House again in Committee on Clause 5.
31: Clause 5, page 3, line 20, at end insert—
“( ) An employee shall cease to be an executive member of the Board if his employment by the Board ceases for whatever reason.”
The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 probe the circumstances around the departure from the board of one of the executive members. Clause 4 lays out how a non-executive member may resign or be removed but Clause 5 contains no such detail.
The amendments ensure two things: first, an executive member of the board is automatically removed from his position as an executive director if he is no longer employed by the board. That would not prevent him or her being reappointed to the board in a non-executive capacity if that was thought desirable. Secondly, if an executive member of the board resigns, it does not mean that he has automatically terminated his employment by the board. This would seem sensible: a conscientious and useful employee might leave the board for a number of reasons but could still be a good employee of the Office for National Statistics. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the amendments. I beg to move.
As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Howard, Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 seek to ensure that the non-executives are able to remove the executives from the board. Amendment No. 31 states that an executive member of the board should cease to be an executive member of the board if he is no longer employed by the board. This is unnecessary, as Clauses 3(6) and 5(2) make it clear that executive members of the board will always be employees of the board. Therefore, if an executive is no longer an employee, he cannot be on the board. To answer the noble Lord’s point, I am absolutely sure that if an executive ceases to be a member of the board and an employee but makes a valuable contribution, he can of course be rehired as a member of staff.
Amendment No. 32 would allow the non-executives to remove executive members from the board by notice in writing, although this would not constitute cessation of employment by the board. Again, this is unnecessary as Clause 3(6) already enables this to happen.
33: Clause 5, page 3, line 24, leave out “numbers and”
The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment to establish exactly what the Government intend by this subsection, which gives the Minister extraordinary powers over not only the resources of the board but also the number of employees it may have.
Beyond the most broad-brush requirements, the board should be trusted to employ as it sees fit. After all, the Government will keep control of funding—by far the most effective method of preventing unnecessary expansion. It is nonsensical to set up this board and then micromanage from a distance. It will not work. This kind of decision should be left to those who are best placed to know how many and what sort of employees are necessary; in this case, the National Statistician. It would be extremely useful if the Minister were to set out exactly what he intends this power to achieve. I beg to move.
As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Howard, Amendment No. 33 would remove the Minister for the Civil Service’s role in approving overall numbers of board employees. This provision was debated in the Public Bill Committee in the other place. However, for the benefit of noble Lords, we are happy to discuss it here, too.
This provision of the Bill, requiring the approval of the Minister for the Civil Service as to the numbers and terms and conditions of employment of staff, is a fairly standard provision in legislation creating non-ministerial departments where staff will be civil servants. The purpose of the clause is to preserve cohesion across the Civil Service, subject to local delegations. A similar clause can be found, for example, in the Food Standards Act 1999 in respect of the Food Standards Agency. It does not mean that individual appointments will have to be brought before the Minister for the Civil Service, but rather that the Minister for the Civil Service will set general limits on numbers and guidance on terms and conditions of service.
Before concluding my brief remarks on this group of amendments, I take this opportunity to flag up the fact that we may have to amend Clause 5 on Report. As it stands, Clause 5(7) provides for all employees of the board to be civil servants, whereas it has recently come to light that ONS employs some field work staff, who undertake surveys and other similar tasks, who are Crown servants. Work is ongoing, but our intention when the Bill was drafted was to ensure continuity of conditions for those staff currently employed by ONS. I will be sure to update noble Lords on our intentions in this regard as soon as I am able.
I thank the Minister for his comments. The clause refers as much to terms as it does to numbers. I still think that it is impossible to create a body with a board of directors and then appoint somebody else to tell them how to do their job, because one then has a civil servant, a board of directors and an executive director. Things do not work like that in the real world. I may wish to refer to this matter on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 agreed to.
Clause 6 [Official statistics]:
[Amendment No. 34 not moved.]
Clause 6 agreed to.
Clause 7 [Objective]:
35: Clause 7, page 4, line 19, at end insert “and of ensuring high levels of public trust in official statistics”
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 48 and 114. These amendments concern trust in statistics. At Second Reading, several noble Lords referred to the quite awful figures from the 2005 survey organised by the ONS. Only 37 per cent of people believe that statistics are generally accurate and only 17 per cent believe that they are produced without political interference. In 2005, the Statistics Commission carried out research into attitudes to official statistics. It reported:
“There is a strong feeling... that action needs to be taken to increase trust in, and the credibility of, official statistics”.
The Royal Statistical Society, in its comments on the Bill circulated to noble Lords, stated that,
“for several decades now, a lack of trust due to a wide perception of political interference has devalued and undermined official statistics to an extent not seen elsewhere. 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 I made clear at Second Reading and in my opening remarks on Amendment No. 1, we shall judge the Bill by whether it is the best way in which to achieve the highest degree of public trust in statistics. I am not sure that the Government have the same approach. I read very carefully the remarks of the Minister at Second Reading, both his opening remarks and winding-up speech, and he never once used the word “trust”. It was as if his briefing notes from the Bill team had marked in capital letters in the file, “DO NOT USE THE WORD TRUST”. In the final paragraph of the Minister’s opening speech at Second Reading, he said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 26/3/07; col. 1449.]
I put it to the Committee that if that represents the Government’s ambition for this Bill, it is not good enough. Leaving aside the vacuous and vague reference to,
“a major and evolving programme of reform”,
the Minister talked about the possibility of improvement—not the absolute aim and commitment to achieving high levels of equality and confidence. Of course, he avoided the “t” word. I have heard the Minister use the word “trust” today, which may be an encouraging sign, but when he comes to reply to the amendment will he say whether the Government genuinely have public trust at the heart of their aspirations for the new statistical arrangements, or is this word no longer allowed to be used in connection with them?
Whatever the Government think, we believe that the aim of gaining high levels of public trust should be at the heart of the Bill. Amendment No. 35 would amend Clause 7, which sets out the objective of the board, which is currently expressed as,
“promoting and safeguarding the production … of official statistics that serve the public good”.
We have no problem with that. Indeed, the reference to public good arose out of an amendment tabled by my honourable friend Mr Michael Fallon in Committee in another place. However, we believe that it should go further and say that the objective is also,
“ensuring high levels of public trust in official statistics”.
I am sure that there is an argument that official statistics do not serve the public good if they do not carry high levels of public trust, but the public good can be seen in a narrower sense of serving those charged with making public policy. The issue of trust is a wider one of gaining the support of the public for the statistics which will underpin the Government’s policies and hence gaining the support of the public for the policies themselves.
Amendment No. 48 positively requires the board to carry out research to determine the level of public trust. I am sure that I was not alone in being shocked at the findings of the ONS’s research. We need that research undertaken regularly and published, as the amendment also requires, so that we always keep in public view the issue of trust. We all, I am sure, earnestly hope that the headlines will one day be so boring that the newspapers will shun them, and “99 per cent believe that official statistics are totally trustworthy” will get no space in the media. But we are a long way from that, which is why we should keep the research going.
Lastly, Amendment No. 114 amends Clause 25 of the Bill so that the board’s annual report must deal with the issue of public trust. We should never be shy of stating the obvious in legislation. I beg to move.
I should begin with an apology if I did not mention trust in the Second Reading debate. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has said many times in the other place that the Government share what is no doubt the ultimate goal of the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness—that these reforms and this legislation will help to rebuild and bring greater public trust and confidence in official statistics. The problem with the amendments, as the noble Baroness will recognise, is that they translate an ambition that we all share and which I might add is important to the Bill into a statutory responsibility on the board for delivering high levels of public trust in its official statistics. We certainly look forward to the board successfully delivering exactly that but it is a different matter saying that it is accountable in statute for so doing.
Amendment No. 35 places an obligation on the board to ensure high levels of public trust in official statistics. That is what we all hope for, but it may be an unreasonable obligation to place on it. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, who I am glad to see in his place, said at Second Reading:
“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”.—[Official Report, 26/3/07; col. 1454.]
That is a broad enough canvas to enable us to recognise that it may not be entirely fair to put such an obligation on the board by statute.
How statistics are used and presented to people, especially via the media, plays a very important role in whether people do or do not trust official figures. Levels of numeracy and people’s understanding of figures and statistics are also likely to impact on their scepticism or otherwise of official statistics. People’s individual experiences of issues presented at an aggregate level by statistics also plays a part in their propensity to trust those statistics. We are all aware of the fact that these weaknesses can apply to ourselves. It is often said that politicians never take statistics more seriously than when they appear in opinion polls. However limited such snapshots may be, they become the stuff of media headlines. As we all know to our advantage or cost, politicians view them as conditioning elements in public behaviour. I again apologise for not emphasising the importance of trust in official statistics. However, it cannot be made a statutory obligation on the board to require it to achieve what it has only a role in helping to achieve.
The amendment, which would require the board to carry out research on public trust in official statistics and publish the results of that work, reflects the fact that the ONS and the Statistics Commission do such work. They commission and undertake research in this important area. It is something the board is already empowered to do and we expect that it may well do it. However, the Government are reluctant to prescribe it in the Bill. It is better to leave it to the independent board to determine what activities it will undertake at different times to deliver its core objective, to promote and safeguard the quality and comprehensiveness of official statistics which serve the public good. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press the amendment.
Amendment No. 114 would provide an additional requirement regarding what issues must be covered in the board’s annual report—in this case, the issue of public trust in statistics. As I said, we do not think it necessary to over-prescribe how the board goes about its business. I do not think that it is helpful to state in detail what it must cover in its annual report. Clause 25 already requires the board’s annual report to cover what it has done and found each year. Within that remit surely we should allow the board to use its own judgment to ensure that the most pertinent and relevant information about its activities is reported each year. We share the objectives of the noble Baroness, but we do not need to be prescriptive in statute for the board to fulfil those highly desirable objectives.
It is at least a relief to find that the Minister is now more relaxed about using the word “trust” in relation to statistics; we are clearly making progress. He has made great play of why the board should not be accountable for achieving trust. We must look at the barriers to achieving trust. In some of the amendments that we will reach in due course, we are asking for the board to be given the power to comment on statistics being misused. There is the very important issue of pre-release, which will get at one aspect of the handling of statistics that has engendered so much distrust of the Government.
The Bill could be framed in such a way that it would be perfectly reasonable to ask the board to do things within its powers to achieve high levels of trust in public statistics, though I completely accept that, in its current form, it would be unreasonable to ask the board to do that. On the Minister’s objections to research, the Government are reluctant to prescribe having items specified for annual reports, as they say that that would not be helpful. However, those are not major objections to important issues that should be kept wholly within public view. I did not find the Minister’s overall response entirely satisfactory, although, as I said earlier, I am much encouraged by his ability to articulate the word “trust”. I shall have to read carefully what he said in his response before deciding what to do with the amendment on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
36: Clause 7, page 4, line 23, at end insert “at national and local levels”
The noble Lord said: This is the third of my amendments, and noble Lords will be glad to know that it is the last for today. I am raising the flag for local authorities and the regions of England in terms of their need for information. I referred in my previous remarks to my period as a regional director, when I served the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, in Newcastle. Those two years were the best in my Civil Service career, because I was let loose from Whitehall to go out and do something. The experience of being on the receiving end of Whitehall counterbalanced that joy, because there was so much frustration. Very competent civil servants were playing the national game, which was not the game that I was playing in the north of England—or in Manchester, or in Bristol. It was not quite the same. It was difficult to get an understanding at national level of how different it could be when one was looking at the specific and very different needs of different parts of the country. What made sense nationally did not necessarily fit with what was needed at the regional or at the local authority level.
The amendment relates to the definition of the objectives of the board and the definition of public interest. Clause 7(2)(b) refers to,
“assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy”,
to which I add,
“at national and local levels”.
If I had drafted it better, it would say, “at national, regional and local level”. I want to get across the fact that there is a very real need.
Let me illustrate that in a little more detail than I did earlier. In February, the Office for National Statistics made it known that some much needed data sets that included gross value added by industrial sectors were being withdrawn without consultation because other things had a higher priority. These data sets mattered for the development of effective local and regional social and economic policy, but at national level the priorities were seen differently. I want a balance. Of course we must have a national view, but I want those responsible for defining the public interest to understand that it needs to be looked at in national, regional and local terms. That should be written into their terms of reference.
I very much hope that the Minister will accept from a regionalist that this Bill looks like it is drafted as I would have drafted it as a Whitehall man. If I had been drafting it in Newcastle, Manchester or Bristol, that point would have been picked up right away. I hope that the Minister can respond as sympathetically as he did to my earlier amendments, although, while I appreciated what he had to say, I might well come back on them. I beg to move.
Given that we supported the noble Lord’s earlier amendments, it is logical that we should support this one. The advantage of putting this phrase on the face of the Bill is that it would require the Statistics Board to take the local and regional tiers of statistics more seriously than it might otherwise. It also would make it easier for those who argue for greater resources for the production of statistics at those levels to make their case. We support the amendment.
I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, who attests to why a perspective that is wider than that of Whitehall can be of advantage. The Government stand by the statutory objective in the Bill. That objective is a cornerstone and is appropriate, succinct, broad and high level. It is a clear statement of the overall purposes of the board. The board must,
“promote and safeguard … the quality … good practice … and … the comprehensiveness of official statistics”,
that serve the public good. It is from that core objective that the board’s functions flow.
I understand that emendations can be made to that in a number of ways. The noble Lord has made a persuasive case, but I do not think that we should specify that there should be local and national levels. The objective uses the term “public policy” to encompass the intention that official statistics should play a part in supporting an evaluation of policy at all levels.
The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, indicated that “regional” might play its part between “local” and “national”. We think that “neighbourhood” or even “international” statistics might play their part in certain contexts, as well as “local”, “regional” and “national”. So, to be totally comprehensive, we could use phrases in the Bill that would detract from its precise core objective. I assure the noble Lord that the broad “public policy” objectives include local, regional and national objectives.
I thank the Minister. It would be nice to have that on the face of the Bill. I do not see how the amendment would subtract from it; it would clarify the intention. I look forward to resuming this discussion on another day. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
37: Clause 7, page 4, line 23, at end insert “, and
( ) establishing and maintaining the accuracy, integrity and transparency of statistics for the benefit of the individual citizen.”
The noble Earl said: This amendment would broaden the Bill’s definition of the “public good” to encompass,
“establishing and maintaining the accuracy, integrity and transparency of statistics for the benefit of the individual citizen”,
echoing, at least in part, my noble friend’s Amendment No. 35.
The Committee will recall that, although at Second Reading I welcomed the Government’s decision to insert the reference to “public good”, I also expressed concern that the way in which it was drafted might be too Westminster-centric. Thus, the primary purpose here is to create some measure of citizen focus to the definition. I may be stretching the point a little but I hope that, at least to some extent, this is consistent with the identification by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, at Second Reading of a,
“need to put greater emphasis on the voice of the user”.—[Official Report, 27/3/07; col. 1435.]
I accept that, in a sense, the amendment states the glaringly obvious. Indeed, its sentiment, albeit from a different perspective, is repeated in subsection (4)(a) of the clause by virtue of the reference that the quality of statistics includes,
“their impartiality, accuracy and relevance”.
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the strictures of the Minister in respect of Amendment No. 35, I believe that there is considerable virtue in establishing an explicit association between the public good and these qualities, if only as a means of emphasising the significance of the Bill in reinvigorating public trust in statistics—a proposition that engendered unanimity in the House at Second Reading and has been an especial feature of our earlier debates.
Here, I echo the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, already cited by the Minister. He said:
“Trust … is a complex matter”.—[Official Report, 26/3/07; col. 1454.]
But this persuades me that there is much to be gained from tailoring the Bill, especially in the context of the objective to satisfy the public good, in order that as much public trust as possible can be generated. I beg to move.
My name is added to the amendment and we support my noble friend, who is always capable of approaching a Bill in an entirely innovative way. His argument is that the reference to serving the public good, which includes informing the public about social and economic matters and assisting in the development of policy, treats the citizen as a mere object to be informed at and made policy about. My noble friend makes a very important point in saying that the Statistics Board should see statistics as having a much wider relevance than that. I hope that the Minister will see fit to meet the points that he has made.
I shall not be any more receptive than I was on the preceding amendment, although I accept the intention behind the amendment, as I did with that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. However, when discussing his amendment, I was far too kind to say that I had noticed that a tail was coming up in the next amendment to add to the definition—and so we could go on.
We want to leave the Bill as it is because it is precise, succinct and clear on what it establishes as the board’s objective. This amendment is another shot at clearly expressing an objective to which we all subscribe, but in fact it is unnecessary because the objective is already there. The board is charged with promoting and safeguarding the quality of statistics, which, as subsection (4) of the clause explains, includes accuracy and impartiality. The board is also obliged to promote and safeguard good practice, which includes accessibility.
The other aspect of the amendment emphasised by the noble Earl is maintaining official statistics for the,
“benefit of the individual citizen”.
I agree that that is an important concept but it, too, is unnecessary. The Bill was amended in the other place to deal with the issue of “public good”. The precise sentiments expressed by the noble Earl were expressed in the other place, and the Government accepted the concept. However, we should emphasise that the objective was not just good government. Statistics play a very important part in that but they are also for the public good—for the good of the citizen. That point was taken on board by the Government in the other place.
So we are at one on the objectives expressed by the noble Lord and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, but we are determined to maintain the definition in the Bill, lest we leave ourselves open to the many fertile minds in all quarters of the Committee adding endless refinements to what is defined as being in the public good. I do not have the slightest doubt that there would be many, but they would not add to the inherent heart of the objective already stated in the Bill.
I disagree with the Minister and support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Northesk. Clause 7(2)(a) refers to giving information to the public about social and economic matters and paragraph (b) refers to,
“assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy”.
My noble friend’s amendment is a useful addition. I would like to focus on the transparency of statistics for the benefit of the individual citizen.
This issue is rather more important than the Minister suggests. Trust is a complex matter; it is all about perception. My difficulty, in a major sense, is that the Minister seems to start from a platform of saying that, in the generation of trust, perception does not matter. I believe that that approach is fundamentally flawed. I recall on a previous amendment that he was very disparaging—dare I say?—about the role that symbols play in the generation of trust. I am deeply dissatisfied with the Minister’s response, but I shall not press the issue at this time of night. I am fairly certain that I shall return to this point on Report, because unless the Government get their heads around the concept of trust and how perception plays into that concept, this will end up being the Bill that never barked. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
38: Clause 7, page 4, line 23, at end insert “, and
( ) meeting the information needs of users of statistics”
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 43. It is too easy to see statistics as a production factory, where information goes in one end and statistics come out the other. There is no market for the output from that factory and it is too easy to fall into the trap of expressing the aims and objectives of the factory in terms of its own processes.
The reference to “public good” is a helpful move in evaluating output, as is the previous amendment of my noble friend Lord Northesk, moving the focus of public good away from policymakers towards the citizen. I am sorry that the Minister did not feel able to accept that amendment. Amendment No. 38 takes that further and makes meeting the information needs of users of statistics a component of serving the public good. Amendment No. 43 gives the board a specific function of monitoring whether statistics meet the information needs of users.
The Statistics Commission issued its 33rd report in March this year entitled The Use Made of Official Statistics. I hope that the Minister will join me in commending the quality and quantity of output from the Statistics Commission in its short existence. In that report, the commission highlighted the need to improve consultation with users and communication with them, especially those who do not speak fluent statistics, if I can use that term. The amendment responds to that key issue and ensures that user orientation will be at the heart of the new board’s work. That is particularly the case for statistics which do not yet exist or which do not fully meet users’ needs. I think all noble Lords have received a number of representations from organisations or individuals who clearly do not feel that their needs are currently well served. It has been a particular concern, for example, of the Local Government Association, which said in its submission that,
“the Bill does not sufficiently reflect the fact that many national and official statistics are widely used as an essential tool by local government and many other public service organisations at local, sub regional and regional level”.
That is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in his amendment. It is sometimes easy for a national organisation to lose sight of the granular policy needs of users in local communities. I hope that my amendments would make it more likely that they would be remembered.
There is also the question of developing new statistics. For example, the social capital project has been drawn to our attention. Statistics which monitor social and domestic cohesion are much sought after by those active in this field—by which I mean active in helping to cure society’s ills with practical projects on the ground rather than developing policies. A lot of statistics and data are available, but they omit some important information on marriage breakdown and family status at a local level. Many groups think that this is particularly important, and the information has not yet been pulled together in the form of a social capital index, as has been suggested to us. I do not know why that has not been done, and I hope that the Minister can tell us why we have no social capital index or equivalent measure available at local level.
The board should have the needs of users at the heart of its work, and there should be full engagement with them. I hope that the Minister agrees. I beg to move.
As we have heard, these amendments are about augmenting the board’s objective in Clause 7 and monitoring function in Clause 8, and deal with some issues raised by the previous amendments. We can understand some of the thinking behind these amendments, but they do not ultimately improve the objective are are not really necessary.
As my noble friend said on the previous amendments, the objective as it stands is absolutely right. It is the cornerstone of the Bill and is appropriately succinct, broad and high level. It is designed to provide a clear statement of overall purpose for the board, stating that the board is to promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of official statistics that serve the public good. It is from this core objective that the board’s functions, which will allow it to deliver on the objective, flow.
Amendment No. 38 would augment the board’s objective to state that the public good is served by statistics that meet,
“the information needs of users of statistics”.
In drafting the objective, particularly references to how statistics serve the public good, the Government knew that we could not exhaustively list all the ways in which statistics contribute. With that in mind, we included a brief statement of some of the key ways in which statistics serve the public good. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, added to this list with some interesting suggestions that we will consider before Report.
The board’s objective also states that it is to promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of official statistics, including the accessibility, relevance and coherence of statistics. In fulfilling its objective and ensuring the relevance, coherence and comprehensiveness of statistics that serve the public good, the board will undoubtedly need to establish mechanisms to establish user interests and set about addressing them.
We believe that the objective as drafted is clear and covers the right ground and we do not feel that the suggested amendment is necessary. Amendment No. 43 would require the board, in its duties at Clause 8, to keep under review whether official statistics meet users’ information needs. We have touched on some of these issues already in discussing the amendments that sought to add the requirement that the National Statistician should co-ordinate planning across statistics. Again, we do not think that such additions are necessary. To fulfil its objective, the board is already required to monitor, and can report on, the quality, including coherence, relevance and comprehensiveness, of official statistics. As part of that, it will no doubt engage extensively with a wide range of statistical users to establish and report on whether the suite of official statistics meets their needs. Again, I do not think that it is helpful to add additional requirements of the board, given this general policy statement.
I hope that the noble Baroness is satisfied with the answers that I have given and invite her to withdraw her amendments.
I hope that I can. That was one of the things that I said that we would take away and think about. The information that I have is that the ONS carries out work on social capital, and has done since 2001. The board’s powers, including, at Clause 18, that to produce statistics, would enable it to produce additional work on social capital if necessary. I am told by officials that we will write to the noble Baroness to explain more and to answer any specific points that she has.
I am grateful that the Minister will write because people who have been in touch with me are particularly concerned about that. I see that those in the Box are smiling. They will do the letter for the Minister; it is not a problem.
The Minister’s response was entirely predictable. Anything that these Benches suggest to improve the Bill and to keep the needs of persons such as users properly in view are regarded not as an improvement but as an unnecessary elaboration, or possibly even unhelpful. I will consider carefully what the Minister said. I look forward to the letter that his officials will draft for him on social capital and I will decide at that stage whether I shall return to this issue on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
39: Clause 7, page 4, line 33, at end insert “and ensuring appropriate data protection safeguards in respect of the raw data from which official statistics are derived”
The noble Earl said: We will in due course move on to discuss the information-sharing provisions of the Bill, when we reach Clauses 35 to 51. To an extent, therefore, this amendment foreshadows our debates on those issues, although I shall endeavour to confine myself here to the matter in hand.
The logic of the amendment is straightforward. The later clauses of the Bill sanction access to wide swathes of administrative data, a fair proportion of which will be personal and/or sensitive information within the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998. In such circumstances, it is wholly appropriate that,
“good practice in relation to official statistics”,
should include adequate and proper safeguards for the raw data from which they are derived. Manifestly, this is what the amendment seeks to achieve as a counterpoint to the Bill’s entirely appropriate emphasis on the desirability that, as it were, the finished product of official statistics should be properly accessible. I beg to move.
My name is added to this amendment and I have nothing of substance to add to my noble friend’s remarks. It is important always to keep in mind data protection and the Bill is keen on data moving around. We will come to information clauses later in the Bill, but it would be helpful to have a reminder in the core of the Bill that data protection is important.
These amendments change the board’s objective. We have already discussed a number of amendments on this topic. Although I understand the thinking behind them, our view is that they do not ultimately improve the objective. We feel that they are unnecessary.
The objective is the cornerstone of the Bill. We believe it to be clear in stating that the board is to promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of statistics that is serving the public good. It is from that core objective that the board’s functions which will allow it to deliver on the objective flow. Amendment No. 39 would add into the objective a requirement that the board ensures not only the accessibility of statistics, but appropriate data protection safeguards in respect of the raw data from which official statistics are derived.
As I have explained in earlier discussions, the Government believe the objective is right as it is designed to provide a clear statement of the overall purpose of the board. It is the subsequent clauses that provide the details about the duties and powers the board has which it will deliver on that objective. These include the necessary restrictions on disclosure of personal information set out in Clause 36.
As well as the specific restriction on disclosure of personal information in Clause 36, the board will more generally be required to comply with the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998 and, in so far as the information is personal data, the Data Protection Act 1998. The Government take the view that it is not necessary to specify in each Bill past obligations which apply by virtue of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, the ONS has a wide range of security protocols and mechanisms in place to protect raw statistical data. We fully expect that the board, and through it the executive office of the board as established by the National Statistician, would have similar operation controls in place, given that the board will need public confidence in its handling of data for its role to be fulfilled.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and grateful for the support of my noble friend on the Front Bench. On the basis of the Minister’s response, I could be tempted to believe that the Government believe that the objective of data protection and safeguards in respect of it can be shuffled into the background. That makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I am bound to say.
I really do not want to return to the issue on Report, and in a sense the Minister is right that it is not incumbent necessarily that this provision should appear at this particular place in the Bill. But almost in a fit of pique, purely and simply because the Government seem to be so dismissive of the whole concept of data protection, I really would like to test the opinion of the Committee.
Clause 7 agreed to.
Clause 8 [Monitoring and reporting of official statistics]:
[Amendment No. 40 not moved.]
41: Clause 8, page 4, line 36, at end insert—
“( ) The Board’s function under subsection (1) includes monitoring the consistency of official statistics across government departments and across the United Kingdom.”
The noble Lord said: At Second Reading, the Minister spoke briefly about the nature of our statistical production, calling it,
“long established and strongly supported”.—[Official Report, 26/3/07; col. 1443.]
That is certainly true, and by producing statistics at the local level, the accuracy and relevance of the data are improved, and local users can be responded to more flexibly. However, this concentration on local statistics does not, and should not, limit the production of statistics to a standard and consistency that will enable them to make a positive and useful contribution at a national level.
The response of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to similar amendments in another place was not very reassuring. In the event that the board concludes that a department is producing statistics inconsistently, he offered the following possibilities:
“The board can report its concerns to the relevant Ministers, make its views public, and report concerns to Parliament and the devolved legislatures in either its annual or a special report”.—[Official Report, Commons, Statistics and Registration Service Bill Committee, 18/1/07; col. 114.]
None of these possibilities is particularly impressive, and the department can ignore them all if the inconsistency is sufficiently to its advantage. This problem is, of course, related to the Bill’s failure to give the board real powers to enforce its code of practice. As the Financial Secretary rightly noted in the debate that I mentioned, the board can put consistency in its code of practice, but this is in essence unenforceable, and we will debate this issue specifically when we discuss a later group of amendments. The amendment would at least ensure that the Statistics Board could isolate inconsistent amendments, and it would be part of its remit to ensure that local statistics are adequate for use in the national context. I beg to move.
We have tabled a similar amendment in this group to reflect the concerns of the Royal Statistical Society, which feels that the Bill if anything weakens the current rules that enable a coherent framework to be established and implemented. The current framework for statistics requires the National Statistician to produce a high-level business plan for all national statistics, not only for statistics from the Office for National Statistics. There is no such requirement in the Bill, so there appears to be a weakening. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that this is yet another unnecessary amendment and that everything is fine. We beg to differ.
I shall briefly explain my strong support for Amendments Nos. 41 and 153. I put my name to Amendment No. 41, but I feel equally strongly about Amendment No. 153. They relate to two different issues. One relates to the United Kingdom, which will come up again in our discussions. The other relates to all departments, as has just been mentioned. I cannot stress sufficiently often how important this is. I repeat again that 80 per cent of statistics come from outside the ONS. Secondly, most of the problems are in outer departments, not in the ONS. The ONS rightly has a very high reputation across the world; the same is not true of a lot of departmental statistics. It is therefore absolutely crucial that the board, and indeed the National Statistician, have authority and responsibility across all government departments. As the Minister has said that he was going to think again about the precise definition of the board’s role in relation to the National Statistician, could he include in that rethinking strengthening the Bill further to ensure that the board, and of course the National Statistician, have adequate authority over departmental statistics?
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was almost right when he anticipated that I would say that the Bill already strikes the right balance and therefore Amendment No. 41 would not be acceptable, but I am going to be slightly more assertive in my criticism of Amendment No. 153. So at least that will strike a fresh note, if only one of discord on which to conclude our debates today.
Amendment No. 41 seeks to require the board to monitor,
“the consistency of official statistics across government departments and across the United Kingdom”.
The Government recognise that consistent UK-wide statistics are beneficial and often desirable. Such consistency means that statistics about the devolved countries can be combined, allowing figures to be produced for the whole of the United Kingdom and enabling the situation in the different administrations to be properly compared. I should note how pleased the Government are that the devolved administrations have all decided to join in with the new arrangements.
However, there is bound to be some divergence between the different parts of the UK given the different political, legal and administrative systems and policies across the four nations, many of which pre-date the development of devolution. This means that it may not always be appropriate or desirable for statistics to be consistent. If any inconsistency has a material effect on the quality of statistics being produced, it will be a matter to be taken into account in the assessment of national statistics or as part of the board’s duty to monitor official statistics as already set out in Clause 8.
The problem with Amendment No. 153, and I respect the support of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for it, is that it would revert to old ways. It places this responsibility on the National Statistician when like a golden thread through all our debates today it will be clear that the Government have sustained their argument that it is the board’s responsibility in these terms, and to whom the National Statistician works. The board will be independent and it is important that it should be allowed to develop its own approach to these issues. It does not need specific mechanisms laid down in legislation. However, what is most important about Amendment No. 153 is that it addresses issues not to the board but to the National Statistician. The Government sustain their position that the board must have statutory responsibility for these matters. That is why I cannot accept either of the amendments. I am sorry to end on a note of disagreement on what has been a constructive day.
I thank noble Lords for their support. If the trust which has been discussed at such length today is to be created, power must be given. That is the underlying position of the amendment. Members on these Benches will support proposals to take another look at this issue with a view possibly to bringing it back on Report. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.