House of Lords
Monday, 26 March 2007.
The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.
Personal Statement: Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a personal Statement on modernising medical careers.
I would like to correct a statement which I made to the House on 19 March about the medical training application system in answer to a question asked by my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey. I said that doctors alone were involved in shortlisting candidates for specialty training. It has since been brought to my attention that in some cases other staff, including senior non-medical clinicians or senior deanery human resources staff, are involved in the process. Guidance was issued to the deaneries, and it was they who decided on the composition of the short-listing panels. Since my statement to the House on 19 March 2007, the independent review group has recommended that all applicants who were longlisted are to be invited to attend an interview for their preferred choice of training opportunity. This means that the shortlisting process is far less significant than it was.
I offer my unreserved apologies to the House for the inaccuracy of my initial statement.
My Lords, before I respond to the Question, I think it behoves me to wish the Lord Speaker a very happy birthday on behalf of the whole House.
Contemporary slavery has long been a concern for us. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, however, this bicentenary must be a spur for us to redouble our efforts to tackle all forms of modern slavery. Specific plans include a worldwide lobbying campaign on the ratification and implementation of international standards that prohibit slavery.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very comprehensive and encouraging response. Given that at least 27 million men, women and children around the world today are still suffering from some form of slavery, will the Government consider including in the measures that they are proposing the concept of linking economic and other kinds of aid to compliance with international conventions, especially for countries such as Burma and Sudan, the Governments of which regularly promote or condone slavery as systematic policy?
My Lords, slavery was and is abhorrent, and we certainly have a responsibility to end this barbaric phenomenon. However, the UK’s development assistance is not conditional on a single issue but depends on a shared commitment to three principles: reducing poverty and achieving the millennium development goals; respecting human rights and other international obligations; and strengthening financial management and reducing corruption. Our partnerships with countries are firmly based on these principles, including working with their Governments to ensure that all the human rights obligations implicit in the MDGs are met.
My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that, a few years ago, a number of leading carpet retailers imposed an unofficial ban on the import of carpets from certain states in India where it was known that they were produced by child slave labour? Have the Government considered the possibility of an official ban, possibly with our European partners, on specified products from particular areas that are known to employ slave labour, thus making slavery an uneconomic form of production?
My Lords, I personally was not aware of the action taken by the carpet retailers. As I explained in my earlier Answer, it is not the Government’s policy to take such action. However, I will certainly look into this matter and write to my noble and learned friend. If retailers themselves wish to take such action, it is for them to do so. Although it would be difficult for the Government to take action, it might be possible, as my noble and learned friend said, to do so as part of the European Union, for example.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with one of the findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on modern slavery in the UK—namely, that trafficking into the UK for sexual, domestic or child labour involves hundreds or even thousands of women and children; that most trafficked people enter the UK legally but become subject to forced labour through a mix of enforced debt, intimidation, removal of documents and inadequate understanding of their rights; and that the UK has tended to address trafficking as an issue of immigration control rather than human rights? If the Minister agrees, what plans do the Government have for taking a robust stance against the exploiters and providing proper resources for the enforcement agencies—given that, since passage of the 2004 asylum and immigration Act, there has yet to be a single prosecution for trafficking for labour exploitation?
My Lords, the most reverend Primate is absolutely right about our abhorrence of human trafficking, be it of women or children. I am proud to say that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister signed the Council of Europe convention on trafficking on Friday, and we have issued a national action plan which is a very important step forward. Now we have to ensure that the convention is properly implemented.
My Lords, what are the Government going to do with the African Union and ASEAN powers to persuade them that the new council on human rights in the UN ought to have at the forefront of its activity intervention in Burma and in Sudan? Quite apart from what the most reverend Primate said, that is where there is slavery today. What will we do specifically to require those blocs of countries, many of which are involved, to do something to end slavery in Burma and in Sudan?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that slavery takes place in Burma and in Sudan. It is abhorrent and unacceptable to our Government and to many others. As she will be aware, we regularly raise this issue in the UN Security Council. Indeed, not very long ago, the UN Security Council members voted to add Burma to the council’s agenda. Although the matter was discussed and a vote took place, I am ashamed to say that the resolution was not adopted. We will continue to speak with our partners in the UN to try to get action in both Sudan and Burma. We have to end this practice.
My Lords, one example of modern sexual slavery is the forcing of people into marriages against their will. Is the Minister aware that the victim groups that we have consulted are heartened that the Government support the Private Member’s Bill on this subject for civil protection? I personally am heartened by the great progress being made with the Government in improving my Bill.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for those warm words. As my noble friend Lady Ashton has said, we welcome the Bill as a useful contribution to the debate. She is personally committed to seeing it through the Lords and to thinking about all the issues it raises.
My Lords, while it is right that we should recognise the history and the thing that we are celebrating at the moment, we should also recognise that modern-day slavery exists in this country in the form of women trafficked here and forced into prostitution. Is my noble friend aware that the Swedish Government have focused their efforts on prosecuting the pimps, the traffickers and those who use these slaves? Can we learn any lessons from that?
My Lords, we are well into the eighth minute. We must move on.
My Lords, officials at the British High Commission have regular discussions on human rights, including rights for Dalits, with the Government of India. My right honourable friend Ian McCartney, the Minister of State for Trade and Investment, raised human rights issues during his recent visit to India and subsequently wrote to Anand Sharma, the Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that 200 years ago William Wilberforce described what he called “the cruel shackles” of the caste system as,
“a detestable expedient … a system at war with truth and nature”?
With the launch this week of the film “India’s Hidden Slavery”, which highlights the violence, exploitation and discrimination experienced by India’s 167 million Dalits, will we work with the Government of India to challenge, not least through education, the persistence into the 21st century of this degrading and pernicious system, which threatens the social stability and economic progress of India? Does the Minister agree with India’s Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, that,
“Untouchability is not just social discrimination, it is a blot on humanity”?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and with the Prime Minister of India—it is indeed a blot on humanity. Discrimination on the basis of caste identity constrains the human rights, livelihoods and life chances of millions of men, women and children. It is a systematic injustice and a routine violation of the most basic human rights. For that reason, we are working with the Government of India to assist them in addressing the issue and in implementing the rather good legislation that they have but which is not yet being properly implemented.
My Lords, as one means of helping the Government of India, would the noble Baroness consider the suggestion made by a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that social data collected in India should be disaggregated by class, so that the relative disadvantage suffered by Dalits and Adivasis can be measured, particularly their relative attainment of the millennium development goals, compared with the population of India as a whole?
My Lords, I regret that I do not have a specific view on the data mentioned by the noble Lord, but I will certainly look into them. One of the programmes that DfID is funding concerns data in respect of Dalits, so I hope to be able to give him a full reply, a copy of which I will place in the Library.
My Lords, India is a vibrant, modernising democracy and a good friend within the Commonwealth. Should not our message be that, in so far as it does not deal sympathetically with the Dalit problem, that is not only wrong in itself but blunts India’s excellent record on human rights outside its borders?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct. As I pointed out in my earlier response, it is why my right honourable friend has written to the Minister responsible in India. We raise this issue frequently and our High Commission regularly raises it with officials in India. It is a matter that we will not leave because it is a blatant injustice and has to be dealt with. The Indians are our very good friends and we want to work with them to help them to eradicate it.
My Lords, in view of India’s very rapid economic growth, does the Minister agree that there is an historic opportunity to ensure that the Dalits are included in this growing employment? Will she accept on behalf of government employees in India the Ambedkar principles of fair employment, particularly for Dalits? Will she encourage the many British companies now investing in India also to accept those principles of fair employment?
My Lords, we certainly support the Ambedkar principles and we are encouraging all companies that have a relationship with India, trading or whatever, to support those principles as well. Our main approach on labour standards is via the UN’s Global Compact, which is an agreement, launched by Kofi Annan in 2000, between the UN and business to uphold and promulgate 10 principles covering human rights, labour, the environment and combating corruption, but the Ambedkar principles are very good.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that India has a policy of reservation, both in employment and for slots in higher education, for scheduled castes—the Dalits—and scheduled tribes? Does she agree that a more important task for India is to pay attention to primary and secondary education for the Dalits and others so that they can progress to higher education and good government jobs?
Indeed, my Lords, we applaud the policy of reservation for the moment, but we hope that one day, with more education opportunities for Dalits, it will no longer be necessary. For that reason, many of our programmes are to do with education, especially of women and girls in India.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in contradiction to India’s national constitution, nine out of 28 states have passed anti-conversion laws, which deprive people of the freedom to choose and change religion and deprive Dalits of the right to move out of the caste system?
Immigration: Domestic Workers
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Why they are proposing to reduce the safeguards against abuse and exploitation of domestic workers who enter the United Kingdom together with their employers by administrative action to make it harder for such persons to change employer.
My Lords, before making any change to the overseas domestic worker category, we shall consult on the future safeguards for those accompanying visitors to the United Kingdom. This consultation will include research and analysis to inform a targeted approach to identifying victims of trafficking at pre-entry and better understand any particular risks associated with those entering in a domestic capacity.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Do the Government agree that there has been a huge improvement in conditions, principally in London, due to the freedom since 1998 to change employers? Are they aware that one voluntary agency has been getting more than 30 new complaints per month concerning the withholding of pay and passports, excessive hours of work and verbal and physical abuse? Surely everything should be done to prevent a worsening of the position.
My Lords, we are conscious that the change we brought in greatly benefited domestic workers in this situation. I assure the noble Lord that that is a reality we will bear in mind. In taking this matter forward, we will consult widely to ensure that the new provisions adequately address these issues.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, welcome as the Prime Minister’s decision to sign the convention on trafficking is, it will be a great step forward if the Government now proceed to ratification so that that can be taken into account in making it binding on the member countries of the Council of Europe?
My Lords, in the consultation which the Minister has promised, will the Government take into consideration the views which were expressed in the Early Day Motion signed at the other end of the Corridor by a number of distinguished Members, including the chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, as well as an article in today’s Guardian by Madeleine Bunting stating that the proposal will dramatically increase the power of abusive employers? Will the Government amend the rules so that for leave to enter in the capacity of a domestic worker, a person must at least have a contract of employment which provides for the minimum wage and statutory days off?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we will take into account all issues that are properly raised in relation to this matter, but this provision has to be set in the context of the new, tiered migration system that we are adopting. We have said clearly that certain routes will change, but want to make those routes safe and appropriate so that people are not intolerably and improperly exploited.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a shortage of people willing to act, for example, as carers, and that some people who have been brought here for domestic employment would be very suitable for that kind of work if only they were given the opportunity to stay?
My Lords, it was never intended that those allowed to accompany their employers to this country could use that as a means of settlement. We have taken real steps forward to make settlement possible for those who properly are able to come, and we will be careful to make sure that the safeguards are in place to prevent this being another route to abuse.
My Lords, I was encouraged by the Minister’s response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. Ratification would be a great help in dealing with cases such as the one relating to India. Can the Minister tell us when ratification is likely to take place?
My Lords, it is an employment matter. That is why, as the noble Lord knows, we have created a tiered migration system so that the needs of this country for workers in various sectors are better addressed. We will certainly work energetically with all government departments to that end.
Economy: UK Regions
My Lords, the Government have adopted a public service agreement,
“to make sustainable improvements in the economic performance of all English regions by 2008 and over the long term reduce the persistent gap in growth rates between regions”.
We aim to improve regional productivity and employment through a stable national economic framework, through appropriate government policies, and through the activities of bodies based in the regions and led by the regional development agencies.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply, but the economic advance and success of the south-east has not been experienced to anything like the same extent in the north of England, which has depended so much on its manufacturing industry, in decline for many years now. What he said may offer encouragement, but what are the Government doing to further economic development in the north of the country? There are things that can be done but have not been, because this has not been considered as important as I believe it to be.
My Lords, our latest statistics show that growth rates in the six lagging regions are beginning to catch up; for example, in April 2006, employment rates were the same across the greater south-east, the north, the Midlands and the south-west for the first time since 1992. Between 2003 and 2004, gross value added per head rose by 4.87 per cent in the north, Midlands and south-west, and by 4.3 per cent in the three regions of the greater south-east.
The Government have announced the establishment of the Northern Way. This focuses on tackling issues of importance for the whole of the north and has a £100 million growth fund. We are therefore working actively to promote economic activity in the north.
My Lords, we believe that we have the right policies for delivering growth throughout the regions. Our policy is to tackle market failures in the underlying drivers of economic growth—including employment, skills, innovation, enterprise, investment and competition—and to devolve more decision-making to the regions. For example, we are reducing the number of incapacity benefit claimants in the regions through the Pathways to Work scheme of the Department for Work and Pensions; making adult skills provisions more responsive to local employers’ needs; raising basic skills in the regions to narrow regional skills differentials; and strengthening regional prioritisation around transport, housing, planning and economic development.
My Lords, in the Budget Red Book, published last week, the Government stated that they were undertaking a review of subnational economic development and regeneration in England. When is that review likely to be completed and how might it affect the regional competitiveness agenda?
My Lords, the review will help to inform the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review—it is linked to that. The noble Lord is correct in saying that the Budget Statement referred to the Government’s review of subnational economic development and regeneration in England. This specifically aims to build on the work of the RDAs and local authorities in England and to consider how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing subnational structures.
My Lords, we are working closely with the RDAs and regional assemblies to develop and deliver our policies in the regions. Another aspect that we are looking at is the position of enhanced powers for city regions, which is being considered as part of the subnational review. We shall be specifically looking at encouraging collaboration across functional economic areas, including city regions.
Go on, answer.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that manufacturing industry has further declined and continues to decline from 32 per cent in 1973 to about 14.5 per cent in 2007, and that some 50,000 jobs have been lost in the past three months? That is a recipe for disaster, particularly for the regions of this country. What are the Government going to do to resuscitate manufacturing industry so that we actually make something in this country instead of just shifting money about?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right in the sense that the economic framework of the country is changing, in the balance between the manufacturing, service and financial sectors. However, the RDAs have created more than 100,000 new jobs since 2005-06, assisted 52,000 people to get into a job, helped to create or attract 19,000 new businesses and assisted more than 166 businesses to improve their performance. When people look at the picture, they can see that we are giving a lot of support to the regions and the manufacturing sector.
My Lords, will the Minister turn his attention to the tables in the Times newspaper today that show that outside London and particularly in the north of England the level of overcrowding on trains is an absolute disgrace? The north-west region forecasts a growth in the number of passengers in the region of 2.7 per cent while the demand is growing by 10 per cent. I suggest that many officials, although perhaps not in his department, are out of touch with the figures that he has recited today.
My Lords, I do not accept that. I shall look at the Times, as the noble Lord suggests. I mentioned the Northern Way. We are actively discussing with the Treasury and DCLG Ministers the whole picture of performance in the north. That will also cover improving transport links, which I hope he approves of.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the regional development policy of the European Union, whose 50th anniversary we are celebrating today, is partly responsible for improving the economic competitiveness of the regions? Were we not celebrating 50 years of the European Community, regions such as the West Midlands, which has been a major beneficiary of regional development funds, would be in a far less significant competitive position.
My Lords, I do not have the exact figures on that to hand. There has been a considerable expansion in employment in the public sector but there has also been a considerable expansion in employment generally. We have record levels of employment in this country, of which we should be proud. I hope that the noble Lord will join me in celebrating it.
My Lords, that is not for me to comment on today. The Barnett formula may be reviewed in the future but an aspect of Scotland’s wealth is the enterprise of its people. We should celebrate the enterprise of Scottish people rather than become involved in number crunching.
My Lords, may I add to the comments on manufacturing of my noble friend Lord Stoddart, the independent socialist or Labour Member of this House? A noble Lord said to me, “You must realise we live in a post-industrial society in this country”. Does my noble friend and the Government share that view?
My Lords, immediately following the speech of my noble friend Lord Desai on the Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, with the leave of the House I shall say a few words about business tomorrow. Immediately after that, my noble friend Lord Triesman will repeat a Statement on Zimbabwe.
Royal Commission (Slavery) Bill [HL]
Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007
Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the two Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21 February and 16 March be approved. 10th and 13th Reports from the Statutory Instruments Committee and 12th Report from the Merits Committee, Considered in Grand Committee on 20 March.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
Social Security, Occupational Pension Schemes and Statutory Payments (Consequential Provisions) Regulations 2007
Social Security (Contributions) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2007
Social Security Contributions (Consequential Provisions) Regulations 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the three Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19 and 21 February and 6 March be approved. 11th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee, Considered in Grand Committee on 20 March.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
Statistics and Registration Service Bill
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.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a brief Statement about tomorrow’s business. As my right honourable friend Jack Straw announced earlier today in a business Statement in the Commons, it is proposed that a Bill relating to Northern Ireland will be taken through all its stages tomorrow. It is intended that the Bill be introduced as first business in the Commons and then reach us at the conclusion of its proceedings there. I expect that the Bill will be ready for its Second Reading here at around 7 pm tomorrow. That will obviously have knock-on effects on other business scheduled for tomorrow. I expect that it will come after the completion of Committee on the Serious Crime Bill. A speakers list for Second Reading will be opened today in the Government Whips’ Office. After Second Reading, there will be an opportunity, if any Member wishes, to table amendments before the remaining stages are taken. Precise details of the business will be tabled in the normal way tomorrow and will appear on the Order Paper when they have been agreed through the usual channels.
My Lords, I beg leave to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend Ian McCartney in another place.
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I wish to make a Statement on Zimbabwe.
“As the Prime Minister told the House last Wednesday, what is happening in Zimbabwe is appalling, disgraceful and utterly tragic for its people. My noble friend Lord Triesman, Minister for Africa, on 12 March noted that this was a direct consequence of Mugabe’s own approach and disregard for the suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans. What we are seeing is a wilful waste of Zimbabwe’s assets and potential by a ZANU-PF Government who have substituted plunder and corruption for a programme of economic and social advancement for their people.
“For millions of Zimbabweans, hunger and malnutrition are all that they now experience in their daily lives. Mugabe and his regime are directly responsible for Zimbabwe’s economy being in free fall. Its economy shrank 40 per cent in less than a decade and will shrink a further 5 per cent this year. Inflation is already 3,000 per cent and the IMF says it will breach 5,000 per cent this year.
“Mugabe and his regime are directly responsible for a situation where one-quarter of the resident population is dependent on food aid and where one-quarter of the population has fled the country. They are directly responsible for an unemployment rate of more than 80 per cent—the third highest in the world. Little wonder that there has been an exodus over the Limpopo river. They are directly responsible for Zimbabwe having the world’s highest rate of orphans, largely as a consequence of the pandemic AIDS rate; roughly 20 per cent of adults are infected. They are directly responsible, let me tell the House, for a situation in which Zimbabweans can expect to die younger than anyone else on the planet. A Zimbabwean woman today can expect to live to just 34 years of age.
“And yet, despite all this, instead of taking the necessary measures to reverse each of these evolving tragedies, the regime continues to make people homeless, suppress independent media, harass human rights defenders and arbitrarily arrest those involved in peaceful demonstrations.
“The violence and repression used against peaceful protestors, gathering to pray for change on the weekend of 10 to 11 March, during which at least one young person was shot and killed, has continued unabated. Four MDC opposition members have been prevented from leaving Zimbabwe, including one MDC MP—Nelson Chamisa—travelling to a meeting in Brussels, who was badly beaten. I am pleased to see that the MDC vice-president, Thoko Khupe MP, was able to take his place. We salute his bravery and that of his colleagues.
“Significant numbers of activists are still being arrested and beaten across Zimbabwe. Lawyers representing those who have been detained have themselves faced intimidation. Trade union and student union members have also been harassed and arrested. My noble friend Lord Triesman summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to register our disgust.
“As I did during my address to the Human Rights Council on 13 March, I send my deepest condolences to the family and friends of those killed and injured in the past two weeks’ terrible assault, and I offer my solidarity to all Zimbabweans. Mugabe’s men might break the bones of the democracy campaigners but they cannot break the quiet dignity of these extraordinary human beings. One day, Zimbabwe will return to democracy. Mugabe knows this. He knows that he has got it wrong, and that the crisis has resulted in an increase in internal pressure. He feels more vulnerable. The involvement of the military in almost all aspects of Zimbabwe life, from running state businesses through economic programmes to agriculture and food distribution, underlines this.
“What does Mugabe do? He blames it on everyone else and especially on us. He persistently alleges that the UK is responsible for Zimbabwe’s woes; that we are somehow victimising him for his disastrous fast-track land reform policies. This is simply not true. We have always recognised the need for an equitable redistribution of land, but this has to be done in a transparent, legal manner. We signed up to all three of the internationally recognised land reform packages in 1979, 1998, and 2001. The United Kingdom gave a total of £44 million to the first of these; about £3 million was returned unspent in the mid-1990s when the Zimbabwe Government lost interest in land reform. We were also willing to support the package put together by the United Nations Development Programme in 2001, but Mugabe’s violent land invasions put a halt to that.
“Let us look for a moment at Mugabe’s claims that the crisis is down to us. It was the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who displaced and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of 700,000 people during Operation Murambatsvina. It was the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who previously refused to appeal to the UN for food aid despite widely reported food shortages. It was the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who crushed a free media. It is the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who deny Zimbabweans their basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly by routinely and violently breaking up peaceful protests. It is the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who ignored IMF recommendations to reform an imploding economy. It is the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who continue to squander Zimbabwe’s limited foreign exchange while ordinary Zimbabweans can scarcely afford food. It is the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who destroyed property rights by removing land from the legal process. It is the Government of Zimbabwe, not the United Kingdom, who ruined the Zimbabwean agricultural sector. Agricultural productivity has fallen by 80 per cent compared to 1998 levels. Since 2000, more than 250,000 black commercial farm workers have lost their livelihoods. With families, this means a rural displacement of about a million people, to match the urban dislocation of 700,000 caused by Operation Murambatsvina.
“Of course, while the Government of Zimbabwe continue to blame the international community, the European Union and the UK Government for their troubles, in each case action is being taken to improve life on the ground in Zimbabwe. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said last week, there is considerable concern across the international community about the situation in Zimbabwe. The United Kingdom is greatly concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe, but those concerns are shared by the whole European Union, by the African Union—sadly, those concerns have not always been expressed as loudly as they might be—by the United Nations and by the whole international community.
“Ministers and officials are in constant contact with our African counterparts, emphasising the risks to regional stability and the importance of Zimbabwe’s African neighbours taking a more direct role in addressing the crisis in Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister last week wrote to President Mbeki and spoke with President Kikwete of Tanzania on this issue. We recognise the difficulties of challenging Mugabe bilaterally, but without the engagement of the Southern African Development Community, with its commitment to promoting good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law, the situation will deteriorate further.
“We therefore welcomed the visit of the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, President Kikwete of Tanzania, to Harare on 15 March. With President Mbeki of South Africa, he proposed an initiative to encourage internal dialogue between ZANU-PF and MDC and policy reform. But quick progress is necessary for this to have impact. Mugabe is a master of denial and delay. The Zambian President recently called Zimbabwe a ‘sinking Titanic’—an apt expression indeed.
“On the European Union, despite the claims of Mugabe about ‘illegal economic sanctions’ imposed by the EU, let us be clear: the EU has no economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. These exist only in Mugabe’s mind. The EU does not prevent ‘western’ companies, including British ones, from doing business with Zimbabwe, which actually has a trade surplus with the United Kingdom.
“The EU does have an arms sales ban, a travel ban and an assets freeze on leading members of the regime. But while those targeted measures have had no impact on the Zimbabwean economy, they show that the EU is serious about human rights. Zimbabwean civil society organisations support those measures because they are focused on the destroyers of Zimbabwean society, not on its suffering people.
“As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary told the House on Tuesday, and the Prime Minister repeated the next day, we will look to add to those targeted measures. We are pushing for, and expect, progress on the addition of extra names to the EU visa ban list. Again, we are pressurising the regime, but without impacting ordinary Zimbabweans.
“On the actions of the United Kingdom Government, let the House be clear: we are doing all we can to relieve the suffering of the Zimbabwean people. The United Kingdom is one of the three largest donors to Zimbabwe and, contrary to the claims of some, that money is making a real difference to the lives of ordinary people in Zimbabwe. For some, that money is quite likely to be the difference between life and death, and this House should be proud of that contribution.
“In the past five years, the Department for International Development has committed more than £143 million for humanitarian programmes, including food aid, lifesaving vaccines, support for orphans and vulnerable children and agricultural inputs to the poorest farmers. We have also provided £37 million since 2000 to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Of the €200 million given by the EU last year, the UK alone disbursed nearly €60 million, or £40 million, in bilateral assistance; hardly the actions of a country not interested in the affairs of Zimbabwe, far less one with a bilateral grievance.
“As the Foreign Secretary made clear on Tuesday, our aid is channelled through the UN and NGO agencies to escape the clutches of the regime. I stress that our food aid is not a part of the ZANU-PF programme to use food as a means to force support or to punish opposition. It is also clear that not only are innocent Zimbabweans suffering, but the tragedy in Zimbabwe is having a significant impact on the region, both direct with mass migration and in the consequent social impact of HIV, malnutrition, safety, the education of children, and so on. As Zimbabwe disintegrates, those impacts will increase.
“The United Kingdom shares the region’s desire to see Zimbabwe’s recovery; there is no other UK agenda. Our concerns are for the ordinary Zimbabweans and their suffering at the hands of a regime that is determined to pursue policies that hurt rather than help them. We stand ready to help, with our international partners, but only when there is an environment in Zimbabwe where that assistance will be effective.
“Until the Zimbabwean regime changes course, we will maintain the international spotlight on Zimbabwe and increase Mugabe’s isolation. In that vein, I welcome France’s decision not to invite Mugabe to its February France/Africa summit. That sent a clear signal that his woeful governance will not be tolerated. But, as I and others, including the Prime Minister, have made clear, the Zimbabwean crisis cannot be solved by the United Kingdom. Those sentiments have been echoed by the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who told the BBC on 18 March:
‘I have repeatedly said that the British government cannot be seen to be at the forefront in confronting Robert Mugabe, alone. I’ve always said that that would be misconstrued as a colonial resuscitation of the same situation again. So I always say that Britain together with the rest of the international community, the African Union, and the rest of the international community have to act together’.
“So we in this House and elsewhere must be careful that, while expressing our outrage at recent events and at the downward spiral of Zimbabwe, we do not do or say anything that will hand a propaganda tool to Robert Mugabe.
“So we will continue to exert pressure in international fora. That includes the United Nations—we expect a tough EU statement on the Human Rights Council this week and a humanitarian briefing on the UN Security Council next week—and the African Union, the European Union and with international partners until democracy is restored in Zimbabwe.
“We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that whoever governs Zimbabwe does so in a way that guarantees a better future for Zimbabweans: a democratic and accountable Government and policies that ensure economic stability and development, not humanitarian misery.
“Mr Speaker, my generation was the first to be born not as children of the empire but as children of the Commonwealth. When I was first becoming involved in political life, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle of the peoples in southern Africa who were subjugated by racist regimes were an inspiration. As time went by we celebrated as Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and the fighters came out from the bush to create a new democratic future for their people. That is why it is so hard for me personally to watch what is happening in Zimbabwe today—because, uniquely, the people whom we once cheered as liberators are now the oppressors who have taken away the voice of the Zimbabwean people.
“Brave Zimbabweans are speaking up for their freedom. They are looking to their African neighbours to help. We are playing our part in the international community. In 1980, Zimbabwe proudly proclaimed its independence. Tragically, 27 years later, its people have still to gain their freedom”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for repeating the Statement. Noble Lords’ minds will obviously also be on another crisis; namely, the detention—illegally, it seems—of our servicemen by the Government of Iran. While we fully appreciate the delicacy and sensitivity of the position on that crisis and in any negotiations going on with Iran, can we be assured that the House will be kept fully up to date on that crisis as it unfolds?
I turn to Zimbabwe, where we have an appalling situation. Vicious attacks on the opposition there have focused world attention as never before on what has been happening for a long time. We heard today a very long, heavily descriptive and very full Statement. I will concentrate mainly on the way forward—on the action needed.
Is it not crystal clear that the previous policy of quiet diplomacy has failed? Frankly, some of us warned all along that it would do. The background now is of rising violence, desperate food shortages and starvation, massive refugee movements and a completely collapsed currency. Money has, in effect, died. The breakdown of law and order cannot, I am afraid, be very far behind; that is what the lessons of history tell us. Does the Minister accept that the Zimbabwean opposition is still—against all the odds and with great courage—very much alive, has been re-energised and needs to be given every possible support and encouragement?
Has not the time come to mobilise the whole international community with far more vigour than hitherto? Has the Minister noted that the African Union has at last acknowledged the horror of what is going on? It admitted—in a masterly understatement—that it is embarrassed by the hideous developments in Zimbabwe. Should we not now press on Zimbabwe’s neighbours, with renewed energy and in detailed discussions, the consequences of inaction and the need for a co-ordinated strategy? Is it not time to urge South Africa once more to face up to reality before it, too, is destabilised by Zimbabwe’s collapse, of which there is a growing danger? Incidentally, were these issues discussed in the informal EU summit at the weekend? I wonder whether anything constructive came out of that.
Should we not now offer to mediate between the parties and propose a whole sequence of benchmarks, beginning with the exit of Robert Mugabe, of whom even ZANU-PF—his own party—has clearly had enough? It made that very clear. I know that Mr Mugabe’s plan to carry on at the age of 83 may bring hope to some but it could bring to the people of Zimbabwe only the most crushing further misery.
Could we not now set out a process leading eventually, and positively, to a full resumption of transition and reconstruction aid and the eventual lifting of targeted sanctions, and, in the mean time, continue to operate them very toughly—perhaps more so than is the case at present? Indeed, should not the removal of sanctions and restrictions be made contingent on following through with carefully worked out steps towards free elections and the adoption of economic reforms necessary to alleviate this grim crisis?
The UK should offer to assist that process financially and logistically. On this side, we understand past international reticence to involve ourselves in what was deemed to be a purely African matter. But is it not now time to cut through all the hand wringing and apologies and take a bold initiative with our friends and colleagues the world over in the Commonwealth—once again, it was not mentioned but it is increasingly a centre of power and influence—the European Union and the United Nations Security Council in saving this nation from utter destruction and in building a new constitution and a new settlement, which will replace horror and starvation with peace and prosperity?
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Minister’s Statement, too. I find myself very much in agreement with the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. The Statement was clearly designed more for the international community’s ears than for ours in this Parliament, but it was none the worse for that because that is where action is now to take place.
Will the Minister note that in recent days a number of statements have been made by leaders in the Southern African Development Community? He mentioned the President of Zambia but also included are the Prime Minister of Mauritius, the former President of Malawi, the Deputy Foreign Minister of South Africa, and the President of Ghana, who is the current chairman of the African Union. That seems to suggest that there is a growing awakening in Africa not just about the damage that Mr Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe but about the damage that Zimbabwe is doing to the rest of Africa and, in particular, to the southern African region. As the Minister said in the Statement, some 25 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population has already left, and I have seen for myself the impact that that is having on its neighbours in Botswana, Zambia and South Africa in particular. The number of political and economic refugees is now becoming an intolerable burden on those countries.
I welcome the initiative that President Kikwete of Tanzania is taking, but does the Minister accept that this is not the first time that efforts have been made to get the opposition and ZANU-PF together? It was a private initiative, but President Mbeki has tried it in the past and has, I am afraid, failed to secure any progress from the Zimbabwean Government. We must hope that this new initiative will be more successful than the previous efforts.
There is some speculation about what has happened to President Mugabe. Perhaps I may tell noble Lords of an episode that I recall very well. The day after the independence ceremonies, at which I was part of the delegation, I went to see Mr David Smith. He had been the economics Minister in the Ian Smith regime and, very sensibly, President Mugabe kept him on in that role to secure economic confidence in the country. I distinctly remember Mr Smith saying to me, “I want you to know, Mr Steel, that I have served under four Prime Ministers in this country, and Mr Mugabe is not only the most able but he is also the most courteous”.
So what has gone wrong? One theory among those who know him far better than I do is that, following the death of his wife, Sally, he became, to put it politely, somewhat unhinged, and his behaviour became very much more erratic and dictatorial. We have to recognise that nothing will change in Zimbabwe until Mr Mugabe has gone from office. For that reason, we need to encourage not just the opposition but people from within his own party, who, according to reports, are now beginning to realise that life cannot go on under him. Therefore, any pressure that can be brought to bear on Mr Mugabe will be welcome.
The Minister may know that the University of Edinburgh is now contemplating removing the doctorate that we gave him back in the mid-1980s—that is long overdue. But much more important are things such as the travel ban, which is now going to be imposed in France. That was not the case the last time an African summit was held there, as I think that President Mugabe was present, and the ban has been accidentally broken in Belgium. The tightening of that sanction will bring pressure to bear on the whole Zimbabwean regime, increase the possibility of a split in ZANU-PF and encourage those who will have a dialogue with the opposition to bring about a new era of stability and hope in Zimbabwe. That should be the direction of our policy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Steel of Aikwood, for their comments and their focused questions. In response to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, about Iran, I know from first hand that negotiations are at a very delicate stage. I assure the House that noble Lords will be kept up to date. I shall try to do that without jeopardising the negotiations, as I want to secure the release of those being held.
On Zimbabwe, I do not believe, as I have said in the House on a number of occasions, that the quiet diplomacy of southern Africa has had an impact. Indeed, during the course of the quiet diplomacy period things have got worse rather than better. If the outcomes are a measure of success, there is a lack of any obvious success. It has sometimes been said of us that we engage in megaphone diplomacy and that that will not work. I have made it very plain—I hope that the House will agree with the approach—that we cannot let some things go; we have to comment on them, as they are an outrage and an affront to any kind of decent society. I shall continue to urge that on leaders in southern Africa, even if that has not been their tradition and they feel uncomfortable about it. I believe that it is right for us to do so.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that the MDC is alive and, despite the injuries suffered by some of its leaders, in remarkably good heart. Of course, it is vital that behind it and behind any splits in ZANU-PF, which may turn out to be the more significant of the forces at play, the whole community is mobilised. In particular, I mention not just the community that is referred to most often, but also Archbishop Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, whose personal leadership and heroism I believe are of the very first rank. He and the church have provided an incredibly important umbrella for the redevelopment of a democratic space. I applaud that and the absolute decency and humanity of the way in which he has done it. He has been one of the inspirations that has helped to move the African Union in the recent past.
We will press the neighbours, particularly South Africa, because of its influence in the region. I can report that the issues were discussed at the EU summit in a rather more positive way than we had thought might happen, given that some people want to move towards a relaxation—what has been described as a reopening of dialogue. However, as noble Lords will have seen from the Statement, that is not how we read the situation. We shall certainly want to pursue this with South Africa.
It has been put to me that the United Kingdom should mediate between the parties. That is difficult because Morgan Tsvangirai has, in terms, asked us not to play that kind of leading role. There is a delicate choice here. I respect the point that is being made and I do not speak of it dismissively at all. One needs to strike a difficult balance between trying to do what people on the ground think is most helpful and trying to do what we, in this House, feel in our hearts is right. I hope that we get that balance right.
On a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, we are trying to ensure that we discuss the issues with everyone, right across the region—with Mauritius, certainly with Ghana, which holds the chairmanship of the African Union, with Aziz Pahad, the Deputy Foreign Minister of South Africa, with President Kikwete and with others—because, as there is visible movement, we need them to carry that movement forward. This is the first real indication that we have had of momentum and we must encourage it.
The essential issue of how to move back to the full resumption of some sort of normality when the opportunity occurs was at the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said. I assure the House that I cannot conceive of circumstances in which the sanctions will be removed unless there is absolute agreement and the beginnings of delivery—not words on paper—of the fundamental changes in policy on democratic practice, elections and the economic reforms that are needed to get people back to where they can live some sort of life and be fed. Sanctions can be relaxed only in exchange for real change on the ground. We regard fundamental change as critical.
As the noble Lord said, that will take bold initiatives. The EU can certainly play a role. The UN is also being invited to play a role, as I said in repeating the Statement of my right honourable friend Ian McCartney. The Commonwealth has a role, too; it has not wanted to revisit Zimbabwe after it found that that was almost all that was discussed two conferences ago. None the less, there is a role, and I shall continue to urge that we should not be squeamish about playing it.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel: the opposition and ZANU-PF must work together for the whole thing to work. That is what the pressure in the African Union is now for. South Africa has held direct bilateral discussions with the opposition for the first time in a long time. I venture the opinion—it is no more than that—that the splits and divisions in ZANU-PF might turn out to be decisive. A number of its members must be looking at their future and coming to the conclusion that they do not have one so long as they are prepared to back Mugabe.
I have been careful not to comment on Mugabe’s own future, other than to say that there must be a fundamental change in policy. Every pressure to get that change in policy is needed. Somebody replacing Mugabe who pursued the same policies would be of no use to anybody. I would guess that Mugabe would not find it easy to live with that fundamental policy change, but that is what is central to the work.
I was greatly encouraged by the fact that France took the view that it should impose the travel ban for the most recent conference, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, pointed out. He is right that some people got into Belgium by accident. I greatly regret that, and there have been discussions about how Europe can be more attentive in ensuring that that does not happen. However, these bans and their effect are clearly to the disadvantage of that regime and they isolate it. We will work hard not only to keep that travel ban resolute, but to add to it all those who have visited still more terrifying violence on the people of Zimbabwe in recent weeks. None of them can act with impunity.
My Lords, first, as somebody who has spent much of his life in Zimbabwe, I thank Britain for the generous aid that it has given to Zimbabweans over these terrible years. Secondly, the Statement uses the phrase:
“Until the Zimbabwean regime changes course”.
If a successor to President Mugabe comes from the ZANU-PF politburo, they will have been, at the minimum, a party to ghastly decisions and may well have done far more horrific things. Will the Government give support even to such a successor, provided that Zimbabwe changes course in an acceptable direction?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question and his statement about aid. As I said in repeating the Statement, our intention has always been to ensure that the people of Zimbabwe do not continue to suffer from the misrule that they are subjected to—that is suffering too much in any event. We will continue with our aid programme. I am eager to see whether we can step it up, particularly in dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is a particularly severe challenge to the future of the country.
It is our intention to secure a change of course. Like everybody else, we would rather that that was in the hands of a group of leaders who are not stained with the crimes of the past. We will need to see how the leadership of all the elements, including the opposition, decides that it can construct the new constitution, and we will need to respect the outcome of elections. In this dispensation, there must be elections. The people of Zimbabwe must, for the first time in a long time, have the opportunity to choose the Government and the leaders whom they want. They have not been able to do that freely for generations.
My Lords, the Minister spoke about the momentum that he and many others are trying to build in the direction that we all favour. What about the people who are still pulling in the other direction? Why have the Government of Angola in recent days vehemently come out in favour of Mugabe and against any pressure on him? What can the Minister say about the attitude of China? British diplomacy has been successful in, for example, mobilising the Chinese to vote for the last resolution on Iran, although the record on Sudan is not so good. China may now be playing quite a big role in these matters, so are we discussing them with the Government in Beijing? If so, what is the result?
My Lords, I, too, fret about what Angola is doing. However, the most bizarre claim made in Harare last week was that the Angolans were about to provide an armed gendarme force. Within minutes of that claim being made, the Angolans were in touch to say that it was false—a complete fantasy. We need to talk to them a bit more to be clear that we understand their attitude. I say that not because I am not cautious about it, but precisely because I am cautious about it.
We discuss these issues directly with the Chinese all the time. I have discussed these issues at great length with their ambassadors when we have all met during African Union conferences, where they see what is happening in a more general sense. I do not want to overstate this, but I believe that there is now an inclination on their part to wonder whether their investments in a number of places are secure. As we see meltdown in those places, a number of people are saying to them, “You cannot possibly think you can rely on the resources that you think you’ve bought and the methods that you think you have for extracting them, given the political and economic deterioration of the kind that you’re seeing”. I believe that that argument is beginning to take root.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement. I am pleased that my noble friend’s efforts over previous months have begun to bear fruit in that SADC and the African Union have at last begun to make it clear that they are against what is happening in Zimbabwe. But does my noble friend accept that there is a long way to go, especially since President Mugabe’s corrosive attacks regarding interference have a deeper resonance in southern Africa than we might imagine? I am delighted to hear that the story about Angolan troops going to Zimbabwe has proved untrue. That is marvellous news.
Does my noble friend agree that adopting the course suggested by the noble Lord on the opposition Benches—that we should seek to mediate between the parties in Zimbabwe—would be the last message we would want to send? It would confirm the view that we are interfering in Zimbabwean business and want to cut out the involvement of others in southern Africa. That may not be the case, but that is what would be suggested. The situation is so serious that movement must be made. We must not disparage efforts made in the past that have not succeeded.
We must encourage all those who are working together, because the Zimbabwean situation will be resolved only within Zimbabwe. In the days of the apartheid regime we argued that only the people of South Africa could resolve that situation. Only the Zimbabweans can resolve this situation, but they need our help and the help of the region and the international community. I wish my noble friend every success in getting that message across. At last, I think we can begin to see a chink of light.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hughes very much. We will as a Government persist in the work. He is right: we have to listen to what is being said to us by the leaders of the opposition just as we did when we listened to the leaders of the opposition forces in the South African context. I do not necessarily mean within South Africa, because many of those leaders had to flee the country. We need to listen to these leaders and do what we do in a way that is most helpful to them. Those are the forces which, when they come together, will form the new democratic system in Zimbabwe. I agree wholeheartedly that that is where our attention should be.
My Lords, my diocese is twinned with three dioceses in Zimbabwe and, over the years, there have been regular visits in both directions. A visit is planned for next month when two dozen people from the south of the diocese will go to Zimbabwe. Does the Minister think that is helpful or wise at the present time?
My Lords, I often advise people to read the Foreign Office website, “Know Before You Go”. So I do today, largely because circumstances change and places that look relatively calm can become extremely violent in a very short time. Up-to-date information is of the essence. I say to the right reverend Prelate that I believe that a number of forces—if that is the right word; most certainly including the churches—have had a significant impact on drawing together all the threads of the opposition. But I would urge him also to exercise great caution. We are now seeing a regime that is perfectly capable of inflicting serious personal harm on anybody who does not agree with it. That is not to dissuade him from going, but let us be very clear about it. Closer to the date I will add any information that I have that suggests whether there is too great a risk to be borne.
My Lords, will the Minister convey to the British ambassador in Harare the appreciation of your Lordships’ House for his and his staff’s steadfastness under fire in a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous situation? We understand that a more strident tone by the British Government in Zimbabwe might be politically counterproductive and put at risk the lives of the 12,000-odd United Kingdom citizens in Zimbabwe and the 400-odd people still farming there. Will he also accept our support in trying to stiffen the spine of the South African Government and other African Governments to bring their influence to bear on the Government of Zimbabwe in order to bring this period of suffering to an end?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments. Andrew Pocock is indeed an exceptional diplomat and a very fine ambassador. He has been prepared to face great difficulty in conducting the United Kingdom’s mission. I have no doubt that he will be gratified by the sentiments of the House, which I will convey to him personally.
It is absolutely right to say that we have to be very cautious about the tone we use. I sometimes feel that I need to be cautious about the tone that I use. I feel so angry about it that at times I am not sure that I am necessarily adding exactly what is needed. I hope that I will be forgiven for that.
In the case of South Africa we will continue to argue, exert pressure and try to get a confluence of view. However, South Africa has probably moved more in the past fortnight as it has recognised the dangers flowing across its borders than we have seen it move in a very long time. My view is that up to 6 million people might go across the Limpopo. At that point there will be no food or security in northern South Africa; nor will there be security in a general sense because such a movement of people is a security issue for the region as well as a humanitarian issue.
My Lords, perhaps I may first say a word about the Iranian hostages. This morning, I spoke to the mother of one of our marines who is deeply anxious about the fate of her son but high in praise of the way in which the Ministry of Defence has communicated with her regularly throughout this crisis.
On Zimbabwe, clearly we must make an effort to understand the position of South Africa—perhaps its illusion—that the big tent which worked for it internally in the World Trade Centre is applicable to bringing together Mugabe and his opponents. Nevertheless, the words or the mood music of South Africa have changed, perhaps as it recognises the deep damage done to it and to the region by the Mugabe regime.
Can my noble friend say whether there is any evidence, apart from words of the African Union or South Africa, that there is any move into effective action in the key areas such as energy supply? Although one understands that the British Government’s policy will not change until there is a fundamental change in Zimbabwe itself, surely there should be some calibrated response along the line. Free elections are obviously a major staging post. Can he give an assurance that DfID and the FCO are ready to respond positively as soon as there are signs of real change in Zimbabwe?
My Lords, I give that assurance absolutely. We have been thinking very hard about what would happen at the point at which it is possible to make such moves. We have the architecture to do that and we would move as fast as we possibly could. In general, if I may answer the important points made by my noble friend Lord Anderson about other action, a significant number of the leaders of the African Union are not only now in constant touch with elements of both the Zimbabwean Government and the opposition but have said—in Harare and in terms—that this cannot go on and it is no longer credible that it should do so.
To be candid with the House, I do not yet know whether they are prepared to take other steps. There is caution about accelerating the point at which the movement of people across borders becomes so great that no one can deal with it. I understand why there is that anxiety. On the other hand, I also think that leaders of the African Union may very well react in a tough way when the new approaches that they are now making are rebuffed.
My Lords, the Minister rightly emphasised the importance of the role of both President Mbeki and the African Union. What discussions was he able to have with President John Kufuor in his capacity as chairman of the African Union during his recent state visit here? The Minister has laid a lot of emphasis on the importance of European Union countries imposing things such as travel restrictions, but Robert Mugabe was recently invited to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the independence of Ghana. Does he agree that if the African nations were to impose travel restrictions and make their views about the iniquities conducted by the Zimbabwean regime more clearly felt and known, that would have a much greater impact than European restrictions?
The Minister has rightly also mention the bravery of people such as Pius Ncube and Morgan Tsvangirai. Can he tell us anything about their current safety?
My Lords, President Kufuor had detailed discussions with several of us about the position. I have to say that it seems unlikely that the African Union will impose travel sanctions. Even if that would be desirable, it is not in its history; it has not done it with one or two dictators in Africa who ought never to have got where they did, let alone travel around. None the less, President Kufuor was clear about the embarrassment that is being caused and the need for an African Union response. He put that in pretty straightforward terms.
His organisation is faced with a number of huge challenges, frequently debated in this House, whether in the Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea on the border, or inside Somalia. We know of huge difficulties still in the Mano river basin, which is much closer to the President’s home patch. The African Union is very stretched in its resources. That is not an excuse, it is just a reflection of what it can and cannot do on a day-to-day basis.
On the overall position, Morgan Tsvangirai was seriously beaten and is, I think, gradually recovering. But as those who heard him on the “Today” programme will know, he is completely undaunted. He deserves our admiration, that’s for sure. I think that the Archbishop is not physically hurt or in physical danger, but from what I know of him, he will not be overly concerned. He will continue to do what he believes is right.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred to one of the reasons for Mugabe’s hostility to its existence. I heard some years ago from a source which I regarded as reliable that another reason was that when his son died in Ghana—he had a Ghanaian mother, as the House will know—Mugabe was refused permission by the then Government to attend the funeral. I cannot imagine anything more foolish than that and I can understand why that would make him very resentful.
I support those who have been making a point about the importance of the SADC countries. They are the closest and are not particularly stretched in the way that other countries may be. I emphasise the importance of the SADC countries getting involved; it will mean that Mbeki must take the lead, because nobody else in that group will.
In the hope that there may be better times to come, would it be good idea for the Government to plan on assisting the professional classes in particular, who are extremely important, most of whom have fled and are spread across the map, to get back to Zimbabwe?
My Lords, quite a lot of detailed planning is taking place to make sure that there is capacity in Zimbabwe for rebuilding, which would include the professionals and what remains of the middle classes—if I can use an old-fashioned expression—which were among the first to flee the country and have more or less vanished. We offer quite a lot of bilateral assistance, as we do to particular sectors, but that help has to happen more or less outside the country—it is very difficult to sustain it inside without putting those we want to help at still greater risk.
My Lords, is there any prospect that the Commonwealth—which, after all, cared about South Africa even though it was no longer in it—could be induced to set up a special fund outside Zimbabwe, available to civil society in Zimbabwe to draw upon? They will need money if they are to elect people and if they are even to maintain their present situation, and that money has to come from somewhere. If it came from the Commonwealth, that would be an entirely respectable and non-partisan area and would include all African countries. We should not confine ourselves to giving lots of splendid publicity and great admiration. We have to make it feasible for people to help themselves, and that seems to be one body that we could use to do it.
My Lords, I hope I have emphasised that in all our dealings with Zimbabwe, we have been prepared to spend quite large sums of money to support those activities that we believe are right. To be clear about HMG’s position, whether we were contributing through the Commonwealth or bilaterally, I have no doubt that we would wish to support the financial consequences of re-entering democratic life. The Commonwealth as a possible source is a very interesting idea; I do not know how it would be received but I am certainly willing to explore it.
Statistics and Registration Service Bill
Second Reading debate resumed.
My Lords, it is not often that a Bill finds such widespread support on all sides of the House, at least for the intentions behind it. I join in encouraging the Government in their introduction of legislation to address the serious issue of the erosion of public trust in government statistics. However, the Bill does not go far enough. It gives us a singular opportunity to devise a robust framework for the delivery and oversight of national statistics. It is highly unlikely that parliamentary time will be found to revisit the issue in the near future, so it is incumbent on us to get it right this first time.
It would be tempting to classify the debate as a technical discussion of an esoteric subject. In some respects, this may be the case, but the Bill deals with the governance and oversight structures of statistics of national importance in assessing the performance of the Administration, in informing budgetary decisions involving billions of pounds, and in informing the capital markets. It is therefore vital that the production of national statistics is, and is seen to be, independent of the Administration whose performance they are used to assess. It is quite clear that the general public now see government information and statistics in the context of spin. Perhaps the moving of the Chancellor’s “golden rule” goalposts is a good example of selective redefinition that is expedient to the Government.
Most have been supportive of the work and quality of the Office for National Statistics, and rightly so. The criticisms have largely been levelled at ministerial interference; but there have been some instances in which the ONS has been accused, correctly or incorrectly, of bowing to government pressure. One example was the classification of Network Rail’s debt. Network Rail has no shareholders, and its inception was preceded by the Government’s hugely controversial decision to force its predecessor, which was listed as a plc company, out of business. Network Rail is fully backed by the Government, who provide a de facto guarantee of its debt. Yet according to the then National Statistician, Network Rail was considered to be a private company. This decision, which was both convenient to the Treasury and very difficult to justify, is exactly the sort of situation in which demonstrable independence would have been of tremendous value to the ONS itself. The Government have the opportunity to make an historic move akin to granting independence to the Monetary Policy Committee. The degree to which Ministers mean what they say in support of independence will be measured and tested by their willingness to remove the constraints of ministerial control from the production of statistics.
The Bill follows good corporate governance principles in establishing a board comprising a chairman and a majority of non-executive members, along with the National Statistician as chief executive. Thus far, it mirrors accepted best practice in the private sector; but why is it also required to exercise an oversight and regulatory function? As I understand the arrangements—the Minister will no doubt be able to put me right when he winds up the debate—we have moved from a separate oversight authority in the form of the Statistics Commission to one that is integrated with the delivery agency. I cannot see how this would be considered a positive development in the separation of functions and the guaranteeing of independence. Perhaps the Minister will explain that a little further.
There will always be a potential conflict in government departments that produce the statistics by which their own performance is measured. Yet we must deal with what is feasible and cost effective, and recognise that this is inevitable. It would not be practical to devise a cumbersome bureaucracy that duplicated the departments’ information-gathering infrastructure for all measures. It must therefore be for the board and not for Ministers to determine which sets of information are deemed to be national statistics. I am sure that amendments will be tabled in this regard at later stages of the Bill.
The status of the code of practice should also be enhanced to ensure that the public can have increased confidence in the statistics that fall under the auspices of government departments. I noted with interest the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, on the relative problems of ONS statistics versus those produced by departments themselves. He felt that the former were much more robust in general than the latter.
Much has been made of pre-release, which is one of the essential criticisms of how statistics are released: the Government have the upper hand and a story ready to go before anyone else has had a chance to read the fine print. After the Chancellor’s Budget speech, we all know the importance of reading the fine print before reacting. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that those who spun official figures were found out quickly; the Chancellor probably got away with about two or three minutes in his recent speech.
I have listened to the arguments in favour of pre-release. I accept some of them, particularly, like many noble Lords who have spoken or will speak, as I have been a user of such privileged information in the past. I understand that my noble friend Lady Noakes and her colleagues on the opposition Front Bench believe that decisions on pre-release should be put in the hands of the board. The difficulty is that, essentially, we are talking about a political judgment, not about the quality of the statistics or the type of information. It is about politics, so it may be a little difficult to expect the board to make a political judgment. Perhaps we should look at guidance being written into the Bill, against which the board could make its judgments. However, it should not be left entirely to the board; equally, it should not be left to Ministers either. In recent years, the Government have had a tendency to create a problem, to invent some regulations to deal with it and then to find ways to get around their own regulations. I hope that we are not dealing with such a case in this instance. Despite these reservations, I support the thrust of the Bill and look forward to debating it further at the next stages.
My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I intervene in the Second Reading of this Bill on the Government’s statistical services. I am no statistician, unlike others in this House with much greater qualifications to be heard, prominent among them my noble friend Lord Moser, whose views on this Bill I broadly share. Statistics matter to us all. They are an essential foundation for policy-making, act as an early warning when damaging trends are beginning to develop and are at the heart of handling such hugely complex issues as global warming and climate change. We need to take statistics seriously, even if our proficiency in understanding them is limited and our capacity to be misled by them considerable.
The capacity for ordinary people to be misled by statistical information is at the heart of the current legislative proposals. The misuse of statistics, not just by politicians but also by pressure groups or any group of people with an axe to grind, is a phenomenon of fairly long standing. It is not something that has just arisen in the past few years; here I separate from some of those who have preceded me in this debate in attributing the decline in trust to recent times. It was a former Member of this House—the Earl of Beaconsfield, better known as Disraeli—who gave us the epigram that there are,
“lies, damned lies and statistics”,
and he was no slouch at manipulation.
The problem seems to be getting worse, perhaps largely because so much more statistical material is made available. The result is that the credibility of that material, and public trust in it, seems to be dropping quite sharply. The Government are to be congratulated on bringing forward legislation designed to strengthen the autonomy of their statistical services and thus, one would hope, to enhance public confidence in the material they provide. The overall thrust of this legislation is admirable, but the delivery of real outcomes is half-hearted. The detail of the Bill seems to fall well short of its broad objectives. In some cases, the proposals seem seriously flawed. As so often happens, the other place appears to have done little to confront those flaws, so I hope that it will be possible to remedy some of these as the legislation is scrutinised in your Lordships’ House.
The first area of doubt arises over the structure chosen for overseeing the activities of the Government’s Office for National Statistics and accepting ultimate responsibility for them. Noble Lords preceding me have all mentioned this point. It is surely right to consign that task to a depoliticised body and to remove it from ministerial interference; but the idea of having a single body in which non-executive appointees and executive professional statisticians are mingled, and which has an uneasy mix of supervisory responsibilities and everyday executive ones, does not at first sight seem to be the best way to proceed. It is exactly the opposite of what has been chosen for the BBC, where the supervisory and executive functions have been separated. It is the opposite of the way we handle the governance of our higher education institutions. It will be interesting to hear how the Minister justifies the proposed structure, but it could well be necessary to rethink the approach when we come to Committee.
Then there is the question of resources to be made available to the Office for National Statistics to do its work. This is not something that normally figures in legislation and this Bill is no exception, but in introducing it the Minister said something about that aspect, repeating what was said in the other place. How real is the autonomy being granted to the office if the purse strings are still ultimately held by Her Majesty’s Treasury? How much confidence would we have in the autonomy of the Bank of England when it comes to setting interest rates if it relied totally on the Treasury for the resources it needed to carry out its research? Not much, I suggest. There is a case for underpinning the autonomy of the Office for National Statistics in some way analogous to that applied to the resource requirements of the National Audit Office. Indeed, the more general case for giving Parliament a direct role in guaranteeing the autonomy of the Office for National Statistics would seem hard to refute.
I turn now to the sensitive and vexed question of the arrangements for the pre-release—in advance of publication—to departments and Ministers of the result of statistical inquiries. This is at the heart of the issue of public confidence. It is the belief that statistics are spun and their presentation manipulated for political purposes that is undermining the credibility of our national and departmental statistics. The arrangements proposed are complex, Byzantine and almost certainly capable of being operated in such a way as to provide no substantial change from the present unsatisfactory arrangements. It is worth pointing out that if pre-release was simply banned, there would be no need to provide for any such complex arrangements in the Bill at all. I believe I am right in saying that Norway operates a ban on pre-release; why can we not do so too? I have little doubt that the Minister will say that statistics are often highly sensitive and it is only right for Ministers and their officials to have time to prepare a public reaction to them, but does the argument really hold water? Perhaps the Minister can say whether there are any arrangements for the pre-release of decisions on interest rates by the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Are they not published as soon as they are taken? Surely nothing in the economic field is much more sensitive than those decisions on interest rates, so why can the publication of statistics not follow a similar course?
It is no secret that the tabling of this legislation has been greeted with less than wholehearted enthusiasm by those parts of the press with some specialist knowledge; the rest of the press has probably not noticed that it exists at all. The Economist magazine was particularly scathing. While that does not prove that the legislation is at fault, it does underline a real risk; namely, that the detailed provisions of the Bill will undermine its overall target of improving the objectivity of our national statistics and of increasing public support for and confidence in them. If that were to happen, it would be a major opportunity lost, and it will not be one that will recur any time soon. Quite rightly, legislation like this is designed to last for at least a generation, perhaps two, so it is worth getting it right.
My Lords, I was sorry not to attend the Minister’s meeting last week. Unfortunately, I was abroad on Select Committee business.
I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, that this is not an esoteric Bill. Andrew Dilnot, an experienced and respected commentator on the nation’s economy, said it is the most important Bill in this Parliament. He could be right. As the Minister and other noble Lords have said, statistics inform decisions made in every part of society, not only in Government but also in business and throughout the economy. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, just said, they inform the important decisions we are going to have to make about climate change. They indicate the success or failure of targets about the public finances, crime, child poverty, health and—an area where the noble Viscount pointed out that there is plenty of temptation—education. The list is endless.
Ideally, we would look to statistics and the Office for National Statistics to be the servant of open government. That is the measure of the importance of statistics. However, as nearly all noble Lords have said, unfortunately the public do not trust them. A recent survey indicated that only 14 per cent of the population thought that statistics were honest. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, told us, that is not new. The Royal Statistical Society said,
“for several decades now, a lack of trust due to a wide perception of political interference has devalued and undermined official statistics”.
So I welcome this effort to raise public confidence in our national statistics. I think it is a genuine attempt to reform the system, and to make it independent and at arm’s length from the Government—if I may say so, about time too. There was a commitment in the Labour Party’s 1997 manifesto to make statistics independent. In 2000, we moved forward a little, but now at last, in 2007, we are taking the major step.
With this Bill, the Government have moved a long way towards making the ONS independent. I do not share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the board is not independent enough. It is easy to complain because independence is difficult to measure, even for the Office for National Statistics, and there could always be more. This Bill, however, takes a major step towards independence, and at this stage it goes far enough to satisfy most of us. Let us see what happens in Committee.
I have other concerns, though. I share other noble Lords’ concerns about pre-release. The Minister told us that this would be dealt with by order. I hope the Government will eventually limit pre-release to minutes rather than hours. We compare badly with others. If, as a result of this Bill, the public have growing confidence in statistics, too much opportunity to bury, combine or distort data will only undermine that confidence.
My main concern is about the quality of the statistics. In Clause 8, the board is responsible for monitoring the production and publication of official statistics, and may report any concerns it has about the quality of those statistics. “Set standards and scrutiny”, the Minister said. Should not the board also be responsible for ensuring the quality, and indeed be responsible for the relevance, of the statistics? I realise that is difficult.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, reminded us that the ONS is dependent on others providing the figures. The Minister said that there are 1,300 sets of figures; as I understand it, the ONS is responsible for about 300, and there are 1,000 further sets for which it is not directly responsible, but which affect the ONS’s own statistics. The figures for gross domestic product, for example, depend on data from a large number of other government departments. Recently, the GDP figures were distorted because of errors in the figures supplied about the construction industry from the DTI. Employment figures are dependent on data from the Home Office about immigration, and we all know about the problems there. As other noble Lords have said, the role of the board regarding oversight needs to be very clear.
Then there is the judgment about compiling the data. Yes, there are conflicts of interest. For instance, research and development figures are assessed differently by different government departments. The Treasury likes them lower so that tax credits are less expensive. The DTI wants them higher because they flatter the economy. In 2005, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry produced an extraordinary paper indicating that 67 per cent of what it considered R&D spend is excluded from the R&D tax credit calculation. So do we really know what we are spending on research and development in this country?
The board or the Cabinet Office should be responsible for assessing these judgments, not the Treasury. It is important; after all, we are creating a modern knowledge economy supported by huge public and private investment in science and engineering. Indeed, in the debate on the Address last November, I wondered whether our national statistics properly measure the knowledge economy we are building in this country. The answer came the following month. December’s Pre-Budget Report, in Box A8, speaks about the changing nature of investment and agrees that in the ONS estimates of UK business investments, although they are based on the internationally agreed system of national accounts, investment in R&D may be misleading.
I remind your Lordships of one of the examples given by the Treasury. The ONS estimates that in 2003 the UK invested £8 billion in software. However, the ONS has also estimated that if you add own-account in-house software investment, that could raise the total UK software investment in 2003 to around £21 billion. Surely, in a modern economy, that in-house work is also investment. But it was lost, and the reason was that in-house investment was put into the accounts as “intangibles”. A distinguished accountant like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, will know all about that. The box goes on to point out that in 2004 business invested £112 billion in tangible investment, but the total cost listed as “intangible” was estimated to be £116 billion. Does that mean that as a modern knowledge economy we are investing twice as much as we thought we were? Perhaps that is why the economy is performing better than most.
My point is that if our statistics do not keep up with the way we look at the world, inevitably the quality and the relevance will decline. That is why I would like to see greater powers for users to propose statistics. The professional organisations have made that point, and so did the noble Lord, Lord Moser. I realise that such powers could be manipulated to provide figures of more political significance, but my intention is that the powers should be available to produce figures of more relevance. Somehow the Bill must ensure that the code of practice, or the conventions about which data really describe our economy, can be challenged, not only by the board but also by users and outsiders. For example, the conventions on describing businesses as “services” or “manufacturing” are becoming meaningless.
Clause 20 approaches that possibility. It entitles the board to provide statistics to any person and to assess the quality and analysis of the data. I welcome that, and I am sure that it will be useful in helping to clarify the misleading or biased interpretation of data that we are continually fed, to which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred. However, can this clause be used by the public to demand data or explanations to be provided that are more relevant? Can they demand more information or clarification, as the noble Lord suggested? That is why I consider that the quality and relevance of the work of the ONS are as important as its independence and public standing.
The Bill has dealt with independence and it can deal with quality, but, most of all, the board must ensure that our statistics keep pace with our changing national life and our economy, and that requires more definition in the Bill.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in a debate after the noble Lord, Lord Moser, the doyen of the statistical world. Luckily, my study of statistics began in easier times than did his.
I hope that the Minister will have reflected on the detailed scrutiny made in another place and that, as we proceed, will move into the centre ground of the powerful arguments there made. I shall follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, by considering the inherent difficulty of being a government statistician.
Statistics are an academic occupation; politics are not. As with all academics—economists, for example—statisticians will debate and disagree. Indeed, as professionals, they enjoy nothing so much as a conference at which, expressing the greatest respect for each other, they will demolish each and every statistical endeavour. In private, as it were, but also when in public, statisticians are aware that somewhere close by is a fellow professional with a different point of view. Statisticians know also that the figures which they produce will be used and misused to support political argument and lobbying. They may wish that it were not so, but they know that there will be angled selection when the messages from published statistics are available to be put across. It is not always manipulation; it is just choosing the most supportive figures.
Therefore, Parliament needs to be cautious when it claims that, by legislation, it can create trust. The best that it can claim is that the strengthening of institutional arrangements will enable the public to believe in the best endeavours and personal integrity of those who produce the figures. Nobody has suggested that the Office for National Statistics has been acting in any way other than in the public interest. The perceived problems are external to the office: it is the relationship between the political system and the office which needs to change.
The Bill was rightly welcomed in the Commons as a step in the right direction, and rightly criticised for not going nearly far enough. There was a mixed response to the proposal to change an organisation which last year reported on 29 ministerial targets. The office is committed by Ministers to,
“create a Government Statistical Service presence in each region by March 2007”—
I wonder whether that has happened—yet the ONS does not have responsibility for the decentralised Government Statistical Service, nor is it proposed in the Bill that it will undertake that responsibility. At the same time, there are targets for relocation out of London and for a one-in-seven reduction in staff. The National Statistician is a very busy person, and the present situation is a far cry from,
“a wholly separate body at arm’s length from Government and fully independent of it”.
Yet that is the Bill’s objective. Is it a truly accurate definition of the intended relationship? If it is, there are outstanding issues of governance and management structure to be addressed, following the best efforts of the opposition parties in the Commons.
Some time hence, one test will be whether the list of national statistics in Clause 16 then convinces the public that the objective of serving the public good is being met. Many commentators have said that a necessary condition for reaching this objective will be that the position of National Statistician is strengthened beyond that proposed in the Bill, so that she becomes the nationally recognised guardian of statistical integrity and openness. Regrettably, the Bill as drafted weakens the position of the National Statistician.
First, it proposes that she become a member of the board, with the majority of the members being non-executive. Being on a public board reduces a chief executive’s room to manage the institution effectively. Having been both chairman of a public body and chief executive of a public corporation, I have no doubt that it is more efficient and effective to have a wholly non-executive board. It also contributes to the separation of scrutiny from operations. As my noble friend Lord Goschen asked, why has the mixed membership option been chosen? The Minister’s explanation is that it conforms to private and public corporate practice. Specifically whose corporate practice do the Government have in mind? Does it conform to the ONS criteria of full independence, being at arm’s length and reporting directly to Parliament? No private body is in that position. Which public bodies are?
Secondly, Clause 5(3) states that the proposed head of assessment will report directly to the board. It is almost as if the board is to have two chief executives. This weakening—a partial destruction of the National Statistician’s accountability—is a strange choice and is very unlikely to work in practice. Immense goodwill is needed to make it work at all. Is it a substitute for internal systems audit? If so, would not external reviews by internationally practising members of the profession serve the board better? Peer group review is common practice among academically driven professions.
The third issue arises in the extraordinary language of subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 29. Subsection (3) states:
“The National Statistician may not exercise the functions of—
(a) determining under section 10 whether to adopt a code as the Code of Practice for National Statistics or to revise the Code, or
(b) determining under section 12(1) or 13(1) whether any official statistics comply with the Code”.
Subsection (4) states:
“The Board may direct the National Statistician—
(a) not to exercise a particular function, or
(b) as to how he should exercise a particular function”.
Now we see the National Statistician as chief executive, and now we don’t. If the board were to direct her not to do something significant or direct as to how to do something equally significant, it would almost amount to a case for constructive dismissal. What do the Government have in mind? Can they really intend to deprive the National Statistician of responsibility for the code? The code is the key to the arch of public trust. It is essential that the chief executive remains accountable for professional integrity and quality control. Production is of less importance and much easier to delegate.
There are other important issues. It appears from Clauses 10 and 12 that, on the day when the Act comes into effect, there will be no new-style national statistics, but only official statistics awaiting the new code of practice and compliance with it before “official” can become “national”. Is this not a highly risky procedure, depending, as it will, on Ministers’ attitudes to their share of the Government Statistical Service? If the code is not firmly backed by statute, it stands a good chance of being ignored. The open position that will prevail will certainly encourage Whitehall games-playing.
I await the Minister’s reply with interest and look forward to Committee, because there is much to be done if the twin objectives of independence and trust are to be achieved.
My Lords, when I spoke in the short debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, I broadly welcomed the Government’s proposals. Now that we have the Bill as it has emerged from the other place, I still support its aims, although there are at least five issues that the House needs to address. On some, I will argue that the Government should hold their ground against the attempts to change the Bill, but on others I will suggest that they need to rethink their position.
The first issue, which has come up many times in this debate, is the governance structure of the Statistics Board. The Bill proposes a unitary board that brings together chair, non-executive directors, the National Statistician, plus two other officials. That has given rise to what is referred to as either the “judge and jury” problem or, alternatively, “the BBC analogy”. How, it is asked, can the board be a producer of statistics and a regulator of their quality? That is a valid question, and, in one way or another, an answer has to be found.
In my view, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, was correct in arguing that there was not enough separation between the BBC Trust as regulator and the BBC as broadcaster. The Royal Statistical Society has proposed a number of amendments which seek to enforce a greater separation by making the National Statistician rather than the board responsible for the production of statistics, with the board as an oversight or scrutiny body. The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, put that case very effectively only minutes ago. However, despite the view that I took in the case of the BBC, I have concluded that I prefer the unitary board in this case.
First, I think that the divided accountability would prove less satisfactory for Parliament as it would have two accountables reporting to it rather than one: the board and the National Statistician. Secondly, and most importantly—and this is based on my experience in dealing with the previous National Statistician—I want national statistics produced under the full authority of the board. Never again do I want to see a National Statistician isolated as was the case with Mr Len Cook. When there is pressure from Ministers—for example, on whether or not something is in the public sector—I want a solid unity between board and National Statistician. For example, the then Secretary of State for Health would have found it more difficult to brand as “absurd” the serious piece of work done by the ONS on productivity in the health sector if it had been published in the name of the board as a whole. Finally, we should remember that only one-quarter of the series designated as national statistics is produced by the ONS. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moser, that it is in the statistics produced by departments—for waiting times, crime and so on—that the greatest difficulties arise.
I accept that if we maintain a unitary board we need to find a solution to the “judge and jury” problem. The Bill provides a mechanism through the head of assessment, and it is better to build on that and through the internal constitution rather than to reduce the board to pure regulator and weaken the alliance with the National Statistician.
The second issue is the concept of national statistics. Here I believe that the Government need to rethink their position. Like the Royal Statistical Society, I do not understand the logic of having a concept of official statistics and then a code of practice that applies only to the subset known as national statistics. That can only give rise to suspicion, even if unwarranted, either that the Government want to tolerate a Ryman league of second-rate statistics not covered by the code or, worse, that Ministers want to keep certain statistics in the lower league so that they can get away with things that are outside the disciplines of the code. The process of promotion and relegation in Clause 13 has no credibility. If the crime statistics do not come up to the standards of the code, they are not going to get demoted from national statistics to mere official statistics, they are going to get improved. My recommendation is to bring all official statistics, whatever they are called, under the code, and to claim credit for this as one of the achievements of the Bill.
The third issue is release times. It is not good government to keep Ministers in the dark. If we want them to be accountable we must set up procedures and controls that make that possible. No one expects the President of the United States to appear once a week for questions before Congress; so we have quite different systems and cultures. I doubt whether Parliament really wants to allow Ministers to put forward the excuse that they cannot comment because their officials are still analysing the figures. Nor is it good practice to allow misunderstandings to circulate for hours uncorrected—and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, gave an example of that, although it was rather an old one. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when Prime Minister, frequently quoted Mark Twain to me—usually when incandescent after listening to the World Service at 5.30 in the morning—saying that a lie,
“can get halfway around the world before the truth even gets its boots on”.
However, I am not happy with the rather brusque wording of the Bill in Clause 11, which in effect tells the board to keep its nose out of setting release times and leaving Ministers to help themselves to as much time as they want. I suggest that the Bill should be redrafted to recognise the principle of pre-release, but to place responsibility to decide with the board, subject to a duty to provide Ministers with adequate time to enable them to fulfil their accountability duties. The Government should welcome getting that principle underpinned by statute; the board should be required to consult Ministers before taking any decisions. If under the Bill the board can be entrusted to manage the RPI, subject to procedural safeguards, then it can certainly deal with release times, too. In my experience, 24 hours would normally be plenty, although I would not make releases on Mondays so that figures are not pre-released on a Friday.
The fourth issue is that of the residual department. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Moser, feels nostalgic about the days when the Prime Minister had a deep understanding of statistics. It sounds quite a good idea, put that way. But I think that there are problems. Making the Prime Minister the supervising Minister is in practice unrealistic and the Cabinet Office has little expertise in that area. But if the system is working, that is genuinely a residual role and, on balance, it would be better if it went to the Cabinet Office rather than the Treasury, which itself is a major consumer of statistics. I also welcome the suggestions made in the other place that there could be a statement, perhaps outside the Bill, that either the chair and/or the National Statistician could have access to the Prime Minister should a really serious issue of statistics or their governance arise.
The other duty of the residual department is to set the budget. Some prior understandings have been mentioned as a way of ensuring that the board is not unreasonably squeezed, but that too could in the last resort be protected through the assurance of access to the Prime Minister.
Finally, if there is to be greater accountability to Parliament, Parliament itself must reconsider how it performs its part of the process. Departmental Select Committees can look at statistics in their area, but what is missing is consideration of statistics across the piece. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned, that could be a joint enterprise between both Houses.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to the Bill. At the outset, like other noble Lords, I congratulate the Government on the Bill’s direction of travel. It is well recognised that recent years have seen a disintegration of public trust in the independence and probity of the nation’s statistical data. The figures from the ONS survey have been widely cited; namely, that only 17 per cent of the public believe that statistics are produced free of political interference, a perception that may well have deepened as a result of last week’s Budget. Undoubtedly, therefore, there is an urgent need to legislate for independence.
As my honourable friend Michael Fallon said on Second Reading in another place:
“National statistics are not only the Government’s statistics. They are more than simply a ministerial crutch or a parliamentary resource. In a proper democracy, statistics are an essential public good. They belong to all of us. After the suspicions of the past few years, we want our statistics back and we want them to be clean”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/1/07; col. 68.]
That said, I do not propose to trespass on those matters in the Bill already covered so eloquently by other noble Lords, not least the wise counsel of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. Rather I wish to focus on the information-sharing provisions of the Bill.
A particular feature of the debates in another place was the recognition that the public at large have a special and considerable interest in statistics. This was represented in a number of ways on all sides, but is neatly encapsulated in the Financial Secretary’s observation on Second Reading that:
“Importantly, in our modern democracy they [statistics] inform the judgments that people make about the promises and performance of their Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/1/07; col. 29.]
Indeed, to the Government’s credit, they amended the Bill on Report to give some measure of statutory force to this. Thus, Clause 7(1) now states:
“In the exercise of its functions … the Board is to have the objective of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good”.
However, I cannot help but agree with my honourable friend Michael Fallon that, given that the Bill now defines “public good” in the context of,
“informing the public about social and economic matters”,
“the development and evaluation of public policy”,
this is couched very much in Westminster-centric terms. In other words, while I willingly accept that progress has been made, there is still work to be done here in establishing levels of independence that are a proper fit with the public’s needs and not just those of us operating within the political process.
To my mind, this becomes especially relevant in respect of administrative data, even more so in respect of information that qualifies under the terms of the Data Protection Act as either “sensitive” or “personal”. I am chary of suggesting that “ownership” of this sort of data should more properly reside with the particular individuals who have, one hopes, consented to their collection. Nevertheless, it is essential to realise that, given the huge scope of the data now collected and the sophistication of IT techniques to process them, these are not meagre unconnected morsels of any given individual’s interactions with the state. Rather, taken in toto, they are whole-life delineations of who someone is and how he leads his life. Indeed, this is—or should be—part of the motivation for making administrative data more widely available as a statistical resource. But it also infers that, while the “public good” element of the Bill acknowledges the individual citizen’s interest in statistical output, it should perhaps also reflect no less strongly his interest in—and, to an extent, ownership of—the raw data.
I do not wish to be misunderstood here. I acknowledge absolutely the considerable benefits that could accrue from administrative data being more widely used as a statistical resource. I empathise with the view of Len Cook that this would represent,
“the largest possible improvement to the quality of British statistics”,
that could be enabled by this legislation. Moreover, I pay due heed to a manifest understanding of all sides of this debate, which is evident in these words from the Financial Secretary:
“there is indeed a strong public interest in greater sharing of administrative data … there is also a public interest in ensuring that the confidentiality of such data is properly protected”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/1/07; col. 25.]
The Minister repeated the same mantra earlier. Needless to say, recognition of this is most welcome. Indeed, I acknowledge that the Government have made strenuous efforts in satisfying the conflicting sides of this equation. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the words of comfort from the Minister, I remain somewhat concerned that the current drafting may not only fail to deliver as robust a regime as is necessary but, as with the context of the definition of “public good”, be too closely allied to the needs and requirements of, as it were, administrative convenience. As I read it, the construct of the Bill is to create quite deliberately the Statistics Board as a gateway for onward transmission of data.
As highlighted by my honourable friend Mark Hoban during Committee in another place, the current text could permit the Statistics Board to become a conduit for the distribution of data more widely throughout government to be further processed for a purpose at variance with and beyond the terms of that of its original collection. Certainly, in so far as my understanding of the drafting is accurate, this inspires no small measure of discomfort, not least for example in the context of the national identity register or the children’s index. Indeed, it is worth recalling the comment from the Chief Statistician of Canada when giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee on this matter:
“Of course, the other side of that coin is extremely strong confidentiality guarantees, which are spelled out and which allow no exceptions. Not even the intelligence community, not even the police, not even the courts in the course of a prosecution can have access under the Statistics Act”.
Evidently, the Bill before us today does not encompass such strong data protection as that. That said, there is a case for suggesting that perhaps it should, not least because there is a wider dimension to this. Undoubtedly, there is growing and justified anxiety about the encroachment of what has euphemistically been called “the database state”. In this context it is salutary to reflect that the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place is to initiate an inquiry into this. I can also refer back to the ONS survey that found that only 14 per cent of the public believe that government handle data honestly. While I accept that greater independence for our statistical authority may go some way towards addressing this perception so far as the board will be concerned, there is none the less an over-arching obligation upon government to establish extremely strong and robust data protection regimes in circumstances where information sharing is envisaged.
Some, I suspect not least the Minister, may feel that reliance on the terms of the Data Protection Act offers sufficient reassurance. However, increasingly that is not a view I share, if only because, as a generality, information-sharing regimes will of necessity breach at least the second data principle if not others and, in that sense, lie beyond the reach of the Act. I therefore argue that, in circumstances such as these, we should aim to strengthen data protection rather than either maintaining the status quo or, worse, weakening it.
At the end of the day it would be foolish in the extreme if, in making legislative provision for a more independent statistical regime and thereby, we hope, reinvigorating public confidence and trust in the nation’s statistics, a different but no less corrosive cause for lack of confidence and distrust was substituted. Inadequate or inappropriate data protection could well have that effect. With that in mind, I look forward to probing these issues at greater length as the Bill makes its progress through the House.
My Lords, having looked at the list of speakers, I came to this debate with some diffidence. Indeed, having listened to some of the speeches, I am still rather diffident.
Apart from being a normal user of statistics my direct experience is rather tangential. Some years ago I was chairman of a government committee on the handling of geographic information. It had to do with the then new computer technology, geographic information systems—GIS. This new technology enabled spatial data—and this very much included spatial statistics—to be readily analysed for the first time. There were important issues of how such data were collected, analysed, used and made available. Whitehall was pre-eminently the main collector, user and publisher. Many of the things we had to think about are also relevant to much wider traditional statistical data.
My impression is that there was a warm welcome for the Treasury’s November document, Independence for Statistics. But the Bill itself has been greeted with considerable caution in some quarters, notably by William McLennan, former head of both the UK Central Statistical Office and the equivalent Australian office. He believes that the Bill will not result in independence, cites the Treasury’s powers under Clause 27 and goes on to say that the Bill,
“will set back official statistics in the UK for at least a few generations”.
That is rather strong stuff. Other commentators, such as Professor John Kay, whose judgment I respect, and others writing in the Economist—the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred to the Economist article on the Bill—and the Financial Times are all pretty sceptical.
One can conveniently categorise those concerns under the three headings of: first, independence and the wider issues of governance of the new Statistics Board; secondly, the messy area of departmental statistics, their reliability, how they are to be monitored and so forth; and thirdly, the pre-release issue, which is a murky area, as we have heard this afternoon. I do not propose to say anything on the pre-release issue and only a little on the departmental statistical issue. First, I will speak about the governance and the Statistics Board.
I do not have a particular problem with the National Statistician being an executive member of the Statistics Board, provided two things are reflected in the Bill. It is put rather neatly by the Statistics Commission in its briefing paper:
“We remain concerned that the Bill does not secure a sufficiently clear separation of executive and independent scrutiny roles”.
The National Statistician is, in effect, to be the custodian of the Ark of the Covenant, if I may put it that way. As I read it, the Bill accepts that, but in a rather ambivalent manner. The Bill needs to be more explicit that the National Statistician is the chief executive—although I agree that there is a clause saying that—that he has the formal responsibility for overall planning, production and quality of official statistical products, and that he is the professional head of the Government Statistical Service. That surely needs to be set out in practical terms in the Bill. The references to the board, for example, in Clause 6 and Clause 10 and other places, should surely be replaced by references to the National Statistician, a point made by the Statistics Commission in the briefing paper. The more explicit recognition of the responsibility of the National Statistician is the first point.
The second point was also made by the Statistics Commission, and it mirrors the first. The role of the board is one of scrutiny and support for the National Statistician. The board is there to protect and promote his independence. From that, it follows that the chairman must be someone of real calibre and of high reputation and authority. There will be times when the National Statistician will feel compelled to clash with Whitehall executives, even on statistical issues. He will need the support of his board and of his chairman, so the chairman must be of real standing. In those circumstances, one questions whether Clause 27, which the Australians so much objected to, is really appropriate, even on a last resort basis. It also suggests that the board should come under the Cabinet Office rather than the Treasury, as one or two speakers have already said.
There is the role of Parliament and the devolved authorities. They will have the right to receive reports, which I would like to see extended to at least being consulted over the appointment of the chairman and the National Statistician, and over funding issues. I would like to see the acceptance—it obviously does not directly affect the Bill—of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, of a joint parliamentary Select Committee. That seems exactly the right way for Parliament to exercise its right to hold the Executive to account. A Joint Committee would have both expertise and status.
Certainly the most difficult part of the Bill, in Clause 7, is the requirement of the board to seek to upgrade “official statistics” into the higher category of “national statistics”. One notes immediately that the assessment request for an upgrade can only be instituted by ministerial request, in Clause 12. That is the first difficulty, but there will be other problems. One goes on to ask oneself what incentive a department might have to achieve the kite mark of “national statistics”. What powers have the National Statistician or the board to push a department? What are the levers? Could there be a financial inducement? Is the power of publication under Clause 8 sufficient? I understand what the drafters of the Bill are trying to do, but it seems to me that the board would have precious little carrot and almost no stick. I doubt whether the “national statistics” kite mark is sufficient.
I end on a rather different note, which was struck by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Bills such as this one have to last for at least a generation. Therefore, it is important to get this Bill right. The Government have made a good start, to be fair, but as this debate has shown, a lot needs to be done in a few specific areas.
My Lords, I applaud the Bill. I hope someone could cross-examine Len Cook on some of the issues that he is concerned about. I am sure that the pre-release question can be clarified in Committee, as could the question of how parliamentary scrutiny will work. Perhaps the Lords economic committee could give some thought to that. A more general question is how the board can track important changes in society in what people need to know. Incidentally, it is partly for those reasons that my instinct is that the board should report to the Cabinet Office and not to the Treasury, as recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, in his most authoritative speech, and by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull.
There may be a role for the board in producing what might be called encyclicals, like the Vatican. For example, the question of measuring productivity in services, particularly in public services, is a very important but very old chestnut. I do not know where one now goes to for, as it were, the text of the encyclical. There are different rules about productivity measurement but, as I understand it from my days of doing economics and statistics at Cambridge and studying a book by Professor Richard Stone, national income measurement requires output, income and expenditure all to somehow line up. People ought to produce one-off papers demonstrating how what you might call statistical national income theory lines up with what we do in practice.
However, all such generalisations have to be tested against practical experience of which one has some knowledge. I will take two examples from widely different fields. The first is income distribution in Britain, and the second is how we measure and use measures of national income growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa. On the first, it has been apparent for some time that there is something strange about how we read every day about the explosion of top pay, and that not showing up in genie coefficients. It is not so much the question of City bonuses not being properly recorded—at least I trust not—but there seems to be a misleading narrative shared by the Bank of England about what causes inflation at present, particularly in the south-east of England. Obviously, property inflation comes into that, yet we have no good statistics on how many people are sharing the top £10 billion or £20 billion increases in our economy.
In a debate about four years ago, I raised my concern about not being able to measure how much City earnings contribute to the growth of national income and was told that the figure was peanuts. I have been doing some counting of all these peanuts. If we take national income to be £1 trillion— £1,000 billion—£30 billion or £40 billion is obviously 3 or 4 per cent of national income. If one gets this figure wrong by £10 billion, that adds up to quite a lot of peanuts. My friend Professor Tony Atkinson, who was a colleague of mine in the 1970s on the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, said that it is important that we collect proper figures for the top 1 per cent and the top 0.1 per cent to see what is happening. It is in everyone’s interests that one has confidence in that information and in information about what one might call the two ends of the income distribution.
Another problem about how we report statistics relates to averages, means, medians and so on. If one’s figure for workers’ wage increases includes all the £10 billion, £20 billion and £30 billion City bonuses, one will get a different figure—and a different analysis of what causes inflation—from the figure obtained if one takes a median within the distribution. I hope that the Bank of England’s analysis of inflation will be a bit more sophisticated. It does not seem to want to know about any of this.
To some extent, this goes to the problem of how the board should be constituted. I tend to be a mongrel man myself—or a mongrel dog, more likely. My experience is that I was a member for some years—wearing my TUC hat—of the Retail Prices Index Advisory Committee. Some of its members were not expert in that they were not professional statisticians, but those around the table all knew something about what was going on. I very much regret the passing of that committee. My recollection is that it was scrapped because it annoyed the Treasury by reaching the wrong conclusion about how we should measure housing costs. Someone may challenge that but that is my recollection.
My second example is about GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa. It illustrates why statistical methods across Whitehall need to be consistent. We all know that sub-Saharan Africa has gone AWOL in terms of meeting the United Nations millennium development goals. Those goals can be translated into growth of real national income per head—per capita. I say “per capita” because poverty is to do with per capita rates and not overall growth rates. Far too often in DfID publications, there are casual measures of 6 or 8 per cent growth but the authors never define whether the figures are of gross national income in total or even—this is of course very elementary—per head or in real terms; moreover, we are not told whether the figures are comparable with the millennium development goals or even whether, when looking at international comparisons, people are consistently measuring using purchasing power parity, which we all know is an important measure for poorer countries, or euro, dollar or pound exchange rates.
In the OECD we are putting many billions of pounds a year into development but the tracking of the results of that are very much below par. That should be of concern to Whitehall as a whole, not just to DfID. If not, we will cut other budgets in Whitehall—the Foreign Office and so on—assuming that the DfID budget is being spent effectively. The measurement of its results could be improved.
To underline that, it is important to see, when we look at world economic trends, what happens with population growth. That is still a bit of a taboo subject, as we found a couple of weeks ago in a debate on population. If sub-Saharan African populations grow at 3 per cent per annum, and women have a fertility rate of five, six or seven children, one must subtract the 3 per cent before one has any real growth in the per capita figures needed to attain the MDGs. There is a lack of statistical rigour in some of the analysis that we are putting out.
If the new board had to write encyclicals or—to use another metaphor—set standards across Whitehall, that would cut out this rather strange dichotomy between what are called national statistics and other statistics; that was new to me today. It is a question not just of producing the statistics but of knowing whether we are happy to use other people’s statistics.
Finally, we should sometimes look at the mote in our own eye when using statistics. Many of us sat through the debate last week on reform of the House of Lords. I notice that a number of people used opinion poll data—based, I trust, on different questions. Some noble Lords told us that 70 per cent of the British people want the House of Lords to be elected and others quoted polls saying that 70 per cent want it to be all-appointed. That may be another question but it is another reason why numbers more generally are not always believed; it is not just to do with numbers coming from the Office for National Statistics.
My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have spoken so far, I welcome the intent of the Bill overall. Official statistics are vital to decision-making in government and to holding the Government to account. For several decades now, a lack of trust due to a wide perception of political interference has lessened the value of, and undermined, official statistics to an extent not seen elsewhere. That seems to be getting worse in recent years; I refer to the examples of Network Rail and the golden rule.
My initial views on the contents of the Bill were positive. I noted with approval that the Bill recognises the need for clear responsibility for independent oversight of the system by a non-ministerial governing board coupled with a clear accountability for the delivery of trustworthy statistics given to the chief statistician. I also welcomed the authority of the board to approve and maintain a code of practice.
I then turned to independent expert judgment on the Bill. The Royal Statistical Society overview, which has been quoted by many other noble Lords, is worth reiterating. It said:
“We believe that trust in official statistics and public confidence in the system that produces them is fundamental to the Government’s objectives for the Bill and it should be judged by whether it addresses these”.
As drafted, the Bill will not meet this standard.
Like the Royal Statistical Society and other noble Lords, I have some major criticisms of the details of the Bill. My main criticisms cover five main areas, all of which have been referred to by other noble Lords. These are the scope of statistics covered by the Bill, the structure of the Statistics Board, the role of the Treasury, pre-release of statistics and, finally, statistical confidentiality. I will deal with each of these in turn.
The scope of statistics covered by the Bill is unsatisfactory. All official statistics, such as those on crime, health and education, should be defined as national statistics. The statistical output of the ONS is only a fraction of government statistics. The much wider Government Statistical Service is responsible for many high-profile and important statistics, but is not adequately dealt with in the Bill. To make matters worse, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin has said, the Bill leaves the decision to offer a particular set of official statistics for designation as national statistics to the Minister of the department concerned. Hence the decision whether a department’s statistics will be national, and thereby subject to the Bill, or non-national rests with the Minister. In my view, that is wrong. All official statistics should be defined as national statistics and thereby subject to the code of practice, thus eliminating the current unsatisfactory two-tier system.
On the code of practice, first, there is no requirement for those who produce statistics to adhere to the code; and, secondly, it does not apply to official statistics outside the narrow range of national statistics. Those omissions need further scrutiny. Finally, I agree with the RSS that the National Statistician should co-ordinate the statistical system across government departments.
I turn to the structure of the new Statistics Board. As already said by many speakers, as drafted, the Bill muddles the roles of the board and the National Statistician. In my view, the National Statistician should be responsible for professional and operational matters and for statistical production. The board should be responsible for holding the National Statistician to account for those responsibilities. It is vital that the board's role of monitoring should be completely separate from the National Statistician's role of statistical production. The board should not produce statistics or maintain systems of classification or be responsible for protecting confidentiality. It must remain independent.
The next area of criticism is the proposed role of the Treasury. The Bill assigns residual ministerial authority to the Treasury. The Treasury naturally has a major interest in economic statistics and is currently perceived—by the RSS among others—to exercise influence on the ONS's statistical priorities, particularly with regard to funding. Assigning ministerial authority to the Treasury takes no account of the importance of statistics on crime, health and education over which the Treasury has no authority but on which it may well seek to restrict funding.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moser, that if the residual ministerial authority returned to the Cabinet Office, where it began, that would increase public confidence. It would be seen to act as an honest broker across Government should any Minister need to be consulted on an issue. In addition, I agree with our party policy that the independent board should have a similar role to the National Audit Office, reporting to a committee of both Houses and having its resources decided by a parliamentary vote. The Bill gives the board power to decide what Office for National Statistics’ figures are produced and published. It also allows the Chancellor, and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people, should he or they wish, to direct the board to do something other than what it has determined. Even this proposed board does not have independence.
I turn to the pre-release access to statistics for Ministers and policy officials, which has been covered by many other speakers. The RSS and the Statistics Commission both agree with me that there should be no pre-release of statistics to Ministers and policy officials. As I understand it and as others have said, in the UK, the norm is 40 hours or even more for a number of people, and the new rules proposed do not seem much better, whereas in other countries Ministers are given the final statistics only a few hours or even minutes before release. I support the view of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, expressed at a recent meeting that we had with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, when the noble Lord wished to return to the pre-release regime that existed under Edward Heath's Administration of 1970 to 1974, which was very tight. The Statistics Commission makes the recommendation that the board, rather than Ministers, should have the power to determine the period of their pre-release. Like the commission, I believe this is the only way of giving sufficient public reassurance that official statistics are free from government spin.
I highlight the RSS's concern about the actual release of official statistics. There is nothing in the Bill at present about that. The current problem is that departmental announcements combine policy and statistics. The RSS recommends, in my view sensibly, that the statistical release should be issued from a separate location under the aegis of the National Statistician and that the Minister's press release should not be permitted until at least 30 minutes after the statistical release. Also, the National Statistician should have the freedom to comment publicly on statistical issues, including erroneous interpretation of official statistics.
The final area on which I wish to comment—it has already been covered well by my noble friend Lord Northesk—is statistical confidentiality. Again, the RSS makes a vital point. The public must have confidence that personal data given for statistical purposes will not be made public or used for non-statistical purposes. The Bill does nothing to promote public confidence, as it allows any transfer of information if covered by a ministerial order. We need a much simpler and clearer requirement to hold data in confidence and to use it for statistical purposes only. The same applies to personal data accessed from administrative systems for statistical purposes. Much of the statistical information in connection with health and educational services is derived from such sources. The public should be in no doubt that statistical producers protect confidentiality.
It is not too late for the Government to deliver what they first promised in 1995 when the Leader of the other place, Jack Straw, addressed the Royal Statistical Society. He said that the National Statistical Service should be placed at arm’s length from Ministers, on a similar basis to the National Audit Office and should report to a powerful committee of the Commons—as already stated, I believe that should be a Joint Committee. I agree with the Leader of the other place: that is what is needed; that is what the Government promised; and that is what should be delivered in the Bill.
My Lords, this Bill is to be welcomed because it could, if suitably amended, enable people to have a basis on which to decide when and how far to place their trust in statistical information. Statistical information, like other information, can be based on better or worse evidence that is communicated more or less adequately, hence more or less open to check and challenge and to the intelligent placing and refusal of trust. Where we lack expertise—most of us lack expertise on most, if not all, series of statistics—we need indirect but reliable evidence that can be used to distinguish the more trustworthy from the less trustworthy. We also need that evidence to be carefully communicated. Only so can we move from a world in which we suffer policy-based evidence to one in which we might attain evidenced-based policy.
Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Bill assigns responsibility not only for the quality of statistics, but also for their communication to a board that is more independent of government departments. Clause 7 assigns to the board duties both to promote and to safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. Clause 7(2)(a) and (b) deal with duties to inform the public about economic and social matters and duties to assist in the development and evaluation of public policy.
Knowledgeable commentators have wondered whether the board will have enough independence to secure public trust, as it will combine executive responsibility for the production of national statistics—although not for official statistics produced by other public bodies—with powers to assess the standards to which all statistics are produced. Although the point is a strong one, I believe a case could be made for the adequacy of this structure, provided the board had not only the power to assess and to communicate the compliance of official statistics with the code of practice that it is to publish, but also the requirement to do so. However, as I read the Bill, a requirement to assess official statistics for designation as national statistics has to be triggered by a request from an appropriate authority; that is, from a government department, including departments of the devolved Administrations. Does it then follow that the board will not assess official statistics where no request is made by the relevant Executive? I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether that is the intention behind Clauses 12 to 14.
The board being required to communicate an assessment of the adequacy of all official statistics to the public would enable public judgment of those statistics; the duties of the board to communicate could not then be met by self-certification cooked up according to some in-house recipe. However, if no assessment is required, the public will be left without systematic evidence of the adequacy of official but non-national statistics. They will still lack a proper evidential basis for placing and refusing trust intelligently. As we all know, this is not an abstract consideration. Plenty of statistical series are regularly published which are not fit for purpose. I mention just one: the use of the number of passes at grades A to C at GCSE. We sometimes hear complaints that people compare apples and pears; we have a system that compares peanuts with melons.
Trust requires not only good statistics, but good communication. This is not just a point about pre-release, although that is a serious set of issues. There are no real shortcuts for communicating adequately with the public. The many fashionable but one-sided activities that go under the names of disclosure, dissemination and transparency are simply not enough: they cannot ensure that others come to know anything at all. They may provide antidotes to secrecy, but are no guarantee of intelligible communication to various audiences.
The board’s success will hinge as much on the quality of its communication with the public as on its reputation for independence and professional competence. Both competence and independence could be exemplary—although, as we know, there are difficulties with independence and merging the two—but if communication fails the public will rightly withhold their trust. I say “rightly” not because I fantasise that trust requires proof—where proof is available, trust is redundant—but because trust is no mere attitude, as opinion pollsters suppose, but a matter of evidence-based judgment, and stymied if the evidence is not even communicated. The best way to gain trust is to communicate what the case is, how something is done and to stress the limitations as much as the merits of the evidence offered.
One further aspect of the communication that the Bill requires may be a source of some concern; the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, has already commented on this. In the Bill, 16 clauses are devoted entirely to issues of data protection and information sharing; that is a hefty proportion. Statistical information about populations and social and economic trends is, of course, based on anonymised information about individuals, so concerns about privacy are unavoidable. But I will not be the only Member of your Lordships’ House who has concluded, perhaps reluctantly, that our data protection legislation generates more problems than it resolves. That is why we are faced with 16 clauses. Briefly, the trouble arises because our data protection legislation seeks to secure privacy by controlling or sequestering types of information defined as personal or sensitive, rather by regulating the ways in which we communicate information of all sorts, including that which is neither personal nor sensitive, as traditional conceptions of confidentiality sought to do.
For example, Clause 36 contains some of the consequences of relying on this conception of personal information: information identifies a particular person, and so counts as personal and may not be disclosed by the board,
“if the identity of that person—
(a) is specified in the information,
(b) can be deduced from the information, or
(c) can be deduced from the information taken together with any other published information”.
This criterion is both wide and vague. The amount of information in circulation about most persons provides a huge corpus for inference, which often and unavoidably enables the identification of persons and aspects of their lives rightly seen as private matters.
There is a great deal to be said on this matter, and I expect that your Lordships will be pleased that I shall not say it. However, I hope that the Bill will not add to the great morass of data protection confusion.
My Lords, I speak with hesitancy on the Bill; it is 50 years since the Government Statistical Service abandoned me to other pleasures. I was prompted to speak by regional interests who are concerned that there is inadequate recognition in the Bill for the regional need in England for excellent statistics. There is disappointment that statistics on production by sector, so important to the development of regional strategies, have not been made available.
That has led to concern about the composition of the board itself. Whereas there is representation taking account of consultation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is nothing comparable for the English regions or local communities, which, after all, spend £100 billion a year. The importance of their decisions is clear, and they need to be well based. There is therefore a case for recognising that particular interest in the composition of the board and extending the definition of the role of the board in Clause 7(2)(b) to read, “assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy at national, regional and local levels”.
Having, I hope with some effect, made the regional point that stimulated me to listen to this debate I wish to make a few observations in the light of what I have heard. I am troubled, as many other noble Lords are, by the creation of a board that has the role of code maker and umpire of conformity with the code and yet is also a player. As others have said, this combination of roles is difficult to discharge with the degree of public confidence which it is a major purpose of the Bill to promote.
I also noted that the combination of functions is recognised in the composition of the structure of the executives reporting to the board. On the one hand, there is the head of national statistics; on the other, there is the national assessor, whose responsibility is to advise the board on conformity with the code. I do not like it. Whereas the board has a duty to make a public statement if it disregards the National Statistician’s advice, laying the reason before Parliament, it also has a duty to have regard to the views of the national assessor. There is not the same sanction of setting him aside, as with the National Statistician. I would feel more comfortable about the regulatory role of the board if there was the same provision on the advice of the national assessor as there is for the National Statistician.
I would have some sympathy with the Minister if statistics he was receiving for the first time were published instantly, as is the praised practice of other countries. In this country, where Parliament and the press expect the Minister to be able to make an immediate and sensible response to any wind that blows, it is sensible to allow a small time, perhaps regulated by the board, for good, sensible thinking by the Minister before he is exposed to selling the word. The time needs to be regulated, but the genuine need should be recognised.
The board is a welcome development. It will help to restore public confidence, especially if we can understand better why some statistics are pukka and comply with the code and others published on behalf of the community by the Government do not conform to those standards. If there is to be a division, perhaps there should be some rationality behind it rather than it being left to chance and the Minister concerned. I am concerned that the board should have a role in providing some rationality about what are code-based statistics and what are not.
My Lords, as this debate has demonstrated, statistics matter, because they are central to the management of public policy by government and, just as importantly, they inform the citizen about what is happening in almost every aspect of life in our country. In some cases, of which crime statistics are perhaps the clearest example, published statistics directly affect an individual’s sense of well-being. As the debate has demonstrated, all is not well with the management of official statistics in the UK. In its survey, the Office for National Statistics found that only 17 per cent of the population believe that government statistics are produced without political interference and a mere 14 per cent think that they are honest. Those are almost incredible figures. They reflect extremely badly both on this Government, who have a particularly disreputable track record in their use and abuse of statistics, and on our system of government over a number of decades.
The Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put in place a framework that can begin to restore faith in government statistics, and we welcome it in principle. However, it is far from clear that it will achieve its aim. Virtually all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have many concerns. They are shared by the professional statistics community, including the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society and distinguished former chief statisticians from a number of Commonwealth countries. A number of concerns have been expressed about the Bill. The House has made it clear that it wants to concentrate on four concerns in its detailed consideration of the Bill and that there is a fifth concern that the Bill cannot adequately address.
The first concern relates to where responsibility for statistics should lie. The Bill places it with the Treasury. Like the majority of noble Lords who have spoken, we would like to see it shifted to the Cabinet Office, which seems logical. Within the terms of the Government’s thinking, if they are about to establish a central hub for the release of statistics, it would be bizarre to place it with the Treasury; the logical place would surely be the Cabinet Office. The principal argument for placing responsibility with the Cabinet Office is that the buck for maintaining the integrity of the statistical system should rest with the Prime Minister not the Chancellor. Under the current Chancellor, Treasury writ has run across much of the domestic public policy-making agenda, but that will change when he moves next door. It is also unusual and, in our view, unadvisable for the Chancellor to have quite such a wide remit. As a general principle, the Prime Minister not the Chancellor must be best placed to deal with abuses of official statistics at ministerial level. To put it crudely, the Prime Minister can sack a recalcitrant or misbehaving Minister, and even this Chancellor has not had that power.
There is also the question of resources. Although it could be argued that the Treasury is best positioned to ensure that the statistical service has adequate resources, recent experience suggests that it may need protecting against a rather macho cost-cutting Treasury, against which, as the Bill is drafted, it would have little appeal. This is not a theoretical concern. As has been pointed out, the current resources of the statistical service are far from satisfactory. The ONS is moving to Newport and will undergo a further reduction in staff. The staff is already down from 1,000 to 600, and a further 250 job cuts are in the pipeline. The move to Newport has led to a third of the staff resigning, retiring early or taking redundancy, and I believe that, to date, only 40 of the 600 staff due to move have accepted the offer of relocation. This is already having a major impact on the quality of statistics produced. The ONS has already announced that this year’s Blue Book on the national accounts will not be published in full and that the annual statement of the UK’s balance of payments will include “less detail than normal”. Can the Minister give us the latest picture on the movement of staff to Newport and say whether the Treasury is satisfied that the move and the staff reductions will not seriously impact on the ability of the ONS to meet its ongoing requirements?
Given the current staffing shortages and the further cuts planned, I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what the Chancellor meant when he said in the Red Book that the ONS was establishing,
“a full regional statistical presence”,
across the English regions. Is that to be one man, or woman, and a dog, or will there be adequate staff to produce the expanded range of regional statistics promised?
The Minister said that we need not worry about funding for the statistical service because its decision-making is dealt with separately, and it has a budget for five years. So far, so good, but the bad news is that it appears that the budget is inadequate, so the budget for five years is inadequate. I fear that the assurances that the Minister gave about the budget-setting procedure do not reassure us.
The second concern, expressed in virtually every speech, relates to the pre-release procedures. It is probably the area that causes the greatest concern. There is a growing practice of Ministers and advisers using the long pre-release period to massage how the figures are presented. This, more than anything else, has led to the fall in trust in government statistics. There was a long discussion of this issue in another place, but there was no satisfactory conclusion. The Government propose to deal with the code that covers pre-release in secondary legislation. Unfortunately, it has not been published, even in draft, so we do not know what it is likely to contain. However, we know that Ministers consider that 40.5 hours is an appropriate period for Ministers to have access to sensitive statistics before they are published. That is a bizarrely precise period; it is certainly far too long. It is very long by international standards. Even in the US, on which the Government have placed great store in debates in another place, the maximum notice for a very limited range of statistics is overnight. Even then, access to those statistics is much more tightly constrained than in the UK.
The Government have said that the regulations that they propose to introduce will be reviewed after 12 months, so if they are found to be inadequate, they can be changed. That will not do. There is no reason why the regulatory framework cannot be got right from the start. Some noble Lords have suggested what the pre-release procedure and period should be. My colleagues in another place suggested that two hours should be adequate in virtually every case. We will have the chance to discuss the various options in Committee, but the House is clearly already agreed that the current provisions and the plans of the Government in this area are inadequate.
I wish to mention two aspects of this House’s scrutiny of the Bill. First, the regulations to which I have just referred will come to Parliament as affirmative resolution statutory instruments. I think that the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that that was tremendous because we would then be able to discuss them. It is nothing of the sort. We all know that any secondary legislation is rubber-stamped by this House and another place. We cannot amend it. It causes a near constitutional crisis if we throw it out; therefore, the offer of affirmative resolution procedure, although it at least allows people more time to look at the regulations than the negative resolution procedure, is no reassurance that Parliament has a real say in what they contain.
The second aspect of parliamentary scrutiny raised by a number of noble Lords—an aspect that the Bill does not and probably cannot cover—is how Parliament will scrutinise the new arrangements. The Bill simply says that reports will be made to Parliament. So far as I am aware, the Government have not expressed a view about how that might then be dealt with. Often, when we raise this kind of question, the Ministers say, “This is for the House”. Again that is a sophistry. It would be of great help to the House if the Minister this afternoon could give us some idea how the Government see parliamentary scrutiny being exercised.
The next concern relates to the difference between national and official statistics—where the line between them is and who draws it. This matters because the current boundaries clearly are not satisfactory. Examples have been given, such as the fact that quarterly NHS waiting-list figures are national statistics and monthly ones are not. Many Home Office statistics, in which trust is particularly lacking at the moment, are not even national statistics at all. I suspect that few people outside Parliament, and, indeed, most people inside Parliament, are aware that there is a distinction between the two sets of statistics. As the Minister pointed out in another place, quite correctly, there is obviously a great difference between the major issues such as census data, employment or balance of payment figures and the many detailed sets of statistics that have a narrow focus. My initial view was that we should simply categorise everything as a national statistic and be done with it. I am still quite tempted by that approach, as, I think, are the noble Lords, Lord Turnbull and Lord Moser. However, if there is to be a distinction, we need to be clear on where the decision-making on the boundary should lie.
The view of Ministers is charmingly frank. Speaking on Report in another place, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said of Ministers:
“We are responsible for making policy and, as such, we are arguably best placed to know which statistics are most critical to the development, delivery and evaluation of the policies for which we are responsible and accountable”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/07; col. 196.]
That statement has the advantage of clarity; however, it is a mistaken principle that Ministers should have a veto on which statistics qualify for the enhanced scrutiny by the National Statistician and his staff that national statistics attract.
We have concerns about the role of the National Statistician vis-à-vis the board. This is an area of major contention, but it is arguably the most difficult to get right under the proposed structure in the Bill. The issue is the distinction between executive and oversight authority. It is very important that the board does not attempt to second-guess the National Statistician on statistical production issues. Let us take the example of deciding, in cases like Network Rail, whether to designate a body’s liabilities as on or off the government balance sheet. The decision in that case is a technical one, in theory at least, that the National Statistician should take. The role of the board in such a case should be to satisfy itself that the process for making such a judgment has been properly applied, that there has been no undue political pressure or interference, that the code of practice has been adhered to and that the outcome has then been adequately communicated to the public. Noble Lords can see in that case that the board has a crucial but different role from the National Statistician.
That difference has not been made clear enough in the Bill. While we agree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, that we should retain the unitary status of the board and the National Statistician and his staff, we should try to clarify this area.
This debate has demonstrated that there are serious concerns about the Bill but that there is a pretty clear consensus about what they are. They are relatively few in number and can be dealt with without a fundamental rewriting of the Bill. I was very encouraged at the start of our debate to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury here to listen to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin and Lord Moser. I cherish the hope that he is, as I speak, turning his mind to the changes those noble Lords said the Bill required; if not, I fear we may need to change the Bill for him.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill today. We have had a good debate. I hope that he has got the message that your Lordships’ House is not 100 per cent happy with the Bill. All noble Lords have rightly referred to the crucial issue of public trust in statistics. If I mark out just one contribution, it is the thoughtful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, on the different aspects of trust fitting together. I make no apology for returning to that issue. It is a fact that public trust has declined and we should be clear that politicians must bear most of the blame for that. I do not dispute that some of this occurred on our watch.
In 1997, the Labour Party pledged in its manifesto to create an independent statistical service. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, pointed out, once in power it did not do so. Instead, it launched a decade of spin, which has made the position very much worse. I plagiarise an aphorism about liberty:
“Trust lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it … While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it”.
Put simply, law itself cannot create trust.
The Bill will not of itself restore trust, but it may create an environment in which trust can again flourish. When we scrutinise the Bill, we will have one test for every clause and subsection: is it the best way to achieve the highest degree of public trust? It will not be enough that it simply improves the situation. We shall actively seek ways of doing it even better. If we get these judgments right, we shall have created the possibility that trust in statistics will return. However, if we do not get them right, there will probably not be another legislative opportunity for a couple of decades, as the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Chorley, pointed out. We will bear a very heavy burden in scrutinising the Bill.
We are clear that the Bill in its current form does not give our statistical arrangements the best possible chance of restoring and then maintaining public trust. I shall outline the areas in which we shall seek change during the Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House. I start with the scope of the Statistics Board’s powers and the nonsensical distinction in the Bill between official and national statistics. The Bill allows the Government to decide which of their statistics are to be tested against the code for national statistics. They will be allowed to publish statistics that do not meet the rigours of the code. I cannot think of anything more inclined to entrench the lack of trust that we are trying to reverse. The public will not carry nice distinctions between national and official statistics in their mind. These are all government statistics and will be tarred with the same brush. We cannot let the Bill retain that distinction. The writ of the Statistics Board must clearly and unambiguously run across all statistics.
A closely related issue, about which many noble Lords have spoken at length, is the pre-release arrangements. The Bill reserves those to the Government with no role for the Statistics Board. The Minister will recall that the MORI survey carried out in late 2005 showed that 59 per cent of people thought that the Government used figures dishonestly and that only 34 per cent thought that government figures were accurate. That is the mountain that we have to climb and it is why the pre-release arrangements will need radical change.
The Bill appears to give control over pre-release to Parliament through the approval of a statutory instrument setting out the rules. My honourable friend Mr Michael Fallon described the proposed arrangements as,
“giving batsmen the ability to decide whether the leg before wicket rule should apply to them”.—[Official Report, Commons Public Bill Committee on the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, 23/01/07; col. 170.]
We all know that affirmative instruments give the appearance of parliamentary power, but in practice, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, pointed out, they act an elaborate rubber stamp for the Government's views. Parliament would have no power to initiate changes if the arrangements set up by the order proved not to work in practice.
A purist response would be to give Ministers no pre-release access and hence open up no possibility of abuse. However, we agree with several noble Lords—in particular, the noble Lords, Lord Turnbull and Lord Dearing—that it is a legitimate role of government to make effective policy responses. In our society, that is what is expected. But at present the Bill positively prohibits the Statistics Board from getting involved in pre-release. We are very clear that the Statistics Board must be given the leading role in pre-release arrangements.
More important, if the pre-release arrangements do not work well in practice, we need a flexible mechanism for changes to be made. Let us suppose, for example, that a ministerial team abused the pre-release access that they had been given. That is not fanciful. The Statistics Board should be able to decide in that case that different arrangements for those Ministers and their department are to apply in future. Statutory instruments cannot do that. They cannot be used with either the precision or the speed that may well be needed. Under the Bill, it will be left for the Government to initiate changes, but they have the most to gain from abusing the system.
The third area in which we find the Bill deficient is the status of the National Statistician. We have a vision of a strong and independent National Statistician with a remit that runs across the whole of government. The Bill does not give the National Statistician any powers outside the Statistics Board. He has no formal role across Whitehall or the devolved Administrations. Other aspects of that include access to the Prime Minister, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Moser, valued when he was our leading National Statistician. The Bill needs to enhance the National Statistician’s role.
Alongside that, we need to consider the role of the National Statistician and the governance arrangements that are being set up. It is proposed that he will become a member of the new Statistics Board, but that board will have a chairman who may himself become the face or the story of statistics. When I asked the Financial Secretary at the helpful briefing meeting that the Minister arranged what sort of role was envisaged for the chairman, I was told that that was regarded as a very significant job. That may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, but if the chairman is himself or herself a big beast in the world of statistics, there must be questions about who will be the public face of statistics in the UK and whether the National Statistician’s role is enhanced or diminished by the arrangements.
There is also the issue of confusion of roles under the Bill. My noble friend Lord Eccles made a powerful contribution on that subject. As others have pointed out, the board produces and publishes statistics under Clause 18, but under Clause 8 the board monitors the production and publication of statistics. Which is it? It cannot be both. Under Clause 3 the National Statistician is a member of the board, but under Clause 28 he is the board's principal adviser—which I think means that he advises himself. There are similar confusions with the role of the head of assessment and his position with the board vis-à-vis the National Statistician.
We must look very carefully at the BBC precedent cited by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, who has a different view of the applicability of the BBC precedent, will be able to join us in Committee when we will debate that.
My noble friend Lord Goschen raised the question of disputes about statistical decisions taken by the ONS—for example, in the classification of Network Rail. Those ambiguities about roles will represent no improvement on the current position in getting a satisfactory response to those difficult issues.
We also want to look carefully at the role of the Treasury, whose fingerprints are all over the Bill. The Treasury is involved in appointments to the board and in removing people from the board—and, of course, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has extensive powers of direction. The Treasury will be setting the budget of the Statistics Board, as the Chancellor did in last week's Budget. We do not believe that five-year budget settlements are any substitute for non-Treasury influence on the budget-setting process. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said about that budget-setting arrangement. If the Statistics Board is under-resourced, the quality of statistics will drift down, as happened following resource constraints in the 1980s. As night follows day, trust will ebb away.
Whether the solution is a role for the Cabinet Office, which has attracted a lot of support today, or for Parliament is a question that we must debate in Committee. Whatever the answer on money, my noble friend Lord Jenkin rightly raised the issue of parliamentary scrutiny and the role of your Lordships' House. I hope that we can get more clarity about that as the Bill goes through later stages.
A large part of the Bill deals with the use of information by the board. My noble friend Lord Northesk drew out some important issues here. We understand the desire of statisticians to use data to generate powerful statistics, but we are wary of increasing powers through the use of gateways without commensurate controls or restrictions. As my noble friend Lord Northbrook pointed out, there are important links between the confidentiality protections and the issue of public trust. In Committee, we will want to strengthen those clauses.
In another place, many of those issues were rehearsed in detail, but the Government did not listen. They still have their parliamentary majority in the other place and they do not have to listen. Only small changes were made to the Bill. I hope that the Minister will take away two clear messages from today's debate. The first is that your Lordships' House is committed to ensuring that trust is restored to a national statistics system. We support the Bill, but only because it is a step in the right direction. The second is that we will be mounting a strong challenge to the detail of the Bill as it proceeds through your Lordships' House. There are major issues here that strike at the heart of whether trust will be restored and maintained. We shall be ruthless with those parts of the Bill that do not maximise that potential.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to a most interesting debate, which presages a lively Committee and beyond.
I begin with an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and all those who attended the meeting last week. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury was aghast when he heard that the letters, which he had signed on Thursday, did not arrive until today. They were posted on Thursday evening; I have ascertained that. I regret that they did not arrive until they did. That was by no intention on his part and he asked me to pass on his apology to all colleagues who attended what we all thought at the time was a useful meeting. The letters were designed to capitalise on that.
In this wide-ranging debate, we heard points of real criticism. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, duly wound up her speech by suggesting that fire and brimstone might attend certain parts of the Committee. I am heartened by the broad areas of support I heard in all speeches on the Government’s intent with regard to the importance of national statistics, which are of enormous value for business, academia, the media, charities and the wider community as well as for Government. Changes in technology and the availability of data via the web also mean that more people use statistics more regularly. We owe it to the citizen to provide accurate statistics more fully than we have been able to do in the past. I appreciate the recognition on all sides that the intention behind the Bill—and, the Government will argue, the realisation contained in it—is to improve the quality of our national statistics, the process by which they are generated and the extent to which they are safeguarded by proper public scrutiny, including the role of Parliament.
We believe that these proposals will help to reinforce and strengthen the UK’s statistical system, ensuring that it adapts to the needs of the modern world and that public confidence in it is reinforced. We are aware of the loss of respect for certain aspects of national statistics in recent years—perhaps even decades, if the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, will allow me to say that. It is important to restore confidence, which is the intention behind the Bill.
Several areas of controversy were identified in the contributions, such as the separation of the board’s executive and scrutiny roles, the scope of its responsibility for official statistics, the application of the code of practice for national statistics, the critical issue of pre-release—which emerged very early on in the debate—parliamentary scrutiny and resources. It is unlikely that in the 12 or 15 minutes I have for a winding-up speech, I will be able to satisfy all noble Lords on all those points, but I am heartened by the fact that we will deal with them in detail in the not-too-distant future.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, spoke of pre-release arrangements at the beginning of the debate and, towards the end, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, castigated the 40.5 hours proposed in the Bill as unacceptable and too precise. Pre-release arrangements will be given a special status in the new system. Unlike the rest of the code, the content of which will be backed by but not prescribed in statute, new pre-release rules will be set out in secondary legislation, proposed by Ministers but approved by Parliament.
I hear what the noble Lord says about secondary legislation not providing the same opportunities as primary legislation. Of course he is right, but although dealing with issues in statute which give both Houses the opportunity for scrutiny places additional limitations on this House, there are some fairly lively debates on secondary legislation at the other end, to say nothing of the fact that from time to time it is rejected. And in the space of only eight days, this House will have engaged in fairly lively debate on secondary legislation—there was such a debate last Wednesday and one is forecast for this Wednesday. I am not prepared to accede to the proposition that where Parliament is engaged in scrutiny of issues by affirmative resolution, it is somehow superficial. That is not the view taken in the other place, nor is it its practice. Moreover, Ministers at this Dispatch Box do not get an easy ride every time secondary legislation is debated.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, also spoke about whether it is appropriate for one board to have responsibility for production and scrutiny. This is a point of principle on which we at this stage disagree, although I hope to persuade him of the virtues of the Government’s case as we proceed through the decisions on the Bill. We believe that a single-institution structure is the most effective way to deliver our goal of greater independence for the ONS, and independent scrutiny and oversight of the system as a whole. It avoids creating competing centres of statistical expertise. We see the board as being held fully to account by Parliament.
We all listened to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, with considerable respect; he has played a significant role in this area in the past. I pay tribute to the enormous interest he has taken in the development of this legislation, while he has reserved a critical stance with regard to certain aspects of it. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, questioned the scope of official statistics as defined by the Bill. We are intending that it will be extremely wide and flexible. All statistical information produced within government falls into the category of official statistics. The independent board will be able to promote standards and comment publicly on this vast range of information. It is important to focus the board’s assessment function on the core set of national statistics most relevant to policy formulation, delivery and accountability and those that are most valuable to business, academics and a wide range of other user interests.
In addition to the two noble Lords I have mentioned, others have expressed reservations about this approach. We will debate them further. The Government have thought about these issues with great seriousness and intend to present and protect the Bill in terms of this commitment, as we regard producing essential flexibility as one of the key strengths of the provision of statistics.
My noble friend Lord Desai questioned me on the quality of such statistics. That is of the greatest importance. The board will not be doing its job, nor will it be able to restore public regard for national statistics, unless it addresses itself to the quality of the statistics provided.
The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, among others, spoke of the board’s responsibility for scrutiny and delivery—its two crucial functions. There are competing models of how these issues can be tackled; we considered having a separate scrutiny body, but decided that as a key goal is to place the ONS on an independent statutory footing, a single oversight board and a single line of accountability is the best way to achieve this. It avoids creating competing centres of statistical expertise. The Bill therefore includes mechanisms to ensure the clear delineation of production and scrutiny responsibilities. I outlined those mechanisms in my opening speech, and I have no doubt that they will be subjected to full scrutiny in our debates in Committee as one of the areas that causes anxiety in the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned funding near the end of his contribution, as did other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. In common with all government departments, the budget will be set by the Treasury as the holder of the public purse. I know that it is easy for noble Lords to disparage the Treasury, particularly a week after the Budget—indeed, that seems to be the common sport of Parliament at this stage—but some department must take responsibility for the proper discharging of national resources, and the Treasury is obviously the first port of call. The arrangements for the new board reinforce statutory independence. Funding for the board is set outside the normal spending review process, and is decided by periodic review. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, must have taken great sustenance from the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on the opposition Front Bench also supports the view that this is the most minor of concessions. However, five-year funding is not a minor concession; it is an indication of the proper independence of the body. The Government will guarantee the board funding over periods of five years. Parliament will of course be able to hold the board to account for the way in which it allocates and controls its resources, in the same way in which it ultimately does for the rest of government and for the ONS at present. If in due course the funding for the board is criticised as inadequate, Parliament will have plenty of opportunities to raise these issues. However, the way in which we have set up the funding for the board is an indication of our recognition of the independence that it needs.
My noble friend Lord Haskel talked not only about the quality and comprehensiveness of statistics, but their relevance. It is right that he should have drawn attention to this. We expect the code of practice to include quality standards and to focus on relevance. There is no doubt that, in a rapidly changing world, government and wider society must keep up to date with the changes that will be reflected in technology and in the wider aspects of society. I was grateful to my noble friend for emphasising that point.
The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred to the status of the National Statistician. The National Statistician is the board’s chief executive. The noble Viscount disputed the suggestion that the Government’s model could have a proper structure. However, the Financial Services Authority’s combined code principles of good governance and code of best practice include the principle of board balance and independence. It says:
“The board should include a balance of executive and non-executive directors (including independent non-executives) such that no individual or small group of individuals can dominate the board’s decision taking”.
The Bill is clear that the National Statistician is the board’s chief executive. The majority non-executive board replaces Ministers’ current oversight role and support of the National Statistician in the delivery of that role. As the board is accountable for delivering its statutory functions, it must be able to exercise oversight over the chief executive and executive office. The National Statistician has been subject to that scrutiny—I would not go so far as to say “controlled”—by Ministers. That scrutiny has now been transferred to a more independent structure in the form of the board, and I hope that, despite his doubts about the board, the noble Viscount will recognise that as an important step forward.
My noble friend Lord Lea also emphasised the relevance of statistics. He will forgive me if I do not discuss income statistics at this stage, as it would take me all my allotted time to deal with the issues that he raises. He threw a sharp focus on where statistics might prove to be inadequate. It is important that we have a framework within which we can deal more effectively with such issues.
The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, referred to the confidentiality obligations in the Bill. These are strong. As she said, we may be moving into a period of some confusion over data protection. This is an important issue that we must all scrutinise most closely. As the Government move into an era of greater data sharing to deliver better, more customer-focused services, it is essential for people to be confident that their personal data will be handled appropriately. The noble Earl will recognise that we are taking the opportunity provided by the Bill to increase the confidentiality safeguards on personal information. The Bill introduces a criminal sanction on unlawful disclosure, whether 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. Even after information has been shared, the information remains subject to the confidentiality obligation. Anyone passing the information on to others without authorisation could incur these criminal sanctions. I recognise the noble Earl’s anxieties, which no doubt will be expressed in Committee, but we have a robust response to certain aspects of the points that he made.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was also anxious about the status of the National Statistician. Ministers will actively seek the added authority and credibility gained from “national statistic” status. After all, they rely on accurate, up-to-date statistics and data for their policy decisions. In a decentralised system, the responsibility for submitting statistics for assessment must lie with departments. That is the reason for our separation. Certain statistics need to lie with departments, but we recognise that the quality of official statistics needs to be promoted and safeguarded. The board will have a statutory responsibility to advise on areas of concern about any statistics right across government. The independent board will be enabled to comment publicly and make recommendations on statistical information used throughout government. Parliament is, of course, likely to take an interest in any public comment made by the board, and might choose to call Ministers to account if it is thought that their statistics are less than adequate.
I am conscious of the fact that I have not answered every point made in this debate. Far too many points are always made in debates of this kind that cannot be dealt with adequately in a winding-up speech, but I take consolation in the fact that we have a number of opportunities to return to these important issues in Committee and on Report. I look forward to those opportunities as much as the rest of the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2007
Motion not moved.
Serious Crime Bill [HL]
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
Clause 61 [Disclosure of information to prevent fraud]:
[Amendment No. 104B not moved.]
105: Clause 61, page 33, line 18, after “order” insert “to be approved by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament”
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 106 to 108. These amendments aim to insert the affirmative procedure for orders that contain statutory instruments made under Clause 61 as they affect the specification of an anti-fraud organisation and the Secretary of State’s powers under Clause 62, as underlined and suggested by the report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.
It may be more convenient for the Committee if I deal with the coach before the horse and outline why we have tabled Amendment No. 106, since the Government appear to have conceded—the Minister is nodding—the point made by the DPRRC. The Government have tabled Amendments Nos. 129A and 132A, which fall later in the Bill. I know that the Government prefer to deal with such matters in that way. As the Committee will appreciate, the Opposition like to table amendments as they relate to the point of the Bill being debated in order that they are debated in the round of other issues. Part 3 is complicated enough without trying to dump these issues at the end of the Bill.
Paragraph 11 of the committee’s report sets out its concern, which we share. It states:
“Clause 62 creates a criminal offence relating to onward disclosure of that information. But the offence applies only to the disclosure of ‘protected information’. This is defined in clause 62(5) as meaning certain revenue and customs information specified in the bill or ‘any specified information disclosed by a specified public authority’, both specifications being by order made by the Secretary of State subject to negative procedure”.
The report goes on to say that,
“The definition of protected information is central to the working of the scheme”,
with which we agree. Whether or not information is protected by Clause 62 from onward disclosure may impact on the extent to which public authorities will share information under Clause 61. Broadening the definition will also extend the scope of the criminal offence. The committee therefore considers that orders under Clause 62 should be subject to the affirmative procedure. That is why we tabled our amendments, and the Minister will be able to comment on the Government’s amendments shortly when she replies to this group.
I now turn to Amendment No. 105 relating to Clause 61 and the alternative drafting tabled to Clause 64. The aim is to ensure that anti-fraud organisations specified by order are subject to the affirmative procedure. It is important to ensure that the anti-fraud organisations to be specified are kept within a narrow scope of operation that can be justified to this House and to another place.
The Minister has said that no decisions have yet been made on which organisation or organisations should be so specified, but that CIFAS, the United Kingdom’s Fraud Prevention Service, which is a non-profit-making organisation, provides a good example of the sort of body that the Government have in mind. It is unhelpful that the Government are not prepared to specify which anti-fraud organisations will fall within the schedule, so that we could scrutinise the list and challenge the inclusion or exclusion of organisations. It makes it very difficult for this House properly to scrutinise these provisions.
Can the Minister give the Committee further examples of which other bodies the Government may have in mind as potential anti-fraud organisations to be so specified? Does it include potential public-sector members which the Minister mentioned as having taken part in the pilot in the past? Perhaps the Minister will set out which might be involved and why. What criteria will an organisation be expected to meet in order that it may become so specified as an anti-fraud organisation? What criteria will it have to meet to establish a CIFAS-type arrangement? For example, will the Government allow designation of only those organisations which have a certain quality of data? Do they have to be a specific size or remit? How will those organisations be judged as being appropriate to come within the specified status?
One assumes that data sharing between CIFAS and CIFAS-like anti-fraud organisations in this legislation will be subject to review by the Information Commissioner. Will the Minister indicate whether that is the case? If so, what assessment have the Government made of the workload that will be required of the Information Commissioner? Members of the Committee may be aware that there have been trends for the Information Commissioner’s work to be substantially extended as a result of work by this Government. I realise that one or two of the amendments from this side of the House may so extend the commissioner’s work, but we would say that ours will be done in a perfectly proper manner.
Finally, would the Minister consider whether there should be an appropriate amendment to Section 70 of the Data Protection Act 1998? After the definition of “school”, why should one not insert the definition of “specified anti-fraud organisation” as having the same meaning as in Part 3, Chapter 1 of the Serious Crime Act 2007? That might be a helpful proposal to make the legislation clearer and help to cut down on some of the provisions in the Bill. I beg to move.
I do not want to repeat too much of what has already been said very compellingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. The definition of protected information is of course central to the working of the scheme. Whether or not information is protected by Clause 62 from disclosure is very likely to impact on the extent to which public authorities will share any information under Clause 61. Broadening that definition will also extend the scope of the criminal offence. So we also consider that orders under Clause 64 should be subject to affirmative procedure.
I, too, cannot understand why the Government have omitted the information on which anti-fraud organisations will be specified. I look forward to hearing further information from the Minister. I appreciate that we can return to this matter on Report. Nevertheless, before we finish debating this matter, I hope we shall know exactly which organisations will be specified, even if that is on Report. The noble Baroness is nodding, which I hope is encouraging.
I can see the great interest in this issue. I am very conscious that we will look at the framework under the clause-stand-part debate. It may be helpful at this stage for me to set the framework out so that we can see how the amendments fit. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has foreshadowed what I am going to say in relation to Amendment No. 129A, but I will come to that in its place. We are all happily on the same side on that, but I come now to outline where we are at present.
To recap on the purposes of Clauses 61 to 65, which fall into two distinct camps; that is, first, Clauses 61 to 64, which deal with data-sharing, and, secondly, Clause 65, which deals with data matching. Clauses 61 to 64 provide a legal gateway for the public sector to share information with each other and the private sector in order to prevent fraud. This sharing will be done through a specified anti-fraud organisation.
Clause 61 provides a new legal gateway for those public authorities which need it to allow them to disclose information to a specified anti-fraud organisation for the purpose of preventing fraud. Clauses 62 and 63 make it an offence and provide a penalty for the onward disclosure of HMRC data in certain prescribed circumstances. So Clause 64 amends the Data Protection Act to allow for sensitive personal data to be processed for the purpose of the prevention and detection of fraud. However, this does not lift any of the other data protection requirements such as lawful or fair processing. We will return to this when we look in more detail at the clause.
Clause 65 and Schedule 6 amend the Audit Commission Act 1998 to grant the Audit Commission-run exercise, the National Fraud Initiative, statutory powers under which to carry out data-matching exercises. At present, auditors match data only from bodies which are subject to audit, principally local government and health service bodies. New Section 32C would allow other bodies to provide data to the Audit Commission for matching as well, and would lift the statutory bars which might otherwise prevent this happening. This would allow other bodies in both the public and the private sectors to participate in the National Fraud Initiative provided—this is an important proviso—that the Audit Commission thinks it appropriate.
At present, data matching is only undertaken to combat fraud, and new Section 32G allows the Secretary of State by order to add to this purpose. The section also allows the Secretary of State by order to add to the bodies which the Audit Commission will be able to insist provide data for data matching. It is accepted that the private sector should be included only on a voluntary basis. The new provisions will also allow disclosure across the United Kingdom on a cross-border basis with the relevant Auditor-General if they choose to undertake similar data-matching exercises.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She has referred twice to the private sector joining in with information sharing on a voluntary basis. Can she tell the Committee whether there is a possibility that the personalised rather than anonymised information relating to anyone suspected of crime will be provided to the private sector?
The noble Lord will know that the Audit Commission can identify areas which can then be offered to bodies to scrutinise to see whether there is any irregularity. That is how the data-matching initiative works. It is not a means by which illicit activity is specifically identified. It simply identifies areas which then would deserve scrutiny by the appropriate body. So working on the debate we had on the previous occasion this arose, it is important to get the right people to look at whether there is improper behaviour. However, that is not the function of the initial matching.
As I was saying, these new provisions will allow cross-border activity with the Auditor-General as it is deemed appropriate.
The noble Baroness has foreshadowed that I am going to resist her amendments to the Bill. Amendment No. 106 would achieve the same effect as government Amendments Nos. 129A and 132A which we will come to in their place. I understand why the noble Baroness is moving her amendments now. It is easier to deal with them at this point, although logistically the amendments put forward by the Government fit the Bill a little better. I shall therefore speak first to Amendment No. 105. This amendment suggests changing the order-making power provided in Clause 61 from the negative to the affirmative resolution procedure. The specification of the anti-fraud organisation is inherent to the entire section. Without it, the data sharing we propose to enable for the purpose of detecting and preventing fraud could not take place.
I would like to reassure the noble Baroness that any body chosen will not be chosen lightly. We will have a process by which we can scrutinise the functions of the body and how it will operate. Indeed, one of the issues for us now is that we think we need greater flexibility than the rigid prescription currently provides, and we have therefore identified the sort of agency we have in mind in terms of CIFAS. The issue will be looked at with the greatest of care. Further, the requirement of this body and any other bodies sharing information through the designated anti-fraud organisation to comply with the Data Protection Act necessarily limits the scope of the sharing that can take place. Complying with the Data Protection Act automatically attracts the oversight of the Information Commissioner. This is the fundamental safeguard for the operation of the specified anti-fraud organisation, and it is hard to see what additional safeguard would be brought in by making its specification subject to affirmative resolution. The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform has also examined this clause and declared that it represents the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny, and we respectfully agree. In the circumstances, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that she has probed sufficiently in this regard.
I turn now to Amendment No. 106, which suggests an amendment to the order-making power provided in Clause 62 allowing information other than that of HMRC to have the added protection of the offences provided for in this clause. The noble Baroness referred to the fact that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, in its fifth report of the Session, felt much as she does about these order-making powers. I am grateful to her for refreshing our memory of the basis on which the committee came to its view. It felt that the definition of protected information is central to the working of the scheme and went on to say that whether or not the information is protected by Clause 62 from onward disclosure, it may impact on the extent to which public authorities will share that information. It also saw the broadening of the definition as extending the scope of the criminal offence. The committee therefore felt that such an order should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
I know that the noble Baroness will be delighted to hear that we are persuaded by these arguments, and it was on that basis that we tabled government Amendments Nos. 129A and 132A. These will give effect to the wishes expressed both by the committee and the noble Baroness. Together with her noble friend Lord Henley, the noble Baroness proposes that the anti-fraud organisation referred to in Clause 64 should be designated by order and subject to the affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament. It might be helpful if I explain in a little more detail Schedule 3 to the Data Protection Act and the proposed amendment to it made in Clause 64. Schedule 3 sets out the:
“Conditions relevant for the purposes of the first principle: [the data protection principle] processing of sensitive personal data”.
It provides a list of circumstances, one of which must be fulfilled, if the data is to be regarded as being processed fairly and lawfully.
Clause 61 provides a gateway for the sharing of information through an anti-fraud organisation for the prevention of fraud. However, not all public authorities will use the power conferred by Clause 61. There will be some which do not require recourse to it. As a consequence, Clause 64 has deliberately been designed to be “at large” to ensure that any sharing of sensitive personal information for the purposes of preventing fraud is lawful under the Data Protection Act. If this clause were limited to only a specified anti-fraud organisation, it would not cover that information being shared outside the powers provided by Clause 61. Having listened carefully to the noble Baroness, both during this debate and in the past, I know she would wish to have any such sharing of personal data done in a way that would be consistent with the Data Protection Act and indeed be entitled to the proper scrutiny that Act creates.
The noble Baroness made an interesting suggestion about amending Section 70 of the Data Protection Act to include a definition of “specified anti-fraud organisations”. There would be little point in adding such a definition as the expression does not occur in the Act, but I understand the reasons why she makes that suggestion.
I hope I have been able to reassure the Committee that the process we have adopted has been fair. I also reassure the House that the Information Commissioner’s formal response to the consultation paper endorsed the approach taken to improving data sharing. We have since had discussions with the commissioner’s office and will continue to involve it in the development of these policies. Indeed, my honourable friend Vernon Coaker in another place met the Information Commissioner on 25 January to discuss the Bill in detail, and the commissioner will be consulted on any codes of practice produced to guide these proposals. I hope that reassures the noble Baroness. We do not believe we are overburdening him in this regard, and neither do we criticise her for highlighting those areas where his support might be helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for the care she has taken in setting out the framework of this part of the Bill and for setting it against the background of Clause 64 stand part. While she was speaking, I was reconsidering whether I would want to object to Clause 64 standing part. I will not do so at this stage. That does not mean I am happy with the clause, but the Minister has properly addressed the questions I was going to ask.
Throughout all of this, I and other noble Lords on this side of the Committee have been extremely concerned that the Government are in danger of enabling the further exchange of personal information where that is not appropriate. The Minister is trying to reassure us that this cannot be the place for that to happen and that many mechanisms will be put in place. She refers to a criminal offence being created. I was intrigued, by the way, when I was sitting waiting for this Bill to come on—we always seem to start late in the evening—and listening to her noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham wind up on the Government’s Statistics and Registration Service Bill. He also referred to the creation of a criminal offence that would, one hopes, tackle those who wrongly reveal information. The trouble with that is that it is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. With our amendments we are trying to persuade the Government to ensure that personal information does not go beyond appropriate exchange.
The Minister says that one has to look at the role of the Audit Commission and the strict control it has. In talking to the Audit Commission before Second Reading, I was impressed with its approach. It is one of the most reputable organisations in this country or elsewhere. The commission’s argument is, as the Minister proposes, that it identifies what may be information that is out of the ordinary. A data match might throw up some activity that might lead to concern, which is then for someone else to deal with. The commission does not say, “This is the conclusion we draw from that information”; instead, it says to the public authority, “Have a look at this”, and leaves it to that authority. It says there is no leakage of information—but we have suspicions about the way information is transmitted between organisations, and that might not be the case. In addition, because of the way Clause 64 operates in conjunction with the Data Protection Act, there is a concern that some personal information might be disclosed that we would say should not.
The Minister tried to give a general answer to some very specific questions, but in an appropriate way—I do not think it was out of place on this debate. On occasion when she was being general, I did not find it satisfactory. For example, when dealing with my Amendment No. 105, she said that an organisation that is to be a specified anti-fraud organisation will not be “chosen lightly”. Well, I hope not. Am I supposed to say “Wonderful!”? If the Government chose such an organisation lightly, where would we be? She said the Government will have “a process” for deciding it. Good gracious me, which Government in this country should not? Finally, she says—again we come back to it—that the Government want greater flexibility than will be provided by having a list or examples in the Bill. Again the Government want flexibility while Parliament tries to exert scrutiny.
The only crumb of comfort we have been given through all this is the Government’s proposition that it will be a CIFAS-like organisation—but that does not tell us what might happen in the future. So I am still not happy with the amount of proper accountability we have achieved—in fact, I do not think we have achieved any. I will need to look at this again before Report. Some of these amendments will not return, such as, obviously, those that are shadowed by the Government’s. I shall not re-table an amendment to leave out Clause 64; I will try to deal with this in a more targeted way. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 61 agreed to.
Clause 62 [Offence for further disclosures of information]:
[Amendment No. 106 not moved.]
Clauses 62 agreed to.
Clause 63 agreed to.
Clause 64 [Data protection rules]:
[Amendments Nos. 106A to 108 not moved.]
Clause 64 agreed to.
109: After Clause 64 , insert the following new Clause—
“Register of information disclosure
(1) A specified anti-fraud organisation within the terms of section 61(8), and the Audit Commission in respect of matters referred to in section 65, must notify the Information Commissioner promptly on each occasion when information is disclosed to it by a public authority or other person, unless otherwise directed by the Information Commissioner.
(2) A notification under subsection (1) must include—
(a) the name of the notifying authority; (b) the name of the person disclosing the information; (c) the nature and quantity of the information disclosed; and (d) the reason for disclosure. (3) A notifying authority must comply with any directions made by the Information Commissioner as to the content of a notification, or as to such further information regarding the information and the use to which it has been put as the Information Commissioner may require.
(4) The Information Commissioner may issue such directions for the purposes of subsections (1) and (3) as he deems reasonable.
(5) The Information Commissioner shall maintain a register of all notifications received, and may publish it, or parts of it, and may conduct such investigations and publish such reports as he deems reasonable.”
The noble Baroness said: I do many things, but I do not normally masquerade as my noble friend Lord Lucas. I was looking to see whether or not he had managed to be here. My noble friend regrets that due to a longstanding engagement—this is what his note says—he is unable to be present today. He has asked me to move Amendment No. 109 and speak to Amendment No. 111 on his behalf. I shall amalgamate my own comments with those of my noble friend so as not to detain the House too long, and so that my noble friend Lord Northesk can get to his amendment very shortly.
My noble friend states that the objective of the amendments is to ensure that a proper record is kept of the use of these powers so that we may make considered judgments on them in future. Amendment No. 109 would insert provisions into the Bill for the creation of a register of information disclosure. Amendment No. 111 would ensure that, prior to conducting each data-matching exercise under new Section 32A in Schedule 6, the Audit Commission must produce a report on that exercise.
I shall return to my own comments. We on these Benches believe that these amendments raise, rightly, oversight of the data-matching regime. I hope the Minister will be able to explain exactly what regime there is and how often it will operate. We all recognise that the Information Commissioner’s office increasingly has to deal with more demands upon his time, so it is essential that when we make such demands they are justified. We believe it is right that the data-matching exercise should be seen to be both transparent and accountable. Oversight brings advantages, of course; it would help to prevent and monitor the potential function creep that commentators outside this House are concerned may occur.
Amendment No. 111 would also focus the Audit Commission’s minds on whether the data matching it wants to process is justified and proportionate in the way that the Government insist is intended. We have to be wary, however, of any overburdensome, overbureaucratic or costly checking measures. Any monitoring that is carried out has to be done in an efficient and effective manner.
I would be grateful if, in responding to my noble friend’s amendment, the noble Baroness indicated what the triggers would be to justify the decision to embark on the data-matching exercise. Will these be decided by the Audit Commission or by the anti-fraud organisations? How will they be communicated to the public or even the data subjects? Will the commission announce on its website that it is looking into new areas? These are some of the questions that my noble friend wished to be put to the Minister.
It will be important for accountability to show that the data-matching is sustained by proportionate use of powers. We have said throughout that public trust is vital if we are to expand the use of personal data. I agree with my noble friend that it is important to address what could be the unintended consequences of Part 3—they have not yet been addressed by the Government. It is in the spirit of trying to encourage the Government to look more carefully at what could be the impact of the provisions that the noble Lord has tabled the amendment. I beg to move.
We regret that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was not in a position to move the amendment himself, but the noble Baroness has done so with such elegance that I am sure he will be very happy that she was here to act in his stead.
Under the amendment, the anti-fraud organisation and the Audit Commission would have to notify the Information Commissioner each time they received information from a public authority, unless the Information Commissioner directed otherwise. Such notifications must include the name of the notifying body, the name of the person disclosing the information, the nature and quantity of the information and the reason for disclosure. Although I know that this is a probing amendment, it would also place further duties on notifying bodies to comply with any direction that the Information Commissioner made, and on the Information Commissioner to maintain a register of all notifications received.
The data that the anti-fraud organisations will share and the Audit Commission will use for its national fraud initiative will, as I said, be “personal data” for the purposes of the Data Protection Act 1998. Part 3 of that Act already prescribes a comprehensive registration regime for those bodies that process personal data and specifically prohibits them from undertaking this activity unless they comply with those obligations. It is perhaps important that we remember that “processing” in a Data Protection Act sense encompasses both receiving data and providing it, so that it will capture anti-fraud organisations, the Audit Commission and any other body that provides them with information—in other words, the bodies that are contemplated by this amendment. The data controllers who are processing personal data must notify the Information Commissioner of their particulars including, among other things, their names and addresses, a description of the personal data to be processed, the purposes of the processing and a description of the recipients to whom such data may be disclosed. I understand what the noble Baroness is seeking in her amendment, but I respectfully suggest that it is difficult to see how it would add anything of value to the registration system that is already in place.
Further, the Information Commissioner already has a comprehensive suite of powers in relation to the bodies that will be sharing or matching data and the work that they do. He can assess whether they are complying with any of the duties under the Data Protection Act. He can issue notices requiring these bodies to furnish him with such information as he may specify for his purpose. He also has enforcement powers to rectify instances of non-compliance and is able to prosecute individuals for offences under the Act.
The very nature of fraud means that the bodies that are trying to tackle it need to be able to move quickly. This process could be hampered by an amendment such as this. The noble Baroness herself made it clear that she did not want to overlay unnecessary bureaucracy or anything of that sort. There would also be significant resource implications for the Information Commissioner in so far as how he would be expected to manage and process an influx of notifications.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, suggests in his Amendment No. 111 that the Audit Commission should be placed under a duty to produce a detailed and prescriptive report before it undertakes each data-matching exercise. This amendment is not only unnecessary but bureaucratic and unworkable. Under it, the Audit Commission’s report would first have to state the reasons for conducting the data-matching exercise. That is unnecessary as the reasons for data matching are already set out in Section 32A. At that stage, data matching would be carried out to assist in the prevention and detection of crime. The amendment would then require the report to detail any assumptions to be made in the data-matching exercise, the audit to which those assumptions would be subject, and the outcome of the data matching which the Audit Commission would consider as successful. It is unclear what the noble Lord means by “assumptions”, but in any event the Audit Commission makes no assumptions about whether any person whose data is shown to match may or may not be guilty of fraud. It will simply match data provided to it and forward any anomalous matches thrown up to the relevant bodies and their auditors for further investigation.
The amendment proposes that the Audit Commission’s report would also have to detail why it considered that the data-matching exercise would be a proportionate use of its powers and the steps that it would take to ensure that data subjects are protected. Those, too, are unnecessary requirements. First, the Audit Commission is obliged to comply with the Data Protection Act and the European Convention on Human Rights regardless of the circumstances; secondly, the code of practice, which the Audit Commission is required to promulgate, is the more appropriate place for addressing issues of this nature.
It may reassure the Committee to know that the Audit Commission undertakes pilot exercises to ensure that any wholly new data matches that are incorporated into the national fraud initiative will be likely to yield a high incidence of anomalies, or anomalies which, if found to be fraudulent, could involve large sums of money. It also has detailed security standards which apply to its data-matching exercises and to participating bodies. All these issues are already provided for in the Audit Commission’s existing code of data-matching practice. For those reasons, I must resist the amendments.
The noble Baroness asked what the triggers were to justify data sharing—for example, from CIFAS rather than the Audit Commission. Although we cannot give a definite answer without reference to a specified anti-fraud organisation, CIFAS insists that, before filing a report for other members to check against, members must have enough evidence of fraud to make a report to the police. We think that that practice has proved sound and successful.
The noble Baroness also asked how the commission chooses the data sets and whether those data sets would be published. I hope that I have covered that in the answer that I gave. There is clarity in how that is done. It has worked well, and we believe that it is a sound premise on which to go forward. I hope that, with that explanation, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
My noble friend Lord Lucas will of course read carefully the explanation given by the Minister. However, the Minister will be aware that it is not only my noble friend who was put at a disadvantage by not being able to attend today; other noble Lords were in the same position. We are very grateful that the Government Whips Office found extra time for the Bill tonight at somewhat short notice. Noble Lords will recall that we had two late starts and lost more than two hours of debate when we were engaged in another matter, on deciding the future of this House—or not, as the case may be. That means that noble Lords were unexpectedly told quite late that we would be dealing with the Bill today, and I know that it is disappointing for some who have taken an active part in the Bill so far not to be able to be here.
The Minister proposed two main arguments against my noble friend: first, that a registration system is already in place; and, secondly, that my noble friend’s solution to the problem he perceives is potentially bureaucratic and has unwelcome resource implications for the Information Commissioner. That is exactly why my own name was not put to the amendment—because I appreciated that point about the costs.
My noble friend anticipated that the Minister might take that view and has a riposte. Amendment No. 109 might seem to impose a huge requirement for record-keeping but it should not. Under subsection (4) of the amendment, the Information Commissioner may issue directions, and my noble friend would expect him to use that power to limit the obligations imposed to reasonable levels. The key is that that should be the Information Commissioner’s decision. However, my noble friend accepts with a succinct comment at the end of his notes that Amendment No. 111 is rather tougher to argue in that regard. I am sure that he will consider carefully before he decides whether to bring the matter back on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
110: After Clause 64 , insert the following new Clause—
“Functions of the Secretary of State as to sharing of information
(1) The Secretary of State has the following specific functions in respect of the sharing of information—
(a) to draw up and disseminate to the public bodies and other organisations to whom this section applies guidance as to the sharing of information between and amongst themselves; (b) to draw up and disseminate to the public bodies and other organisations to whom this section applies guidance as to the circumstances in which it is appropriate for those organisations to share information between and amongst themselves; (c) to maintain under review the guidance set out in paragraphs (a) and (b). (2) In drawing up the guidance set out at subsection (1)(a) and (b), and in reviewing such guidance under subsection (1)(c), the Secretary of State shall consult with the Information Commissioner.
(3) The guidance under subsection (1)(a) and (b) shall in particular, but not exclusively, make provision—
(a) as to the nature of the information that may be shared; (b) as to procedures designed to ensure the accuracy and security of information shared; (c) as to procedures designed to ensure, where appropriate, the co-ordination of the sharing of information between and amongst the public bodies and other organisations; (d) as to procedures designed to govern the circumstances in which information can be lawfully shared notwithstanding any rule of law which prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information; (e) as to procedures designed for circumstances where, notwithstanding the second data protection principle, data is intended to be lawfully shared or processed beyond the purpose of its original collection; (f) as to procedures designed to guarantee, as appropriate, the rights of data subjects in respect of any information about them that may be shared; (g) as to procedures designed to govern the period for which it is appropriate that information should be shared and to ensure appropriate deletion of any information shared. (4) This section applies to public authorities and any anti-fraud organisations specified under section 61 and any agencies, companies or individuals who may be contracted to work for them or to supply goods and services to them.
(5) The information for which provision is made under this section includes all information disclosed under section 61 above.
(6) The Secretary of State may by regulations subject to affirmative resolutions in each House of Parliament, proscribe and penalise contravention of any guidance under this section as to the collection, sharing, use, holding and disclosure of information.”
The noble Earl said: The amendment’s purpose is straightforward—that the Secretary of State draw up a statutory code of practice in respect of the Bill’s information disclosure provisions with the intention that it be enforceable in law. In so doing, it goes rather wider than my noble friend Lady Anelay’s proposition in Amendment No. 103, which we debated last week. As has already been observed, there is a sense of déjà vu here. Indeed, I suspect that the Minister finds my persistence with this somewhat tiresome. Nevertheless, I begin by agreeing with my noble friend Lord Lucas in his observation at Second Reading that there is,
“no good argument before the event for preventing these sorts of activities”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 746.]
By that he means to say, information sharing. I acknowledge absolutely that such IT processes can be of considerable utility in combating fraud. What matters, therefore, is that any such regime must be properly accountable and transparent.
The Government argue that adequate accountability and transparency is afforded by the terms of the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts. However, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, clearly disagrees. At Second Reading he suggested:
“The Data Protection Act is given lip service in the Bill and is then circumvented … Confidentiality is overridden, the Data Protection Act is overridden, no general code is proposed to govern the arrangements and the circumstances in which the disclosure is to be made are not to be limited in any way”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 739.]
Clearly there are manifest difficulties of interpretation here, not only in terms of the extent to which the DPA may or may not apply to the provisions but also in terms of whether the powers being sought are proportionate. The Minister graciously hinted as much in her recognition at Second Reading that the Government must ensure that,
“the arrangements are transparent and command public confidence, are proportionate and are subject to periodic review”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 732.]
For my part I accept that, as the Minister suggested last week, our respective positions are not that far apart. I also acknowledge that, on strict interpretation, the Government could merely rely on codes of practice from the Information Commissioner, the Audit Commission and so on as appropriate safeguards. Indeed, in respect of the generality of data protection, I acceded, albeit with some reservations, to this flexibility when the House scrutinised the DPA nearly 10 years ago. This defines a major part of the problem. For all the technological neutrality of the DPA, IT has developed exponentially since its enactment. Its processes are so much more pervasive and powerful, particularly within government, than any of us anticipated as we wrestled with these issues in 1998. At least in part, Lord Williams of Mostyn, whose wise counsel in this and many other matters we all miss, recognised this in suggesting:
“If one has the possibility of data matching, one looks at that with a degree of anxiety”.—[Official Report, 25/2/1998; col. CWH129.]
Today that anxiety is given particularly sharp focus as a result of the Information Commissioner’s recognition last November that his fears that the UK would,
“sleep-walk into a surveillance society”,
have become a reality. This reality encompasses a situation where, according to a report commissioned by the Information Commissioner:
“Most profoundly, all of today’s surveillance processes and practices bespeak a world where we know we’re not really trusted”.
As he himself has stated, this begs the question where the line between increased surveillance and appropriate safeguards should be drawn. Moreover, the debate about this, and any decisions that may result, should properly belong to wider society, including Parliament, rather than residing exclusively in the hands of the Executive. Consequently, there is a wholly legitimate case for arguing that the provisions of this Bill should be subject to a greater level of accountability and transparency than that proposed by the Government.
Indeed, this becomes especially important in the context of the Minister’s observation at Second Reading that:
“The data-sharing provisions in the Bill are … very much about providing the mechanisms. They do not go to the nature of the data sharing itself. That is for later, at the implementation stage”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 732.]
In effect, the Home Office deems the practical operation of the Bill’s provisions to be somewhat outwith its drafting. By implication there is a question mark in the Government’s own mind about the Bill’s compliance with the DPA. Surely, it is more appropriate to ensure that the source legislation—this Bill—guarantees that the data-sharing regime envisaged is fully compliant.
The Government should recognise that there is an over-arching and more fundamental reason why the amendment, or something like it, is desirable. For manifestly obvious reasons the Government are the most extensive collector and holder of data about the individual. This fact imposes a heavy and inescapable responsibility on the state, especially given the way in which justifiable concern about the encroachment of the “database state” has grown substantially in recent years. There is increasing scepticism and distrust of the Government’s capacity to administer and manage our individual data proportionately and fairly. The recent question about the collection of children’s biometric data and the decision of the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place to investigate the “surveillance society” are illustrations of the point.
Bizarrely, therefore, just when there is an urgent requirement to strengthen data protection, the Government appear to be weakening it substantially. Indeed, if trust and confidence in our political process are to be reinvigorated, the state is under an obligation to ensure that data management regimes within the public sector are as robust as possible—in fact, even more robust than is the case generally.
Evidently, the proposed new clause is aimed at fulfilling this obligation. But more than this, it also seeks to offer the “general code” called for by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, as well as, in line with the wishes of the Minister,
“to ensure that the arrangements are transparent and command public confidence, are proportionate and are subject to periodic review”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 732.]
The report commissioned by the Information Commissioner, to which I referred, argues that—and this is a very significant sentence from that report:
“Social relationships depend on trust and permitting ourselves to undermine [data protection] seems like slow social suicide”.
I am certain that the Government are antipathetic to that prospect. I beg to move.
I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment. As he said, it follows on very properly from the debates that we had on Amendment No. 103 on the code of practice for sharing data.
The amendment would give practical clarity to the provisions governing the disclosure of information, against a background of reminding us of some of the concerns in this country about how information may or may not be disclosed. My noble friend was absolutely right to draw our attention to the fact that IT has developed exponentially since the passage of the 1998 Act. We have to look carefully at whether there is now a further need to strengthen data protection just at a time when the Government appear, through the Bill, to be trying to weaken it.
Like my noble friend, I was struck by the fact that we are having these debates against the background of the decision in the past few days of the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place to carry out a thorough investigation into what has been colloquially called the “surveillance society”. It will be looking specifically at data protection and data exchange as part of that investigation. Obviously, another place will benefit from that report when this Bill reaches it; we shall not, which is a disadvantage to noble Lords in considering the Bill.
My noble friend has argued his case with devastating logic. Of course we all agree, as we have said before, that there are legitimate arguments in favour of the utility of databases, and there are arguments that could strengthen the security of people in this country. Yet again, as my noble friend has made clear, it is essential that where there are links between different data sources or an increased use of data matching, we are sure that that is subject to very clear parliamentary debate and accountability.
I hope that the amendment will be accepted. If the Government say that the drafting is not perfect at this stage, I hope they will accept it in principle and work with my noble friend in trying to achieve a drafting that would be able to go on to the statute book. The amendment, and the principle behind it, will not easily go away.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that he is by no means tiresome in this regard. He and I both know that this is an important issue which we have to scrutinise. He is absolutely right when he says that, in terms of the end result that we wish to achieve, there is very little between us, if anything. I hope that I will be able to persuade him that the way in which the Bill has been structured in no way weakens the substantial protection provided by the Data Protection Act and by the Human Rights Act. Although I will resist the amendment, I hope that I will be able to persuade the noble Earl that we have unanimity of view.
The noble Earl asks, in the amendment, for the creation of a provision for the Secretary of State to produce and disseminate guidance to all those using the data-sharing powers under Clause 61. I absolutely understand the scope that he seeks to explore, because he asks that the guidance be disseminated to all those involved in data sharing and that it cover the type of sharing of information that can take place between and among those involved and the circumstances in which that sharing can take place. The amendment provides that the guidance should be maintained under review and that the Information Commissioner should be consulted on the content of the guidance.
The amendment also requires that the guidance should cover the procedures designed to ensure accuracy and security of the information being shared under the powers, the procedures to ensure co-ordination between bodies and agencies sharing information, the procedures that govern the circumstances in which information can be shared and the procedures designed for circumstances where, notwithstanding the second data protection principle, data are intended to be lawfully shared or processed beyond the purpose of their original collection.
The final requirements of that part of the amendment cover the procedures that would guarantee the rights of the data subject and the procedures governing the period of retention of data and how such data will be disposed of. I reassure the noble Earl that we have looked very carefully at those issues. We understand the way in which he puts them, but we question the need for that degree of prescription. The Data Protection Act provides the regulatory framework for data sharing and I would be reluctant to introduce a further layer of regulation that would seem, I respectfully suggest to him, to add little to the general regime. Nothing in these clauses authorises disclosures that contravene the Data Protection Act.
At a practical level, I question whether it would be possible to draw up guidance that could sensibly be applied to all the circumstances and types of information that public authorities may wish to share in order to prevent fraud. There would be the difficulty of the guidance applying only to those public authorities that use the power provided by Clause 61—many, as we discussed earlier, would not do so.
It may be helpful, since we have not specified the organisation yet, if I use CIFAS as an example of how the system might work. CIFAS is the UK’s fraud prevention service. This is an organisation of the sort that the Government have in mind for the purpose. CIFAS currently has more than 250 members from the financial services sector. Members of CIFAS put on to a central secure database information on those who have attempted to defraud them. Members can then check new applicants against this central database and, should a match occur against this applicant, further investigation will be carried out before a service is granted. Automatic rejection on the basis of a match is not permitted by the rules of membership. CIFAS is a data controller for the purposes of the Data Protection Act and has its own rules, which conform with the Act. We argue that that is a much better way of addressing the issues that the noble Earl’s amendment seeks to address.
Central to the reason for resisting this clause is that none of the data sharing enabled by Clause 61 can be done without complying with the Data Protection Act. On this basis, the amendment is, I respectfully and gently suggest, unnecessary.
We have given a clear exposition of the reasons why we think that data sharing is good; indeed, the noble Earl concurred with that view. We need safeguards; I concur with him. Those safeguards are properly set out in the Data Protection Act. I also say to the noble Earl that if it was part of the effect of this Bill that we were in any way undermining the safeguards provided by the Data Protection Act, making it more difficult to apply or disapplying it, I would feel the level of discomfort that he obviously feels.
The whole premise on which the Bill is created is that the Data Protection Act remains, with its full bite, and that the commissioner has the same duty and responsibility in relation to these acts—and omissions—as he has in relation to any other data. That is a very powerful tool to prevent us from sleepwalking into the surveillance society that the noble Earl presented us with. I, too, remember the sagacity of Lord Williams; he is greatly missed by this House. However, on this occasion, it is likely that his view would rest with mine.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply; not surprisingly, I am even more grateful to my noble friend Lady Anelay for her contribution. I shall state something that is obvious and which I sought to draw out when I moved the amendment. Part of my complaint is not necessarily that the DPA does not apply properly in respect of these provisions; the fact is that the DPA is 10 years old. Ten years on, the whole IT world is a completely different kettle of fish. Part of my problem is whether the DPA of itself is robust enough to deal with this sort of provision in the current circumstances. I shall not labour the points further as it is late. I shall withdraw the amendment but, if only at the urging of my noble friend Lady Anelay, I have absolutely no doubt that we shall return to this matter on Report. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 65 agreed to.
110A: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—
“Sharing of information and data matching: assessable processing
Section 22 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (c. 29) (preliminary assessment by Commissioner) has effect in respect of the sharing of information and data matching for which provision is made under this Part.”
The noble Baroness said: The amendment inserts a new clause after Clause 65 to enable the sharing of information and data matching under Part 3 of the Bill to be subject to assessable processing under Section 22 of the Data Protection Act 1998. My noble friend Lord Northesk, who is no longer in his place, is concerned that, 10 years on, the Data Protection Act may not be as robust as it should be, whereas the Minister has just said that the DPA remains with its full bite. As far as the Government are concerned, the DPA is robust and able to deal with matters.
Section 22 enables the Secretary of State to designate particular kinds of processing that appear to be likely to cause substantial damage or distress to the data subject or otherwise significantly prejudice the rights and freedoms of data subjects as assessable processing. Proposals for that have to be submitted to the Information Commissioner before the processing can go ahead. As I understand it, the commissioner cannot forbid the processing, but he can issue a formal opinion to the controller and, presumably, if the controller does not take notice, after the processing starts he can take action to restrain the disapproved-of processing. That is not good grammar but the Committee will understand what I mean.
Can the Minister confirm that no types of processing have ever been designated and, if so, why has none been so designated? Would it not be possible for the Secretary of State to designate both the disclosures to the private sector and the data-matching exercises as assessable processing, so that the commissioner could review the detailed plans before they go ahead? That would take advantage of an existing system and provision, which is surely exactly what Section 22 was intended to do.
Interestingly enough, although there has apparently been no designation, I am advised that the activities of inquiry agents have proved to be a major problem. The Information Commissioner’s Office has published a report, What Price Privacy? The Unlawful Trade in Confidential Personal Information, which details the problems. One major example included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers. The Government have accepted a recommendation of that report and I understand are now committed to imposing a prison sentence for offences of obtaining data unlawfully under Section 55 of the Data Protection Act.
In response to the consultation paper, Increasing Penalties for Deliberate and Wilful Misuse of Personal Data, the Government stated that they are strongly committed to ensuring that there is robust protection for personal data. If that is the case, why did the Government not take up the option to designate activities of inquiry agents under Section 22, as they originally intended? While I agree that, as I have mentioned before, tougher sentencing can be a deterrent, it is simply closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to be proactive, in the first place, in protecting our personal data. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness is right that under Section 22 of the Data Protection Act the Secretary of State can make an order designating a type of data processing as assessable processing, if it appears to him that it is likely—this is the important point—to cause substantial damage or distress or otherwise significantly prejudice the rights and freedoms of the data subjects. That is the benchmark.
An order under Section 22 of the Data Protection Act would add an extra stage to the notification regime already in place under that Act. Data controllers, such as the Audit Commission, are required to notify the Information Commissioner on how they intend to process personal data and they are required to be included on a register kept by the Information Commissioner. The noble Baroness has outlined in part how this system works. If an order were made under Section 22, the Information Commissioner would have to decide whether the intended processing would be assessable processing and, if so, whether or not it would comply with the Data Protection Act. The Information Commissioner would have a period of 28 days in which to make his assessment, which he could extend by a further 14 days, and the data controller would not be able to begin any assessable processing during that period. The process is tough.
The noble Baroness is right that the Secretary of State has not, to date, made an order under Section 22, so the Information Commissioner is not currently required to consider the question of assessable processing. If the Secretary of State considers that any data sharing or matching under the powers in the Bill are likely to cause substantial damage or significant prejudice, he already has the power to make an order under Section 22 requiring a prior assessment by the Information Commissioner. That could happen without the amendment. We already have what the noble Baroness seeks.
The Government do not consider the proposed data sharing particularly likely,
“to cause substantial damage or substantial distress to data subjects”,
or otherwise significantly prejudice their rights and freedoms. The processing is a necessary measure for the prevention of fraud. As the noble Baroness identifies, however, if it were to cross the threshold of Section 22, we would have the power to use that process. The possible delay of 28 days or longer while the preliminary assessment took place could seriously hinder the fraud prevention purposes of the new powers.
Finally, this provision could also distract the Information Commissioner’s Office from focusing on those activities likely to cause the greatest harm to individuals, since it would be required in all cases to consider whether a notification for a data controller included any assessable processing. I know that the noble Baroness would not seek that and, as I said, the powers created by this clause are, and will continue to be, subject to the Data Protection Act. The Information Commissioner’s Office will continue to investigate whether data sharing and matching comply with the Act in the same way as it regulates all other data processing. There is therefore no need to include an express reference to Section 22 of the Data Protection Act in the Bill.
The difficulty is that, although the Minister says that we do not need this because the power is there, she then says, “We do not want to use the power because it will cause a 28-day delay and therefore, perhaps, undermine what we are trying to achieve; and it would distract the Information Commissioner from doing other work that might be more appropriate”. The issue is that these powers are there and are appropriate in this context. It focused my mind on what Part 3 of the Bill is all about, against a background—as my noble friend Lord Northesk said—of our being 10 years on from 1998.
I appreciate that this is an odd amendment; it is not in the general run of what we have been debating. It exists against the background of our feeling that the Government have repeatedly introduced measures without proper forethought—or, at least, without sharing it with the Committee. Because of advice that we have been given from those I take seriously, who have been involved in advising organisations on data sharing, processing and assessable processing within the terms of the Data Protection Act, on this rare occasion—I do not intend to pursue the matter on Report—I shall seek the opinion of the Committee.
Schedule 6 [Data matching]:
moved Amendment No. 110B:
110B: Schedule 6, page 64, line 22, leave out “(including the identification of any patterns and trends)”
The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendment No. 112. Clause 65 provides for Schedule 6. Paragraph 2 of the schedule inserts a new Part 2 into the Audit Commission Act 1998.
New Section 32A provides for the Audit Commission to carry out data-matching exercises or to arrange for another organisation to do that on its behalf. New subsection (2) defines a data-matching exercise, while subsection (4) provides that such,
“assistance may, but need not, form part of an audit”.
Amendment No. 110B amends this definition to restrict it to,
“the comparison of sets of data to determine how far they match”,
excluding the identification of any patterns and trends.
New Section 32C in Schedule 6 provides that, where the Audit Commission thinks it appropriate, it may,
“conduct a data matching exercise using data held by or on behalf of bodies not subject to section 32B”,
which sets out the bodies that may be required to provide information to the commission in order to conduct a data-matching exercise including sensitive personal data.
The Explanatory Notes highlight that those voluntary bodies could include central government departments and some private sector bodies, such as mortgage providers. Can the Minister confirm whether that provision could provide access to the children's index or the national identity register? Is it correct that information disclosed to the commission for matching could then be disclosed to an unrestricted range of bodies for fraud detection and prevention purposes, or is there another statutory duty to disclose the information?
Amendment No. 112, our second amendment, would remove Section 32C in its entirety.
The amendments are intended to explore what the Government really mean by data-matching in this context and to probe the extent of data-sharing that they expect to take place, with all the questions that spiral from that. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to explain in some detail exactly what the Audit Commission does with the personal data with which it deals as part of the national fraud initiative. Is it all for audit purposes? We need to question what the Government might want the Audit Commission to do with access to a greater mass of personal data under the provisions. Should we consider why the Audit Commission should be empowered to match data that do not form part of an audit?
On one level, data-matching could involve little more than the comparison of two or more sets of data to see whether there are overlaps. For example, the commission compares data to identify whether someone is claiming two benefits that are supposed to be mutually exclusive—in the old days, whether they were claiming income support on one hand and unemployment benefit on the other. Payrolls are another example. Data on individuals can be matched to see whether someone is claiming benefits in one borough but working in another.
However, Liberty highlights that, in reality, the definition of data-matching goes much further. The Bill states that it is to include the identification of any patterns and trends. There are serious concerns that that is more akin to data-mining than data-matching.
As my noble friend Lady Anelay highlighted at Second Reading,
“the Bill could open the way for operations under which software was used to search several databases to identify suspicious patterns of activity that simply could not be spotted when the data were seen individually”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 736.]
In essence, the Bill enables what are commonly termed fishing expeditions—data-mining that does not have to be founded on any suspicion or intelligence that a person or company has done anything wrong.
The Government’s consultation acknowledged that there would be concerns about the legality of data-mining. They were right and have so far failed to convince commentators on the Bill that it is a proportionate measure. Liberty believes that data-mining, by its very nature, will not be targeted or the intelligence as well sifted as the Minister suggested at Second Reading. In fact, it has significant concerns about the Bill’s compliance with both Human Rights Act and Data Protection Act principles. As we have discussed, huge quantities of data could be analysed, and while that may help to identify a few criminals, is that enough justification to subject the majority of the innocent population to such measures?
As well as those points of principle, there are practical considerations. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said on Second Reading, there is no guarantee that any patterns or trends thrown up by data-matching are meaningful or significant. There is a considerable amount of luck—one could say chance—involved. Who will interpret the results of the data-mining: the Audit Commission or the organisation to which it releases the data? There are not that many steps from the trawl of data dictating who will be investigated because of their characteristics or behaviours and the justification that the Government need under Part 1 for a serious crime prevention order.
I understand that, in the presentation to our researchers last Monday, the Audit Commission explained that it merely matches the data; it is then up to the local authority, for example, to follow up that match to establish whether there has been a simple mistake or fraudulent use. How do, and how will, the Government ensure that there is adequate training for and checks on those who are provided with the data in interpreting and handling the information? What hoops do organisations have to jump through to check the status of the information? Will they stop an individual’s benefits and then check his status, or will they check and then stop his benefits? This, once again, goes back to the need for a code of practice across the board.
Will there be a process of complaint for individuals if the bodies of the Audit Commission get it wrong? I understand that twins, for example, especially those who have the same initials, can prove particularly tricky in these circumstances.
We need only look at the inaccurate results thrown up by any data-mining exercise conducted on our shopping practices by the likes of private sector bodies such as Tesco, based on loyalty cards, to see that data-mining is not infallible. When it leads to people being sent vouchers for a brand that they would never buy, it is merely an annoyance; if, however, it led to an innocent person being subjected to a police investigation or preventive measures, the personal cost would be much greater and would be unacceptable.
Even if it were acknowledged that the investigation was a mistake, would not the record that there had been an investigation be kept on file? Would that record link into the national identity register, for example, so that those using it to verify personal details would see that someone had been investigated, regardless of the fact that it was an error or that the person was found innocent? Again, at this point, the adage that mud sticks or that there is no smoke without fire would hold. It would certainly indicate the reaction that many people might have to such information.
We have in the past drawn a comparison with the more stringent regime of Germany. Data there may be mined only with the authorisation of the court—something that is missing here—and for the following purposes. First, there must be evidence that a crime may have been committed. Secondly, the crime in question must be serious and one of the specific criminal offences set out in the criminal procedure rules, such as the trafficking of drugs or weapons, endangering the safety of the public or creating risk to life or limb. Thirdly, the investigation of the crime would be seriously impaired if the public authorities were denied the right to carry out the data-mining exercise. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the regime in Germany, and what consideration did they give to applying similar stringent restrictions to data-mining in this country?
New Section 32C(7) in Schedule 6 enables a data-matching exercise to include,
“data provided by a body or person outside England and Wales”.
Whom do the Government have in mind in that provision? Would data from anyone anywhere in the world be included? Could the body or person in theory include offshore bank accounts or even organisations such as the CIA? Will an organisation have to meet any criteria before it can take part in the voluntary provision of data under subsection (7)? Will an organisation have to adhere to rules on what it does with the data once they are matched?
There are concerns that parliamentary approval for data-mining in the context of protection against fraud will be open to function creep, an area where, dare I say it, the Government’s record does not inspire trust. There are concerns that such approval will be treated as a green light for the use of data-mining processes in many other contexts. I hope that the Minister will be able to address these and other concerns, which will no doubt be expressed by Members on other sides of the House. I look forward to hearing her reply. I beg to move.
We on these Benches very much agree with this group of amendments, as is obvious from the fact that the name of my noble friend Lord Dholakia joins mine on Amendment No. 110B. Liberty suggested Amendment No. 110B to us, as it may have done to the noble Lord, Lord Henley. Liberty makes the extremely valid point that it would amend the definition of data matching so that it is restricted to the comparison of sets of data to determine how far they match. It would no longer be defined as including,
“the identification of any patterns and trends”.
One of Liberty’s greatest concerns about the privacy implications of the Bill relates to the data-matching provisions in Schedule 6. These would give the Audit Commission the power to conduct data-matching exercises, or to make contracts with other bodies, public or private, on its behalf. It would require bodies subject to audit by the commission to provide information for the purposes of these exercises. Schedule 6 would also empower bodies whose accounts the commission does not audit to provide information for the purposes of data matching. That could include central government departments which, under these provisions, could theoretically—I repeat, theoretically—provide access to the children’s index or the national identity register. Private bodies such as banks, insurance companies and building societies will also be able to provide client details under Schedule 6. Information disclosed to the commission for the purposes of data matching and the results of those fishing expeditions could be disclosed to an unrestricted range of bodies for fraud detection or prevention purposes, or if there is another statutory duty to disclose the information.
This amendment seeks to explore what is meant by data matching in this context. We hope that the Government will explain what the Audit Commission is currently doing with the personal data of millions of people as part of the national fraud initiative, and describe what it might do in the future with the mass of personal data that has been collected and shared. Data matching could at one level involve little more than the comparison of two or more sets of data to see whether there are overlaps, which could identify someone who is claiming two benefits that are mutually exclusive, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has said.
Data mining involves the use of specialist software to profile innocuous mass data in order to identify patterns or characteristics that might indicate some sort of unusual behaviour or impropriety. It is essentially a fishing expedition which is not based on any suspicion or intelligence that a particular person or company has done anything wrong. The way in which data mining works can be illustrated with this hypothetical example. The Government want to crack down on tax evasion and think that the following factors are strong indicators that the person is engaged in this: regularly paying with cash rather than credit cards or cheques, having erratic streams of income, and taking extravagant holidays. They set up a computer program to search all bank account statements, local authority and central government records, and travel operator databases to identify these types of behaviour. The computer produces a list of every person who satisfies all three indicators and they are then subject to investigations by HM Customs and Excise.
At Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, commented that,
“the Bill could open the way for operations under which software was used to search several databases to identify suspicious patterns of activity that simply could not be spotted when the data were seen individually”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 736.]
The consultation preceding the Bill acknowledged that there would be concerns about the legality of data mining. We believe that this would raise difficulties over compliance with DPA principles, and that, in human rights terms, proportionality issues will arise from the fact that data mining by its very nature will not be targeted or intelligence sifted. In order to be effective, huge quantities of data will have to be analysed. Data mining may well help to identify some people involved in fraudulent activities. But can identifying a few criminals justify the state trawling through all our personal data? We do not see how this kind of random, computerised fishing expedition into personal data can be proportionate.
Data mining can also give rise to serious practical concerns. At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford said:
“It is the sort of thing that the supermarket card is designed to do to demonstrate to the management whether a customer buys buy tins of salmon or jars of Marmite. The patterns of behaviour thrown up by the data matching in Part 3 may or may not be meaningful; it is all a matter of chance. Depending on how they are interpreted, the Audit Commission will be able to point the finger at what is deemed to be a suspicious constellation of characteristics or behaviours in an individual. Instead of a system in which a person is suspected of a crime and is then investigated by the police, a trawl using the latest computer techniques will throw up names and those people will be investigated because of their characteristics or behaviours. Suddenly, we have grounds for a serious crime prevention order under Part 1”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 738.]
Many of us have experience of the inaccurate results thrown up by data-mining exercises conducted into the information held about our shopping practices on supermarket loyalty cards. Data mining is clearly not infallible. Where it leads to a person being sent vouchers for a brand they would never use, the data-mining error is merely an annoyance. If, however, it leads to an innocent person being subjected to a police investigation or to a preventive measure like a gangster ASBO, the personal cost will be much greater and the risk of error therefore unacceptable.
Given the principled and practical concerns, it is not surprising that other countries impose far more stringent safeguards on the ability of the state to mine personal data. I will not repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said about the German experience, but German law imposes even greater restrictions on the use of data mining to identify potential future behaviour. Liberty and Members on these Benches are concerned that no equivalent legal restrictions on data mining exist under UK law. We fear that parliamentary approval of data mining in the context of fraud prevention could be treated as a green light for the use of data-mining processes in many other contexts.
Amendment No. 112 would remove proposed new Section 32C of the Audit Commission Act 1998. New Section 32B requires,
“(a) a body subject to audit,
(b) an English best value authority”,
such as a county council or county borough council,
“to provide the Commission or a person acting on its behalf with such data (and in such form) as the Commission or that person may reasonably require for the purpose of conducting data matching exercises”.
New Section 32C broadens that so that data held by or on behalf of a person not subject to audit or which is a best-value authority may be disclosed to the commission. That, we believe, goes very wide indeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, mentioned welfare fraud, while the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, mentioned tax evasion. When the Minister replies, can she confirm or deny that they are correct in their suspicion that these are indeed matters that will be disclosed as a result of data matching? Can she also say whether other kinds of fraud or serious crime are intended to be discovered through this process? It seems that there are quite genuine fears that an enormous amount of activity will be generated through data matching which, in general, will invade the personal privacy of individuals. There is also a risk that the process may lead to a reversal of the burden of proof on individuals or companies. Are these well grounded fears?
I hope to be able to reassure Members of the Committee that these are not well grounded fears, and I shall seek to explain why I say that. I take from the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, moved Amendment No. 110B that he accepts that it would remove the ability of the Audit Commission to identify patterns and trends when carrying out a data-matching exercise, and that he has tabled the amendment more to explore the issue rather than necessarily to have that effect. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, sees the amendment slightly differently, and I accept the difference in the two approaches. Amendment No. 112 would remove the possibility of voluntary participation in the national fraud initiative by bodies not currently subject to the Audit Commission’s inspection or audit regime. Again, I have assumed for the purposes of this argument that that is not the purpose, but that we are simply looking at the way in which these structures will operate.
Perhaps I should remind the Committee that these processes have already proved extremely successful and useful in the identification of fraud. The Information Commissioner has made it clear that he recognises that privacy issues must be balanced against the prevention and detection of fraud, so that is already the position. We know that fraud is a real problem in a broad spectrum of cases and areas. The last national fraud initiative cycle identified £111 million, and CIFAS reported fraud avoidance losses of £790 million in the past year. We need to keep these two issues in proper balance. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, says we could remove the definition, but we think it must stay as it is if data-matching exercises are to be fully functional and deliver the results needed.
At its core, data matching is about comparisons of sets of data to see how far they match. It is an important technique that enables individual fraudsters to be identified. However, data matching is about more than just looking at data on a micro level. It can also identify patterns and trends that are indicative of fraud which may be occurring on a systemic or organised basis; for example, a ring of actual fraudsters operating in concert across a geographic area. That can prove vital in informing affected authorities that they need to guard against a new and emerging risk and providing them with the information they need to co-ordinate their efforts in tackling the problem. That is one example of why the definition should remain as it currently is.
As noble Lords know, the Audit Commission chooses data sets on the basis of its experience of those areas where fraud is prevalent or includes serious financial loss. In addition, the commission also acts where it is advised by bodies of emerging areas of risk. I should add that the identification of patterns and trends also plays a crucial role in ensuring proportionality, in that it enables the commission to monitor whether or not certain fields of data are still in fact useful in detecting and preventing fraud, and whether new risks are emerging. If matches no longer arise in relation to a particular type of data, the commission can identify that and cease to collect it. If its pilot exercises show an upward trend in actual matches, the commission will know that there is a risk area where it should be focusing its efforts. In each case, it is the trend of actual matches, indicative of a certain level of actual fraud, which informs its activities.
The commission’s decisions are communicated to each participating body, with detailed guidance. That information is put on the website so we can see what is happening. The commission has no desire to collect more data than necessary, not only in the interests of complying with data protection and human rights legislation but also because processing data unnecessarily is an uneconomic and inefficient use of its resources. That provision enables the commission to target its efforts with greater acuity. Without the ability to identify patterns and trends, it is difficult to see how the Audit Commission could discharge its duty to conduct the national fraud initiative in a proportionate way.
Having said that, I am happy to reassure the Committee that the Audit Commission has no intention of using data matching for the purpose of profiling individuals likely to commit future crime, in the way that has been suggested by a number of noble Lords in this debate today and earlier. That is simply not what the national fraud initiative is about.
It is likely that a trend in nature of behaviour is identified. Once it is identified, that information will be passed to the relevant authority, which will then look at the matches and the areas that have been so identified and investigate whether further inquiry is necessitated by the information. The Audit Commission will not keep the detailed information after it has used its data sets—it really is setting out the trends: “Where do we have to look and what have we got to look for?”. We know the success that this process has had by virtue of the amount of fraud which has thereby been identified. This method has proven very successful in assisting the agencies and the authorities which are given responsibility for making the targeted inquiry into areas where they should properly go. It also enables a local authority, for example, identifying a possible pattern of fraud, to change its systems and, in doing so, to make that system more resilient to potential fraud. That is why, as I said earlier, the commission is also looking at areas where there is no longer activity and where matching is not occurring, so that we know that that method of committing fraud has perhaps stopped and that people may have moved on to something else once a gap is filled.
The Audit Commission will use its findings to determine which sets of data are most productive in identifying fraud and focus on them, because making sure that we target resources appropriately is an issue. It will also advise the participating bodies where they are getting a lot of matches and therefore need to tighten up their system. The Audit Commission has found that that has been extremely useful to all concerned.
The noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Burnett, asked about the children’s index. The provision is very unlikely to involve disclosure from the children’s index as it is hard to see how this could assist the fight against fraud, which is the determining factor. However, I am very happy to look into that issue and write to noble Lords as appropriate.
As I have made clear, disclosure is authorised to anybody provided that it is legitimately required for the prevention and detection of fraud. This will include the participating bodies and, if appropriate, the police. As we discussed earlier, there is a criminal offence for further wrongful disclosure. Mention was made of patients’ data. Patients’ data are not disclosable beyond the National Health Service.
Amendment No. 112 would remove new Section 32C of the Audit Commission Act, which provides for the voluntary provision of data to the Audit Commission for use in the national fraud initiative. It would ensure that the only bodies to participate in the national fraud initiative would be those that are currently within the commission’s audit and inspection regime. This would defeat one of the key objectives of the new legislation, which is to build on existing mechanisms to tackle fraud across the public sector. This would be particularly unfortunate in relation to the national fraud initiative, which, as I hope I have adequately explained, has a demonstrable track record in the fight against fraud. The amendment has implications, not just for the effective prevention and detection of fraud in England, but also for the UK generally, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may, in due course, wish to provide their data to the Audit Commission under this provision. The amendment would prevent any such benefits being achieved.
New Section 32C does not enable bodies to provide data to the commission on a carte blanche basis. Rather, the Audit Commission must first be satisfied that it is in fact appropriate for it to accept this data for the purposes of its data-matching exercises. This in turn will depend on the Audit Commission’s experience of its use in the fight against fraud, suitably informed where necessary by pilot exercises. That is the whole purpose of having the pilots—so that can better be identified. Secondly, no one will be able to provide the commission with patient data on a voluntary basis. These safeguards ensure that only the minimum of relevant data will be included in data-matching exercises.
It is important also to consider the practical consequences of removing this section. First, it would mean that the Audit Commission could match benefit data that were administered by local authorities—for example, council tax and housing benefit—but would not be able to match national benefit data that are administered by the Department for Work and Pensions. Such gaps raise the obvious but avoidable risk that fraudsters will slip through the net. Secondly, under this amendment we would also lose the valuable contribution that private sector bodies can make in reducing fraud in the public sector. Early indications suggest that significant numbers of landlords with mortgages from private sector companies are fraudulently claiming housing benefit from local authorities. It would be extremely unfortunate if we missed the opportunity to engage the private sector in helping to strengthen the clasp on the public purse.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked whether the commission had a complaints system for those who have wrongfully been investigated. It does—and, in the eight years of running the national fraud initiative, the commission has not had a complaint of wrongful investigation. That gives us some assurance that the commission has worked with propriety and gives strength to the assessment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, of its competence and probity.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, raised issues about data mining, which would allow profiling of individuals whose behavioural characteristics were indicative of a propensity to commit fraud in future. I hope that I have reassured him that that is not the intention and that the commission will look only at patterns and trends to identify emergent risks at the overall systems level, not to identify individual propensity to commit fraud in future. Matches disclosed relating to individuals disclose only current analysis indicative of current fraud. I know that the noble Lord would think that was a good as opposed to a bad thing, and I can reasonably anticipate that the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Hylton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, would concur with that.
Of course, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, says about the concerns that have been expressed. He sought reassurance, and I hope that I have explained how the system works and that the commission matches the issues in ways that are appropriate. To address welfare fraud against local authorities is important, and these provisions would allow national welfare fraud to be identified, as well as tax fraud, provided that the relevant government departments volunteered the information. They are not obliged to use this; it is a facility that would be available to all, which we think has real merit.
I have done what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked me to do; namely, to take these issues very seriously and try to answer as fully as I can in the hope that we shall not have to return to them.
I wish to pick the noble Baroness up on a couple of points that I did not hear answers to. It is clear that, if an individual is identified as a result of data-matching, their confidential data will be disclosed. It may be a case of matching benefit data with bank account data, looking for certain patterns of movements of money out of an account after it has been received as a benefit to indicate that that person is likely to have more than one identity in the benefit system. The agency taking action will need to know about those bank accounts and the data that go with them. Those are fairly sensitive data.
As I said previously, a current example is the licence fee and the purchase of television receivers. The authorities are notably insensitive in dealing with matches where they find a television receiver being purchased without a licence. They write extremely rude letters and can get quite harassing. People may be sent letters about the state of their bank accounts and be asked to justify what is going on. They may suddenly find that their personal details have been disclosed. Sometimes it will be a right match and there will be something there, but on other occasions someone will be left feeling extremely upset.
What safeguards does the noble Baroness envisage will be imposed on an authority in possession of very private information when it undertakes an investigation? Will it have to keep its investigations private until it is assured that a fraud is being committed, or will people find themselves involved in an investigation and forced to justify perfectly innocent activities?
I hope that the Minister can respond to the following example. Tax evasion is fraud; it is as clear as that. I am sure that no Member of the Committee has any truck with tax evaders, not least because every pound evaded means a pound more for the rest of the law-abiding population to pay in taxation. Could there be monitoring and profiling of people who make visits to tax-haven countries? Would that trigger an inquiry into those individuals’ bank accounts to see whether they had paid for those visits and so forth? Would it lead to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs undertaking a detailed inquiry? The Minister assured us at Second Reading that there would not be trawls of this nature. Will she deal with that example and let us know what happens if patterns or trends are discovered? If it is decided to monitor visits to tax-haven countries, what would happen as a result?
The noble Baroness, as always, was clearly trying to be helpful. However, am I right in deducing from her reply that data-matching has been going on for a considerable number of years already, presumably on some legal basis or other? If that is the case, why are Clause 65 and Schedule 6 necessary? If I may say so, they are remarkably uninformative because they do not explain the purpose of all this activity. We have heard it confirmed that welfare fraud and tax evasion come within the scope of the measure, but I originally asked what other kinds of fraud and serious crime the Government were trying to catch.
First, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, had the advantage of being with us throughout the debate today or on earlier occasions. At the beginning of this evening’s discussion, I sought to set out how the clauses in this part operate together, and to give a bit of the history on how the fraud initiatives were set out, the basis on which the Data Protection Act operated and how the Audit Commission worked with the fraud initiative together with the Information Commissioner. I invite the noble Lord to look at that in due course, because it may be of assistance.
In a short form, I will look at where we are now. Data matching has been undertaken by the Audit Commission through the national fraud initiative. It has identified, as a result, significant areas of fraud, and through that expertise it has been able to assist the various agencies to better protect their systems. It is really looking at systemic issues that the authorities and the agencies can address to make their systems more robust and more resilient to fraud. In addition, that has revealed trends and patterns that merit further investigation.
The noble Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Lucas, emphasised their concern about improper use of personal data in a way which, by its essence, would be contrary to the Data Protection Act. I have sought to reassure the Committee that the Act, and the way in which it bites on those who seek to use personal data, will be fully functional in relation to those provisions. The matches that will be disclosed relating to individuals will only disclose current analysis indicating current fraud; they will not refer to speculative future patterns. The Audit Commission will not use the national fraud initiative to trawl for patterns and trends concerning individuals’ behaviour or conduct, only systems-based, non-personal information to identify emergent risks. That is the sole purpose to which they will put those data.
Data-matching is a well proven technique that is authorised under the powers given to auditors under the Audit Commission Act. We are now legislating to extend its benefits to new bodies and to put in place appropriate protections. One of our concerns, which is shared by the Committee, is that if we are to move forward it should not cause a diminution in the safeguards necessary to protect the data, and we should do it only on a basis that is safe, transparent and proper. We seek in the Bill to accept that those areas will be extended to further bodies, and we are saying that the safeguards that are currently in place for the restricted number of bodies should extend to all of those who will seek to undertake this work. That is proper; therefore, it has been of considerable assistance to us to, first, identify people’s concerns and, secondly, to be able to address them, because noble Lords are raising perfectly proper issues on which they seek reassurance.
These were very much the questions that the Government asked ourselves as we prepared for the Bill: what are the safeguards? How can we guarantee that the Data Protection Act will continue? What will be the role of the Information Commissioner, and how will it fit together?
I hope that I have been able to reassure the Committee that the national fraud initiative does not need or desire to look at the content of bank accounts—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was concerned about that—but it does check whether the account has been disclosed to the housing benefit authorities, for example. We are looking at the trend of fraud right across the piece. We believe that this is a productive and successful way of better identifying fraud in a way that is safe, proportionate and fair.
I thank the Minister for a pretty full reply. I am not sure whether it was quite full enough but we will get to that in due course.
First, the noble Baroness implied that there was some difference in motive over this amendment between us and the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, on the Liberal Democrat Benches. So far as we were concerned, it was largely a probing amendment, but we may want to come back to it at a later stage despite the fullness of the noble Baroness’s response.
Secondly, the Minister ended with a remark about housing benefit to my noble friend Lord Lucas. I do not underestimate the scale of the problem of fraud involving housing benefit or other social security benefits. It is now 15 years since I was responding from the government Benches on social security and I remember being grilled on a number of occasions by noble Lords about the alleged £2 billion a year being lost in social security fraud—a great deal of that sum was housing benefit. The figure under this Government is considerably greater than it was then. The noble Baroness shakes her head; I may put that question to her directly on another occasion. I understand how serious the issue is. We are behind the noble Baroness on that so long as we can get these things right.
Thirdly, we want to look very carefully at everything that the noble Baroness said. I asked many questions when I moved the amendment and I think I heard responses to some, but certainly not all, of them. My noble friend Lord Lucas did not hear answers to all his questions. I did not hear the noble Baroness deal with the comparisons that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and I made with Germany. She did not deal with the national identity register. No doubt she will deal with those later or we will raise them at a later stage.
The noble Baroness is the very model of assiduity in responding to all questions put to her. I am sure that she will write to us in due course. To be fair, I did not expect her to be able to answer the array of questions that I raised. I am grateful that she corrected me and said that she would respond in due course. I am also grateful for her response so far and I am sure that we will want to come back to this issue at another stage, just as we will want to consider one or two more amendments tonight—I see the government Chief Whip in the Chamber. The Minister did not go quite as far as we would have liked but we will come back on this. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 110C to 112A not moved.]