Lords amendments considered.
Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 3, leave out “Treasury” and insert “Cabinet Office”.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 9, 21 to 30, 40 to 64, 66 and the Government motions to disagree thereto, and Government amendments (a) to (qqq) in lieu thereof.
The amendments all deal with where residual responsibility for the statistics board should lie. As was said on Report in this House, the Government believe that if the provisions to ensure the independence of the board are effective, the question of who has residual responsibility will become much less significant. As a result, the Government still believe that the board would benefit from having the Treasury as a link with the Government. The Treasury has a strong interest in ensuring that there is a good evidence base, has long experience of working with and understanding statistics, and has a role in co-ordinating performance reporting and monitoring across Government.
We hoped that retaining the link with the Treasury might build further value into the reforms. There has been considerable debate on the issue in both Houses. The Government recognise the strength of feeling on the issue, particularly in the other place. We are therefore prepared to agree to the shift of responsibility in principle. However, for largely technical reasons, we cannot accept the amendments in their current form, so we have tabled some in lieu, which I hope will be accepted in both Houses. The amendments that we tabled are not all strictly consequential on the Lords amendments, so we have tabled a motion to disagree with the Lords amendments. However, I hope that it is clear that we accept the premise of the Lords amendments.
The key difference between the Government amendments offered in lieu and the Lords amendments is that our amendments would confer the responsibility for the board on the Minister for the Cabinet Office throughout the Bill, instead of on the Cabinet Office itself, which is a building, or on the Prime Minister. It is not usual to confer functions on a Department in legislation; the convention is to confer functions on Ministers, rather than Departments. The practice for the Treasury is no different in that respect, because when an Act of Parliament confers functions on the Treasury, it confers them not on the departmental Treasury but on the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury by virtue of the definition in schedule 1 to the Interpretation Act 1978. There is no similar definition of the Cabinet Office, so the functions that are to be discharged in the Cabinet Office must be conferred on the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Accordingly, the Government amendments follow convention in conferring the residual responsibilities for the board on the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
For the sake of administrative efficiency, we are also providing that the Chancellor’s current ministerial responsibilities under the Census Act 1920 and section 19 of the Registration Service Act 1953 will transfer from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. That ensures that the board will have to report to just one Minister in respect of its census and related statistical functions, and avoids any possibility of confusion or overlapping ministerial responsibilities. I commend the motion, and the Government amendments, to the House.
First, may I congratulate the Exchequer Secretary on her re-appointment to the Front Bench? I had the honour and privilege of serving with the hon. Lady for a number of months on the Treasury Committee and I know that she is a forthright and formidable defender of the Government. Her promotion is well earned and well deserved.
May I also congratulate, not just because he is here, the new Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who until Friday guided the Bill from its earlier stages with much skill, expertise and courtesy, which those of us who are interested in Treasury matters have come to expect? I wish him well in his new role.
If the Exchequer Secretary will forgive me, I had hoped last week that the hon. Gentleman would continue as Financial Secretary. On the previous two occasions when we debated the Bill, he agreed to amendments, albeit retabled ones, that I proposed. No sooner had I started preparing for this afternoon’s debate than I learned that he had again agreed, more or less, to the amendments that I would argue for—the new politics, as the hon. Gentleman suggests from a sedentary position. I do know whether that trend was likely to continue. If it was, that might explain why he has moved. Perhaps we can hope that the Exchequer Secretary will continue in similar vein.
As the hon. Lady pointed out, the amendments relate to the residual authority that exists within the statistics arrangements created by the Bill relating to matters such as the appointment of the statistics board, directions, the power to authorise disclosure of information, use of information, and orders and regulations relating to the Bill. The Opposition welcome the move and will not oppose the Government’s amendments.
At every stage the Government’s position has been that the Treasury is the right place for those residual powers to rest, and at every stage Opposition Members from all parties have argued that that was inappropriate and that it would be right for the Treasury to surrender the powers. Finally, last week—the amendments were tabled on Thursday—the Treasury surrendered the residual rights to the Cabinet Office.
Hon. Members may speculate about what has changed in the past week and why a Department that has jealously guarded its own powers from other Departments and expanded its own powers into other Departments has changed course. What events in the past seven days could have meant that powers that previously were ultimately in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer are now in the hands, ultimately, of the Prime Minister? We can speculate whether this is part of a general weakening of the powers of the Treasury, or whether the Prime Minister recognised that the enormous powers that have accrued to the Treasury over the past 10 years are not only unhealthy for other Departments, but perhaps not in the best interests of any Prime Minister.
Perhaps the answer lies in the arguments that were made during the progress of the Bill by many hon. Members. I look back at previous debates and see the contributions in Committee from my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), myself, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), all of whom argued that residual power should rest with the Cabinet Office.
Most persuasive of all were the speeches by a number of Members of the other place, especially Lord Moser, who speaks with great authority as a former director of the Central Statistical Office, and Lord Turnbull, a former Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet and Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, who is an astute observer of the way in which the Government work. Essentially, the same argument has been made by all parties: the Treasury, as a major consumer of statistics, has a conflict of interest in performing the role. There is concern about not only an actual conflict of interest, but the perception of a conflict of interest. In the debate in the House of Lords, Lord Moser said:
“People will find it harder to accept that we have really gone down the road of independence if a major consumer has responsibility for statistics.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 April 2007; Vol. 691, c. 594.]
He also pointed out that the Cabinet Office provides a good base for co-ordinating Departments—a judgment that he based on his experience.
The argument that we have heard throughout—indeed, we heard it again today from the Exchequer Secretary—is that the Treasury has a crucial role in co-ordinating the reporting of Government performance and monitoring across Government, as well as being involved in statistics. The hon. Member for Wentworth referred to that point in the Public Bill Committee, where he highlighted the role of the Treasury
“given the significance of statistics in reporting on departmental performance and understanding the levers for successful reform and the development of public services in which the Treasury has inevitably and increasingly taken an important co-ordinating role.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 16 January 2007; c. 56.]
I do not know whether the Treasury will take less of a co-ordinating role in future, but none the less that argument does not outweigh the argument about conflicts of interest.
The Exchequer Secretary has referred to the strength of feeling in the House of Lords. Whether or not she accepts the argument that the Treasury has a conflict of interest in performing those residual functions, is there any suggestion that as the Treasury has surrendered those residual powers it will play less of a role in co-ordinating other Departments?
Finally, the key residual power in the Bill relates to the appointment of members of the board. We have heard a great deal in recent days about an increased role for Parliament in major public appointments. The hon. Member for Wentworth will remember that I asked him in the Public Bill Committee whether at this late stage there might still be a greater place for Parliament in the appointment process for members of the statistics board. I am grateful to the Exchequer Secretary for explaining that the Government and the Treasury accept the purpose behind the Lords amendment. Their lordships’ strength of feeling is clear—this is not the only example where their strength of feeling is clear, and I hope that further concessions will be made—but Conservative Members welcome the Government amendments.
I extend my congratulations to the Exchequer Secretary. A few weeks ago, I found myself debating with her on television and radio, and perhaps I should have taken that as an early warning of what was to come, but she is welcome in her new role. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) on guiding the Bill through Committee and on debating it in a way that we all appreciated. Through his intercession, another key difficulty has been removed, and we have only one remaining difficulty with the Government about the Bill as a whole.
In the same spirit of bonhomie, may I make a correction? The last time I spoke in the House, I mistook the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) for Guy Hands, the equity fund entrepreneur. Although the hon. Gentleman was not offended—I think he was amused—he has asked me to read that correction into the record, not least because if he were thought to be a trillionaire, his party fundraisers would be after him.
There is little to say about the Bill. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) acknowledged that the Government accept the profession’s criticism that the role of the superintending Department should properly go to the Cabinet Office. From the outset, the key point has always been—it was made in the Select Committee report—that the Treasury potentially had a conflict of interest in relation to economic statistics and, at the same time, no particular interest or expertise in the hundreds if not thousands of other national statistics produced by Government, and that it was altogether more appropriate to have a Department that on the one hand was less powerful, and on the other hand had a broader remit. The Cabinet Office meets that description. It is a co-ordinating Department, and were there a serious challenge to the authority of the statistics board, the Cabinet Office Minister could invoke the authority of the Prime Minister. This is a good decision. I appreciate the fact that the Government have listened on this key point and I am sure that we can proceed quickly as a result.
On behalf of my constituent, Guy Hands, I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for putting the record straight. I am not sure that Guy Hands thought that he was in any serious danger of being confused with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), but, if he was, at least the position is now clear.
I congratulate the Exchequer Secretary and the former Financial Secretary on their appointments. Like every other Member who has spoken, I welcome the Government’s change of heart on the issue. I do not think that it was ever a huge issue or that there was any great difference; the Treasury Sub-Committee wrestled with this and in the end came down on the side of the Treasury.
The change that has been made, though, will assist public perception in two ways. First, the Cabinet Office is clearly closer to the heart of Government and to the Prime Minister. It is where the Office for National Statistics was and where the new statistics board should be—right at the centre of Government. Secondly, the overriding argument for me, although it was a close decision, is that it is not the Treasury. Changing the ONS from being an office appointed and funded by the Treasury to a statistics board that was also appointed and funded by the Treasury would not have been a change at all. By moving it to the Cabinet Office, the Government are, late in the day, demonstrating that it really will be a newly independent body, so it is a very welcome change.
Like other hon. Members, I am grateful for the support that we have had from their lordships, particularly from Lords Turnbull and Moser—Turnbull and Moser sound rather like outfitters to the Government—in putting the Government straight on this aspect of the Bill. Above all, we should be grateful to the former Financial Secretary. He said at one point in Committee that he did not have a completely closed mind and that he would think about the issue again. If the change is due to his having done so, I hope that he will continue in future weeks to sit on the Treasury Bench when Treasury matters are discussed.
I, too, welcome the Exchequer Secretary to her new role. She may be aware—I am sure that she has been well briefed by the former Financial Secretary—of the debates that we have had previously.
The Government amendments touch on a number of issues, not least the appointment of members to the board. We had deep concerns about the fact that the member from Scotland was to be appointed by the Treasury, that the power of direction in clause 27 was to be given only with the consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that the powers to disclose to, and from, the board in Scotland also required Treasury consent under clauses 45 and 49. The Government amendments are better than the Lords amendments in one sense. In the other place, there were no amendments on clause 45 as regards disclosure to the board in Scotland; there were amendments only in relation to clause 49 on disclosure by the board in Scotland. At least these proposals are wholly consistent.
Our objection in the first instance was that no power of consent or veto should be given to the Treasury or the Chancellor of the Exchequer in these matters. That was based on the idea that the Treasury, as a key user of economic statistics, was the wrong body to hold those powers in the first place. Although giving the responsibility to a Minister from the Cabinet Office does not remove all our concerns from previous stages, it makes the Bill much cleaner. Most important, it sends a clear message to the general public and other interest groups and organisations that use statistics that they are wholly impartial and no longer in the hands—by veto or powers of consent—of the Treasury, which is the major user, especially of economic statistics. I therefore welcome the Government’s amendments.
First, I thank all those hon. Members who generously welcomed me to the Front Bench. It is always nice to be appointed to the Front Bench, and a little thrill runs down the spine when realising that one is first up on Monday afternoon. It gave me an interesting weekend of reading all the debates that hon. Members held in Committee and in the other place on the important provisions that we are discussing.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) said that he would not oppose the Government amendments and that he welcomed the agreement in principle, which, again, is generous. He asked about the implications of the transfer. I agree with the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that we are considering a reasonably finely balanced issue, which the Treasury Sub-Committee examined and about which it came down originally on the side of the Treasury. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) referred to the moment in the late 1980s when the Conservative Government switched the then Central Statistical Office to the Treasury in the first place. The House has therefore considered many such issues in the past. The hon. Lady also said that determining which Department—the Treasury or the Cabinet Office—should be responsible was a fine judgment. Clearly, the Government share that view.
In reply to the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, I do not believe that accepting the amendments means conceding the existence of a powerful conflict of interest in the residual ministerial responsibilities for the statistics board resting with the Treasury rather than the Cabinet Office. The most important aspect is that the Bill, the main objectives of which have been widely welcomed, creates an independent statistics board, which can then distance statistics from any perception of interference for political reasons.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that, because the Government have made the concession, they are somehow admitting that Treasury officials are venal and want conflicts of interest, or that the Treasury cannot be entrusted with statistics. That cannot be said of any Department or any Ministers, from whatever party they happen to be. My experience of ministerial office is that statistics are the last thing that we think about because we are too buried in other matters to interfere directly in the way in which a series of statistics are chosen, or when they are compiled and released. Clearly, under the new arrangements, regardless of where residual ministerial responsibilities lie, the new statistics board will perform those duties.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Treasury would have less of a role in co-ordinating Departments. Removing residual ministerial responsibilities for statistics, which is quite narrow, will not have a bearing on the relative powers of a finance Ministry in any Government. I suspect that that will stay the same and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will be doing his best to ensure, particularly as the spending review proceeds, that that remains the case.
On the third issue, the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire asked about board appointments and whether there might be a role for Parliament. Clearly, Parliament will not have an added role and not in respect of the initial board appointments. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the national statistician is a Crown appointment and board appointments will be made by appropriate Ministers—ahead, I believe, of the setting up and going live of the new board in April 2008. A proper appointments process has to be in place for that. It may then be for Parliament to decide—after the non-ministerial department has been established and is up and running—how it wishes to ensure adequate scrutiny of the new department’s activities. I know from looking at Hansard that there were some interesting debates in both Houses and in Committee about how Parliament might most usefully discharge that duty. That, of course, is a matter for this House rather than for the Government to decide.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) was generous in his welcome, for which I thank him. He was supportive in principle, as were the spokesmen for the other two parties. With that, I hope that the House will accept the amendments.
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 9 disagreed to.
Monitoring and reporting of official statistics
Lords amendment: No. 10.
With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 14 and the Government motions to disagree thereto; Lords amendment No. 15 and the Government motion to disagree thereto and amendments (a) and (b) to the words so restored to the Bill; and Lords amendments Nos. 20, 67 to 70 and 72 and the Government motions to disagree thereto.
I suspect that, with this grouping of amendments, we have come to the nub of the remaining points at issue. The amendments all relate to the important issue of who under the new system should determine the rules relating to how and when statistics are released and early access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication—the so-called pre-release access points.
There was much discussion of those matters when the Bill was last before the House. I also know from reading the proceedings that a full and robust debate took place in the other place. It is worth noting that, in both Houses and across all parties, there has been an acceptance of the principal case for pre-release access to continue under the new system. Both Houses have recognised that the principal case for pre-release is widely accepted internationally, although I accept that international practice actually varies considerably. All have accepted that Ministers need to account for the implications of policy areas for which they are democratically responsible at the time of release. That is simply the way and it has become expected that Ministers deal with such issues.
We have achieved consensus on the view that Ministers need to be fully informed in order to make accurate judgments as to the need for and form of any mitigating action that might be required in the light of statistical release—for example, to prevent or manage market disturbances and disruption.
That however is as far as our common understanding on the issues appears to go. The Opposition accept that pre-release access must continue, but believe that the board should determine the rules and the circumstances in which it is provided. I do not agree with their reasoning on that. We all accept that Ministers require pre-release access and we all understand why they require it. Surely Ministers themselves are the best placed to judge how much pre-release access they require, and under what conditions they require it in order to be fully informed and in a position to act if required in response to a statistical release.
We shall talk about these matters in detail as we consider the difference between the Lords amendments and the Government’s wish to overturn them in order to maintain a situation in which pre-release access may be decided by Ministers rather than the board. The fail-safes in the Bill will lead us to a pre-release system that is transparent, consistent and widely understood by those who are interested in using statistics in the political world, the economic world and the world of policy and lobbying. Before the Lords amendments, the Bill provided an extremely robust and clear version for pre-release, which I believe that we should maintain.
The Government’s proposals will ensure that Ministers determine by way of order the rules and principles relating to pre-release under the new system. That will not give Ministers a free hand in the matter. In fact, it will put in place for the first time a system aimed at allowing a greater role for Parliament in scrutinising the content of and compliance with the new pre-release arrangements set out in the Bill. Those arrangements will be distinguished from those issues contained in the board’s code of practice, which will be backed by statute.
Unlike the content of the broader code of practice, the new pre-release arrangements that we are suggesting will require the consent of Parliament, or the legislatures in the devolved Administrations, before the secondary legislation comes into force. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), suggested on Second Reading that we should have an affirmative resolution statutory instrument to put this system into place in secondary legislation.
The Exchequer Secretary is generous in giving way again. Would it not be easier to resolve the differences between this House and the other place if the Government were prepared to publish the draft secondary legislation on pre-release? I have been asking for that since Second Reading, but it still has not appeared. Why not?
I will deal with this point a little later. I have seen the correspondence that passed between my predecessor and members of the Standing Committee which set out in general the approach that he expected the statutory instrument to take. There is not a draft of it available at the moment, but he has tried to be open about how the system will work. I shall come back to this point shortly, because I want to deal with it logically, but I hope that the hon. Lady will be pleased by what she hears when I get to that point.
Putting new, tighter pre-release arrangements in secondary legislation, rather than in the non-statutory code, would result in a more enforceable, transparent system than the one that operates at present. The board will have a statutory duty to assess compliance with the pre-release arrangements and will be able to remove National Statistics accreditation from any product that it considers not to be in compliance with those arrangements. This amounts to a powerful and public naming and shaming mechanism that has not existed in the past. It will bring more transparency and enforceability to the pre-release arrangements than ever before.
It is not only the board that will be in a position to judge whether the arrangements are being complied with. The arrangements will ensure an important role for Parliament in scrutinising and holding to account all participants in the statistical system. This includes determining whether and how the new pre-release arrangements have been complied with, and how effectively the board has exercised its assessment function. Parliament will also have an important role to play in determining whether the new pre-release rules contained in the secondary legislation will damage, or have damaged, the credibility of the broader statistical system. For that reason, I am announcing today that the Government will consult publicly on the draft secondary legislation before putting it to the House. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s question, and that we will be able to have a positive consultation process ahead of the statutory instrument being laid.
Following the undertaking by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth on Second Reading that we would review the operation of the new pre-release arrangements after 12 months, including assessing whether they were hindering our broader objective of building trust in the statistical system, I believe that this is a welcome arrangement that should reassure those who doubt whether the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring the objectivity and independence of statistics. This reflects the fact that we recognise that the terms of pre-release access have been criticised in the past. Indeed, Opposition Members here and in the other place have been quick to remind us of that in our debates.
It seems that the Minister herself has been critical of the rules on pre-release arrangements, as she signed up to the report of the Sub-Committee of the Treasury Select Committee that called for a very significant restriction on pre-release rules. In the case of certain data, Ministers would be given only three hours’ notice under such restrictions. Does she stand by that report?
The hon. Lady has done her homework, but not quite well enough. If she had spoken to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), he would have told her that I rarely managed to make the Sub-Committee meetings, which was a great cause of regret to me. This was because, unfortunately, they clashed with the Labour party’s parliamentary committee meetings and, as vice-chair of the party, I had to go and see the Prime Minister every week. I could therefore not attend the meetings of the hon. Gentleman’s esteemed Sub-Committee. Because I never went up to hear the evidence on this area of work, I was more than happy to sign up to the report, but unhappy to table amendments when I had not heard any of the evidence. Yes, it is technically true that I signed up to the report, but I did so simply because I did not want to be disruptive to the work of the Select Committee and the Sub-Committee, which I hold in high esteem. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that, owing to other commitments, I was never able to—
Well, I think that it is important to stress that, when one is on the Treasury Committee, if one cannot get to the Sub-Committee meetings, it is disruptive simply not to agree with things, even if one might have disagreements, when one has not heard the evidence—[Interruption.] I am explaining to the hon. Lady that, while I was happy to sign up to the Sub-Committee’s report as a member of the main Committee, I reserved my position on my view of these things.
That is absolutely true, but I believe in evidence-based policy making, and as I had, unfortunately, been unable to listen to any of the evidence, I did not feel, even as a full member of the Select Committee, that I wanted to disrupt the important work of the Sub-Committee that had been looking into this matter in great detail. If I am being condemned for being a constructive member of the Treasury Committee, rather than a disruptive member, I fear that I must plead guilty.
I do not think that there is any attempt to condemn the Minister for trying to be constructive, but we are rather concerned about the fact that she signed up to a document without having read the evidence. That does not instil a great deal of confidence that she is going to run the economy of this country very well.
It was not in my job description this morning when I arrived at the Department that I was going to be running the economy of the country, but perhaps that was over the page, in the other bit of my list of responsibilities. I am more than happy to say that I did sign up to the report, simply because reports are better when they are unanimous. The Treasury Committees, like all Select Committees of the House, are more effective if they do not work on party political lines. Given that colleagues on the Treasury Committee from both sides of the House had done a lot of the work, I was more than happy to sign up to the report, rather than do a blocking job and table a load of amendments when I had not personally been there and been able to challenge and question the witnesses. That would have been churlish, wrecking behaviour, and I was not prepared to do that, but if the hon. Lady wishes to point out such inconsistencies, she is entitled to do so—and, indeed, she has done so.
The hon. Lady said a few moments ago that she believed in evidence-based policy making, and that is very sensible. I also believe in evidence-based law making, so why can we not have the draft secondary legislation if we are all to share in this new evidence-based approach to policy and law making?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have heard me announce that we will publish the draft statutory instrument for consultation with the House before laying it before Parliament. That is not a usual procedure, but it certainly concedes his point on this issue. We are trying to reach a workable and reasonable consensus on what has been a point at issue; indeed, this has probably been the only point that has caused any trouble between the two sides of the House as the Bill, which has been widely welcomed, completed the political process in this House and the other place.
Past problems in the area of pre-release turn on the mistaken perception that the provision of pre-release access provides an opportunity for Ministers to interfere with and manipulate statistics before their release. That is not in fact the case, but we clearly need to do more to convince the world of that lack of interference if we are to build trust in statistics. That is why the Government have announced that, under the new system, the pre-release arrangements will be tighter, more enforceable and more transparent than they have ever been.
The length of pre-release access for Ministers and officials will be aligned, as right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House know, at 40.5 hours for both market and non-market-sensitive statistics. That will be provided for in secondary legislation, which will also contain rules and principles to guide Departments in restricting the number of people who receive pre-release access and the number of statistical series for which it is granted. Importantly, that is all that will be reserved for Ministers to determine—pre-release, and only as defined narrowly in the Bill.
I again thank the Exchequer Secretary for giving way; she has been very generous on this point. From what she is saying, it seems that the Government are not contemplating any significant restriction on the length of pre-release access. Will she explain, then, why Ministers in this country need so much longer to react to statistics than Ministers in more or less every country in the developed world?
I suspect that these issues have grown to be the way they are because of custom and practice. If the hon. Lady looks at the changes made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, in aligning market and non-market statistics and bringing the time for pre-release for all statistics down from as much as five days to 40.5 hours, she will see that we have made significant progress. I understand that some people wish there to be no pre-release whatever, while others wish it to be only an hour or a couple of hours. That is an issue of the length of time, and the Government have decided that 40.5 hours is an appropriate length of time in this instance. That is a significant improvement on the current situation, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome that.
All other aspects of release practices, including those identified in some of the amendments before us, will be for the board alone to determine, rather than for Ministers. For example, it will be for the board to lay down rules and principles relating to the timing and regularity of statistical releases, the way in which statistics must be released and the persons responsible for issuing that release. The importance of that should not be underestimated. Clearly, the perception of ministerial interference in statistics flows partly from the mistaken belief that Ministers intervene in the timing of releases. Under the new system, the board will be responsible for determining rules in relation to release, timing and practices; those will not be determined by Ministers.
Under the new system, the board will have a statutory duty to assess whether those rules have been complied with. We expect the board, in undertaking that assessment, to examine the conduct and practices of every single person involved in the production and release of any given statistic, and that includes Ministers, press officers, briefing officials and everyone in between. If, in that assessment process, it is found that a Minister or an official had tried to move a scheduled release time, for example, for a political reason, the board would have a duty under the Bill to remove that product’s National Statistics accreditation and to report its findings publicly. If that transpired, I expect that the House would also be moved to scrutinise the actions of the Minister or the Department in question. That is transparency, and it would make it almost unimaginable that a Minister would interfere for political reasons, given the consequences that would be likely to follow such interference.
Despite all that added transparency and the enforceability points that go to the board, and despite the fact the board alone is responsible for determining rules relating to the important issue of release practices, the Government will go further. That is why we have announced that we are committed to the creation of a central publication hub, through which all national statistics will be released under the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary. The hub will be an integral part of the overall package of release practice reform, and as with other release practices, the board will be responsible for the development and oversight of the hub and how it works.
To summarise, the Government remain firmly persuaded that our package of reforms in this crucial area is the right way forward. We have provided for pre-release, and only pre-release, to be reserved for Ministers to determine. That reflects the fact that only they can judge the amount of access and the conditions under which it is granted, such that people are fully informed and in a position to act if required following a statistical release. We will reduce the amount of access from up to five days, as now, to 40.5 hours for all statistics. We will provide in secondary legislation for rules to guide Departments in restricting the number of people who receive access and the number of statistics series to which there is access. We will call on the independent board to establish a central publication hub. Those reforms will result in a tighter, more transparent and more enforceable system. I cannot accept the amendments made in the other place, and I urge the House to disagree with the noble Lords on this matter.
I start by congratulating the Exchequer Secretary on her appointment and by welcoming her to the Front Bench again. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), the shadow Economic Secretary, I pay tribute to the work done by her predecessor, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), in minding the Bill. Although in some respects he and I disagreed fundamentally about it, he worked hard on it and tried to improve it as it went through its parliamentary process.
The Opposition are pleased to support the Lords amendments in this group on release and pre-release. I would like to look first at Lords amendment No. 14, which relates to the board’s power to set the rules determining the release of Government statistics. Although it is often overlooked in the heated debate on pre-release, ensuring that the principles of objectivity and integrity govern the release of statistics is probably as important as pre-release, if not more so.
Lords amendment No. 14 specifies that the code should cover the location from which the release is made, the time at which it should be made, and the persons responsible for it. It addresses what Professor Tim Holt of the Royal Statistical Society described as
“an impossible tension at the heart of the release process”,
whereby the responsibility for explaining the figures and defending departmental performance is vested in the same people.
The spin placed on the data when they are first announced can be critical to the news coverage that they receive. Political influence on the process of release is a significant factor in undermining public trust in official figures. The Opposition therefore believe that it is important that the rules governing release of statistics should provide for a separation of the two functions of announcing statistical work and commenting on it and justifying ministerial performance. The physical separation envisaged by the central hub—announced on Second Reading by the then Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth—is welcome. However, we have yet to hear much detail on how that hub will operate in practice and whether the board will have the final say over how it operates. We support amendment No. 14 as it would provide a welcome guarantee that the board could specify the people responsible for the release of data and ensure that they are distinct from the departmental officials providing comment on them.
I shall now turn to my second and more high profile point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said in Committee, the Government’s proposal to exclude pre-release rules from the code of practice and the remit of the new statistics board leaves a black hole in the middle of the proposed legislation. The Opposition believe that, if this reform is to succeed in rebuilding trust in official figures, the rules on pre-release access to statistics should be in the hands of the statistics board and the new independent framework established by the proposed legislation, and not left in the hands of Ministers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has a distinguished record on statistical matters going back a number of years. He stated in Committee that the Government approach in the Bill
“is like giving batsmen the ability to decide whether the leg before wicket rule should apply to them. It is wrong in principle and wrong in practice.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2007; c. 170.]
Lord Turnbull said in the other place:
“I am not happy with the rather brusque wording of the Bill in Clause 11, which in effect tells the board to keep its nose out of setting release times and leaving Ministers to help themselves to as much time as they want.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1484.]
According to the Government, the thrust of the reform is to put trust in the board to take important decisions on how our statistical system should operate. It is therefore striking that the Government have singled out this element of the rules on statistics as one where Ministers will retain their grip and the political advantages that that gives them.
The onus is on the Government to show why a special exception needs to be made in the case of pre-release rules when the Bill allows so many other important decisions to be made by the board or the national statistician and not by Ministers. I ask the Exchequer Secretary a simple question: if we can trust the board to take so many important decisions—including on key aspects of how the retail prices index will operate—why cannot we trust it on pre-release as well?
The truth is that certain major Departments are determined to keep control over early access to their sensitive social statistics. They are aware of the value of the in-built advantage they receive from widespread early access to departmental data, sometimes days in advance of publication. That enables them to shape and influence the presentation of figures and engage in a softening-up process. The longer the period allowed for pre-release, the greater the opportunity for political mischief through spinning and interpreting the data. That gives Ministers an invaluable tool in the process that Professor Roger Jowell of City university described as “discounting bad news” in advance of publication to divert attention from what might be an inconvenient truth. As the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) memorably let slip in Committee, it enables Ministers to give official statistics the “treatment” that they deem appropriate. That “treatment” generally has more to do with spin than with any urgent policy measures needed to respond to the figures in question. Lax pre-release rules maximise the opportunities for Ministers to spin the figures and push the headline that they want to see in the next day’s papers. Even civil servants without party political motivation are not immune in this respect; they might wish to emphasise certain elements in statistics in order to place their Department in the best, or least unfavourable, light.
The Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society, the statistics users forum, the Treasury Committee, almost every respondent to the consultation and almost all the Back Benchers who spoke in the House of Lords on this issue want pre-release rules to be reformed and restricted and the board to be put in the driving seat on what the rules should be. Charles Bean from the Bank of England also noted the advantages of restricting ministerial pre-release in terms of the public’s perception of the integrity of the statistical processes. The Labour-dominated Treasury Committee—it includes six former Ministers and the Exchequer Secretary herself—concluded that an advance notice period of three hours was generally sufficient. Even the then Financial Secretary acknowledged when he gave evidence to the Treasury Committee that current pre-release arrangements
“contribute to the perception of interference in statistics.”
During the debates in the other place, Lord Moser—because of his unparalleled expertise, his opinion has rightly been prayed in aid repeatedly during the debate on the Bill—said of pre-release:
“I know from my years in charge of official statistics that hardly anything is more important than getting these rules right and making them acceptable.”
He said that he viewed pre-release rules as
“central to trust and confidence”
“The way in which the Bill is drafted to deal with this issue is astonishing.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 1074-75.]
He also pointed out, as I did in Committee, that the rules on pre-release have been relaxed and broadened over recent years. That point has been strongly made by Professor Tim Holt, who is a former head of the Government Statistical Service. Like many others, Professor Holt and Lord Moser pointed out that in the UK we give access to data to more people for a longer period and in respect of more data than in almost every other developed country.
Does the hon. Lady accept that some of the changes introduced in the Bill—particularly those giving the board extra powers and directing Departments to establish a more coherent process—will lead to fewer officials having access, standardise privilege procedures across Government and lead to a generally improved situation? Even if she does not think that we are going about things in the best possible way, will she not concede that the Government’s plans will lead to a great improvement?
Unfortunately, only the Exchequer Secretary can answer her question, because the number of people who are given access to statistics will be determined by Ministers after the secondary legislation is presented to Parliament. I cannot answer her question. I hope that fewer people will gain access to statistics days in advance of publication, but I am unable to answer whether that will be the case. Her intervention highlights the very point that I am seeking to make.
The fact that there is an unfavourable international comparison has been mentioned, and it was echoed by Lord Moser’s fellow Cross Bencher, Lord Turnbull. I hope that the House will pay particular heed to Lord Turnbull’s views on this issue, as he clearly has no political axe to grind and his long experience in government gives him great insight into the workings of Government and what Ministers reasonably need in pre-release access. He expressed dismay about how far away we are from international best practice and pronounced the existing arrangements to be unacceptable. The Opposition have accepted the case for the retention of pre-release access, but we are convinced of the need to tighten the rules. Statistics should be allowed to speak for themselves, with the rules strengthened to minimise ministerial interference and pre-emptive spin.
The then Financial Secretary’s announcement on Second Reading that the five-day pre-release period for social data would be aligned with the 40.5-hour period for market-sensitive economic data is welcome—and we welcome the confirmation of that by the Exchequer Secretary this evening—but it simply does not go far enough and will be insufficient to restore trust in official figures. Lord Turnbull and others were right to say that a new norm of 40.5 hours is “completely ridiculous.” According to the evidence of the Royal Statistical Society to the Treasury Sub-Committee, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland allow no pre-release access at all. France allows one hour and Australia three hours, and in both cases access is restricted to a handful of key economic statistics.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks pointed out, it is remarkably difficult to track down the information on who is entitled to what data under the current pre-release rules. One has to find that by hunting through different departmental websites; no centralised site sets out all the data and there is no standardised format to present them.
Will the hon. Lady admit that the current confused pre-release system, which led to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) trawling websites—probably late one night—trying to find out what the situation was, will be much improved by the standardisation and transparency of the system that the Government propose? Surely she will admit that, even if they are not precisely what she wants, these are real, lasting and welcome improvements to the current confused and patchy pre-release system.
I am afraid that I can only respond exactly as I did to the Minister’s previous intervention. We simply do not know that, because the board is not to be allowed to set the pre-release rules. We will not know what those rules are until the Minister chooses to submit draft secondary legislation for this House to consider. I hope that we may see a clearer and more transparent way of ascertaining who is entitled to pre-release access, but I am afraid that at present there are no guarantees that that will happen.
This House should also note that allowing the board to decide the rules has the advantage of allowing them to evolve flexibly over time, without the need for new secondary legislation. As I said, it is a concern that the draft secondary legislation has yet to be published. I do hope that it will be forthcoming very soon, if only because it may well assist in resolving any difference of view between this House and the other place.
I turn to three arguments put by the Government in defence of their position during discussion of the Bill. First, they argue that Ministers need a lengthy period of advance notice in order to prepare a policy response. However, neither today nor in previous debates has it ever been satisfactorily explained why Ministers cannot cope with more significant restrictions on pre-release rules, given that their counterparts in many countries get only two or three hours’ notice or no early access at all. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) pointed out in Committee, our civil servants are supposed to be among the best in the world. Many are recruited from the highest echelons of our education system, and I cannot see why the Minister is not confident that they can respond quickly to statistical data, or why they need so much more time than civil servants in other countries. Whatever the case for extensive pre-release for sensitive economic data that might move markets and require advance planning, in order to prevent general release being greeted with instability and uncertainty, such arguments are much weaker for departmental “social” data, in respect of which many of the problems relating to release practices have arisen.
Secondly, the Government have argued that, because a case can be made for retention of pre-release in principle in order to facilitate the orderly running of the economy and of government, that justifies retention of political control over the rules that regulate pre-release. However, that argument simply does not stand up. I know that many in the statistical community would indeed have liked to see pre-release abolished altogether. However, if we give the board the power to set the rules, it would be highly likely, after consultation and reflection, to put forward proposals to retain pre-release—although with, I hope, a significant tightening of the current rules.
It should also be borne in mind that however tough the rules that the board eventually chose to adopt—were it given that option—it would be likely to retain the flexibility to grant exceptional early access to data in the event of emergencies or exceptional circumstances. That has always been the case in the past in this country, and it is the practice in other countries such as New Zealand. In any event, amendment No. 13 blows a hole in the Government’s argument by specifically removing from the board the option to abolish pre-release altogether.
The Government’s third argument is that this issue is so important that Parliament must take the decision. Frankly, that is a mere fig leaf. The Minister knows as well as any Member that it is highly unusual for the Government to encounter problems in getting their secondary legislation through the House. What Ministers want in terms of secondary legislation, Ministers generally get.
I certainly do welcome that, and I hope that publication takes place as soon as possible.
In any event, the underlying thrust of the legislation is to take key decisions on statistics out of the political arena. The Government have never told us what it is about pre-release that is qualitatively different from the rules governing official statistics, and which justifies these rules being treated in a different way. Indeed, their very importance is all the more reason for including them in the new reformed structures, rather than specifically exempting them.
The Opposition do not believe that any political capital should be made from the early release of statistics. We believe that there is a real problem with the Government’s deliberate exclusion of pre-release from these arrangements, which are intended to guarantee that official statistics are produced independently and free of political interference. Retaining ministerial control over pre-release is a shot in the arm for those who are suspicious of Government interference in official figures. If the Prime Minister really wants to make this Bill the next major step in reforming the economic governance of the UK, he should include pre-release rules within the overall reform. If he was serious about change—if he was serious about moving to a more open and honest form of government, and about a break with the Blair years—he would not be clinging to the power to determine pre-release rules. The truth is that he simply cannot let go. Just as the Treasury’s grip on this issue can be removed only on the new Prime Minister’s moving out of that Department, we cannot prise his fingernails off pre-release. He knows the political capital that excessively wide pre-release rules can give, and he simply is not prepared to give it up. That shows that his 10 years of spin and manipulation from No. 11 are likely to be followed by more of the same from No. 10.
I very much echo the comments of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). Indeed, we have had a common approach to this crucially important issue, about which we continue to feel strongly, and my colleagues in the other place, particularly Lord Newby, contributed to some of the Lords amendments. This is probably the most important part of the Bill, and the Government’s reluctance to give way on this central principle enormously detracts from what is otherwise very good and positive legislation.
The most crucial and substantive of this long string of amendments is No. 15. It deals with clause 11, which deletes any reference to the board’s having competence in the area of pre-release. Also crucial is amendment No. 12, which would apply the code of conduct specifically to the conditions and timing of pre-release. The arguments have been very well rehearsed and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has been through them again, so I need not do so. Rather, I shall simply highlight one or two key points.
The hon. Lady referred to Lord Moser, who is an enormously important and authoritative figure in this field, having established in the 1970s the professional basis for the statistics service in its modern form. He is completely politically impartial and an enormous source of authority on this subject. The hon. Lady touched on some of his comments, and I will quote in a slightly more expanded way his telling comments during the introduction to the debate on amendments tabled in the other place. He said:
“The way in which the Bill is drafted to deal with this issue is astonishing. Given that these matters are so obviously central to trust and confidence, which is what the Bill is all about, one might have expected it to deal with them positively and helpfully by making them a central responsibility of the new board and central to the code. In fact, almost the opposite emerges.”
That is a pretty devastating indictment from somebody who approaches this issue professionally and without any political axe to grind.
As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, there are many professionals and other people who approach this issue with the interests of the statistics service and the integrity of government in mind—such as the Statistics Commission, which had oversight of it until very recently—and who have argued for no pre-release at all. Indeed, she cited seven countries to which that applies.
The Minister said in her introduction that we should be pleased that there has been some improvement on the status quo, and it is certainly true that producing some sense of order and reducing at least some of the pre-release to 40 hours is an improvement. However, that should be set against a context in which the quality and standard of pre-release have deteriorated greatly over time. To quote Lord Moser again, he said:
“It is…sadly true that things have slipped a great deal since 2000, when the last reforms were made…Now they are more lax than anywhere else or than they have ever been before, which…is harmful not only to the statistical world but also to the Government as a whole.”
That is a scathing indictment of how the system operates.
In the debates in this place, it is now common ground that there are some arguments for pre-release. It is worth going back to the comments in the other place by Lord Turnbull, who approaches the issue not from an ideological point but from the pragmatic view of someone who operated the system of pre-release. He accepts the principle in limited instances. He said:
“I have defended the principle of pre-release, which I think is consistent with the way we operate ministerial accountability.”
That is the Government’s case and the former chief civil servant accepted the Government’s fundamental principle. Indeed, most of us do not dispute that basic issue of theology. However, Lord Turnbull continued:
“Nevertheless I support the central thrust of this group of amendments—that responsibility for this should be given to the Statistics Board, which should settle these matters after consulting with Ministers.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 1075-78.]
He is trying to find a way to reconcile the principle of pre-release with the need to avoid abuse.
The core issue is that of timing. Most of us have recognised that there is a distinction between different kinds of Government statistics, and there is a particular problem with market-sensitive data. Let us try to be as helpful as possible to the Government and look at other countries that are close to the British system and could be used as a model: the Canadians are often cited as using pre-release. The Canadians allow pre-release of market-sensitive data to officials at 2 pm the previous day, but Ministers are allowed it only at 5 pm the previous day, after markets have closed. There is a recognition that pre-release of market-sensitive data to Ministers must be done under tight conditions. In France, the pre-release time is one hour, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned.
The key case is the US, because market-sensitive data there have so much more impact on the world economy than anywhere else. There has been a continuing debate about what happens in the US, because the National Statistical Society told us that the US President has only 30 minutes with the data, but the Treasury researched it with the embassy in the US and found that in certain narrow circumstances the President has access the evening before. That is far more restrictive than anything the Government are contemplating in this country. In terms of the amount of time allowed, the Government are being implausibly and unrealistically indulgent.
In the case of other data, we accept the basic principle of ministerial accountability. Ministers have to be able to explain what has happened on their watch, but that is different from giving them an opportunity to spin and dissimulate. The issue is the length of time, and we tabled amendments suggesting four-hour limits and the Select Committee suggested three hours. We could play with numbers, but what is needed is a professional judgment from the statistics board, and the purpose of the Lords amendments was to ensure that that is where the locus of the decision resides.
No, there is no such example and no attempt has been made to justify the Government’s approach in that kind of rational, evidence-based way. It has simply been stated as a matter of principle that Britain should have pre-release, because we have traditions and they should be continued. That strikes me as a weak basis for an argument.
Why are the Government so stubborn on this point, given that they have been so reasonable on so many of the other key issues? It is difficult to fathom and the perfectly reasonable question that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) just asked has not been answered. We know that there are intelligent Ministers and officials dealing with this issue in the Treasury, so why cannot they get their heads around this problem?
An interesting theory was advanced in the other place by the Conservative spokesman, who claimed to have been told that there was a serious division of opinion between the Treasury and the rest of Whitehall, with an unholy coalition of Ministers in other Departments determined to cling on to the existing pre-release arrangements. Apparently, the Treasury is willing to compromise because it can see the logic of the argument, but the other Departments are not. I do not expect the Exchequer Secretary to confirm that, but it provides a possible explanation for what has been going on. We feel that the Lords amendments are reasonable and we shall oppose any attempt by the Government to reject them.
I, too, support the Lords in their amendments, especially Nos. 12 and 15. Like the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I do not understand why the Government, who have been so flexible and reasonable—they have listened to some of the arguments put forward on other issues, especially moving the oversight of the statistics board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office—find it impossible to move at all on the issue of pre-release. They are completely out of line with any other international practice, not simply on timing—40 hours advance notice as against three or four hours elsewhere—but on control. What is the point of bringing legislation to the House and making the statistics board properly independent if the one issue that is vital to the public perception of independence is then taken out of the board’s control and left in the hands of Ministers, albeit approved by Parliament? Of course, it should be a matter for the board, not simply to supervise, but to regulate, via the code.
If the Minister is wedded to the idea of parliamentary approval, why not give the code some proper parliamentary backing? The present position is nonsense. There are far too many officials involved. If one checks the website, one sees that it has lists of 30 or 40 officials. Many of the lists are out of date, and I would welcome it if they were tidied up. But far more officials, Ministers, private offices and special advisers are given access to such material than in any other country in the world.
The number of hours is also way out of line with international practice. The Government cling to a position that is opposed by everybody else, including the Treasury Committee. We supported tightening up the system, as did former Ministers on the Committee, including the Exchequer Secretary herself. The other place wants it tidied, as do the outfitters to the Government, Lords Turnbull and Moser, who have dealt with such issues before. I cannot see how the Government’s position is tenable. It is for the Exchequer Secretary to worry about whether her own position is tenable, having signed up to a report that recommended the reverse of what the Government now propose.
I do not think that the tenability of the Exchequer Secretary’s position is quite as important as the overall issue, which is one of privilege. To have access to the information before the public see it is a matter of privilege, and to leave it to Ministers themselves to decide the extent of that privilege is wholly wrong. I hope that we will support the Lords in their amendments.
I wish to speak on this group as it seems the only opportunity to raise an issue that I have consistently raised during the passage of the Bill, which is: on what basis does public confidence in our statistical service rest?
Many Opposition Members who have spoken have suggested that public confidence in our statistical service depends on the way in which statistics are handled by politicians, the pre-release arrangements and so on. That issue is dealt with by this group of amendments. However, I urge the Minister—whom I am glad to see on the Front Bench—to recognise that public confidence is based most strongly on the accuracy of our statistics. I am profoundly concerned that none of the debates on the Bill has focused sufficiently on creating a legal framework that guarantees accuracy.
The sets of estimates, which may or may not be pre-released—on which this group of amendments is mostly closely focused—and which the Office for National Statistics issues between censuses, are in many cases profoundly unreliable. The best way to shake public confidence in our statistical service is by producing wrong statistics. The higher education participation rate is not calculated using ONS statistics because of its flawed estimates of the shape of the class structure of our society.
The grants to local authorities, however, are issued on the basis of those flawed statistics. Members will have heard me describe how my constituency of Slough has been damaged, for example, by the fact that in the 2001 census many migrants to the town did not identify their former address, although it was overseas, and by the smoothing arrangements in the estimation that give towns such as Windsor and Wokingham the same kind of balance of migrants as Slough.
I am at risk of straying from the issue with which this group of amendments is concerned. However, I urge the Minister, in her new responsibilities, to ensure that the legal framework for delivery of our statistical services guarantees not only their independence but their accuracy at every stage. If we do not make sure that they are accurate, we will not have public confidence in our statistics.
I, too, welcome the Minister to her new position. I also invite her, however, to take a new position on ministerial pre-release access.
The Minister will be well aware that when the Treasury Sub-Committee, on which she and I sat, considered the independence of statistics last year, our guiding principle and second recommendation was:
“Regardless of the detail of the Government’s final proposals, we consider it essential that the Government ensures that its proposals secure both sufficient independence and sufficient perceived independence in the statistical system.”
For the record at least, I note that she put her name to that recommendation, and to the whole report, notwithstanding her long, rambling excuse as to why she signed up to it but did not attend half the meetings.
I remind the Minister, however, that the then Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) told the Committee during evidence that he
“would certainly accept that the pre-release arrangements contribute to the perception of interference in statistics.”
He also said:
“Part of the drive to legislate now to entrench the independence is to deal with some of the problems that are still there in perception.”
Actual independence and perceived independence are intimately connected, and the Government’s rejection of the Lords amendments on pre-release strikes a blow against both.
There are concrete examples of abuse from the Statistics Commission. Whether we consider the leak of unemployment figures to the “Today” programme, or the former Prime Minister letting them slip while at a TUC conference, pre-release has certainly had problems. The perception of abuse, however, is more important, as has been acknowledged by the Phillis review and many other commentators since. Lord Moser, about whom we have heard much today and whose name was on the amendments, said that the Government’s approach to the issue was “astonishing”. He said:
“No other single change would send a clearer signal to the public and users than this.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 May 2007; Vol. 459, c. 1076.]
It would indeed be good if the Government applied that argument to traditional causes; as my right hon. Friend and I both represent rural areas, one in particular comes to mind. The only tradition to which the new Prime Minister seems to be clinging is that of being a control freak and spin doctor. The longer that he can control and have that information, the more he can spin it to the public as he wishes. That is the tradition that we want to destroy. It would be bad enough if the omission of pre-release were accidental, but it is quite explicit. As I have said previously, it is the black hole at the centre of the Bill.
I am delighted that the Government have given in to Opposition pressure over the transfer of residual ministerial responsibility to the Cabinet Office, although, again, I am rather cynical, because at the head of the Cabinet Office is the First Lord of the Treasury, the ex-Chancellor—I will go no further into that. The Government’s refusal to move on the issue creates the increasing suspicion that Ministers have something to hide by not ensuring that pre-release is subject to the code. The double standards that have been set up between the board’s code of practice and the ministerial code on pre-release threaten to undermine the perception of independence. We are in danger of ending up with legislation to entrench independence that does not address a significant perceived failing of that independence.
Lord Desai pursued a fascinating line of argument in another place when he suggested that
“governments do not gain much advantage from pre-release. Whatever advantage is gained is quickly dissipated partly by incompetence and partly by the fact that clever people can see through any spin that statistics may be given.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 May 2007; Vol. 459, c. 1081.]
Will the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to rely on their own incompetence and the cleverness of the Opposition in seeing through spin to justify continued ministerial control of pre-release arrangements?
The truth is that allowing ministerial pre-release access to be controlled by ministerial fiat could not give a more effective shot in the arm to anyone with suspicions about Government interference in statistics. The Minister is merely the latest in a long line of ministerial beneficiaries of pre-release of statistics, but I hope that she will consent to be among the last crop of Ministers to control the rules governing pre-release directly.
On 13 March, at column 217, the then Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), said about pre-release arrangements:
“The public have a right to expect, and the British media have come to demand, that Government Ministers account for the impact and implications of policy when statistics are released—not hours afterwards or in the days that follow.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 217.]
I happen to agree entirely. But the simple fact that a Minister or Department is obliged to comment quickly after the release of a statistical series does not and should never entitle them to access to it for some hours—or almost two days—in advance.
I shall speak briefly, but I hope that I can get to the nub of the issue. To paraphrase the new Minister, she said early in her contribution that because Ministers have to deal with the consequences of the publication of data, or perhaps provide mitigation if something happens, that makes them the people best placed to set the time scales. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may suit them to set the time scales, because, as the previous Financial Secretary said, they will have to respond quickly, so they need a lot of time to work out what they will say, but that is completely back to front. It might suit them if they are going to spin a narrow part of the statistics that look beneficial and can cover a multitude of sins elsewhere in the small print of a document. It might suit them if they want to discount the bad news early, knowing that another announcement is to come the following day or the day after that to cover it up. But if the Minister is serious about transparency and if she and the Department are serious about removing perceptions of spin and cover-up, I have yet to hear an argument today as to why the Government will not hand over the responsibility for the code and the creation of time scales to the national statistician or the independent board.
The Minister in her opening remarks said that there was broad agreement on both sides of the House that, in the case of market sensitive data, there was general agreement that there should be proper pre-release. That is right and proper. But for the normal publication of normal social statistics on non-market sensitive economic data, if the Government are serious about transparency, there is no longer any justification for the Government to keep even 40.5 hours of pre-release access to themselves. Therefore, I ask them to look at the matter.
I know that the Minister is new, and I am sure that she has been studying the previous debates in Hansard and reading through briefings by the ton, but this is, as she said earlier, the main point of contention in the Bill. Why do we not go collectively, in the big tent consensual politics, with a new progressive consensus, forward together—and other catch phrases that I cannot quite remember—to deliver the transparency that the House wants, including, I am sure, many Labour Back Benchers, and that the people expect and the users of statistics demand to remove the perception of fiddling, unnecessary spin and discounting of bad news when statistics are published?
I know from some of my reading over the weekend that we have had a debate similar to those during the Bill’s earlier stages. No one should deny the good intent of those on either side of the argument to have greater transparency and consistency across Departments in the way in which pre-release is dealt with. The system that the Government seek to put in place, with the alignment of pre-release times to 40.5 hours across market and non-market statistics, and down from five days in some cases, is an advance in consistency and a tightening up of the rules. Hon. Members on both sides of the argument should not deny that the Government’s intention in some of the changes that have been outlined during the Bill’s passage by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey) was to standardise, tighten and reassure the House on these matters.
There is a broad acceptance of the principle—accepted in a variety of instances, some narrower for Opposition Members than perhaps for others—that in some circumstances at least pre-release should happen, which obviously I welcome. There is also an acceptance that a reasonable number of hours should be allowed, but no agreement on the number of hours. The Government have reduced that to 40.5 hours, but there are various opinions ranging from that of the Treasury Committee at three hours, to that of members of the other House at one hour or 30 minutes, and a range in between—from 40.5 all the way down to zero.
In this debate, we see two different ways of achieving a system that will tighten and standardise the requirements and methodology of pre-release. On the one hand, the Government have said that they will introduce the system in the form of an affirmative statutory instrument, which will be debated upstairs and which therefore will have the imprimatur of Parliament, rather than by a code of practice that the board can produce, which Opposition Members have suggested is a better way forward. Given the wide welcome that we have for the basic approaches in the Bill to making statistics more independent, this is really the only matter that has raised people’s blood pressure. Reading the controversies that have raged throughout the Bill’s passage, I am not sure that the Government have been given the proper credit for the improvements that they have suggested in their methodology for creating a system for pre-release. First, we have the affirmative resolution procedure; secondly, my predecessor has already said that the matter will be reviewed after 12 months to see whether change is needed; and today, I have undertaken to issue the statutory instrument in draft form for consultation, which again allows the structure of the system to be debated.
The Minister seems to have put forward two arguments today: first that we should continue to operate pre-release in the same way because that is how it has been done for years, which I do not find very convincing, and secondly that what is being proposed is not ideal but is an improvement on what has gone before. Perhaps the Government should make a more significant improvement and give the board the power to decide this critically important question.
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s interpretation of what I have said. I said earlier that the different approaches to pre-release that we see internationally tend to have grown out of custom and practice, which is why they are of slightly different lengths and why some countries agree in principle with pre-release while others do not have pre-release.
It is true that the time scales are all different, but all have one thing in common—they are very much shorter. What is it about Britain that makes us utterly different from any other country in the world, in the sense that what the Minister is suggesting is some 10 times as long as most people would have?
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also give us credit for reducing that time limit from five days in many instances to 40.5 hours. We can have debates about the length of time, as we are doing with the other place. I am here to oppose the amendments that were passed in the other place and to argue that we should stick with 40.5 hours. But I hope that he will also accept that improvements have been announced during the Bill’s passage with respect to the current situation on pre-release, and I hope that he will welcome them. He may not think that they go far enough, and that is a matter of opinion, but I hope that he will at least give us credit for the improvements that we have proposed.
I do not want to detain the House for too long on an argument that has raged throughout the passage of the Bill, but I do not accept the Opposition’s view that organising the board under a code of practice is superior to an affirmative resolution for secondary legislation under a statutory instrument of the House. A draft will be put out for consultation, as I announced earlier today, so we will be able to consider it. There will not simply be a yes or no vote.
In addition, there is the promise of a review after 12 months when the board is up and running and when we will be able to see how the new, more consistent arrangements for pre-release have worked in practice. That is a robust and welcome improvement in the existing system. The code of practice might be another way of dealing with the situation, but it is not something the Government feel minded to support at present, which is why I oppose the amendment and I hope that colleagues will support our motion to disagree.
Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Code of Practice for National Statistics
Lords amendment: No. 11.
We very much welcome the Government’s change of heart on the issues covered by this group of amendments. Although the amendments do not go as far as we would like, they represent a significant change to the scope of the Bill and the impact of the code of practice. In essence, our arguments on the code and the distinction between national and official statistics—those issues are at the heart of the amendments—have been simple and threefold.
First, the two-tier distinction between the two types of Government statistics is unnecessary and confusing and could undermine confidence in official figures outside the scope of national statistics. Secondly, if it is worth producing a Government statistic on an issue, it is worth producing it according to the standards of integrity and impartiality set out in the code. There is no reason to believe that the board cannot be trusted to come up with a proportionate and workable approach to the enforcement of the code across the range of different Government statistical activities. Thirdly, to leave Ministers to determine whether the code and the scrutiny of the board apply to their departmental statistics undermines the credibility of the reforms and in effect allows Ministers to decide whether to opt into the new framework or stay out of it.
Throughout the debate, both Opposition parties pointed out that the structure proposed in the Bill gave Ministers too much power to keep the statistics board away from sensitive departmental statistics—to keep official figures in the shadows and prevent light from being shone on the darker corners of departmental statistical activity. In effect, it gave Ministers the right to say to the board, “Thus far and no further.”
Widespread disquiet was expressed during the consultation about the distinction between national and official statistics and the fact that the code would not be applied across all Government statistical activities. That disquiet came from organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society, the Statistics Commission, the Audit Commission, the Market Research Society, the Health and Social Care Information Centre, and the FDA—to name but a few.
Let us return to the comments of Lord Moser, as we have done on a number of occasions. He described the distinction between the two types of statistics as meaningless and actually harmful in relation to public trust. Lord Turnbull hit the nail on the head on Second Reading in the other place when he said that the way in which the Government have approached this issue
“can only give rise to suspicion, even if unwarranted, that the Government want either to tolerate a Ryman league of second-rate statistics not covered by the code or, worse, that Ministers want to keep certain statistics in the lower league so that they can get away with things that are outside the disciplines of the code.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1484.]
I am afraid that the protestations of the former Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), that the prestige of having departmental figures awarded the status of national statistics would motivate Ministers to propose them for inclusion in the board’s new independent system of scrutiny and regulation were risible. I cannot believe that even he could have taken that seriously—no one else has, from the Treasury Sub-Committee onwards.
Thankfully, the Government have gone on a journey. Little by little, in the face of pressure in the House and the other place, they have retreated. At first, they said that the idea of extending the scope of the code of practice was, to use the then Financial Secretary’s words “extraordinary”, “absurd” and “impractical”. He confirmed that the Government expected the code
“to be a model of good practice for official statistics, and we expect the board to promote it as such.”––[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 18 January 2007; c. 153.]
We then had the formal cave-in when the Government tabled amendments in the other place to remove the formal restriction of the code to national statistics by removing the word “national” from its title and leaving it as a code for statistics instead. Finally, Lord Davies of Oldham, speaking on behalf of the Government, went still further and said that the code, of course, applied to “official statistics”
The Opposition warmly welcomed that statement. It was what we had been calling for since Second Reading and what the former Financial Secretary used to oppose. Our amendments are entirely consistent with the statement made by Lord Davies. They would rename the code so that it was a code of practice for official statistics. They would confirm the destination that the Government have reached by making good on the noble Lord’s undertaking that the code should apply to official statistics. I hope that the Government will accept our amendments, if they intend to fulfil the promise made by the noble Lord.
Our amendments also serve another important function by clarifying the confusion that has crept into the Government’s position. The Government’s journey was not quite over, even with the statement made by Lord Davies to which I have referred. Despite their starting point of restricting the application of the code only to national statistics, they ended up not only conceding the point on official statistics, but actually suggesting that the code should apply outside government. That would certainly be consistent with a common-sense interpretation of their amendments in the other place that removed the word “national” from the code and left it as purely a code of practice for statistics.
Lord Davies confirmed that sudden and unexpected switch when he said on Report in the other place:
“I have said that our crucial distinction is between national and official statistics, but the board will identify clear criteria for a code that ought to obtain with certain other statistics which may not be official but nevertheless may be of significance to the public realm. The board will be looked to to set the standard by which everything else is judged.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 June 2007; Vol. 693, c. 45.]
That announcement caused consternation in the statistical community. It came totally out of the blue. After lengthy consultation and extensive debate, the Government had given no indication whatsoever that they intended the code or the board to have relevance outside the sphere of the Government’s statistical work. Richard Alldritt of the Statistics Commission said that the Government had got themselves
“in a tangle on this”.
I am inclined to agree.
Lord Jenkin referred to a number of concerned statisticians in the debate on this matter in the other place, including the institute for economic and social research at Essex university. The institute warned of the danger that developing a code that would apply to statistics outside the Government would risk diluting the necessary principles that should apply to all official statistics. The need to remedy that confusion is another of the reasons why the Opposition have tabled amendments to the Lords amendments.
There has also been a partial capitulation from the Government on the legal enforceability of the code. When the Bill was published, it was striking that it did not oblige anyone to obey the code of practice, despite the Government’s promise to give that statutory backing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) memorably put it, the Bill gave the code
“fewer teeth than the highway code”.—[Official Report, 13 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 192.]
We were told that the board would have the power to promote the code as a standard for all official statistics, but the Government failed to say how they would enforce the code. We have argued that the board should be given regulatory and supervisory powers, which, as the Government admitted in Committee, the Bill did not give it. Under the Bill, as it was drafted, the board would have had, to use the then Financial Secretary’s words, “only a softer function”—a power to audit and assess, not to supervise or regulate. As Dr. Ivan Fellegi, one of the world’s leading statisticians, has pointed out, that would be not very different to the Statistics Commission’s power to name and shame. The power would effectively be only one of exhortation.
Obliging people to obey the code would give the board real authority to ensure that good practice was observed right across government. While we would have preferred the code to bind all in government who produce statistics, Lords amendment No. 17 is an important step forward because it at least imposes a duty to obey the code on those who produce national statistics. The Government finally seem to be getting the point that we have been making from the outset: the code should be applied to the people who produce statistics, rather than confined to a means of assessing particular sets of figures.
It was welcome that Lord Davies made it clear in another place that the duty to obey the code applied not just to those responsible for producing national statistics, but all those who handled them, such as people preparing briefings for Ministers, and press officers. That is vital because many of the problems in the system relate to such officials—the policy and press officials in charge of interpreting and disseminating policy— not the statistical boffins compiling the data.
The Government’s journey has included important changes to the board’s role in initiating the assessment process to decide whether a particular set of figures can qualify for the kitemark of a national statistic. We have made the point again and again that it was a fundamental flaw in the proposals that Ministers could keep their departmental figures out of the new framework for independent statistics merely by refusing to nominate them for assessment by the board. In such a situation, the board’s only power was to name and shame the Minister in question. Its powers would have been no stronger than those of the Statistics Commission, which, valuable though its work has been, everyone agreed needed to be strengthened. We welcome the Government’s about-turn on that vital issue. The process set out in Lords amendment No. 19 is rather cumbersome and does not go as far as we would like because it does not give the board unfettered power to initiate an assessment of whether a statistic complies with the code, but by formalising the process and requiring a Minister to answer to Parliament if he or she refuses to nominate a statistic for assessment the board will have much greater say in whether an assessment can be initiated. The Lords amendment represents a significant change to the Bill because it addresses a critical question.
The then Financial Secretary’s key argument for maintaining a two-tier system was that some statistics were more important than others. The decision on nomination effectively determined the borderline between the two types of statistics. As such, the decision was simply too important to be left only to Ministers. The then Financial Secretary acknowledged in Committee that that issue
“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.]
We agreed with his analysis, which was why we pressed the point throughout our proceedings on the Bill. He said he expected the new system to evolve over time and embrace a wider range of statistics. Under the Bill as originally drafted, the pace of that evolution would have been determined by Ministers, even though the reform was designed to reduce their power and influence. Lords amendment No. 19 will give the board more power to drive the evolutionary process to which the Minister referred. However, it also places a burden on Parliament to back the statistics board and to force Ministers to yield their statistics for proper scrutiny.
Leaving the board with inadequate powers on figures outside the scope of national statistics would leave a big hole in the legislation. As the House might recall from our earlier debates, a number of important Government figures are not national statistics. Indeed, Lord Davies admitted that the category of national statistics was “very limited” and that far more than 20 per cent. of official statistics fell outside the scope of the national statistics system. We believe and have argued throughout that there is no reason why important departmental figures should be subject to a less onerous regime than others, particularly where departmental figures have given rise to more problems than those produced by the Office for National Statistics. For example, according to the Library, since the 2000 reforms there has been a net increase of only 25 national statistics. We believe that there is no sensible reason why statistics on, for example, cervical cancer screening in Wales, small business survival rates, or armed forces medical discharges, which are not national statistics, deserve less scrutiny than the cider survey or the monthly statement on bricks, blocks and cement, which are.
We hope that the board will use the process set out in amendment No. 19 to fill the hole in the legislation and to extend the range of statistics that are subject to the full rigour of the reforms set out in the Bill. We hope that the board will receive the strong support and encouragement of the House; it will certainly have ours.
I simply wish to acknowledge that this is an important area of debate and that the basic differences between the Government on the one hand and Opposition Members and the statistical community on the other have largely been reconciled. I accept that considerable progress has been made, and the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who was formerly the Minister with responsibility for the Bill, contributed substantially to that. There are essentially two overlapping issues. The first is whether it is useful to distinguish between official and national statistics. The purist’s view is that one should not distinguish between them as they are equally important—or rather, they are in a continuum of importance—and it is not helpful to make an arbitrary distinction.
In our exchanges in the House, we accepted that there is a rough hierarchy and that some statistics are important and merit being described as national while others are less important—indeed we are talking about hundreds if not thousands of statistics. I certainly accepted the distinction itself as conceptually sensible. The key issue was whether Ministers should have a responsibility for deciding what statistics fall into what category. Concern was expressed in the House and by the Opposition in the other place that if there were not proper safeguards in place through the code, official statistics would be misused by Ministers. My understanding is that that difficulty has been overcome and that, through the board, all statistics will be subject to the proper discipline of the code. That has largely met our concerns.
A subsidiary issue—it may just be a misunderstanding, and it may just have arisen from bad drafting—was briefly alluded to by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers): inadvertently, the Bill now covers large areas of statistical information that are not the product of Government at all. One of the examples mentioned in the other place is particularly close to my heart because I used to work in the oil industry. One of the main tasks of my opposite number, the chief economist of BP, was to produce the set of oil statistics that are the gold plate for the industry, and that are accepted as the best source of oil and gas information in the world. The question has been asked whether those statistics will be subject to the legislation. After all, they are produced voluntarily to enhance the reputation of that company, and are not in any sense a requirement so it would be odd if they were subject to the legislation. However, since the question has been asked, it would be helpful if the Minister clarified whether such privately generated statistics, which are immensely useful but neither official nor national, are in some sense covered by the Bill, whether inadvertently or intentionally.
The purpose of my intervention is simply to accept that as a result of a sensible exchange in debate, the key point of the Opposition parties has been conceded.
I am pleased about the general welcome that has been given by both Opposition parties to the progress that has been made. I wish the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) had not described that progress as retreat, capitulation and an about-turn, and that she had not issued press releases that talk about U-turns. It does not encourage the Government to think about being more flexible during the parliamentary process when as soon as they employ such an approach they are treated to such epithets. I prefer the interpretation of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and his welcome for the considerable progress that has been made. If the hon. Lady used that type of language, we might be able to make even more progress in coming to a consensus on the important matters that we are discussing. Being accused of retreat, capitulation and about-turns does not always encourage the Government to listen to debates in the way that they ought.
I ask the House to resist the hon. Lady’s amendments to the Lords amendments for reasons that I will come to shortly. Instead, I ask the House to support the amendments from the other place, which clarify the Government’s intention on the question of scope of the application of the board’s code of practice and compliance with it. Those amendments will enhance the role of the board in the assessment process—an issue to which the hon. Lady rightly referred.
The amendments from the other place are aimed at addressing a number of concerns about the coverage of the statistical system that will be established by the Bill and will clarify and further underscore the Government’s intentions as regards a number of matters relating to the code of practice. They will also address the issue of official and national statistics, which I believe will add even more transparency to the new statistical system we are creating. Our approach reflects the desire that the definitions used in the Bill should serve the statistical system and all those who use its outputs well, both now and in future. As such, the Government are concerned to ensure that the Bill includes as broad and as flexible a definition of “official statistics” as possible. I ask the House to consider the fact that legislation on statistics was last enacted in 1947. Now, 60 years down the line, we have another scintillating Bill, which hon. Members have spent many hours considering, so it may well be prudent to try to future-proof it in case it takes another 60 years to get another legislative vehicle before the House that we can use to change or improve our statistical systems.
That is why, in their definition of national and official statistics, the Government have tried to future-proof the Bill, rather than to narrow it and make it inflexible. There may not be many other legislative vehicles around in which we can iron out any inflexibilities that we inadvertently leave in the Bill, hence the wider definitions that feature in it.
Until the Bill, there had never been a legal definition of “official statistics”, and there is no agreed international definition, so at the start of the Bill-drafting process it was not immediately clear what the best way was of defining the term. Initially, it was thought that it could be defined as Government Statistical Service output, but the Government wanted to avoid a definition that would unnecessarily limit the role envisaged for the board, given developments in statistical production, activity in Government, and the need to anticipate what might happen in the next 60 years. Members of the Government Statistical Service are no longer the sole producers of statistical information within Government, and many of the key statistics that the public use to judge the Government’s performance come from administrative sources.
The Government therefore concluded that the definition of “official statistics” should be as wide as possible, and should include all statistics produced by the 200-plus Government Departments and agencies, the devolved Administrations and
“any other person acting on behalf of the Crown”.
Such a definition meets our goal of being both very wide and future-proof. As we opted for a very wide definition, it was necessary for us to focus and prioritise the application of the formal assessment against the code. That assessment is established in clauses 12 and 13. The Government’s aim is to help to ensure that greater resources are devoted to those statistics that have relatively greater importance. That is where the idea, raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham, of a rough hierarchy comes in. When it comes to the question of what is a national statistic and what is an official statistic, many hon. Members have had good fun with the inconsistencies around the edges. At the weekend, I read about egg bulletins and all sorts of other things that I had not realised existed. But clearly, in general, there is a rough hierarchy and it is possible to identify the most important statistics to represent properly what is going on in the country’s economy and socially. It is fairly easy to see what they are, and I am glad the rough hierarchy has been recognised in the House.
It is important that we allow the new board to prioritise which areas it should consider for assessment first. If the board were legally bound to undertake formal assessments of the vast and ever expanding range of official statistics, that would not be a sensible way forward, in view of the likely resource implications both for the board and for those being assessed. I expect that added credibility will come from securing independent endorsement of the quality and integrity of a set of statistics.
The code of practice has a special role to play in relation to the assessment of national statistics, but the Government have always intended—I am glad to clarify this through the Lords amendments—that the code of practice should be used across all official statistics, at least as a guide to best practice, to allow an assessment to be made of statistics in the official pool, rather than the national statistic pool. Amendments Nos. 11, 16, 18, 31 and 39 will change the name of the code to the code of practice for statistics. The change is aimed at making that intention more explicit, clarifying that the code applies not only to national statistics, but to the broader range of official statistics.
The Government have decided that the legal name for the code should be the code of practice for statistics, which expresses succinctly and clearly exactly what the code is for. As we heard, Opposition Members tabled amendments in lieu of the amendments from the other place, which would alter the name again, to the code of practice for official statistics, which I must resist. As I have just said, the code will be applied across official statistics, but will have a particular role in relation to national statistics, as the code against which the board will assess statistics to determine their compliance, and whether or not to award national statistics status. Calling it the code for official statistics may be confusing and could imply that it refers only to those official statistics, and not to the subset that are national statistics.
The Government have consistently resisted the argument that we should get rid of the two-tier system altogether because it causes confusion between official and national statistics. If they are confident that the man on the street can draw that distinction with ease, why are they worried that the title of the code of practice might cause confusion?
Dancing on the head of a pin occurs in this debate. It is clear that there is an acceptance in general, even if the hon. Lady does not share it, that there is a rough hierarchy of statistics. That grew out of the 2000 reforms. The national statistics now contain most of the most important series of statistics that have descriptive and research power with respect to how the country is doing, although I accept that around the edges there might be a little blurring as to whether a statistic should be national or official.
The important thing is to indicate to the board that there should be a priority, and for accreditation purposes that should lie, naturally, with the most important series of statistics, which in almost all cases are encompassed in national statistics rather than official statistics. The changes and the Government amendments in the Lords, which I support, indicate that the board can search more widely if necessary, and Ministers can add to the tally of national statistics if they believe that that is reasonable.
I accept that there has been a great deal of discussion in both Houses. The changes that were made in the House of Lords clarify the scope of national statistics and allow the board to look more widely at official statistics. The introduction of amendments that place an active duty on those who produce statistics to comply with the code, which was previously implicit, have made that explicit.
The Government amendment places a duty on the board to comment on any official statistic that is problematic, and the Department must respond and lay before Parliament the reasons it will not change the way in which such statistics are compiled if the board has complained about their veracity or the technical way they are produced. That is a powerful new lever for the board, which the hon. Lady acknowledged in her opening remarks.
That represents acceptable progress. For that reason, I support the Government amendment but oppose the amendments in lieu.
I do not propose to press my amendment to a Division. I hope that Minister, given the way in which she called on me to respond, will take that as a consensual and constructive move on my part. I am concerned that she was wounded by the strength of the language that I used. She made it plain that the amendments were motivated by a constructive spirit on the part of the new Government. I suspect that the compromise amendments tabled by the Government in the House of Lords might have had something to do with the fact that they had just lost on pre-release by 196 votes to 133 and were facing impending defeat on these matters as well. The Minister can hardly claim that it was a particularly generous move, in the light of the defeat that they faced. On that note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lords amendment No. 11 agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 15 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) and (b) made to the words so restored to the Bill.
Lords amendments Nos. 16 to 19 agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 20 to 30 disagreed to.
Lords amendment No. 31 agreed to.
national statistician: executive functions
Lords amendment: No. 32.
I seek the support of the House for the amendments from another place which seek to clarify the roles of the executive office under the national statistician’s leadership and the head of assessment. Before I address the amendments, it may help Members if I remind them of the core governance model adopted in the Bill and why the amendments brought forward from another place help to deliver the clarity that we all seek. The Government are committed to the governance structure established in the Bill, in which the single legal entity charged with delivering on the functions contained in the Bill is the statistics board. We believe that a single structure is the most effective way to deliver greater independence for the ONS and independent scrutiny and oversight of the statistical system as a whole, while avoiding the creation of competing centres of statistical expertise.
The Bill provides that single institutional structure with a board that is legally responsible and accountable for all the body’s functions. In line with the principles of good corporate governance, the Bill establishes that the board will have a mix of executives and non-executives, although we are legislating to ensure that there will always be a clear non-executive majority.
In common with other Departments and public bodies, professionals acting under the board’s direction will, we expect, discharge the executive business. However, the legal authority to act on behalf of the statistics board flows through the board, and the board must therefore retain authority to act in relation to matters for which it is accountable. The question of clarity of roles has nevertheless been a concern in both this House and the other place during the passage of the Bill, and the Government have recognised that the Bill could benefit from the key executive roles being more clearly set out on the face of the Bill. The Bill as drafted, augmented by the amendments before us today, makes it clear that the key functions of the board will be carried out by executives under the leadership of the national statistician and the head of assessment, while the legal entity that is ultimately responsible for those functions is the board collectively.
The broad thrust of the amendments is to give even greater clarity to the operational role of the national statistician and the executive office with respect to both the board and the head of assessment. Amendment No. 32 removes the existing references in clause 29 to the executive office, and amendment No. 35 inserts a new clause in their place explicitly to set out those of the board’s functions that will be undertaken by the executive office under the leadership of the national statistician. Those include the development and maintenance of definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for official statistics under clause 9, the production of statistics, such as the retail prices index, under clauses 18 and 19, and the provision of statistical services under clause 20.
The other amendments are designed further to emphasise what has always been our intention—that within the single statistics board structure, there will be a clear separation in the production of statistics under clause 18 from the assessment function established in clauses 12 and 13. That reflects the need to avoid the clear conflict of interest that would arise if a person who was responsible for producing any given statistic also had a role in determining whether, in producing that statistic, the code of practice had been complied with. Clause 30 has been included to ensure that such a situation could not arise, following interventions on the matter in Committee in the other place, where the Government undertook to re-examine the drafting to see whether our intention could be made clearer. The result of that re-examination is this group of amendments, the aim of which is unequivocally to confirm and clarify on the face of the Bill the separation between staff working on the assessment of statistics and those working on statistical production.
At the outset, I want to put it on record that I welcome this group of amendments.
Throughout the debate, the Opposition have expressed concern about the complicated institutional structure established by the Bill. We have pointed out that the Bill blurs the function of the national statistician with that of the board, which gives rise to three concerns. First, it creates confusion as to who does what and who accounts to whom. Secondly, vesting production and scrutiny functions in the same institution, the board, gives rise to conflict of interest problems, which could undermine confidence in the new system. Thirdly, it gives insufficient weight to the importance of the role of the national statistician and fails to give sufficient detail on what that role should involve.
Again, we welcome the Government amendments, which are a step in the right direction. We appreciate that this is a difficult issue to get right, and there are various structures around the world covering how statistical offices operate. The amendments flesh out the Government’s underlying idea that the production functions attributed to the board will be carried out by an executive office headed by the national statistician. Essentially, the executive office will carry out the role now broadly performed by the ONS. The amendments give greater clarity to the separation of functions within a unitary board structure, providing for a clearer delineation between the production functions as the remit of the national statistician and the executive office and the scrutiny and executive functions, which will be carried out by the head of assessment.
As with the other Government amendments that we have considered today, a number of issues are still unresolved. We remain concerned about the blurred lines of accountability in relation to the new structures. The board will still act as judge and jury where a complaint is made about the production of ONS statistics or statistics that are currently produced by the ONS. Where a complaint is made about a decision made by the national statistician or her executive office, the complaint will be made to the board. In a very real sense, however, the board will have been responsible for the decision in the first place, which raises the danger of undermining confidence in the board’s ability to take an impartial decision on whether the complaint should be upheld, particularly where it decides to back the judgment of the national statistician.
If the chairman of the board were to rule against the national statistician and issue a rebuke, he would be in the embarrassing position of issuing a rebuke to himself as the chairman of the body responsible for the decision in the first place. We also worry that the loss of the independent watchdog, with the merger of the Statistics Commission with the ONS, will remove one of the existing safeguards in our statistical system and could be seen as a step backwards in the quest that the Opposition and the Government share to secure independent statistics in which people can safely place their trust and confidence. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the incredibly valuable work of the Statistics Commission since its establishment in 2000, and I also pay tribute to the work done at the ONS.
The Government have never satisfactorily explained how the national statistician can be chief executive of the board, when a major function of the board is scrutiny and assessment, in which we all accept that it would be inappropriate for her to be involved. We continue to regret the Government’s rejection of our amendments, which would have made it plain that the national statistician is chief executive of the executive office and not chief executive of the board as a whole.
The Government have not adduced an example of a structure genuinely comparable to the one that they are establishing. As the then Financial Secretary more or less admitted in Committee, we are in uncharted waters as far as the model chosen by the Government is concerned. We can only hope that the quality and abilities of the board and the national statistician can develop what Baroness Noakes described as “successful workarounds” in making the new framework operate successfully.
Lastly, I want to repeat on record that I wish that the Government had taken this opportunity to articulate and strengthen the role of the national statistician. After all, as the Exchequer Secretary has said, statistics Bills do not come around very often. I do not know whether it will be another 60 years before this House again has the chance to discuss official statistics, but it could be some time before there is a major reform of the statistical system.
It is unfortunate that the Government have missed this significant opportunity to encode in statute some important functions for the national statistician. These include providing co-ordination and planning of our decentralised statistical system, which it so desperately needs, and the vital task of providing the professional leadership that government statisticians need. When Ministers or policy officials try to push them around or misuse or spin their statistics, the statisticians need a heavyweight figure to back them. The success or failure of this reform in restoring trust in official statistics is inextricably linked with the status and authority not only of the board but of the national statistician.
Although it does not have the highest profile, few issues are more important than the health and integrity of our statistical system. Without accurate data on the state of our economy and our country, we can neither hold the Government to account nor take well informed policy decisions. Without accurate statistics, the policymaker is in effect like a doctor left unable to take his patient’s temperature or blood pressure. Partial or misleading statistics leave Government and citizens alike groping in the dark and can lead to serious mismanagement of critically important decisions for our nation’s future. That is why independent statistics are a key part of modern economic governance, and that is why they form a key part of our triple lock to entrench macro-economic stability in this country. I hope that the reforms will help to remedy an increasingly serious lack of trust in official statistics which has intensified during the 10 years this Government have been in office.
I do not accept for one moment the final assertion that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made about trust, but I thank her for being broadly supportive of the changes that we are discussing; that is welcome.
The hon. Lady said that she wanted to get rid of the national statistician as chief executive of the statistics board, as well as enhancing the position of the national statistician in a more general way. That is a rather contradictory approach. I assure her about the independence of the statistics board in its assessment functions. She asked how it could really be independent as the board responsible for assessment and production of statistics. With the strengthening changes that we set out in the Lords, and in the general structure of the Bill, the Government have included mechanisms that clearly separate production and assessment.
There will be a head of assessment who will be appointed by the non-executive board members. Under clauses 5 and 29, he or she will be the board’s principal adviser on assessment issues. The head of assessment will lead the staff working on assessment issues, who cannot work on statistical production and, under clause 30, will report separately via the head of assessment directly to the board. Decisions on whether to approve something as a national statistic cannot be delegated from the board; it must take those decisions itself. Under clause 30, the national statistician cannot therefore take part in decisions about the award of a national statistics designation for any statistics produced by his or her office. It will be in the board’s interests to ensure that the quality of all statistics is high; that is part of its objective. It will clearly apply the same standards in conducting the assessment of ONS statistics as it will for any other body. I hope that the hon. Lady will rest assured that the separations of powers within the structure are robust and are highlighted throughout the Bill.
As for whether the national statistician is somehow having her role downgraded, as the hon. Lady knows the new post of national statistician will be a Crown appointment, as set out in clause 5. Clause 28 gives the national statistician the power and prestige that they will need to do the job. The board has to take account of the advice of the national statistician on all statistical matters. If, under clause 27, it overrules the national statistician on a professional technical decision, it must publish a statement, including the reasons why, and lay it before Parliament. The national statistician is a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with other board members for ultimate decision making, rather than advising Ministers, who are currently the ultimate decision makers. That considerably enhances, rather than diminishes, the role of the national statistician. I hope that the hon. Lady will rest assured that, far from the national statistician having a reduced role under the Bill, it gives her a considerably enhanced role. I hope that the House will accept the Lords amendments.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 33 to 39 agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 40 to 64 disagreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 65.
With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 71 and 73.
This group of amendments responds positively once more to a recommendation from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place. This is a technical issue that I hope need not detain us for too long. The recommendation relates to the delegation of a function of a Minister of the Crown, a Welsh Minister or a Northern Ireland Department under clause 22. The recommendation made by the Committee was that where a Minister of the Crown, a Welsh Minister or Northern Ireland Department delegates a function to the board by order, that order should be subject to the negative resolution procedure if it amends primary legislation. This group of amendments carries out that recommendation, which is tidier in terms of House procedure. I should note that the amendments do not apply to Scottish Ministers because, as agreed with the Scottish Executive, Scottish Ministers are not able to delegate functions to the board. I commend the amendments to the House.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 66 agreed to.
Lords amendments (a) to (qqq) agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 67 to 70 disagreed to.
Lords amendment No. 71 agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 72 disagreed to.
Lords amendment No. 73 agreed to.
Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Dr. Vincent Cable, Angela Eagle, Mr. Michael Foster, Siobhain McDonagh and Mrs. Theresa Villiers; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
To withdraw immediately.
Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.