House of Commons
Tuesday 13 March 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Broads Authority Bill (By Order)
Order for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Tuesday 20 March.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Local Improvement Finance Trust Schemes
It is for Leicester City primary care trust to determine its plans for LIFT schemes by developing its strategic service development plan. I am pleased to confirm that it has already opened three new buildings to patients, with another two under construction, and five more in the planning stages.
I welcome the Government’s huge investment in our health service in Leicester, but what explanation can I give to my constituent, Mr. Mark Golding, whom I met on Saturday and who is suffering from a double hernia? He has waited four months for an operation, even though his surgeon told him that he would have to wait only three months. I do not propose that the Minister or the Secretary of State should conduct hernia operations themselves; in fact, we are grateful to them for not doing so, but how can we convince our constituents that we are making a huge investment when they still have to wait for operations—in my constituent’s case, in agony?
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is absolving me from personal responsibility. The only kind of doctor that I have ever been is a spin doctor, as he knows, and I would not trust anyone’s care to me. I know that he raised his constituent’s case at business questions last week, and I am informed that the waiting time targets have not been breached, as the case is being treated as routine, rather than urgent. If his information is different from that, I recommend that he bring it to the attention of his primary care trust. More broadly, on LIFT, in his constituency investment has been made in the Humberstone health centre and the Charnwood health and social care centre, and I believe that there are plans for a Belgrave health and social care centre. That is a huge investment in the primary care infrastructure in his constituency, and it will bring benefits not only to patients such as the gentleman whom he mentioned, but far more broadly.
Will the local improvement finance trust schemes have any bearing on the pathway project for the future of Leicester hospitals, and what should I tell my constituents now that the east and north wards in Hinckley and District hospital have been shut? Does the Minister think that the LIFT schemes will stretch across the county from Leicester and touch Hinckley?
The service at Hinckley is, of course, a matter for local decision, but there is an interrelationship between the facilities that are being developed through LIFT in the city of Leicester and the hospital’s trust, because LIFT allows for the development of services much closer to the patient’s home. Services that were traditionally provided in a hospital setting may now be delivered in local communities, because of the high quality of the facilities being built in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and elsewhere. Getting the infrastructure right, so that there is a secondary service, surrounded by high-quality facilities in the community, is a matter for local decision making.
The Minister is an honest, shrewd and talented man. How convinced is he that handing over long-term, exclusive contracts to the private sector, so that it owns, manages and finances public infrastructure and services, represents good value for patients and taxpayers, given that there is a growing body of evidence that points in precisely the opposite direction?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous comments at the beginning of his question, and I hope that I can assure him that there is a process locally, whereby each scheme is tested and signed off by the district valuer. Before the scheme proceeds, it needs to be clear that it represents good value for money in the long term. LIFT schemes are a different way of funding primary care facilities; they deliver facilities that could not have been delivered under the old ways of funding, because they bring together a broader range of partners, who invest in something far better than GPs or primary care practitioners operating alone could ever have built. There are persuasive and compelling arguments in favour of the LIFT model, because LIFT schemes are transforming health care in some of the most deprived communities, including inner-city communities, of the country.
Will the Minister ask for an audit of LIFT schemes in the Leicester area and elsewhere to assess the number of projects that have been able to incorporate energy-generating systems, rainwater harvesting or recycling measures in their design? Given that they make a fundamental contribution to climate change measures, it is disappointing that we have experienced so much difficulty in getting those schemes accepted as part of the design brief, so it would be useful for the House to know how successful we have been.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is fair to say that some LIFT schemes have made a considerable step forward in incorporating energy efficiency measures into their design, but others could have done better. That is an honest response to his question. The health service must make sure that the people who make decisions on procurement have energy efficiency and environmental issues at the top of their concerns as well as the provision of the highest-quality facilities offering modern health care services. My hon. Friend is therefore right to push us on that point. I will take an interest in the way in which LIFT schemes that are under development pay attention to energy efficiency, and I will write to him on the subject.
NHS Turnaround Programme
The estimated expenditure on the turnaround programme to 31 March 2007 is £10 million in central costs and £36 million locally. This is about 3 per cent. of the forecast in-year savings from the programme.
Since the Secretary of State’s visit to Milton Keynes last summer, the Fraser day hospital has closed, along with a 23-bed surgical assessment unit, and there have been cuts to mental health services, oral health services, language therapy services, podiatry services and counselling services—the list goes on—so does she consider the turnaround programme in Milton Keynes a success?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the fact that in the past three years the budget for the national health service in Milton Keynes has increased by more than £47 million. In the current two years, it will receive a further £55.6 million increase. I congratulate the staff of Milton Keynes primary care trust and others working in the local NHS who have made difficult decisions this year to reduce their deficit, although they will need longer than this year to do so. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speak to his hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who said in the House yesterday that primary care trusts
“receive a given amount of public expenditure resources.”
He might have said they receive more than every before. He continued:
“They should live within the overall resource envelope.
He said that a PCT
“has a responsibility not to spend more than the resources that are voted to it through the House.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 41.]
Does the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) agree with that, or not?
My right hon. Friend will know that in its report on NHS deficits the Select Committee on Health said that the fact that the turnaround programme had to be introduced was
“a sad reflection on the quality of much management in the NHS over many years.”
When does she think that the turnaround teams will leave NHS institutions, which will be capable and competent enough to run services themselves?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the Health Committee report that was debated yesterday. The scale of achievement by NHS managers and front-line staff, supported by turnaround teams, is indicated by the in-year position of organisations that had a deficit last year. That deficit has been reduced by £600 million, almost all of which—nearly £500 million—can be attributed to the turnaround organisations, which have supplemented the excellent management in many parts of the NHS. It is up to local organisations to decide when they cease to make use of them.
The decisions to which the hon. Gentleman refers are, of course, for the local NHS to make. Delayed discharges are a serious problem, and the local primary care trust must satisfy itself that alternative arrangements are in place, including intermediate care in patients’ own homes, to ensure that it does not recur and become worse, as it did when his party was in power.
Turnaround teams are important, because they resolve the problem in the current financial year so that there are not even bigger projected problems in the next financial year, 2007-08. Is it not right that individual trusts live within their means so that other partners and NHS trusts are not disadvantaged?
My hon. Friend is right. It was unfair and unacceptable that in the past a minority of overspending trusts were bailed out, sometimes year after year, when other parts of the NHS—mental health organisations or, more often, underspending trusts in parts of the country, especially the midlands and the north—had even worse health problems. That was not fair and it gave the overspenders no incentive to sort themselves out. I am glad to say that with the fair, transparent and responsible financial system that we have put in place, we are stopping that unfairness at last.
In figures dragged from them last June, Ministers said that the declared central costs of the turnaround programme would be £5 million. Successive freedom of information requests showed that those costs have more than doubled to £11 million, and more recently we managed to extract the information that the local cost of the programme is more than £24 million. The central £11 million plus the £24 million means that the financial incompetence of the Secretary of State has so far cost £35 million, and rising. As the growth deficit of the NHS is forecast to increase this year, will the right hon. Lady tell us what the turnaround teams have delivered, what the final cost of the programme will be, and above all, at what cost to front-line patient care?
Spending on the turnaround teams has been higher than we originally estimated because we found that more organisations had been overspending—some of them for years—and needed to go into the turnaround programme. The investment in the turnaround programme is a very small proportion of the savings that are now being made. The hon. Gentleman might wish to acknowledge that, as we indicated in the most recent financial report, eight out of 10 hospital trusts and seven out of 10 primary care trusts report an improvement on their in-year position. There has been an enormous improvement in the in-year position, and thanks to the difficult decisions that NHS managers and staff have made, the NHS has got a grip on its finances while continuing to improve waiting times, cancer treatment and other key services. By returning to balance at the end of this month, the NHS will be in a far stronger position for the next financial year and able to make further improvements for patients, particularly in cutting waiting times even faster.
The Department of Health is currently investing some £170 million a year in cancer research. We have the highest level of patient participation in cancer trials of any country in the world. Through the National Cancer Research Network we are providing the research infrastructure for 20 studies on brain tumours, seven of which are focused on adults and 13 on children.
Given that no fewer than 16,000 people a year are diagnosed with brain tumours, that they are the biggest single disease killing children and that more than half of those suffering aggressive brain cancers die within 12 months, is it not a scandal that the General Medical Council treats brain tumour research as a Cinderella sector and that, as a consequence, life-saving medical breakthroughs are delayed or denied?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours. He is also here today, I think, to promote March as brain tumour awareness month. I know from his constituent, Sue Farrington Smith, who was one of the founders of the charity Ali’s Dream, that the hon. Gentleman has been very involved and shown his commitment in a number of ways. I understand the point that he makes. That is one of the reasons we have tried to increase the funding for cancer research across the board. Significantly, more than 60 per cent. of our total spend on non-site-specific research develops our understanding and ability to treat many different cancers. We have established, as he knows, the National Cancer Research Institute, primarily to identify the gaps and opportunities for future research. That is why I am pleased about the 20 projects that are under way, but clearly this is an area that needs looking at. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in November that she has asked Professor Mike Richards to develop a cancer reform strategy to build on the 2000 cancer plan and to consider how we can improve cancer services, especially for the less common cancers, of which brain tumour is one, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about the mortality rate of those who develop brain tumours.
Does my hon. Friend share my worry that the big problem is early detection? People go to GPs and get passed on for other treatments, when what is needed is early diagnostics to show that they have a brain tumour, of whatever type. Does she agree that we need to give that support and extra funding to GPs?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point, which was raised with the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) in an Adjournment debate last year. In summary, it is necessary to consider early diagnosis. That is why the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence updated its referral guidelines for suspected cancers in June 2005. The guidelines are aimed exactly at the people my hon. Friend mentions—primary care health professionals—in order not only to identify patients who are most likely to have cancer but to see how we can identify the early signs and symptoms of cancers in children and young people. In addition, the NICE guidance on improving outcomes is a useful tool for trying, through the cancer networks, to get not only better diagnosis but better care and treatment plans for individuals who are affected by cancer of whatever form, including brain tumours.
The Minister will be aware that there is a new drug with great potential to deal with brain tumours—Temodal, which, it is hoped, will have NICE approval in June. She will also be aware, however, that approval has been delayed by 12 months because of a statistical error in the first draft of the NICE report. What would she say to my constituent, a 41-year-old father of two, who is dying of a brain tumour that, it is widely accepted, will respond dramatically to Temodal but who cannot receive it because Richmond primary care trust has a policy of not funding drugs that have not yet received NICE approval, despite the fact that everyone knows that that is a matter of only months away? What advice would she give—
PCTs have the authority to approve drugs even if they have not received NICE approval. It is always extremely difficult for families who are going through cancer or other diseases, but we have a process to try independently to come to the right conclusions about different drugs and treatments. It is difficult to plan for these things when people are experiencing such diseases and cancers as we sit here today. However, I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that in establishing NICE we have tried to provide the best independent mechanism for thoroughness as well as the opportunity for appeal, which is why the drug went back to NICE to ensure that NICE can make reasoned and properly thought through recommendations for the NHS. I understand that it is due to report in June this year.
The Minister has already mentioned the Adjournment debate that was held on 28 March last year, to which the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central responded. In the course of that response, she was kind enough to indicate that she would be prepared to visit the children’s brain tumour research centre in Nottingham. Has there been a ministerial visit, and if so what was derived from it? If there has not yet been a visit, may I encourage her or one of her colleagues to go as soon as possible to speak to Professor David Walker and his colleagues about the valuable work that they do and how the Government might help?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. My right hon. Friend says that she is not aware of an invite, but of course she is always open to such invitations. We are mindful of the opportunities that we have to improve our knowledge and awareness of how the NHS can provide better services. I am pleased to say that in the past 30 years survival rates have improved for children. However, this is clearly a difficult area that poses different challenges to, say, leukaemia, but requires our attention. That is why we have tried to direct NICE to look for gaps and opportunities to further our knowledge while providing the best diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services.
NHS Finance (London)
Ministers have regular meetings with MPs and other stakeholders about services in London. We also receive a regular flow of correspondence from across the country, including London.
To balance its books, Epsom and St. Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust is making cuts of £24 million in beds and clinical staff over the coming year. As part of that, it has a programme of cutting one in four beds across the trust. In October this year, it closed one ward at St. Helier hospital and reduced another from 26 to 14 beds, only to decide in December to reverse those decisions and reopen the wards. Surely that is the sort of false economy that undermines and disrupts staff teams, damages morale and puts patient care and safety at risk.
Overspending in the health service must be tackled; if it is not tackled, that will store up problems in the health economy of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to the detriment of patients who live there. It will also put on hold plans to invest in improving the health of people in the east of London who have contributed top slices to the central fund. I would be the first to agree that overspending should be tackled sensitively, without compromising patient care. Having looked at the trust plan to make savings by March 2008, however, I am satisfied that it is taking appropriate steps to recover such overspending. It is making progress, and the hon. Gentleman should support it in doing so. Ultimately, that will benefit his constituents, as well as the rest of London.
The City and Hackney Teaching primary care trust was top-sliced because it is a good financial performer, as I have often said in the House. Will my hon. Friend tell the PCT and the people of Hackney when the money that was top-sliced from it will be returned?
It is precisely because of the rigour in the system and the requirement that overspending be tackled that we can begin to return money for investment to those parts of London where health is poorest. To put that in context, London PCTs will receive an average 8.3 per cent. uplift in 2007-08, compared with an average of 5 per cent. this year. The top slice will also be returned earlier than expected because of the overall improvement in London’s finances. The picture is therefore more encouraging, although I do not dispute that difficult decisions needed to be taken to get us into that position.
Will the Secretary of State use her office to ensure that there is joined-up thinking about planning the provision of hospital services? People in Broxbourne face the closure of Chase Farm hospital in Enfield and of the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn, which would remove accident and emergency and maternity services from the north and south of the borough. When planning hospital services, will the Secretary of State ensure that such considerations are taken into account, because Hertfordshire and London are very different, although hospital services for the two areas overlap?
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s opportunism in asking his question during a question on London, but I accept that his constituents do use hospital services in the London area. It is important to get the right model of care in London to ensure that its health economies are stable in the future. Professor Sir Ara Darzi is currently conducting a review across London to develop the right model of care and the right balance between high-quality tertiary and secondary services and good-quality services in every community. He is therefore taking forward precisely the issues that the hon. Gentleman is asking us to take on board, and he will report in due course.
The Minister will be aware of the challenge from the Commission for Racial Equality to Brent PCT on the impact of cuts in local heath services, particularly on black and minority ethnic communities. Bearing in mind that, under this Labour Government, health inequalities have been increasing rather than reducing, does he find it acceptable that some of the most vulnerable communities are suffering cuts to vital services—such as district nurses, school nurses and mental health services—in order to clear deficits? Does he plan to do anything about that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, because it is important. As I said to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), it is important that when decisions are taken to recover a financial position, that must be done sensitively and not have a disproportionate impact on any particular section of the community. The Department is working closely with the Commission for Racial Equality to ensure that that is the case. However, I take that important point on board. I shall consider it in relation to Brent and write to the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), giving a fuller answer to the local situation that he raises.
Voluntary Organisations (Acute Hospitals)
In many hospitals, voluntary organisations play an important part, and are highly regarded, in providing a range of services to patients, staff and visitors.
Will the Minister join me in recognising the excellent voluntary work and major fundraising efforts of the League of Friends of the Princess Royal hospital in my constituency? Does he share my concern that it recently purchased £27,000 of ophthalmic equipment, donated it to the hospital trust and was told by hospital bosses that they could not accept it, even though it was needed, because they did not have the funds to run it? Does he agree that that farcical situation must be urgently investigated? If so, will he meet a delegation from the League of Friends in the near future?
I pay tribute to the work of the Princess Royal League of Friends. It has done an excellent job within the hospital in raising significant amounts of money and providing services over a number of years.
The specific issue must be resolved by the League of Friends, the hospital itself and the primary care trust to ensure that there is sufficient revenue to support the use of the capital equipment. The problem should be resolved at a local level.
Specialist Parkinson’s disease nurses provide clinically effective and cost-effective information, research and specialist care to people on acute wards. Will the Minister use his specialist nurse summit on 1 May to stress to local health boards and trusts that those nurses must not be moved from their specialist role and used in normal duties on general and acute wards? Will he also attend the Parkinson’s disease reception on 17 April?
I am always willing to join my hon. Friend at any reception to which she chooses to invite me. I pay tribute to her work on highlighting the important contribution that specialist nurses make within our NHS. It is one reason I decided to host the summit in May. We need to highlight best practice, raise the status of specialist nurses, and make it clear to the health service at a local level that specialist nurses have an important role to play, especially in long-term and chronic conditions.
One of the imponderables of life is the value that the voluntary sector brings to our acute hospitals. Does my hon. Friend agree that that same service is provided in hospices the length and breadth of the country, which do a terrific job, and by other organisations such as Erskine, which provides acute services to our disabled ex-servicemen and women returning from theatres of war?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who is the hon. Member who has not resigned—at least on this occasion, Mr. Speaker.
To secure the best possible health care and social care within local communities, it is crucial that we have a partnership between the NHS, local government and the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector often has a distinct and unique role to play in securing personalised, sensitive services that are close to local communities. We should use this occasion to pay tribute to the hospice movement, which does an amazing job in difficult circumstances. We recently made £25 million available specifically for children’s hospices. We are reviewing the way in which we provide palliative care to children and are, for the first time, about to make a significant announcement on major capital investment in the hospice movement.
We recently announced the new deal for carers, a package of support including £25 million for short breaks for carers in crisis situations in every council, £3 million towards a national helpline for carers, and £5 million for an expert carers programme. The Chancellor has also announced that we will be holding the most far-reaching national consultation ever on the role of carers. In the months ahead, we will invite carers’ groups and the voluntary sector to help us to design a modern vision for caring. That will inform the development of a new cross-government national strategy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that people living in care homes should have good access to dentists, chiropodists and opticians, even when they have mobility problems and cannot go out? As that appears not always to be the case, will he take steps to require care homes to make proper arrangements for such people, and also to require dentists, chiropodists and opticians to be willing to visit them in the homes?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. This is a two-way process. First, there are the responsibilities of care homes. Standard 8 of the national minimum standards states that a registered person
“promotes and maintains service users’ health and ensures access to health care services to meet assessed needs.”
That includes access to
“specialist medical, nursing, dental, pharmaceutical, chiropody and therapeutic services… access to hearing and sight tests and appropriate aids, according to need.”
Care homes must fulfil their responsibilities, but equally the professionals on the front line must acknowledge their responsibility for ensuring that older people, even those living in residential homes, have the same rights to high-quality health care as those who continue to live in the community. Responsibility must rest with both the managers and owners of residential care homes and the professionals who provide those services.
Why are the thousands of people who have important family responsibilities as carers in receipt of state pensions, but unable to claim the carers allowance? When will the Minister have a word with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to sort out that iniquitous, unfair position?
With all due respect, this Government introduced the annual carers grant for every local authority for the first time in 1999; this Government introduced the right for carers to request flexible working from employers; and this Government, through Parliament, are arranging for carers to be able to claim credits towards their pension entitlements. The cross-government review will take account of the fact that millions more people will fulfil caring responsibilities in the future, because as people live longer they also develop more conditions. Of course we will examine the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I remind him that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer recently made very clear—
When visiting the Portsmouth carers group, I have been struck by the dedication of our young carers. Will the carers programme provide any specific help and support for those dedicated young people, who are performing such a valuable task?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I can assure her that as part of the development of a new national strategy, we will pay specific attention to the needs of the often hidden young carers. Those young people are heroes, who spend the vast bulk of their lives looking after, usually, a dependent parent. Their caring responsibilities may affect their education, their health and their ability to lead the lives that most young people and children, thankfully, take for granted. We need to consider the specific needs of those children and young people and ensure that we give them the necessary and appropriate levels of support.
Is the Minister aware that one of the most vulnerable groups of carers consists of elderly people, often parents whose adult children have mental health problems? As part of his review, will the Minister ensure that mental health trusts provide a service to deal with crises? A telephone line may be useful, but it is no use unless there is a dedicated team of people who can go to the home or other place where the crisis is taking place. Will the Minister take action to ensure that vulnerable elderly parents are not disadvantaged further?
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. Ironically, as people live longer the age of carers increases, and the responsibilities that relatively older and frail people fulfil become more important. We will look into that as part of the review. However, it is also fair to say that in the announcement we made a couple of weeks ago on the new deal for carers, we specifically addressed the question of emergency respite. It has been suggested that that is not what people need, but many carers tell us that on occasions it is the emergency respite that is lacking. I should also mention the investment that we have put into telecare, which ensures that we can make the best use of the most advanced technology in people’s homes. That is another support mechanism that is making a real difference to the lives of carers.
The new deal for carers is very welcome. My hon. Friend mentioned hidden carers, and it is true that many carers do not identify themselves as such and that they do not know to look for the advice and support that is already available and that which will become available. Health professionals can help with that, as they are the people with whom carers have to be in contact. Will the Department of Health make a special effort in the coming months to inform GPs and their teams of that task and to make sure that they perform it?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done over many years in highlighting the needs of carers with regard to public policy—she has done a tremendous amount. I do not want to upset the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who is responsible for negotiations with GPs on their annual contracts, but if I am allowed to express a personal opinion I would say that one of the things that we want GPs to do in a modern health care system is to identify those of their patients who are carers—as GPs are frequently the health care professionals whom carers have the most contact with and confidence in—and then, having identified them, make sure that they get signposted to whatever services they need to support them to fulfil their caring responsibilities.
Is the Minister aware that there is real consternation throughout Staffordshire among carers and others at the decision of the county council to close all its care homes within a year? Will he summon leaders of the county council to discuss the implications of that decision and to satisfy himself that adequate provisions are being made for all the vulnerable people who are currently very anxious?
I understand the anxiety and insecurity felt by the older people affected by that decision, and also by their families and the staff who work in those homes. The local authority must make decisions in consultation with the affected parties. I have previously told my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that if it would be helpful I would be willing to meet those who are most affected. However, it is only fair to say that we cannot any longer make decisions about the best way to provide local services from offices in Westminster and Whitehall. What we can do is support that local decision-making process and make sure that the people who are most affected feel that they are listened to and respected.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As part of the new deal for carers, we announced two weeks ago the creation of an expert carers programme. That will specifically do two things: first, provide training to carers on the practical issues that they need to feel comfortable with and confident about in terms of lifting, handling and supporting whoever they are caring for in their own home; and, secondly, boost the confidence, knowledge and expertise of carers so that they feel that they can fight for the rights of the person whom they are caring for and relate on a more equal basis with professionals. Those will be the two objectives of our expert carers programme. I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue we are debating will become increasingly important, especially given the demographic changes that are taking place in our society.
May I make a plea to the Minister for there to be an entirely cross-party approach to those who have caring responsibilities? The biggest sector comprises those who provide it free—the volunteers. Does the Minister agree that although the Government have done quite a lot to assist them, those who voluntarily undertake caring responsibilities for the young, the old and those who are disabled genuinely deserve a better and fairer deal?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We introduced the annual carers grant, we announced the new deal for carers a couple of weeks ago, and we are also giving new rights and a new pension entitlement to carers, but there is a lot more that we have to do. The reality is that our society is changing. People are living longer and in doing so are developing an increasing number of frail conditions, which is asking new questions not only of the Government and the state, but of families. Disabled people, thankfully, are now having fuller and longer lives. The current review, led by the Treasury, on the needs of children with disabilities and their families and carers, is incredibly important. Wherever possible, these issues should of course be of a non-party political nature, but in the end it comes down to hard choices about the level of investment that the Government are willing to make in these services, and whether we are willing to prioritise families and carers in the context of the changing demographics to which I have referred.
NHS (Private Sector)
The NHS has always used the private sector for many services and will continue to do so where it can help the NHS to give patients even better care and better value for money. By the end of next year, patients needing elective treatment will be able to choose from any health care provider—NHS or independent sector—that meets NHS standards within the NHS price.
When Ministers held the proverbial gun to the heads of primary care trusts and told them to privatise the easiest elective procedures—or else—was the Secretary of State aware that under European competition law she was opening a Pandora’s box in that if she wished to run the NHS by market rules, she would have to play by those rules—even to the point that that would perpetually restrict her capacity to intervene to protect the public interest?
I do not accept for one moment the hon. Gentleman’s accusation. It is a great pity that he does not recognise the contribution that the independent sector is making at the Bodmin treatment centre, for instance, or—in a different part of his region—at the Shepton Mallet independent sector treatment centre. The latter is not only giving the patients whom it receives very good and much faster care, it has also led Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to change the way it organises its services, making it one of the first hospitals that will achieve for most of its patients the 18 weeks target—and a year ahead of the goal that we set.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that successive Secretaries of State for Health have assured the Health Select Committee that the policy of developing the use of the private sector is being pursued to address lack of capacity in the NHS. Can she confirm that that remains the major reason for that policy?
My hon. Friend is right. When we began the new compact with the private sector through the NHS plan in 2000, it was precisely to address the problem of additional capacity. However and as we have made clear in several successive documents—including the 2005 Labour party manifesto—we also use the independent sector where it can help to challenge under-performing parts of the NHS, support patient choice and give patients even better care. The fact is that there has always been private health care in Britain, but the difference is that under a Conservative Government, private hospitals recruited patients on the back of NHS waiting lists and treated only the few who could afford to pay. Today, thanks to our reforms, private hospitals and treatment centres are part of the NHS family. They are helping to cut waiting lists and to treat NHS patients—all of it free at the point of need.
To continue the theme, the Secretary of State is possibly aware that there is a charitable health trust associated with Epsom hospital. It has put in a bid to the local NHS agencies and authorities to purchase that hospital, and the intention is to run it for NHS, charitable and private patients. It has the backing of the local medical fraternity, and enormous financial backing. Is the Secretary of State willing to meet a very small delegation at or near the end of those discussions, so that it can set out its innovative and expanding programme?
The independent sector treatment centre in south Yorkshire has done a good job in helping to reduce waiting times throughout the area. It has been able to do so because it has been guaranteed money over and above the tariff, unproblematic cases and a set number of patients. If those advantages are to continue, eventually the centre will be in conflict with NHS hospitals, which will struggle to survive against that unfair competition. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that situation does not come about and that the independent centres do not threaten the existence of NHS acute hospitals?
All treatment centres take the simpler cases—that is why they are there—whether they are run by NHS hospitals, as the majority are, or by the independent sector. That is what they do, they do it well, and it speeds up care for hundreds of thousands of patients who need elective treatment. My hon. Friend is right that in the first wave of the independent sector treatment centres a premium was paid, although far less than the premium that the NHS used to pay to the private sector when it needed to use it to reduce waiting times. That was needed in the first wave to bring in new capacity, especially from abroad, when it was desperately needed. As I have indicated, what we are seeking to do is to move to a level playing field so that the independent sector and NHS hospitals will all provide care to the same quality and price, and all free at the point of need.
To assist integration between private sector treatment centres and the NHS, will the Secretary of State look at the practicalities of letting NHS consultants work in the private sector treatment centres even if they are in, for example, orthopaedics, which is currently defined as a shortage specialty?
That is an important issue and one that we keep regularly under review. We have discussed it over the past year or two, especially with the Royal College of Surgeons, and as a result have made some changes to both the shortage and the additionality rules in order to ensure that NHS surgeons and other consultants make their time available to their NHS employer first and foremost. If they have additional time that is not needed by that employer, they may make it available to those parts of the independent sector that are also treating NHS patients within the NHS family.
The SunSmart skin cancer prevention campaign will, we understand, include in its next phase the dangers of sunbed use, especially by those under 18. SunSmart is an integrated public health campaign that includes a high profile, intensive press and PR programme, supported by targeted distribution of public information resources.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I wish to draw to her attention some research on children under 15 that has been sent to me by two doctors at Singleton hospital. They found that 32 per cent. of girls and 9 per cent. of boys said that they had used sunbeds. I have also had information sent to me by the Killing Cancer charity, which found that 75 per cent. of girls under 15 said that they had used sunbeds. There are many doubting Thomases who say that there is no problem—
My hon. Friend has been constructively engaging with me and the Department to share her knowledge, especially her work on the worrying use of coin-operated sunbed parlours. As I have said, SunSmart will consider the next phase of the campaign, and especially how to approach and raise the awareness of those under 18. I have heard what my hon. Friend has said and I ask her to come into the Department to share her information with us so that we can think about how it can be incorporated into the next phase of the campaign. I very much welcome her interest and that of other hon. Members.
As set out in the most recent financial report, it is now clear that the NHS will achieve the three financial targets set for this year while maintaining key service standards. Achieving financial balance this year means that the NHS will be in a far stronger position in the new financial year and, in particular, will be able to make substantial progress towards achieving the target of 18 weeks maximum from GP referral to hospital operation.
That was just typical: I asked three specific questions and received not a single reply from the Secretary of State. I thought that she would at least quote the results of the Health Service Journal survey of chief executives of trusts across the country, which revealed that 50 per cent. of primary care trusts are delaying operations; that 47 per cent. of all trusts may, have made or intend to make redundancies; and that 73 per cent. of PCTs are restricting access to treatment. Is not the conundrum this—that at a time when there is record cash going into the NHS and welcome investment in capital projects, we nevertheless have cuts in treatment? How can that be?
At least the hon. Gentleman and his party voted for those extra resources. I am surprised, however, that he did not refer to the fact that the NHS in Somerset will get additional funding of almost £120 million over the current year and next year. That is being reflected in the improvements taking place in Minehead hospital, the new cancer centre in Taunton and Somerset and the new community hospital at Frome. We believe that what we need is fair funding for the NHS—record funding for the NHS—and the best care for patients within the budget available. I know that the Liberal party has never been very keen on sound public finances or value for money, but the Government will continue to ensure that patients get the best possible value from the record investment that we have made.
Is my hospital trust typical? The university hospital of North Staffordshire announced 1,000 redundancies as a result of its deficit, but ultimately only 150 redundancies resulted, two thirds of which were voluntary. Clearly, any redundancy is a matter of regret, particularly in an area such as north Staffordshire, but where does that leave the Opposition’s claims of 20,000 redundancies nationwide?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. In striking contrast to the scaremongering that we get from the Conservative party about 20,000 redundancies, over the current financial year there have been just over 1,400 redundancies, the great majority in management and administrative jobs. Although it is of course difficult for the individuals concerned—we are ensuring that the NHS supports them in these difficult times—it is very different from what the Conservative party and some of the media have been telling people.
What the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) failed to mention was that the Health Service Journal survey also revealed that seven out of 10 PCT chief executives agreed that patient care would suffer because of restricting access to treatments. Does the Secretary of State think that they should be applauded as good financial planners, encouraged by her Department to fudge the books and please the accountants, or is it a false economy that forces consultants to twiddle their thumbs for several months while sick patients are denied the treatments they need?
I very much regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman completely fails to give credit to the NHS managers and staff who, in a very difficult year, have got a grip on NHS finances and will achieve financial balance at the end of this month, putting the NHS in a far stronger position. May I suggest that he has a word with his hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), just two seats along, who told the House only yesterday that it was the statutory responsibility of—
The new strategic health authorities provide leadership and support to ensure that trusts operate effectively and deliver improved performance. The NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, as its name suggests, helps trusts to introduce best practice and radical new ideas to deliver health care.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate all the staff at the Royal Bolton hospital for saving lives, increasing efficiency and cutting waste by adopting the lean style of management? What can his Department do to spread such best practice throughout the national health service?
Staff in the health service are rightly suspicious of politicians or NHS managers who appear to have swallowed a management consultancy textbook. However, I went to the Royal Bolton hospital with my hon. Friend and, like him, I was incredibly impressed by what I saw. The key principle of the lean management process is that staff lead the change. They are empowered to make changes and drive through the programme on the wards. My hon. Friend’s hospital trust has seen a 30 per cent. reduction in length of stay for trauma, a 37 per cent. reduction in post-operative mortality and a cut in the processing time for blood samples from five hours to 30 minutes. Those are the huge benefits resulting from staff leading change in the hospital.
The Minister must know that thousands of doctors across the hospital sector are deeply angry at the disgraceful mismanagement of the modernising medical careers system. Three months ago, his predecessor said:
“Doctors in training in England should…be pretty confident about securing a training post”.
Will the Minister renew that assurance now?
The hon. Gentleman will know that, on learning of the problems, we immediately set up an independent review led by Professor Neil Douglas, the vice-president of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. The findings emerging from the review are already being implemented. We are not seeking to minimise the problems, or saying that they are not causing uncertainty for doctors in training. We accept that, which is why we have taken this swift action and why measures are now in hand to improve the situation. I point out to the hon. Gentleman, however, that these changes were, in origin, agreed with the royal colleges.
For a start, the Minister should apologise to junior doctors for the disgraceful shambles that they have been landed in. He has issued a ministerial statement today about the review, but it does not answer this question: if there are insufficient training posts—and if the assurance that junior doctors should be “confident” about securing a training post cannot be fulfilled—will the review recommend that additional trust grade posts be converted into training posts in order to address the problem?
We will see what the review tells us. Significant changes have been made to improve selection in the second round. People want to see immediate changes so that the situation will improve. We are trying to work our way through the situation to give people more certainty. More broadly, we have to get work force planning right in the national health service to ensure that there are sufficient people in training. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there are simple answers, and asking us to commit to new spending on extra posts, he is sorely mistaken.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you advise me on how best I can politely educate Ministers about the fact that Chase Farm hospital in Enfield, London, serves more than 100,000 people living in Hertfordshire? Many of my constituents, some of whom vote Labour, would be amazed at Ministers’ ignorance on this matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I genuinely seek your advice and help. According to today’s Order Paper, a written ministerial statement is to be made today by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the draft climate change Bill. Could you advise me on whether this matter should be the subject of a statement here on the Floor of the House, given the importance of the issue and the controversy surrounding the pros and cons of the matter?
That shows you how things have changed. Usually the hon. Gentleman gives me advice; now he is asking me to give him advice. These are matters for Ministers to make a judgment on, and I cannot be drawn into whether a statement should be written or—[Interruption.] Someone has a mobile phone, and it is not me. I cannot be drawn into whether it should be a written or an oral statement. That is up to the judgment of Ministers. Of course, if hon. Members feel that that judgment is not correct, they can seek an urgent question.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes.
Every year, 25,000 people leave work due to work-related illnesses. Under the Welfare Reform Bill, the Government are committed to achieving an employment rate of 80 per cent. My Bill would ensure that people who develop a disability during their working life, or whose existing disability deteriorates, are supported to remain in employment, where that is practicable.
An example of the sort of person that my Bill would help is contained in the report from the Stroke Association entitled “Getting Back to Work After Stroke”. After 13 years of loyal service to her employers, Janet Nicholson was not accommodated back to work after she suffered a stroke. Her employers told her that she had to leave because of her ill health. They would not pay her a pension or discuss any alternative employment opportunities in the company. In the 21st century, in a country that is recognised to be leading the world in caring, that is unacceptable.
The type of employment retention policy with which this Bill is concerned is known as rehabilitation leave, or disability leave. The use of the word “leave” implies that the person in question is keen to get back into work. That is a feature of the Warwick agreement between the Government and the trade union movement, in which it is made clear that everyone has a right to employment. Such a system would mean that people such as Janet Nicholson would not be treated unfairly by their employers, but instead would receive the help, support and encouragement needed to help them back into work. Companies, while being obliged to retain and help the people involved, would receive Government help and assistance.
Smaller companies would need more help, both financially and in terms of training. Larger companies such as BT already do their best to accommodate the unfortunate people who find themselves in the situation that I have described. One successful example involving BT is the case of Martha Wiseman, who had 18 months off work as a result of stress and anxiety and was eventually diagnosed as having clinical depression. By April 2006, she was getting much better, and BT expressed an interest in her returning to work. Gradually, and with her doctor’s agreement, she was able to return full time. Martha feels that, over the past six months, she has progressed to being 90 per cent. okay.
Martha says that she was treated very well by BT during her sick leave, and especially by her manager, who met her regularly to keep her in contact with office happenings and progress. Those meetings helped Martha, and her manager gauged how she was doing and when she would be able to return to work. Her manager and BT should be congratulated on the work that they did with Martha.
This Bill is needed to support the Welfare Reform Bill, and all parties agree that the numbers of people who are unemployed and claiming benefit should be reduced. It is illogical to support helping disabled people to get off benefits while allowing those who develop a disability to get laid off with a pension or to be forced into claiming incapacity benefit. That is no help to the worker involved, the company or the country—everybody loses.
My attention was first drawn to this problem by the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which says that about 66,000 registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in work. A further 4,000 people lose their sight each year, of whom 1,000 are forced into unemployment. Those figures will not help the Government reach their ambitious target of 80 per cent. employment.
Current Government programmes such as access to work and pathways to work make available a great deal of support and equipment to assist employers who employ people with disabilities. Pathways to work was developed to provide greater support to help people claiming incapacity benefit to return to, or get closer to, the labour market. About 9,000 pathways to work interviews have been conducted, and national rates for voluntary participation have averaged 8 per cent. of all customers interviewed. In Glasgow, I am pleased to say, that figure has reached 20 per cent.
Among the companies that have made use of the Government programmes and piloted schemes implementing employment retention policies are Lloyds TSB, Barclays bank, Royal Mail, McDonald’s and BT. They should all be congratulated on their efforts, but there is still more that could be done to encourage other companies to follow their example. That is especially true for those small and medium-sized companies that might encounter financial or training problems. That was recognised by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who has responsibilities for delivery and reform. At the Labour party conference he said that
“maybe there should be a legal right to rehabilitation leave.”
There is no maybe about it—there should be such a right.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) who as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was looking into introducing such a Bill. He is now a patron of the RNIB, an organisation with which I have been working on the Bill for some time. I was as grateful for my right hon. Friend’s backing for my private Member’s Bill last year as I am for his assistance now. With his help and guidance we may see the measure passed in the near future.
The Bill also has the backing of the Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Recently, the Disability Rights Commission expressed support for such legislation, encouraging the Government, employers and health services to develop proposals for the disability-related absences that are crucial to an individual’s recovery. My last ten-minute Bill on the subject was backed by the CBI and although no one from the organisation has contacted me yet, I am sure that the CBI is still committed to protecting companies and their skilled employees.
We must not fail those trying to cope with disabilities; they need our help and support. In fact, it is the duty of Government, business and communities to support those individuals. Being made unemployed through ill health demoralises the individual’s confidence and can often lead to long periods of unemployment and depression. As well as the effect on the individual, there is also an impact on the economy, as many disabled people never return to work. The result is a strain on the state and a burden on pension funds and benefit payments; there can even be additional recruitment costs for employers in replacing and training staff.
Through the Bill, the Government, at relatively little cost, will be able to ensure that any regulatory burden on employers is kept to a minimum. It would be an investment in the short term from which employers and employees would reap the benefits, and in the long term it would be an investment for the Government through benefits savings and tax collected.
I was pleased to be a member of the Public Bill Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill, where we recently discussed in detail a number of issues related to my Bill. However, I was disappointed that unfortunately, despite cross-party support, including that of the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—both of whom were complimentary about my endeavours to raise the matter in Committee—my proposal for an element of employment retention and rehabilitation leave was ruled out. In Committee, I was informed that my proposal fell within the remit of health, not of welfare reform, but I believe that as it had all-party support it would have been accepted and that the only debate we would be having now would be how to implement it.
The Government have put employment at the heart of their agenda over the past 10 years and have been supported by many Members on both sides of the House. I ask them to take a positive step forward and support the Bill. It would need little investment, which would be paid back many times over, but what would it mean for those affected? It would be priceless.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by John Robertson, Jim Sheridan, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. David Blunkett, Mr. Jimmy Hood, John Bercow, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Julie Morgan, Danny Alexander, Mr. Mike Weir and Ann McKechin.
John Robertson accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 May, and to be printed [Bill 79].
Orders of the Day
CONSOLIDATED FUND (APPROPRIATION) BILL
Order for Second Reading read.
Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith, and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
STATISTICS AND REGISTRATION SERVICE BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),
That the Order of 8th January 2007 (Statistics and Registration Service Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the following order: new Clauses 1 to 4; amendments relating to Clause 36; remaining new Clauses; amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 35; amendments relating to Clauses 37 to 73; new Schedules; amendments to Schedules; remaining proceedings on consideration.
3. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 9 p.m. at this day’s sitting.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10 p.m. at this day’s sitting.—[John Healey.]
Question agreed to.
Statistics and Registration Service Bill
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.