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Data Transparency and Accountability: Covid-19

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021


Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. William Wragg will speak for up to 10 minutes during which no interventions may be made or taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call William Wragg to respond to them in turn. I should say that the questions should be brief so that the Chair can answer them succinctly. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members are aware that there are two very well-subscribed debates to follow. I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to present to the House the latest report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for accommodating us in today’s proceedings. May I also place on record my thanks to fellow members of the Committee for their work during this inquiry on Government transparency and accountability during covid-19: the data underpinning decisions? We are also indebted to the Committee staff for their hard work, particularly Claire Hardy, who has been with us this past year on secondment from the National Audit Office

To be clear, this report does not critique the Government’s decisions, but asks important questions about how transparent those decisions were and whether the data are available for parliamentarians and, indeed, the public, to hold them to account. The report also examines whether data were shared with local leaders for the purpose of informing the response to the pandemic. As we say in the report, data transparency is not just a moral issue, but integral to the success of the response to the pandemic. Transparency builds trust and trust aids compliance with the rules.

It is important to acknowledge properly the progress to date. The Government have amassed enormous amounts of data from a standing start, making much of it available to the public, including on the covid-19 dashboard and through surveys by the Office for National Statistics, including the infection survey. The report pays tribute to the hard work of public servants involved at all levels in this huge endeavour.

However, although the report welcomes the publication of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies minutes, which we called for in a letter to the Prime Minister last May, it also states that publication needs to be more consistent and timelier. It is worth noting that SAGE minutes have been published, on average, 49 days after the meeting, with some significantly longer gaps. For example, a SAGE meeting that took place on 30 July 2020 did not see its minutes published until 134 days later, on 11 December.

The report considers public communications and, while recognising that the Downing Street press briefings have been an important exercise in gaining some democratic consent, it is not without criticism for both the use of reasonable worst-case scenarios and sometimes poorly presented data. The report notes that some data presentation appears to be have been impacted by political considerations.

The Committee is very clear in its view that statistics should be used for the purpose of genuinely informing the public and that open and honest communication builds trust, even when, on occasion, the Government have, for whatever reason, fallen short of their promises. If I were minded to deploy Disraeli’s quote about statistics, this would be the point at which to do so.

The first principle of the UK Statistics Authority code of practice is trustworthiness.

It states that data should be presented “impartially and objectively”. It is, I am afraid, evident that Ministers have not always lived up to the expectations of the UK Statistics Authority code of practice.

The report finds that creating a sense of anxiety—for example, through quoting large numbers—could be counterproductive in the effort to encourage behaviour change, because, to quote from one of our expert witnesses,

“inducing fear leads people to turn away and to turn off.”

On the other hand, being open and honest, and communicating uncertainties in data, builds trust, and trust is central to the social contract between Government and the people.

While SAGE has certainly become prominent in the past year, the report notes that it might not be well understood by the public, and it is questionable how helpful some public statements by individual members have been. The 2012 SAGE guidance from the Cabinet Office states that SAGE members should be provided with “clear guidance on confidentiality”, but it is unclear if this had happened. The Committee recommends that the ministerial code should be strengthened to require Ministers to abide by the UK Statistics Authority code of practice. When Ministers or senior officials quote statistics, underlying data must be published. Some expectations should be laid out about the appropriate way for SAGE advisers to communicate publicly.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of our inquiry is that the Committee struggled to establish who the Government see as accountable for ensuring that decisions are underpinned by data. For example, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster passed questions and letters from me to the Department of Health and Social Care on issues that must have included wider considerations beyond health. It is not acceptable to pass apparent responsibility for decisions between the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care when so much is at stake. Lines of accountability must be clear and decision making must be transparent. Of course, while only the Prime Minister can be accountable for key decisions such as the lockdown, it is the Committee’s view that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should be accountable for ensuring that these decisions are informed by data through Covid O and as part of the co-ordinated response.

We were disappointed that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster declined to appear before the Committee on this specific inquiry and sent junior Ministers in his place to answer questions on these specific matters. Unfortunately, the Ministers sent before us were not able to answer many of our questions. Both Ministers who appeared stated that they were not involved in the decision-making process, and our report questions why they were sent to the Committee, given that both the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care were alerted to the themes of the questions prior to the session. The ability of Select Committees to hold Ministers to account for decisions is a vital part of our democratic process. This is particularly true at a time when the country is facing the toughest possible restrictions on our freedoms and when detailed scrutiny of the Government’s decisions has not always been possible in the timeframes required.

In May 2020, the Committee heard from the national statistician that responding to the next stage of the pandemic would require more localised data. The report criticises a national “by default” approach to data that included local leaders not receiving data in sufficient detail early enough. There was a reluctance from Whitehall to share granular data despite requests by directors of public health. New systems were set up outside existing systems, so data could not flow easily. Indeed, initially, test and trace data was being collected in spreadsheets. The consequences of this approach were manifold and included interoperability issues, problems with data sharing and extraction of data, and concerns or, indeed, mistrust about data quality. To quote the president of the Association of Directors of Public Health,

“if we had had all the data we have now in July or earlier, we would have had a stronger response to the epidemic.”

We also heard that existing health data systems were fragmented. Data that is key to decision making on the road map should be shared immediately, ahead of the potential renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020 next week. The Government should publish a comprehensive list of what data is actually available. The Department of Health and Social Care, with support from the UK Statistics Authority, should undertake an urgent review of health data systems in England. Ministers who appeared before our Committee were unable to provide answers to the most basic of these questions as it was evident that neither of them had been involved in the decision making. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General directed the question of the first lockdown to the Health Minister when clearly the Department of Health could not have made decisions that involved much wider considerations such as the economy.

There was not a consistent framework in place for tiering decisions. There were five tests in June 2020, five indicators in November 2020, and now there is a road map with four tests. Indicators have not had data thresholds, which has created confusion. It was hard to find data under the indicators, and “pressure on the NHS” was not well defined. On 19 December, 26 local authorities were put into tier 4, in spite of having infection rates at the same range as areas in tier 2. In October, local leaders told us that they were not informed about decisions prior to them being announced, and could not prepare communications and reassurance for local communities. In the midst of opaque decision making, there developed a sense of confusion and mistrust, and it quickly became apparent that some areas had been placed in higher tiers than neighbouring areas with worse infection rates.

The February road map contains dates, but not much in the way of data. Wording such as

“vaccine deployment programme continues successfully”

is not sufficient, as success is not defined. Although evidence on the safety of hospitality venues was far from conclusive, the report states that the Government were “not clear” on the evidence underpinning the decision to close hospitality in higher tiers. Fundamentally, if the Government are asking businesses to close—risking jobs, livelihoods and the very survival of those businesses—it must be clear why this should happen, and the evidence outlined demonstrates that the lack of clear communication of any evidence that does exist to underpin the decisions has created frustration and mistrust.

The Cabinet Office must outline the range of data and information it will use to lift the current lockdown. The priority must be a clear and consistent framework. The Government should provide links from road map indicators to local authority level data. They must publish thresholds aligned to the road map, and they should publish the data justifying restrictions that will remain in place on businesses at each step of that road map. I commend the report to the House.

The Chair of the Committee referred to our evidence about data sharing locally and the Government’s decision to set up new organisations. The British Medical Association said:

“Our devastating mortality figures could in part be a result of the failure of the Government to…share data”.

With rates still variable across the country, how does the hon. Member think we can ensure that the Government learn those lessons—to include and trust local experts—as we come out of lockdown?

I thank the hon. Lady for her assiduous work as a member of the Committee and her significant input to this particular inquiry.

In answer to her question, I suspect that the overriding concern for some in Whitehall and NHS England was that the ideas were not necessarily invented by them, and they were therefore mistrustful of them. It is vital that existing local expertise and infrastructure should be called on to the fullest amount—more than it has been in recent times.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Committee’s report, which has an emphasis on the availability of data to the public, and highlights the confusion caused when the specific data underpinning decisions is not easily available online. The Government have done very well on this in the last few months, but does he agree that, further to making this data readily available, honesty about the uncertainty contained in the data is key to maintaining public trust?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point of our report, which is the need to be clear, open and honest about uncertainties. We can all be guilty of wishing to have answers to every single question—perhaps like me at the moment—but in being able to express uncertainty and show that candour, public trust is enhanced.

I have met hospitality and creative arts businesses in Luton South to discuss how the pandemic has impacted their operations. Many were frustrated that the Government were not publishing the information being used, by whom it was being used and how it was being used to inform decisions that placed restrictions on their operations. This damaged their trust in Government decision making. Does the Chair of the Committee agree that the timely publication of all the data used to make decisions on the road map and restrictions, along with clear reasons why, will help to rebuild trust with businesses and enable them to better plan their transition out of restrictions?

I thank the hon. Lady for her hard work on the Committee and particularly on this report. She will be aware of a case that is possibly going before the courts on that matter, which is to do with the opening on 12 April of non-essential retail, but not of hospitality. I agree with the thrust of her question, and I suggest that the Government publish the evidence that hospitality venues are not covid-secure, given that many have spent many thousands of pounds in making themselves so.

I welcome this report and the excellent work done by my hon. Friend. As someone who studied mathematics at university, I know that evidence-based decision making is always the right thing. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he agrees that businesses such as pubs up and down my constituency of South West Herts, including the Penn, the Akeman in Tring and the Greyhound in Aldbury, deserve the evidence and rationale for why they are not able to reopen yet, despite the significant costly measures they have put in place?

I certainly thank my hon. Friend, and I take his question as an early invitation to visit those excellent establishments with him when restrictions and time allow. From the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), he will know that I have expressed the view that that data and the justification should be published if those excellent hostelries cannot reopen on 12 April.

I am not a member of the Committee, but I commend the Chair and all the members and staff of the Committee for this very thorough report.

The Chair of the Committee has called for a strengthening of the ministerial code. In paragraph 98 of the report, there is a very serious charge that a senior member of the Cabinet has been contemptuous of Parliament through their unwillingness to co-operate with this inquiry. Has the Committee considered whether the arrangements for enforcing the ministerial code are fit for purpose? For example, has the hon. Gentleman considered the practice in the Scottish Parliament by which the Parliament can consider a motion of no confidence in individual Ministers as well as in the Government as a whole? Does he believe that it would be beneficial to introduce that in the United Kingdom Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate about whom I would bring before this House on such a charge. Our report sought merely to remind Ministers that a friendly invitation from a Select Committee should be readily accepted, rather than avoided.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, and I add my thanks to the staff who helped to prepare this report. The report acknowledges that the presentation of data has improved, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is much more work for the Government to do in this area, and that that improvement will not only improve confidence in the data itself but is critical to improving confidence in future Government decisions that are data-based?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and, indeed, for his work on the Committee; I have had the pleasure to serve alongside him. He is entirely right. I think the purpose of his question was to suggest the strengthening of the ministerial code, with the UK Statistics Authority code of practice being integrated with it, so that Ministers who are accountable to this House and, through us, the wider public are always mindful of their duty and obligation to be accurate when they bring data to bear in support of their arguments.

I, too, thank the Chair and the Committee for their report, and welcome the acknowledgement of the difficulties for the hospitality sector as a result of the failure to provide data in support of measures such as the 10 pm curfew and the substantial meal requirement. I agree with his earlier answer that hospitality needs the data informing the ruling to stay closed. Does he agree that, when the Government carry out their events research programme this summer to decide how nightclubs and festivals can reopen, they must publish the data and the evidence, so that the industry and the public can have confidence in those decisions?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He and I in some respects have always been engaged in the joint endeavour of ensuring that Greater Manchester, throughout the tiering decisions, was dealt with slightly more favourably than it was. But I agree with him on the study to which he refers: all of that evidence and data should be published.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and for the Committee’s work in producing this very alarming report. Does he know why the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not appear before the Committee during its inquiry, despite the Committee’s expectation that he would do so? What measures will be taken to get commitments from the Government that Ministers will be more open and attend in future?

Does the hon. Gentleman know the reasons behind the Government’s unwillingness to share data with local authorities and local contacts that is reported in his report? Does he agree with my Opposition colleagues that that seriously hindered the ability of local government and local authorities to control the virus? Finally, does he agree that the continued lack of transparency reported here, and of clarity on how the Cabinet Office is making decisions on covid and who is making these decisions, is hindering, not helping, our response to the virus?

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I hope that the publication of this report can serve as a reminder to all Ministers that, when they are invited to attend a Select Committee for a particular inquiry purpose, rather than for a general session, their first response should be to accept that invitation. If there are any problems, they should, of course, use the usual channels to communicate those concerns. But I would hope that some of the stern words in this report will serve as a useful reminder to all Ministers that they have the obligation and are accountable to this House. While we do not have government by Parliament, we have parliamentary government and that should be sufficiently understood by them. In answer to her other questions, particularly on the hesitancy, if I may put it that way, to share all available data at local levels, I am reassured that much of that has been put right, although there may be some more to do. On the latter point, it is a hypothetical question, if I may daringly accuse her of that, but I think that that will undoubtedly have had a negative effect, certainly on the early actions to respond to the pandemic.

I thank my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee for his statement and welcome his Committee’s report. On the tiering decisions, many times in this Chamber we were pledged a consultation process, but it seems that the word “consultation” was a very loose one. In fact, we were essentially told, without any prior information, without prior engagement and without any of the data. Could he advise us as to the Committee’s view on this process and whether it had any recommendations on how it could be improved, if the need arose?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have always been dubious of the word “consultation” when expressed by anybody as a means of kicking things into the long grass. What is, and what was required was the publication of data thresholds so that areas could judge for themselves objectively why those tiering decisions were necessary. As we go forward with the road map, the publication of the data thresholds that mean that decisions are taken is vital.

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for answering the questions of hon. and right hon. Members. We are now going to suspend for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.