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National Statistics

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015

We move from a debate on the House of Lords to a matter of critical importance in the coming general election to elect Members to the elected House of our Parliament. We have already started the longest general election campaign in the UK’s history, which is the consequence, perhaps unintended, of a decision earlier in this Parliament to agree to fixed-term Parliaments. When voters cast their votes, they will make judgments on our respective parties, our leaders, the constituency candidates and the issues during the campaign. They will make those decisions based on the information available to them at the time. In the interests of transparency, accountability and democracy, it is important for the information upon which people make decisions to be accurate. Rex Stout, a US crime writer, wrote:

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”

During the general election campaign, it is important that we have more of the former and less of the latter.

The guardian of the integrity and trustworthiness of official statistics is the UK Statistics Authority, which was set up in 2008 as a result of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, introduced by the Labour Government to remove political—that is, ministerial—control of national statistics, the Office for National Statistics and its officials. I had a meeting with Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, in October 2014, and he told me that Labour should claim credit for the creation of an independent statistics authority, and we do.

The UK was slow off the mark compared with other countries. Statistics Norway was established as an independent entity as far back as 1876, and it uses its independence to publish a dossier of key figures for circulation to the public before each Norwegian general election. The UK Statistics Authority did a similar independent and impartial job of publishing key statistics before the Scottish referendum. I hope that it will use its independence to do so again before the general election.

The public have a right to know how much the national debt, for example, has risen under the coalition Government; how much the deficit, the rate at which the national debt increases, has fallen; and by how much the Government have failed to meet their promise to eliminate the deficit by the end of the Parliament. The public have a right to know the waiting times for hospital treatment compared with under previous Governments. They have a right to know the crime rate and our trade and investment figures. Immigration will be a big issue in the election, and we want reliable figures upon which the public can make a judgment about the relative merits of the different parties’ policies on immigration. It might be sensible to have figures about the cost to the UK of membership of the European Union or statistics on the number of people who have lost access to legal aid.

Those will all be issues in the election, and I hope people will be able to make judgments based on good facts. I would like to see the UK Statistics Authority publish figures on such matters, but that is for the authority to determine, not for us as politicians. During the campaign, I would like the UK Statistics Authority to be able to respond quickly with a public statement offering clarification if there appears to be controversy between the parties on the facts.

The independence of the UK Statistics Authority, the result of a Labour Act, was a great step forward, but it did not go far enough. The authority’s independence and well-regarded code of practice for official statistics apply only to official statistics, not to all statistics published by the Government. On the Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill in 2007, which I attended, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who was the Conservative spokesperson, pointed out that only 12% of statistics published by the Home Office were designated as official statistics and would therefore become controllable by an independent statistics authority. She said:

“The Bill leaves intact the two-tier system between National Statistics and other official figures… the whole two-tier division should be abolished.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 44-45.]

The problem, which she rightly identified, is that the decision on which figures to designate and therefore quality-control as official statistics is taken by Ministers, not by the independent statistics authority. She cited Lord Moser, the towering figure of British statistics and a former national statistician, who described the decision to allow Ministers, rather than the statistics authority, to determine which statistics are official statistics as

“‘a very basic flaw’ to have a category of statistics that are ‘left totally’ in Ministers’ hands. He said that it was a formula for lack of trust”.

Nevertheless, the flaw identified by the Conservative spokesperson remained in the 2007 Act.

I came up against that flaw on 6 January 2014, when the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), claimed in the House that more money was being spent “than ever before” on flood defences. I took that claim to the statisticians in the Library because it was directly contradicted by figures that I had recently received from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in answer to a parliamentary question. The statisticians concluded:

“Departmental spending on flood defences in 2011-15 will be lower than it was in 2007-11 in both nominal and real terms.”

Indeed, the figures showed that spending would be £247 million lower.

As a consequence of the advice that I received from the Library, I wrote to ask the views of the UK Statistics Authority, and it agreed with the Library’s conclusion that flood defence spending had indeed fallen, not increased. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, confirmed that to me in a letter and made—this is a longish quote, but I will read it because it goes to the heart of the issue—a further comment:

“Defra does not publish figures on flood defence spending as official statistics. There is therefore no obligation for Defra to comply with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics in relation to these figures. However, given the salience of these figures and the public interest in them, it is my view that it would…serve the public good if Defra were to consider publishing official statistics on expenditure by the relevant organisations on aspects of flooding and coastal erosion management in future. I have asked the Authority’s Head of Assessment to explore this matter further with the Department.”

Subsequently, there was a long correspondence between me, the UK Statistics Authority, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, and there were meetings with officials and Ministers. On 17 July, I received a letter from the former Secretary of State confirming that figures on flooding would

“become an official statistic, subject to the Standards in the Code of Practice”.

But it was his decision, not the decision of the UK Statistics Authority, to make the change, although it was proposed by the Statistics Authority.

The example about spending on flood defences is not isolated. On 7 October last year, the Statistics Authority criticised figures that the Minister for Security and Immigration cited when he claimed that passport applications were at a 12-year high.

On 21 February last year, Sir Andrew Dilnot wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) to criticise the use by the Department for Work and Pensions of unpublished management information on the performance of the Work programme. “Management information” is jargon used by Departments to describe the statistics that they produce themselves, rather than those produced as official statistics by the UK Statistics Authority.

On 26 April 2013, Sir Andrew Dilnot wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), making a similar criticism of Cabinet Office claims about the percentage of Government procurement going to small and medium-sized enterprises.

On 25 January 2012, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to criticise the figures that he had published on the nationality of benefits claimants and proposed that in the future such figures should be properly quality-controlled by the authority as official statistics before publication, although the Secretary of State refused that request.

The Statistics Authority has taken the Mayor of London to task many times for his use of figures relating to transport, juvenile offending, reoffending, crime and so on.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) received a reply to a freedom of information request asking how many times since May 2010 the UK Statistics Authority has investigated complaints about the misuse of statistics by Ministers or officials in their Departments. He was told that it has happened on 312 occasions since the general election, or more than once a week. In 103 cases—almost once a fortnight—it resulted in a public statement by the authority, usually in the form of a publication of correspondence, as happened in the case that I cited about flood protection expenditure.

Clearly, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 must be amended to give the UK Statistics Authority, rather than Ministers, the right to determine which Government figures should be designated as official statistics and therefore subject to the Statistics Authority’s rigorous code of practice.

The Conservative party supported that proposal on the Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which set up the Statistics Authority, as did the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), who also called for the end of pre-release to Ministers of statistics before they are published to the general public. He has been taken to task by the Statistics Authority since he became Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills for failing to do what he proposed in opposition. We all understand that it is easier to say the right thing in opposition than to do the right thing in government.

The proposal that the authority, rather than Ministers, should determine which statistics are official had tri-party support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) was the first to demand on Second Reading that that should happen. He said:

“Would not the move to re-establish public confidence in statistics be advanced if the commission itself…could decide which series of data it published?”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 24-25.]

I call on the Minister to say at the very least that he will discuss with his party leader and party whether that commitment should be included in the Conservative manifesto for the next election. I will raise the same thing with my party leader and write to the Liberal Democrat party leader. We should establish a cross-party consensus before the election to ensure that whoever is elected will make the necessary reform to confirm the independence and trustworthiness of the figures that the Government and the UK Statistics Authority produce.

I will speak briefly about two further proposals, the first of which I raised on Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill. The House of Commons should establish a statistics Select Committee. I pay tribute to the excellent work that the Public Administration Committee has done on the oversight of statistics during this Parliament and to the Treasury Committee’s work in the previous Parliament, when it was responsible for scrutinising Government statistics. However, both Committees have many other things to examine, and they do not devote enough time to ensuring the integrity of Government statistics.

Secondly, the budget for the UK Statistics Authority should be determined by the House of Commons, not the Government. Between 2008-09, when the UK Statistics Authority was established by the Labour Government, and 2014-15, the funding for the Office for National Statistics has been cut by more than 25% in real terms. Consequently, the number of statistics produced, quality-audited and published by the UK Statistics Authority has also been cut, which is not good for public trust or public administration. The budget should be restored. It is a relatively small sum of money—perhaps an increase in expenditure of some £40 million. After all, the Government and the UK Statistics Authority tell us that the UK is now experiencing strong growth. It would be a serious mistake not to find that additional resource to give to the public the trust they need in Government figures.

I should like to see the establishment of either a parliamentary statistics commission, modelled on the Public Accounts Commission, which determines how much money the National Audit Office should have, to determine how much money the UK Statistics Authority needs to do its work, or a full-blown counterpart to the Public Accounts Committee—a special Select Committee, chaired by a Member of the Opposition, as is the Public Accounts Committee.

I am coming to the end of my time in this House; I will not be standing for re-election. I have had an interest in statistics all my life. I studied them as part of my degree and I worked for a number of years as a research fellow in health economics at York university and created statistics professionally. It is important for public trust in the Government and parties that the figures the Government produce are honest, reliable and trustworthy. We took a big step forward when we created the UK Statistics Authority as an independent Department that is not under ministerial control, but we have not gone the whole way. I hope that we can establish a cross-party consensus before the general election to make the necessary change to create a truly independent guardian of the figures that the Government publish.

I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) on securing this important debate. I was sorry to hear the bombshell that he dropped at the end of his speech. I was not aware that he will be standing down at the May election. I pay tribute to him for his work highlighting the need for independent, accurate statistics, and for bringing the matter before the House.

Mark Twain wrote:

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

I am not sure that my colleagues in the UK Statistics Authority would agree. Statistics make a crucial contribution to good government in a modern democracy, assisting in the formulation and evaluation of policies, and in the management of the services for which the Government are responsible, encouraging and informing debate, and allowing people to judge whether the Government are delivering on their promises. High-quality statistics are also a key resource for business, academia and the wider community.

With increasing emphasis on evidence-based policy making and effective performance management, statistics have greater importance than ever before, and ever increasing scrutiny is placed on them, not least by the hon. Gentleman. Statistics must therefore be, and be seen to be, of the highest professional quality and integrity. I take his point on having accurate figures across a range of different areas with a general election nearing. Many of those statistics are available, but he is right that they must be independent. The UK Statistics Authority’s role as independent guardian of the use of statistics is essential in ensuring public trust in what politicians say. The designation of a statistic as a national statistic is an exemplar of best practice. It allows officials and the public to be confident that the statistics released represent the facts and have been appropriately caveated, considered and presented.

The UK Statistics Authority has rightly written to point out where politicians’ use of public statistics has fallen below the standards that the public expect. The hon. Gentleman highlighted examples of that on the Government side—his point on the number of complaints to the UKSA shows that it is doing a good job in dealing with complaints—but some of the more egregious examples come from the Labour party. I am delighted that he has given me this good opportunity to point out once again that the shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), claimed last year that the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance had risen by 263% in the north-east since the election when, in fact, as the UKSA noted, the published official statistics show that the number of young people claiming JSA in the north-east fell by 27% between May 2010 and May 2014. He also claimed that there had been a huge increase in the number of people on zero-hours contracts, but the UKSA pointed out that it was not in fact possible to back up that claim with any official figures.

I will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to respond to those points in a little while. The Leader of the Opposition has been rapped on the knuckles for his claim that four out of five new jobs were being created in London. The official statistics showed that the reverse was true. He also said that only crisis-hit Spain had higher numbers of young unemployed people than the UK, completely ignoring the relative size of European countries and the share of young unemployed people in the work force. The Labour party also tried to claim that violent crime was rising by using the police recorded crime statistics, completely ignoring the much more reliable crime survey, which showed that violent crime was falling. In fact, the police recorded crime statistics have had their national statistics designation removed due to accumulating evidence that the underlying data on crimes recorded by the police might not be reliable.

It is kind of the Minister to give way and appropriate that he went through his examples of criticisms by the UK Statistics Authority of Opposition spokespeople. I acknowledge that Government and Opposition Members have quoted statistics erroneously, either wilfully or through misunderstanding them. However, that is not my point. My point is that the figures are produced by the Government and in Departments. It is important that there is independent scrutiny of the Government, whichever party is in government.

If I may, I will turn to some of the questions the hon. Gentleman asked. His first question was whether the UK Statistics Authority should have the statutory responsibility to designate numerical information produced by Departments as official—that was really what he was asking. The Government are aware that the UK Statistics Authority is in favour of that course of action, and we are considering it. His second question was on having a code of practice for numerical information that is not presently designated as official statistics. The UK Statistics Authority is against that, as it believes it will dilute the code of practice on official statistics by creating a lesser class of statistics. It would prefer a much broader definition of official statistics, which the Government are also considering.

The hon. Gentleman asked about manifesto commitments, which is obviously a matter under discussion in manifesto planning more widely. That will be done in the normal way in private conversations, but there are many pressures, and many lobby groups wish to inject such things into party manifestos. He raised the point of the creation of another Select Committee to look at and be responsible for statistics. I am not sure we need another Select Committee for that. There may be a case for giving extra powers and responsibilities to Select Committees, but I do not think we need a new one. That deals with most if not all his questions.

In addition to our regular release of statistics, the Government are committed to being the most open Government ever. Through gov.uk dashboards, we are reporting Government performance on areas as diverse as blood donation, driving licence bookings and patent renewals. The public can see how we are doing as near as possible to real time, without spin or manipulation.

Statistics are part of the story of a Government, but they are not the whole story. We can challenge each other’s ideas and check each other’s numbers, but it is right that the UK Statistics Authority is there to call us to account. It cannot, however, become the referee in a game of political football, particularly in a general election period. Its job is far too important for that. We have obligations as politicians to be sure of our facts and to ensure that we are confident of the sources of our information. That is important, not only in presenting our achievements to the electorate, but in developing the right policy solutions for our country.

Sitting suspended.