My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill establishes a statistical system in the UK that will help to deliver the Government’s principal objectives of a high-quality and high-integrity system: clearly defined roles, responsibilities and accountabilities; greater transparency, flexibility and value for money, and greater independence from Ministers.
This is the first major statistics legislation since the Statistics of Trade Act 1947. The Bill builds on the framework for national statistics introduced in 2000 and establishes a statistics system that can evolve in the light of new, shifting statistical demands and experience. It is the next step in the Chancellor’s reform of the machinery of economic governance which began in 1997 with the statutory independence of the Bank of England, followed by independence for the Competition Commission and the Financial Services Authority. The creation of the new independent Statistics Board is the centrepiece of the Bill.
Given the unique features of the UK’s long established and strongly supported decentralised system of statistical production, the Government wanted to establish a single oversight board to set standards, to scrutinise the statistical system, and to provide the top layer of governance for what is at present the Office for National Statistics. A single board also avoids competing independent centres of statistical expertise, which might ultimately confuse and undermine confidence in the system. Vesting accountability across a corporate board rather than in a single individual is also consistent with best practice in corporate governance, be that in the private or the public sector. The Bill removes Ministers from the accountability structure for the Office for National Statistics. The new statutory board will undertake the role currently performed by Ministers, and the National Statistician, a post that we are retaining and enhancing in the Bill, will continue to run the statistics office, as she does now, answering to the board instead of Ministers.
In the other place, concerns were raised about how the arrangement for funding the board might impinge on its independence. It is important to ensure that the funding arrangements for the new board reinforce statutory independence. That is why the Government have taken the decision that funding for the new Statistics Board will be set outside of the normal government spending review process. To meet our key requirements of independence, transparency and flexibility, we have also taken the decision to guarantee the board funding certainty over a period of five years. The funding allocation for the 2011 census will be made on a five-year period aligned with the overall budget for the board. As set out in the Budget last week, the Government have announced a funding settlement of £1.2 billion over the next five years for the new Statistics Board. The settlement applies to the years 2007-08 to 2011-12, providing planning and funding certainty for the development of the new board and the effective discharge of its remit from the intended establishment of the new system by spring 2008.
Within this funding settlement it will be for the board to decide on spending allocations for the board’s functions, the census, new statistical initiatives, and for what is at present the Office for National Statistics. However, nearly £30 million has been earmarked for new functions specific to independence, including establishing and maintaining the board’s delivery of the independent assessment of statistics, and developing and managing the proposed central publication hub. The settlement also ensures a secure basis for delivering the 2011 census, providing significant resources for a range of improvements to quality and coverage over the previous exercise. In line with the importance of delivering value for money across government, the board is expected to meet existing ONS efficiency and relocation commitments and deliver further efficiency savings across the settlement period.
The quality of the board’s membership will clearly be crucial to ensuring the board’s independence. To that end, the Government have made a commitment that all board members will be appointed by open competition, in line with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments guidance. The Government intend that the new system will begin in April 2008. We therefore aim to have a shadow chair with appropriate support appointed as soon as possible ahead of that time.
The board’s core statutory objective is established in Clause 7. The board is required to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. It will also promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of official statistics.
The board will deliver its objective through three main functions. First, its statutory duties, in Clauses 8 and 9, are to monitor and report on areas of concern about the quality and comprehensiveness of, and good practice in relation to, all official statistics across government and their arm’s-length bodies, as the Statistics Commission does now, and to develop and promote definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for official statistics.
Secondly, in Clauses 10 to 17, there is a requirement to draw up a code of practice to set professional standards for the production of statistics; to assess and approve all existing national statistics—currently, some 1,300 individual products—independently against these standards; similarly, to assess all additional statistics nominated by Ministers for approval as new national statistics; and to ensure that oversight is stronger and more transparent and to publish the results of these assessments for all—especially for Parliament—to see. Finally, in Clause 29, there is the function of oversight of the executive office of the National Statistician. We would expect that office to discharge the board’s statistical production functions, which are currently undertaken by the ONS.
I propose to speak first about the key mechanism—the board’s assessment function. The definition of official statistics that we have used in the Bill is wide, covering all statistics produced by Government and their agencies, the devolved Administrations and Crown bodies. This will allow the board to monitor and report on the ever increasing range of official statistics and official statistical information that is being produced across government and which we expect to continue to grow in years to come.
The starting point for the board’s process of assessment and approval of those key statistics upon which the Government, business and the public rely is those statistics that are currently designated as national statistics. The system can evolve as additional statistics can be nominated to the board for assessment by the person responsible for those statistics—usually the relevant Minister. Additionally, as part of the board’s duty to monitor and report on the comprehensiveness and coverage of the system, we expect it to comment publicly on which official statistics should be nominated to the board for assessment.
We have ensured that, within the single structure that we propose, there is a clear separation between the board’s production and scrutiny responsibilities. In the other place, the Treasury Select Committee urged us to do that; I believe that the Bill largely achieves those requirements. First, the board’s assessment function will be operationally independent of statistical production within the National Statistician’s executive office. A statutory post-holder—the head of assessment—reporting directly to the board will lead the assessment function and all staff working on assessment. The Bill also strengthens the role of the National Statistician. As I have already mentioned, the National Statistician will be required to establish the board’s executive office and appoint its other members and staff. We expect the executive office to undertake the statistical executive production activities on a day-to-day basis, just as the ONS does now.
In addition, for the first time, the National Statistician will be a statutory post appointed by the Crown, rather than, as now, by Ministers. She or he will be the board’s chief executive and will run the body, which is essentially currently the Office for National Statistics. The National Statistician will continue to be the chief statistical adviser to the Government and to the board on all professional and statistical matters, and will be head of the Government Statistical Service. She or he will be a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with the other board members for the ultimate decision-making, rather than, as now, advising the Minister. Taken as a whole, this is unquestionably a more significant, high-profile post than the current one.
I now turn to how we are using this opportunity to build further value into the system. The Bill creates a framework that will ensure the continued sharing of data between the board and other parts of government for the purpose of statistical production and analysis—for example, the sharing of birth and death registration data between the board and the Registrar General, after the Registrar General separates from the statistics office.
In addition, at Clauses 44 to 50, the Bill includes a mechanism to allow for increased sharing of data between the board and other public authorities, and vice versa, where that sharing is similarly for the sole purpose of statistical production and analysis and only where such sharing is judged to be in the public interest. The specific extensions of access would be agreed through secondary legislation, subject to full parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative resolution procedure. This part of the Bill has received broad support from a range of stakeholders, including the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society and the opposition parties.
Sharing of administrative data for statistical purposes can improve the quality of statistical data and analysis, and therefore improve our ability to make and judge the impact of policy. This re-use of data means that statisticians can produce richer statistics without needing to survey again on the same topic. It also has the potential to bring real benefits in reducing the burden on those who are required to complete the surveys upon which many of our official statistics depend. This has therefore been recommended by both the Better Regulation Task Force and the Confederation of British Industry.
Within the Whitehall-wide Administrative Burden Reduction Project, the Office for National Statistics has committed, as part of its simplification plan, to a £10 million reduction in burdens on business up to 2015, of which £6 million is expected to come from the use of administrative data for statistical purposes in place of survey returns.
Enhanced sharing of administrative data will also help to address the problems of declining survey response rates. Response rates in many of the ONS’s surveys have also been declining over the years; for example, the response rate to the General Household Survey was 83 per cent when it started in 1971 but that fell to 72 per cent in 2005. As survey response rates decline, the higher the chances become of the survey results being biased and not properly representing the true state of the population.
In broad terms, increased data sharing could occur between the board and other public authorities, where regulations are made under Clauses 44 to 50 permitting such sharing. The regulations will be subject to further scrutiny and approval by Parliament and will be made only where the Treasury, by virtue of its residual responsibilities for the board, and another Minister agree that the sharing of information is for statistical purposes of the board or the public authority to which the disclosure is made, and in the public interest.
Clauses 44 to 50 will permit further sharing under powers set out in regulations rather than in primary legislation. That will allow the system to adapt to future statistical resources and needs, allowing new indicators to be developed to provide a more accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive and meaningful description of the UK.
While there is a strong public interest in greater sharing of administrative data, I recognise that there is also a public interest in ensuring that the confidentiality of such data is properly protected. We have attempted to ensure that the Bill strikes an appropriate balance. A crucial part of the board maintaining its credibility in collecting data is that there are the highest levels of protection for personal information. We hope that the existence of such safeguards within the Bill will help to address the declining response rates to which I have just referred.
The Bill therefore introduces a criminal sanction on the unlawful disclosure of information concerning both individuals and businesses, whether held by board members and employees or by anyone to whom the board has passed the data, where that information identifies the individual or business, or where it might allow someone to deduce their identity. This criminal sanction, which could be up to two years’ imprisonment for unlawful disclosure of data, is a key addition to the confidentiality regime for personal information collected by the board.
The confidentiality provision at Clause 36 is structured to allow the sharing which currently goes on between the Office for National Statistics and other public authorities to continue and to facilitate extensions of data sharing between the board and the public sector under the regulation-making powers at Clauses 44 to 50. The necessary exceptions at subsection (4) of the clause—for example, to allow for disclosure for the purposes of a criminal investigation—therefore reflect that. In doing that, the Government were conscious of the human rights implications and sensitive to the need to strike an appropriate balance between the wider public interest in data sharing and the rights of the individual. I am pleased to note that the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the Bill did not raise sufficiently significant human rights issues for it to examine the Bill further.
Since the publication of the Bill, the Information Commissioner’s Office has told the Treasury that the Information Commissioner very much welcomed the creation of a criminal offence for the illegal disclosure of personal information in Clause 36, which he believed should act as a significant deterrent. He also welcomed the measures in the Bill that aim to ensure that any personal information required by the board for the production of statistics is tightly controlled and used only for the purposes required to exercise its functions. Overall, the Information Commissioner welcomed the fact that the Bill recognises the importance of ensuring that personal information is used only where necessary and that confidentiality is respected.
Perhaps the area of the Bill over which there has been the most controversy is the principle of pre-release access by Ministers and officials to official statistics in their final form prior to release. Despite the areas of disagreement on this, I hope that the House will recognise, as the Opposition did in the other place, the clear and internationally accepted case, in principle, for pre-release access to statistics. I also hope that the Opposition, in particular, will agree that the new system as set out in the Bill will benefit from increased clarity and transparency on when and to whom pre-release is granted and under what conditions. In recognition of that, the Bill will put new, tighter pre-release arrangements on a statutory footing.
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way—it might save me some of my speech. Why does the Bill not give the board responsibility for deciding and recommending pre-release arrangements? The board is expressly excluded from having anything to do with it. Why?
My Lords, this is an important point of principle. As the noble Lord will recognise, I introduced my comments on this part of the Bill by saying that I recognised that there had been controversy. That controversy was partly reflected in the fact that the opposition spokesman has very kindly indicated an element of dissent at certain parts of the points that I was putting forward. I have no doubt that we shall approach these matters with due rigour in Committee. At that point, I shall establish further the Government’s case. I recognise that the noble Lord is addressing a significant issue of principle on which he and the Government are currently in disagreement. I hope in due course to persuade him and his colleagues, particularly those on the Front Bench, of the wisdom of the Government’s approach.
I repeat the assurance that the Financial Secretary gave in another place, that the Government will tighten the current pre-release arrangements. The length of time for which pre-release is available will be aligned at 40.5 hours for all national statistics and not just market-sensitive statistics. These new tighter arrangements will be set out in secondary legislation. The regulations will include principles to provide guidance for departments and to ensure that pre-release access is limited to those individuals who require the data for operational reasons.
The regulations setting out the principles and rules for pre-release access will therefore be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That ensures that Parliament, not the board through its code of practice, approves the new rules and procedures and ensures that they are suitably comprehensive. This will ensure strong parliamentary scrutiny of and input into the proposed arrangements, with Parliament’s consent being required before any order becomes binding. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will recognise that, with these arrangements, the Government are substantiating their case on this issue.
We expect the board to carefully monitor compliance with the new system and to make its findings publicly available in order that it and others can assess whether the terms of the new system for pre-release are being met. The board can remove national statistics status from statistics that are found to have been prepared or handled in a manner contrary to the code of practice, including in relation to pre-release arrangements.
Consistent with the Government’s approach of designing a general statistical system that can be developed in light of experience, the Financial Secretary gave an undertaking at Second Reading, repeated in Committee and on Report, to review the operation of the system 12 months after its introduction. In addition to these reforms, the Financial Secretary has announced that the Government are committed to the principle of creating a central publication hub through which all national statistics are published. This will ensure that statistical release is separated from policy commentary.
I am grateful for the House’s patience thus far on this important and complex Bill. Before concluding, I propose for the sake of completeness to briefly summarise the Bill’s provision for the registration service in England and Wales. The Bill is the central part of a wider reorganisation of the UK statistical system. There is general support for the proposals to separate the General Register Office and the NHS Central Register from the ONS and to retain them under ministerial responsibility. The finer details are still being worked out. As a result, these transfers are not provided for within the Bill itself.
Clause 66 establishes, for the first time, proper employment status and rights for the approximately 1,700 registration officers in England and Wales. Registrars are statutory officers appointed and paid for by the local authority but not employed by that authority. They can be dismissed only by the Registrar General and consequently do not enjoy the rights and protections that are taken for granted by other groups of workers, such as access to an employment tribunal. The Bill will give registration officers access to such rights and ensure that registration officers retain their current terms and conditions on transfer to local authority employment.
The Bill is a step forward in what will be a major and evolving programme of reform. It holds out the possibility of substantially improving the quality of and confidence in government statistics. I commend it to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to the Minister for his painstaking rehearsal of the Bill’s contents. I add my thanks to him and to the Financial Secretary, Mr Healey, for having arranged a meeting at which we were able to discuss some of the issues. Mr Healey kindly promised that we should have copies of the letter written to Members of another place and I was glad to be able to pick them up about 10 minutes before Question Time today—although they were dated last Wednesday. My noble friend Lady Noakes shakes her head; she probably has not had a copy yet. I do not know why that happens.
The Minister recognised that certain aspects of the Bill will prove controversial. I can give the Bill a cautious welcome and I certainly welcome the intentions that have prompted the Government to introduce it. However, I cannot give it 10 out of 10; I can give it six or seven for effort, but no more than two or three for getting it right. I am glad that Parliament will have an enhanced role in the scrutiny of the system and, as I argued in the debate on the Queen’s Speech last November, I hope that that will involve both Houses. There is a wealth of experience in this House, and the system would benefit from it.
I acknowledge the intention to distance Ministers from the processes of producing and disseminating statistics. However, the Bill still leaves far too much to Ministers’ discretion; for instance, Ministers decide whether official statistics will become national statistics and various other matters are left with them.
I recognise that with the proposed Statistics Board, which the Minister outlined in some detail, the Government are aiming to establish a body with expertise and clout to oversee the processes, monitor the system and give advice. However, the Bill seriously muddies the role and responsibilities of the board with those of the National Statistician. Their roles are completely different and they should not be confused. There must be a much clearer distinction than the Bill provides between the function of producing and disseminating statistics and the quite different function of scrutiny and oversight of those who do that job. I do not see how the board can do both.
As the Minister recognised, the biggest source of public mistrust is the handling of the release of statistics. The Bill has virtually nothing to say on that, except that Ministers seem determined to keep the right to decide the rules and principles on pre-release. As I indicated in my intervention a few moments ago, the board is explicitly excluded from having anything to do with that. What is the purpose of an overarching board if, on the issue of the greatest sensitivity, it is hands off? That cannot be right; the present release practices are wholly unacceptable.
So what is the purpose of the Bill? The Minister spelled out the objectives, but the purpose is to restore public trust, which has undoubtedly been eroded in recent years. If any noble Lord doubts that, let him read the report last year of the Treasury Select Committee in another place, which was a damning indictment of the way in which the system is being manipulated by Ministers. Many noble Lords will remember the titter that ran round the House when Her Majesty read the sentence about this in the Queen’s Speech. I judge the Bill by whether it will restore that trust, and I find it wanting. My honourable friends in another place made valiant efforts to remedy the defects in ways that would have gone far to restore trust, but virtually all of them were rejected by Ministers. Therefore, this House must help Ministers to achieve their objective of restoring trust. We will work with Ministers to do that, but they must listen to what we say and I hope that they will realise the sense of the amendments that we will put forward. I am looking forward to a full and constructive Committee and Report on the Bill.
At Second Reading, it would be quite wrong to go into detail about the changes that I believe must be made, but I shall briefly mention a few. The flaws in the present system are sometimes most clearly seen by those with a long professional interest in statistics, and we shall listen with great interest to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, who is to follow me in a few moments. That professional concern is nowhere more evident than in release practices. I had the advantage of a long discussion with Professor Tim Holt, a former chief statistician and now chairman of the Royal Statistical Society. On the basis of his advice, I have made the point that the current release methods are unacceptable. Often the statistical release is disseminated alongside the ministerial release addressing policy implications. The same press office handles both and is required to present the statistics as objectively as possible while defending and promoting the Government’s policies. The ministerial statement often prints extracts from the statistics to defend and promote those policies. It thus shapes the public debate on aspects of the Minister’s choosing. That process fails to separate the contents and dissemination of statistical release, which is a matter for the professional statisticians, from the policy context, which is the legitimate concern of Ministers.
These should be two separate processes and they should be seen to be two separate processes. The professional commentary by the statisticians should be by them alone. Policy comments are for Ministers. The two must stop being muddled up together. That is one of the principal sources of public concern and it is why the public have come to feel that the statistics are being manipulated by Ministers.
The noble Lord mentioned the pre-release of statistics. The fact remains that, even with the changes in the Bill, the United Kingdom is wildly out of line with the practice in most other advanced countries. We allow pre-release on a far wider range of statistics and we allow a far greater number of people to see them and far further in advance than in almost any other advanced country. There is the risk of leaks and improper use. We all remember that, last September, the Prime Minister disclosed the employment figures to the Trades Union Congress two days before they were supposed to be released. The Minister said that that was inadvertent—some inadvertence!
This aspect of the present system also gives rise to a wide perception of political interference. As I said in my intervention, the Bill astonishingly excludes the Statistics Board from having any involvement in this process. That cannot possibly be right. It simply perpetuates the impression that Ministers are determined to brook no interference with their right to spin the statistics as they will. I have to ask the question: is that supposed to restore public trust?
On the composition and role of the board, I will at this stage say only that we must see written into the Bill the clear distinction between the production of statistics and the oversight of those who produce them. It is not enough simply to assert, as the noble Lord did, that the way in which the board will work will ensure that there is a distinction. I look forward to the advice that the House will get from the noble Lord, Lord Moser, who has unparalleled experience in this field as a former chief statistician.
Many other issues will need to be addressed in Committee, but I will mention one more now: the absence of any express commitment to co-ordinate the existing fragmented system. Many users, such as local authorities, need to draw on statistics from many different sources. There is a great need for more consistency within the UK-wide system. This morning, I had a communication from the Society of Business Economists, which made this point very strongly. This is especially true of the so-called cross-cutting issues, which cover statistics related to socially deprived areas, migration or pensions. The current system is widely perceived as not responding fast enough or flexibly enough to meet the needs of users.
The Bill actually makes that co-ordination process worse. The present framework requires the National Statistician to produce a high-level business plan for statistics, in relation not just to the ONS but to all national statistics. There is no such requirement in the Bill. I ask the Minister: why not? Also, the current framework for statistics places an obligation on the Chancellor to maintain and develop the co-ordination structure for national statistics. That responsibility has not been assigned to the board or to the National Statistician and is therefore effectively lost. Again I say: why? Co-ordination is a professional function and there should be an obligation firmly placed by statute on the National Statistician to promote co-ordination and consistency across the whole UK system.
The House may wish to take note of another aspect of that lack of co-ordination. A few days ago, I received a substantial publication from the Statistics Commission: Report No. 33: The Use Made of Official Statistics. In his covering letter to me, the chairman of the commission, Professor Rhind, explained its purpose. He said:
“The publication examined the use of official statistics by public and private sector organisations. It considers the extent to which those statistics influence decision-making and provides examples of specific uses. It also looks at the public value derived from those uses”.
That is all wholly admirable. The report itself cites a number of examples of what the commission complained about when it argued for better planning. The conclusions state:
“Good statistical planning arrangements which identify and take due account of all users' needs would help to maximise the public value of official statistics ... Better planning might also benefit users inside government, for example by helping to avoid the hazards of setting targets for services without having the statistical information required to monitor or deliver the target”.
The research gives a number of examples of that. It mentions the Government's aim to increase participation in sport, yet there is no plan to measure or collect any data, so no one knows whether the targets have any meaning or are being met. Energy retailers are required to set targets for helping the fuel-poor through energy efficiency, but they have no data at all about the households that require that help.
A classic case was the New Deal. Here, Ministers started to boast of its success long before there were systems to measure the impact. I shall cite one piece of evidence in the report. The witness said:
“Here they were throwing millions and millions of pounds into this new initiative and the initial results suggested no movement. The same is true with all these initiatives—they just aren’t properly cooked before they go out and chase the figures”.
Is that not the history of this Government? Indeed, it is worse than that. The pressure on officials to deliver targets is often intense. The result, as was noted at the weekend in a well informed article by Sue Cameron in the Financial Times, was that,
“officials had learned to massage the figures to get the results ministers wanted—‘gaming’, they called it in Whitehall”.
If the civil servants producing the figures for publication as official statistics massage them to please Ministers, how on Earth are the public expected to put any trust in those statistics at all? Yet Ministers will cheerfully quote them in their press releases.
Those examples illustrate starkly what a mountain the Government have to climb if they are to achieve their objective of restoring trust in the system. Although I applaud its purpose, I am convinced that the Bill needs substantial amendment if there is to be any hope of that purpose being achieved.
My Lords, I am sure that we all know why the Bill is important, not only for government but for us in society, and for finding out not only what is going on in government but what is going on in society generally. It is in everyone’s interests that government statistics are of high quality and, equally, that society can have confidence in them. Here is the dilemma: by and large, our official figures are of very high quality but, again by and large, they do not get the public trust they deserve, and this is where the Bill comes in.
I approach the Bill and the reforms as a non-political, professional statistician, knowing from experience that we are dealing with a highly difficult and sophisticated activity. Designing, collecting, analysing and interpreting data requires the highest technical skills, and that is what government statisticians do, always with clear integrity and, I hope, free from political interference. Spin is foreign to their approach. This is the world in which I have spent most of my professional life, including more than a decade of being in charge of official statistics, combined with international responsibilities.
I cannot resist mentioning one personal aspect of my career which is probably unique—it began behind barbed wire. I was one of the Jewish refugees who were interned in 1940 as part of a regrettable Government panic. There, in the Huyton internment camp, a fellow internee set up a statistical office and asked me to help him. That began my interest in statistics. Perhaps I should be grateful to the Home Secretary of the day for imprisoning me. Anyway, little did I think then that statistics would be my career and that one day I would be talking about in your Lordships’ distinguished House. So here we are.
The legislation started in a formal initiative from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, very helpfully developed over the months by the Financial Secretary. As a professional, I warmly welcome it, because it intends to give official statistics the independence from Ministers that they deserve and thus to enhance public trust. But things are easier said than done, and the Bill, in a few respects—not, I think, too controversial—falls short of the initial aims. I will talk about two or three of these, and I know that my views—my warm welcome for the initiative and my qualms about details—are aligned with reactions from the Royal Statistical Society, the independent Statistics Commission and the chief statistician of Canada, Ivan Fellegi, probably the leading official statistician in the world—he certainly leads the world’s best statistical system. So I feel on strong professional ground.
I must say a word about our system because it is unusual, and it has bearings on the reforms. In most countries, all official statistics are dealt with in a single office. That is where they are designed, collected, analysed and issued. This makes life infinitely easier for integrating statistics and clearly shows them to be at arm’s length from politicians. Public trust is more easily achieved and in most countries is not a problem.
By contrast, we have always had a decentralised system. At the centre there is the Office for National Statistics and each ministry has its own statistical activities. The point is to achieve greater policy relevance for the statisticians and keep them out of the back room, so to speak. This makes sense as long as the whole is run as a single integrated statistical system, led by the National Statistician from the centre.
The Minister gave a very clear outline of the aims and basic contents of the legislation. The main intent is to create a structure that will enhance public trust. Trust, however, is a complex matter. For one thing, trust in statistics is part and parcel of trust in government themselves, and, indeed, in politicians in general. That aside, trust in statistics relates much less to their actual quality than to the way in which they are used. The suspicion, whether justified or not, is that political spin is at work. As a result, trust has undeniably dropped significantly in recent years and is now more of a problem here than in almost any other country. In an independent study, the Statistics Commission found that only 17 per cent of people think that government statistics are free of ministerial intervention—hence the importance of the Bill.
At the heart of the Bill, as we have heard, is the new Statistics Board, which will replace Ministers as the top layer of governance for the ONS. However, it will, we hope, have a far wider remit. It will be independent of ministerial control, but will still be in the Treasury, which I greatly regret. I would have much preferred the residual ministerial functions to move to the Cabinet Office, where they were in my day. That would work much better. In passing, the board also replaces the Statistics Commission, which has done an increasingly powerful and influential job, although, of course, without the legal teeth now envisaged for the new board. I should also stress again—this point has already been made—that the board will report directly to Parliament, giving Parliament a new and crucial role in official statistics.
Two strategic features of the board as envisaged are unsatisfactory. The first is its basic function, as originally conceived, for supervising the whole system, the ONS and, we hope, all official statistics. We have been assured by the Minister that the supervisory role is seen as distinct from the executive functions in producing the figures, which is obviously the role of the National Statistician and her professional colleagues. I say “obviously” because, despite the reassurances, this distinction between overseeing on the one hand and producing on the other is critical but is not clear in the Bill. In fact, what has emerged seems to give the board both functions, with repeated references to its role in producing statistics. No wonder the Royal Statistical Society refers to this as a muddle. This is not a major point, but I hope that the Government will consider the tidying-up needed to separate very clearly the board’s supervisory role from the National Statistician’s professional delivery functions.
The other feature of the Bill that needs more clarity relates to the Treasury parentage of these reforms. As a result of that parentage, there is, for my money, too much emphasis on the board’s role in the ONS as opposed to non-ONS policy activities, where 80 per cent of the figures come from. The system is centralised but must be viewed as a single integrated whole, and the board and the National Statistician, as head of the Government’s statistical service, must be seen clearly to be responsible for the whole system and not just for the ONS. It would make no sense whatever if the Chancellor’s welcome new vision for independence from Ministers were to benefit only the ONS, while leaving departmental statisticians to remain as exposed to ministerial involvement as ever. It would leave the situation unchanged where, in my view, change is most needed. The ONS is widely and rightly regarded as one of the best statistical offices in the world, whereas departmental statistics are, to put it mildly, patchy. But it is those statistics that are most sensitive to public distrust; your Lordships could think of the figures on crime, migration, health, pensions and education, et cetera. The Bill needs strengthening where life beyond the ONS is at issue.
I turn briefly to an historic anomaly which distorts the Bill; namely, the distinction between so-called national and non-national statistics. This was invented in 2000, which I suppose was meant to confer extra status on some statistics that then had to obey the strictest standards. In fact, it is a distinction without a difference, which in reality is meaningless and actually harmful in relation to public trust.
At present, only a tiny fraction of all statistical series are categorised as non-national, but the whole thing is arbitrary. For example, quarterly figures for hospital waiting lists are quite properly national statistics. But why on earth are monthly figures non-national statistics and therefore outside the most severe scrutiny? Other examples of non-national statistics are UK energy projections, monthly prison population counts and estimates of immigration population, et cetera. Not only does that make no professional sense, it is also contrary to the very purpose of the Bill because it leaves Ministers with the power to decide what are national as opposed to non-national statistics; in other words, which statistics can and cannot escape the strictest treatment within the crucial code. The right course is now to abandon the term “national statistics” or, at the very least, it should be made clear in the Bill that it is the task of the new board to decide what are and what are not. Certainly, Ministers should not hang on to that role.
Finally, I turn to the most sensitive issue, which all speakers already have mentioned; that is, the way in which official statistics are released. The public are most suspicious of government interference when political comment is mixed with neutral statistical comment and, above all, the fact that Ministers, advisers and officials get sight of figures well before publication. On the comment mix, we have heard from the Financial Secretary of his very helpful decision to set up a publication hub, which I will not go on about. However, on pre-release access, our situation has gone from bad to worse and we are one of the most lax systems in the world.
In a number of major countries, no pre-release is allowed. In many others, it is very limited with only a handful of people getting access to very few series, mainly to those which are market sensitive. Moreover, even when permitted the length of time is very short, often just an hour or two. The President of the United States gets key figures a half-hour before they are published. It is beyond my thoughts to think what he does with those figures in that half-hour, but that is not my main point.
Our situation is now very lax. Even market-sensitive data are seen by 10 to 20 people, most of whom have no need for advance sight. Some statistics are pre-released even more widely, often 40 hours or even longer, in advance. I am aware that some tightening up is in the pipeline, but if we mean what we say about improving public confidence, radical change has to be faced. Release has to be controlled by the statistical authorities, not by Ministers, and should be very strictly limited and disciplined. In my view, and indeed in the view of the Royal Statistical Society, it would be best to have no pre-release. However, that may be beyond hope. In any case, the decision to release should be left to the new board.
I have mentioned a number of key strategic qualms about the reforms, but I end by warmly welcoming the initiative in the hope that a bit of government redrafting will take place before the Bill comes back to us at the Committee stage. I am aware that I have not commented on many topics of enormous importance: the crucial regional and local dimensions in the reformed structure; the importance of making the whole thing totally comparable with international practice and rules; the need to put greater emphasis on the voice of the user; and, of course, the important role of the administrative sources, surveys, and much else.
The challenges ahead are formidable, not least because of the major funding cuts facing the ONS which I believe risk undermining quality. With all this in project, let me remind your Lordships again that new responsibilities are coming to Parliament as part of the reforms. They will require arrangements beyond the present committee structure in each House and, surely, involving both Houses. Given the right structure, Parliament will be ready to play a highly constructive role in the proposed reforms.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moser, whom I have known for a long time and who has made distinguished contributions to statistics in this country and around the world. My perspective on the Bill is as a user of statistics when I was a professional economist, as someone who found statistics being debated in a political context when I became active in the Labour Party, and—like all noble Lords—as a reader of statistics when they appear in newspapers.
If they could, Governments would love to manipulate statistics. They are by nature so technical that people somehow trust the numbers. If a Government could somehow distort statistics in their favour, they would do so. The deception does not last long; it is found out quickly, but it offers a brief advantage, somewhat like insider trading. The Government of whom the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, was a distinguished member changed the definition of unemployment 22 times during their tenure, in trying to get the numbers down. Each time they thought that we would not find out what they had done with the numbers.
What is important here is that we are to have a Statistics Board. One thing the new board ought to do, not only with regard to the statistics under its control but also in making the distinction between national and non-national statistics—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moser—is to give its imprimatur of quality to any set of statistics. All statistics should be clearly designated either as those approved by the Statistics Board as national statistics of high quality, or the rest, which may be released by any ministry so long as it is clear that they are not national statistics approved by the board. We will then know how much credence to give them. I say that not because I want to be partisan one way or another, but because the problem we face in statistics is that of educating the people using them. That includes Ministers up to the highest level. The problem is not that Ministers jump and pre-release statistics; it is much more dangerous when they do not understand what they are releasing and therefore get it the wrong way around. Actually, I do not know which is more harmful.
Newspapers too, when they publish statistics, often do not tell us what is or is not relevant, or what is the quality of the statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, will remember how in April 1970, when the balance of trade statistics were released and there was one large payment towards buying some aircraft, the poor Labour Government were found to have mismanaged the economy and caused a balance of payments crisis. There was no such thing, but no one had the patience to find out that it was a freak payment for one month. People concluded that the Government had made a mess of the economy, and the party opposite won the election. No doubt they were grateful for statistics in their favour. That is not a matter of statisticians, however; it is a matter of educating the public about the right way of using statistics.
I hope the board will play its role not only in assuring that good-quality statistics are produced and marked as such, but also in doing something about the education of the general public about what statistics are and how they ought to be used. As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, rightly said, with regard to subjects like migration and crime the most appalling stuff is published all the time, and the people publishing it even carry the title of “Professor” before their name—as if that meant anything. Perhaps we need a publication so we can be told, when these numbers are published, how good they are. As long as that information is publicly available, in this day and age people will quickly pick it up and point out when Governments of whichever party are misusing statistics, especially when socially sensitive topics such as migration or crime are involved.
I welcome the Bill. This is a good opportunity to ensure that the trust in statistics is enhanced; that the high quality of statistics produced in this country is maintained, as it has been for a long time; and that we will make a clear distinction between who has access to statistics before general release and who does not. In a sense, I see the criticism made by the noble Lords, Lord Moser and Lord Jenkin, that the board has no role in the determination of the pre-release code.
On the other hand, I also welcome the fact that Parliament will have the crucial role in deciding that code. If Parliament—by which I mean both Houses—is allowed to play its role in a supervisory capacity in deciding how the code is drafted and how it is implemented, and has a chance to comment when there are deviations from it, it will be much better that Parliament has the supervisory function on this politically sensitive matter. No matter how independent a board is, people will always say that it has been nobbled by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. Parliament at least can make sure that, given its supervisory power to bring Ministers to account and question them, it will do a better job. I hope that in Committee the Minister will clarify in what ways Parliament will be able to play a positive role in this pre-release matter. It is important that it does so, because the degree to which we have faith in statistics will depend very much on that pre-release code. Almost nothing is as important as that. It is up to the Government to get it absolutely right. The extent to which the board is given some advisory functions in that respect is up to us to decide in Committee deliberations. However, Parliament should have a more important role than the board.
I welcome the fact that explicit provision is made for the board to encourage research. This is a fast-developing field in statistics in terms not only of information technology and speed of dissemination, but of the high-quality theoretical work being done. It is good that the board will have a chance to encourage research and to maintain the quality of national statistics in the UK.
The role of the chairman of the Statistics Board is extremely important. The chairman must not only be sufficiently aware of the technical problems surrounding statistics, and therefore able to make sure that good statistics are produced; they must be aware also that statistics are a socially sensitive matter. When the census comes around, we will find out how many cultural and religious conflicts there will be over questionnaires—whether we ask questions about ethnicity, religion and other various matters. It will be up to the chairman of the board, whoever he or she is, to make quite sure that the quality of statistics is not sacrificed because we cannot counter people’s prejudices about what the statistics are about. That will be the case in terms not only of the census, but, as I have pointed out previously, of a variety of other numbers—on crime, on migration and on other matters.
Statistics are a politically and socially sensitive, almost explosive, matter. It will be for the chairman to have both the technical authority to be able to say, “These are good statistics”, and the political nous to be able to assure citizens that the statistics collected and produced in their name are not being used by the Government in a manner that is hostile to their interests. Appointing the chairman will be a difficult task. I am sure that we all look forward to the choice being made, and I wish the Government good luck in that.
In most matters, we are too centralised in the UK—we deplore that. In the matter of statistics, we are too decentralised—we deplore that also. About the best that one can say is that if the Statistics Board were to mark for quality the numbers produced by other agencies—it should have moral authority to do that—it would be a sufficiently good first step towards co-ordinating the quality of statistics across different agencies.