaign to change the legislation. I am one of the many people whom he lobbied. It is gratifying when legislation is changed by a Back Bencher in such a progressive way.
The Bill is crucial—although the House has dealt with it in a fairly low-key way—because of the corrosion of public confidence in Government statistics. Various figures were given on Second Reading, but perhaps we should remind ourselves of the nature of the task. A survey by the Office for National Statistics showed that some 17 per cent. of the population believed that Government figures were produced without political interference, and only 14 per cent. thought that Government statistics were honest. It is an appalling indictment, not of this Government in particular but of Governments in general, that confidence in Government figures is at such a low ebb. That is why we need radical reform to produce a genuinely independent system, and in many respects the Government have provided that. We welcome the legislation in principle and welcome many aspects of it, although we have suggested many amendments—as have the Conservatives, with whom I think we broadly agree on the Bill.
The Minister has handled the Bill in a very courteous and reasonable way and has defused many of the arguments, but I continue to be troubled. Whenever we consult those in the wider statistical community—members of the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society and other bodies, and former chief statisticians of Commonwealth statistical offices—they continue to express grave disquiet about how the legislation is framed. We are often lobbied by outside organisations, many of which have axes to grind, but it is not clear that those people do have axes to grind. They are fellow professionals who are worried—they continue to be worried—on a professional basis by the nature of the legislation. The Minister acknowledged that in Committee, and I think that he is puzzled as to why there is such strong reservation and anxiety among fellow statisticians. That remains to be cleared up as the Bill progresses.
Yes; some of the strongest comments have come from Australia and Canada, for example. That might merely reflect the personalities concerned, but those countries have similar systems that appear to work well, and the people who have had experience of running them continue to express worries about how the British legislation is couched. That issue has yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
For my party, there are four remaining areas of concern about the Bill. The following comments on them will largely parallel what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) has said. All of those concerns have been discussed this evening, so I do not need to rehearse the arguments in detail, but I shall briefly address each one. The most important relates to the pre-release procedures. The Minister’s response is to say that secondary legislation is on its way and that that is reassuring because it will have greater force than a code of conduct operated by the statistics board. Unfortunately, we have no idea what will be in that secondary legislation. We do not know whether it will be an improvement. It might well be an improvement, in which case all the anxieties that people have expressed will be ill-founded and we can all sleep safely and soundly. However, as we have no idea what will be in the secondary legislation, we are not yet reassured.
When we ended our discussion of the matter, the Minister’s parting comments worried me slightly. In response to points made by Liberal Democrat Members and others about British comparative performance, it was noted that other countries also release data on previous days. So far as I can establish, only two other countries do that, and that is restricted to overnight release and hedged around with great restrictions on the number of people to whom access is given and the number of items for which that provision is granted. Therefore, the Government will have to move a long way in their secondary legislation to provide the sort of reassurance that Members and people outside this House seek.
The second area of anxiety remains in the field of governance, and particularly in the separation of functions—and especially the National Statistician, non-executive members of the board and the scrutiny function. Earlier, we had a frustrating discussion in which the Minister agreed with what we were saying and we agreed with what he was saying, but he said, “At the end of the day, we can’t include what you want in the Bill.” That might be the case for legislative reasons, but I think that the Government might be able to deal with this issue in a satisfactory way and remove it from the list of problematic issues. Let me offer my suggestion. One of the organisations that has expressed concern about the lack of clarity in the governance procedures is the Bank of England. It said that the role of the National Statistician was not clear. If it is possible to do so, it would be desirable to get a letter from the Governor of the Bank of England stating that he has read the Minister’s comments in this House and that he is duly reassured and is now satisfied that the procedures and the demarcation of roles are clear and that there is no further doubt over the issue. If such a letter could be obtained, I do not think that any Member would quibble any further and we would accept that the matter has been dealt with in an entirely satisfactory way and that there is no need to change the legislation any further.
The third area of concern is to do with the issue of the two tiers—the official statistics and the national statistics. We have gone a long way in trying to work with the Government model. They have made a strong case for a certain kind of model that distinguishes the two types of statistics. There is certainly a case for doing that, but we continue to be troubled by the fact that there is no ultimate veto over a ministerial veto. The Minister has the last resort, however much a set of official statistics is being abused at a departmental level. There appears to be absolutely no come-back to ensure that integrity can be restored.
There are various ways in which a mechanism could be introduced. We suggested one this evening, but the Government did not find it satisfactory. However, a mechanism has to be found from somewhere, so that within this decentralised system, abuses of official statistics at a ministerial level can be safeguarded against. As the Bill proceeds to another place, I hope that the Government will come up with a formula for dealing with that problem.
The final set of difficulties is the one that we discussed a few moments ago, and it relates to the role of the Treasury. Like the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, I am not anti-Treasury in any respect. It is has a very high level of competence and integrity, and I have no particular quarrel with the way the current Chancellor has used his powers in making appointments, so there is no gripe or political point to be made here. The central issue is that the most sensitive Government statistics are those relating to economic data, such as employment and inflation statistics. It is therefore all the more important to ensure that the people who will exercise independent scrutiny and management of statistics are not appointed by the Minister with the most direct interest in influencing those statistics. It is not a question of the present incumbent abusing those powers; it is the potential for abuse that we must safeguard against. Channelling responsibility through the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office was one mechanism, and others have been suggested. However, it is very important that the Government acknowledge this potential conflict of interest.
Like the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, I look forward to seeing the Bill when it returns to us from the other place. I suspect, on the basis of certain comments made by Lords, that there will be some difficult amendments for the Government to circumvent. There are strong feelings about this Bill and I look forward to debating it again when it returns.
I thought that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) rather undervalued the process that we have been through in Committee and since. We are taking part in an historic event, and I should tell colleagues who were in Committee that I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the debates. Our proceedings have been particularly good, the issues have been intelligently approached by Members in all parts of the House, and the Minister has responded to our concerns.
I particularly welcome Government amendment No. 48, which has been agreed today and makes it clear what statistics are for. There is always a danger of statistics being treated as though they are for statisticians—as though they are merely neutral, arid facts. They are not. The amendment made it clear that the wider public interest has to be served by the preparation, collection and publication of statistics. It made it clear that the purpose of statistics is to inform the public so that they can understand the issues that those statistics reflect, and to inform public service delivery. In other words, their purpose is to paint a picture of reality.
I have never believed it right to say that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. There are lies, damn lies and statistics misinterpreted, misapplied and misused. However, statistics used properly and engaged with can lead to an evidence-based approach to debate in this House and elsewhere, and to an evidence-based approach to public policy. In other words, statistics are not just for statisticians—they are far more important than that. They are there for all of us who are concerned about public policy.
Of course, the independence and objectivity of statistics is vital and basic, which is why I applaud the Government for introducing this Bill; and of course it is right for Members to be concerned about improving the level of objectivity and independence in order to ensure the integrity of statistics.
I say to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that the level of public confidence in statistics is probably a reflection of the low level of public debate in the media, rather than of the level of trust that can rightly be placed in statistics. In my experience—I am not talking about statistics produced only by the Government, but by local government and many other agencies—they are generally produced with integrity and are always subject to challenge. We should always ask whether they have been prepared on the right basis and whether the right questions have been asked. The general quality of the preparation of statistics in this country is very high indeed. To treat them with disdain or disrespect, as the media frequently do, or to suggest that they can be interfered with by Ministers, is actually flying in the face of reality.
My particular concern is to ensure that statistics are fit for purpose in terms of their effective use—not just at a national level, but at local and sub-regional level, as well as national and regional levels. That has been the subject of serious debate during the passage of the Bill. I underline again the fact that statistics are not ends in themselves, but the means to such ends as crime reduction, an improved quality of life or better service delivery in health and education, which are vital to our constituents.
I hope that the result of amendment No. 48—building the purposes of statistics directly into the Bill—will translate into action by the National Statistician and the statistics board. We want an effective focus on ensuring that the relevant national and official statistics provide evidence of local variations and service needs, for example. By local variations, I mean not just local authority areas, but ward and sub-ward level statistics. Those statistics should help us to ensure that, wherever people live, they get the service and response that they need, as reflected in the figures produced.
Very often, those of us who have been involved in public life at whatever level will say, “Give me the facts”—and very often it is difficult to get hold of them because the wrong questions have been asked and the wrong statistics collected. Once the board is appointed, I hope that it will not just ask questions by looking backwards—perhaps to what were important issues of public policy last year or 10 years ago. Actually, the board should press policy makers to look at the statistics and ask questions about next year or the next five, 10 or 20 years. We should be collecting information now that will help to inform public policy for the very long term. That means encouraging the confidence and engagement of the public with facts.
It is a very sad fact that nowadays an opinion expressed in a blog can be repeated by a national journalist on the front page of one of the less responsible newspapers in a way that may appear to give it equal value to the important statistics produced by the National Statistician, the Office for National Statistics and, indeed, by other authorities. I think that undermines the quality of debate about important issues in this country. That is why I believe that this Bill is one of the most important that has come before the House this year.
To provide one example, it has always seemed to me that in dealing with the reduction of crime and disorder it is very important to deal with the facts. Most people’s view of crime and disorder in the local area is informed by what they see in the local newspapers. Many people therefore think that crime has gone up in areas where it has, in fact, gone down. I recall a recent discussion at St. Mellons in my constituency in which a police representative referred to a slight growth in burglary over the past year or so. When we asked what exactly that meant, it turned out that it was a fairly small increase in burglary, and those who had engaged with the issue over many years knew full well that the level of burglary in the area was far below what it had been 10 years earlier. It is important to be able to make those comparisons. It is also important, when the police and the local authority carry out their obligations to reduce crime in the area, that they know what they are dealing with.
At national level, we have very good crime statistics, which are tested by the figures in the British crime survey, which reflects people’s experience of crime. That tests whether the police statistics actually reflect reality, which is good. However, if that is not carried down to local level, so that people know what is happening in the city and in the local ward, it is impossible for them to be completely sure of what they are trying to do in terms of reducing crime as well as of chasing after offenders.
I could repeat that example across many other public services, but I shall mention just one. Analysing crime and violent crime in the city of Cardiff resulted in—
The point that I am making, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that the Bill, as amended today by amendment No. 48, makes clear the importance of dealing with the public interest and ensuring that the statistical information informs public policy, so that it can deal with the issues that concern our constituents on a day-to-day basis up and down the country. I believe that that makes the Bill fit for purpose, and that it makes the statistical purposes of the board and the National Statistician fit for purpose in addressing the needs of our constituents, rather than offering an arid and abstract ideal of statistics that is detached from the reality of human life.
The Bill has been greatly improved by our consideration of it on Report and it should have our strong endorsement as it passes into law.
First, I want to thank the Minister, who has listened during the Committee stage, even though he did not listen to everything that we said. I am pleased that we have put a definition of “public good” into statute, and that the points about dismissal for misbehaviour and about the directions have been cleared up. He has certainly listened, and I want to thank him for that.
Of course, serious flaws remain in the Bill. I shall not repeat them at length, but I have identified four, as did the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). First, the board remains a muddle of non-executive and executive members, and that is a problem. Secondly, it remains appointed and funded by Treasury Ministers, just as the existing Office for National Statistics is. That, too, is a problem. Thirdly, there is no full supervisory duty for the board right across Whitehall. Despite tabling a whole series of amendments, we have not been able to persuade the Minister to include that specific duty. Fourthly, as everyone has said, Ministers will still control one of the most generous and favourable systems of pre-release in the world.
Ministers appear to have started out with reasonable intentions for the Bill, but at some point between the consultation and the drafting, somebody somewhere changed their minds. We have had good debates in Committee and in the House today, but it is interesting that the Minister has been unable to adduce any evidence from systems elsewhere in the world to support the changes that he is making. On the contrary, the countries that have put their statistics on to a statutory basis have done so in a much more independent way than the Minister is proposing today.
The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the Commonwealth countries. I should like to bring to the House’s attention the example of Ireland, where legislation was passed in 1993. The statistics board in Ireland is completely non-executive; it has no role in management. It has an advisory and supervisory role. Its director general—that is what the national statistician is called there—is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister and works to the Prime Minister’s office, completely independently of any other Government Department. Critically, it is the director general, not Ministers, who deals with the issue of pre-release access, which is limited to a matter of hours. So there are still flaws in the Bill that need attention in another place.
I want to say a quick word about the Office for National Statistics. There is a danger that, while we have admired the plumage, we are forgetting the dying bird. It is clear to me—and it is certainly clear to the Statistics Commission—that the ONS is under huge pressure at the moment as a result of the reorganisation required by the Bill, the imposition of efficiency targets, the relocation to Newport and the preparatory work for the 2011 census, including this year’s pilot schemes. I am concerned about the multiple effects of those various changes on a small department of state.
To get the new board up and running by April next year will require a huge amount of work and senior management time. Meanwhile the ONS is required to meet challenging efficiency targets—I understand that the three initial targets for 2006 were missed. The modernisation programme is creating enormous burdens for staff. The relocation was mentioned in Committee. About 260 staff have to leave for Newport before next year and the rest by 2010, only a year before the census. In three years’ time few senior staff will be left in London, so I am concerned about the need to maintain the integrity of the department while all those changes are taking place.
The new board will have primary responsibility for the census, which will be a huge exercise, not least in garnering public support behind such an essential undertaking. The Statistics Commission wrote to the Financial Secretary on 1 February, pointing out that there were
“serious concerns requiring the closest attention of those who are responsible for setting the targets for ONS as well as those responsible for meeting them”.
I hope the Financial Secretary will bear those concerns in mind as we wish the Bill well and speed its passage through to another House where more attention will obviously be required for some of the flaws we have identified.
I shall be extremely brief, as I cannot share in the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to those who have been involved in the scrutiny of the Bill, because I have not been involved in it, although I have watched it with interest from afar. The problem after the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the patron of the Society of Registration Officers, is that now we all find it much more difficult to say the word “statistics”.
My approach to the measure has been to watch from afar the commentary and arguments about it, believing—as we all do—that we must give the statistical service far more independence than it has previously enjoyed. The underlying philosophy of the Bill is right, and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary was right to draw analogies with other parts of Government where we are trying to do the same thing. However, those of us who believe absolutely in the integrity and independence of the statistics service, who think the issues are more like those relating to electoral boundaries than to Government communications, want to insist on the importance of protecting that service. The test we have to apply is whether the new arrangements give enough independence to ensure that there can be no possible abuse in any foreseeable circumstances and create enough public trust, as we know that traditionally there has not been much trust on that front.
I supported the Government tonight, but I still have questions about aspects of the Bill. Some of them have been put in an extremely helpful, constructive and civilised way—what a refreshing example that is to some Members who undertake such scrutiny—matched on the Government Benches by the Financial Secretary’s civilised and courteous behaviour. My questions relate to the test, which will take place not in the serene circumstances of 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, but at moments of political crisis, when huge arguments are raging about the nature of the statistics that are being issued. We need to develop a system that can withstand that test at the most critical times. I have often thought that we needed a statistical ombudsman, who would weigh in when party controversy is raging on statistical issues and who could simply tell us and the great British public what the facts of the matter are.
I am not yet persuaded that we have got everything in the Bill right. I have no doubt at all that the direction of travel is right, which is why I wanted to support the Bill, but I hope that the Financial Secretary will recognise that we may not yet have arrived at the eventual destination. There is still a process to be undergone and I hope that the civilised and bipartisan way in which the Bill has been discussed so far will be continued right through to its final stage.
I welcomed the Bill initially. I wanted to support it enthusiastically, because it ought to have ensured confidence in the statistics that politicians, statisticians, planners, community groups and local authorities all use, and because it ought to have confirmed the validity of statistics that are removed from departmental interference, be that real or perceived. There are good things in the Bill. I am particularly taken with the creation of the new separate publicity hub for the dissemination of statistics once they are published. That is a good initiative and one to be welcomed. However, because there will not be forced adherence to the code of practice for all the key statistics, because all Departments can avoid making key statistics national statistics, and because the Bill will still allow the Treasury to appoint the board, the Chancellor to veto direction and the Treasury to veto the disclosure of data, I fear that the great hopes that many of us had for the new independent board may not be realised, or at least not as quickly as we would have hoped.
We will not oppose the Bill tonight, because the principle of independence supersedes the weaknesses in the detail. However, Members on both sides know of flawed statistics and I am certain that, although we all wish the new board well, we will keep in our sights all the statistics that we know to be flawed and monitor them ourselves to determine whether they improve. This is not something that needs to be included in the Bill, but, to help us to do that, it might be useful if, annually, a Treasury Minister were to come to the House and make a brief statement to comment on the list of designated national statistics that must be published annually anyway by the new board under clause 16. That would go a long way towards reassuring the House that there was not simply a monitoring of the process and of Departments by individual Members, but a clear, united monitoring of the whole process and how it is proceeding by the House. That could be achieved by means of the rather simple mechanism of a statement considering the published list of national statistics, which under statute must be produced every year anyway.
May I try to expunge from the minds of Members the dreary picture created by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) of, for goodness’ sake, a dying bird? In Newport, we see the ONS as a phoenix with iridescent plumage that is about to soar to new heights of independence and success. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), we have reservations about the Bill. I think that many of us would be persuaded by the arguments made by our own side and by the Opposition parties and would like to see the Bill improved. But this is the nature of Government. They have decided to give up some power. It is a rare event in politics for any Government to decide not to hang on to power. It is difficult to prise their hands off the lever of power. It has to be done finger by finger, but it is happening.
Andrew Dilnot said that this is the most important Bill in this Parliament and he is probably right. It is on a par with the independence of the Bank of England. I hark back to many years ago when some statisticians—it is a strange word and it is better to say it in Welsh; it is much easier to say “ystadegau” than “statistics” and I would commend everyone to talk about Y Bwrdd Ystadegau if they have trouble in that direction—came to see me as their constituency MP in the late ’80s to complain because the then Conservative Government were transferring Government control of statistics from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. The statisticians said that they were worried about what would happen to the quality of their work, given that the transfer was being made to the Department that had the greatest vested interest in fiddling the figures. It is wonderful to see that 10 years in opposition has radicalised the Conservative party to such an extent that it is pleading for more independence. We look forward—
It being Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
With the leave of the House, I will put motions 5 and 6 together.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 21st February, be approved.
That the draft Electricity (Single Wholesale Market) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 19th February, be approved.—[Mr. Roy.]