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Office for National Statistics

Volume 689: debated on Monday 19 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the public can have confidence in the statistics published by the Office for National Statistics.

My Lords, the Government’s aim has always been to deliver statistics in which people trust; for statistics to be, and be seen to be, produced to the highest professional standards and free from political interference. We are delivering on this aim. The public do have confidence in statistics published by the ONS. A key finding of the independent statistics survey Official Statistics: Perceptions and Trust was that the statistical quality of official outputs in the UK was considered to be generally good and to rival the best in the world.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is he not honestly ashamed to be the Minister responsible for an executive agency, set up 10 years ago and reporting to the Treasury, which, in its own report in 2005, found that more than 80 per cent of the public surveyed thought that official statistics were produced with political interference; 59 per cent perceived that the Government used the statistics dishonestly; and only 34 per cent felt that the Government’s figures were accurate? Given this miserable record, how on earth will the Bill in another place improve the situation if it still leaves Ministers and departments responsible for producing their own statistics? For example, 20 per cent of Home Office statistics—that is 32 out of 160 sets—are inaccurate. How will that ever improve the situation?

My Lords, the noble Lord overplays his hand somewhat. Of course the general public treat government statements and statistics with proper scepticism. We expect that from a mature and educated electorate. He will recognise, however, that not only did we come to power pledged to improve the quality of statistics but we acted on this in 2000 by the decisions we took on the independent presentation of statistics. The new Bill, which will be before this House in the very near future, enshrines the concept of an independent stance on statistics. That will add to the confidence which the statistics already enjoy.

My Lords, most noble Lords will be interested to hear that the Treasury never interferes with the preparation of the statistics. One is bound to ask why not. On the other hand, what has the Treasury been able to do in advance of publication? Has it ever made representations to the ONS? If so, have they been rejected or accepted?

My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, government departments have prior knowledge of any statistics that emerge and it is only right that they should do so. Ministers are answerable to the two Houses of Parliament for those statistics and the decisions taken on the basis of them. However, he will recognise that, not only have government departments been scrupulous about these matters in the past, particularly the Treasury, but the new Bill that will be before the House shortly will guarantee that that position is there in statute.

My Lords, those of us who have studied statistics remember our first lesson when we are told Mark Twain’s famous saying that there are,

“lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Perhaps the noble Lord means, “There are lies, damned lies and government statistics”. On a serious note, there is public scepticism and it is further accentuated if the statistics themselves are felt to be inaccurate. I urge the Government to go further than the Bill; will they do so?

My Lords, the Bill will provide a forum in which these issues can be discussed. We are aware that there have been one or two lapses. Parliament has drawn the Government’s attention to these lapses, which are regrettable. But they have been limited, and the overall position of statistics is as I reflected. Independent opinion considers British government statistics to be almost unrivalled in their accuracy.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the need for Ministers to have prior knowledge. Why, if we are trying to make them free from political interference, do Ministers in this country have longer advance notice of statistics than their counterparts in any other country in Western Europe or the United States?

My Lords, we can discuss that issue fruitfully all in good time and we are only a matter of a few impatient weeks before we enjoin debate on this matter. It is reasonable. United Kingdom Ministers have a relationship with Parliament that is close and under the most vigorous scrutiny. It is only right that they have some access to statistics if they can be questioned on them the moment they become public.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important for the arrangements for statistics to be independent of the Government and the Treasury? In the arrangements for the new Statistics Board, which Minister will bat against the Treasury when the question of resources comes to be debated?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that, for the foreseeable future, the Treasury will remain part of the Government. Therefore, splitting the concept of the two is an odd one. I emphasise that the Treasury will have overall responsibility with regard to the situation, but the noble Baroness will recognise that most of the debates about statistics revolve around particular policy areas. The debates are enjoined most fruitfully in the specific areas of those departments.

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer handed over the setting of the bank rate to an independent monetary committee? Does he recall that its reports are received with universal acceptance?

My Lords, what is recognised universally is the wisdom of that move and the success of the running of the economy, to which that particular feature makes its contribution, over 58 quarters of growth.