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 LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]
Clause 8 [Monitoring and reporting of official statistics]:
42: Clause 8, page 4, line 36, at end insert—
“( ) The Board is to monitor the arrangements for—
(a) the release of official statistics, and(b) any access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication.”
The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 57, 57A, 58, 93 and Clause 11 stand part in the same group. The amendments were tabled by several noble Lords following discussions between us, and I support them all, including those to which my name has not been added formally on the Marshalled List. I understand that the other amendments in the group will not be moved by the noble Lords who tabled them.
Let me say a few words about the substance of the clause and the associated clauses, which all deal with the release and pre-release of government statistics. They are crucial to the Bill’s purposes and to all matters of integrity and public trust. I know from my years in charge of official statistics that hardly anything is more important than getting these rules right and making them acceptable. Let me explain why both the way in which statistics are published and the pre-release are so important. In passing, I must say how pleased I am that the Financial Secretary has announced that publication arrangements—the so-called publication hub, a central office—will be set up to cover all national and, I hope, all official statistics. This is not part of the Bill, but it is a very promising development. I imagine that the details will be settled by the new Statistics Board.
That leaves the key issue of pre-release. That is to say that the key issue is not whether Ministers, advisers and key officials get information about the statistics but whether they get them before publication. If it is felt that they need to get figures ahead of publication, how far ahead should they get them? Obviously, the longer ahead they get them, the greater the danger of leaks and the temptation to cover the statistics with spin of various kinds. This is why it is a sensitive issue.
The way in which the Bill is drafted to deal with this issue is astonishing. Given that these matters are so obviously central to trust and confidence, which is what the Bill is all about, one might have expected it to deal with them positively and helpfully by making them a central responsibility of the new board and central to the code. In fact, almost the opposite emerges. Although the Bill rightly accepts that there must be strict rules and principles on pre-release, these matters are not regarded as a role for the board and it is suggested that they should be dealt with in secondary legislation subject to affirmative resolution. Also, references are made to what are called “appropriate authorities” for dealing with them. In my view, and this is the key point of all the amendments, these are clearly matters for the board and central to the code.
Let me say a word about international comparisons. In many key countries, no pre-release of any kind is allowed. I refer, among others, to Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland. In more countries, while some pre-release is allowed, it is limited to one or two hours, or maybe three. Another variant is that, in some countries, pre-release is limited to the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. It is understandable that special arrangements are made for market-sensitive data, but this country is the odd man out. Market-sensitive data are released to a number of people about 40 hours in advance. Many other public statistics are released to Ministers and officials five days in advance. In fact, I believe that I am right in saying that more people have more access to more data further ahead than in any other comparable country.
It is also sadly true that things have slipped a great deal since 2000, when the last reforms were made. Before that, as I know from personal experience, things were tightened up quite a bit. Now they are more lax than anywhere else or than they have ever been before, which I think is harmful not only to the statistical world but also to the Government as a whole. It has been clear throughout the consultation period that this is the issue that is worrying more people than almost any other, so it was good news when the Financial Secretary announced some progress; namely, that non-market-sensitive data that are now available to many people five days ahead will, I believe I am right in saying, be made available only about 40.5 hours ahead. That is a move in the right direction, but not nearly far enough.
What are my conclusions? I can see the point made by the Royal Statistical Society that there should be no pre-release. Although I rather agree with that, I suspect that it would be a move too far. I would like to see an absolute minimum of availability to Ministers and key officials—something of the order of two or three hours ahead, as in so many key countries, and perhaps an even tighter limit for statistics relating to market-sensitive areas.
My main conclusion and thus my main recommendation to noble Lords is not to set a particular number of hours or days, because that would be too detailed. My simple recommendation is that this matter—the decisions, rules and principles on pre-release—should be the job of the new board and central to the new statistics code. That is what these amendments have in mind. I repeat that this is central to the board and to the new code. It is in the interests of the Government and not just the statistical forces that this should come about. No other single change would send a clearer signal to the public and users than this. I beg to move.
The Committee will have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, with huge interest and will respect the enormous experience with which he speaks. I have two amendments in this group. Amendment No. 68 provides that the board must include in the code of practice rules about pre-release in which access is,
“the minimum necessary to meet the needs of Ministers”.
That presupposes that the Bill will eventually make sure that the board, and not Ministers, take charge of the arrangements covering pre-release.
Amendment No. 77 deals with the release of statistics generally and gives the board power in the code of practice, which we shall discuss, to include in the rules where the release is to be done, who is to be responsible, and the minimum time gap between release and ministerial or departmental comment on the figures.
I agree profoundly with the noble Lord, Lord Moser. This group of amendments raises perhaps the most important single issue surrounding the restoration of public trust in the system; namely, the arrangements for the release of statistics and for pre-release access to statistics. The group also exposes starkly what I can only describe as the cynicism of the Government’s present position: that their new Statistics Board, which is intended, in their own words, to distance Ministers from the whole process of statistics, is to be debarred entirely from having anything to do with the pre-release of access to official statistics. Clause 11 of the Bill leaves it to Ministers to make the rules. That is pretty well what happens currently and is what has contributed mightily to the loss of public trust.
As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, made clear, there are two separate issues: first, the arrangements for the release of statistics generally; and, secondly, pre-release. First, on release generally, at Second Reading I described what all too often happens. In departments, the same press office that handles the release of the statistics also handles the ministerial statement. That statement often quotes selectively from the full statistics so as to put a spin on the figures. The professional commentary is thus obscured by the ministerial spin, and it is the spin that tends to dictate the headlines. There is really only one way to describe this process: it is corrupt. By that I mean that the process corrupts the clear messages in the statistics as disseminated by the professional statisticians by obscuring or even distorting them with selective political messages intended to steal the headlines. That is the first thing that has to be changed by amending the Bill to outlaw the process. There are two distinct activities—the professional dissemination and the political comment—and they need to be kept quite separate.
As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said, Ministers have some awareness of the problems created by the present process, as can be seen in their reference to what they have called the hub for the release of statistics. That seems to suggest that there is some process in mind that may go some way to deal with the problems. But we have been told absolutely nothing about how that hub is supposed to work, how it is to operate, who will be in charge, and how it will be policed. More important, will it separate dissemination from comment? It is all very well to say—and the noble Lord, Lord Moser, is very generous in his comments about this—that this is a step forward. The noble Lord may know more about it than I do, but I know nothing about how this hub is supposed to work, and I hope that today’s debate will give the Minister an opportunity to tell the Committee more about how it will work and to answer some of my questions. Who will be in charge, how will it be policed and will it separate dissemination from comment?
The other issue is pre-release. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has dealt with this, and I hope to do so quite briefly. The board must be given the clear duty to establish the rules and police the practice. As has been said, the United Kingdom is dramatically out of line with international practice with regard to what statistics are subject to pre-release, who has access and the length of time between pre-release and full dissemination. Again, this is an issue that simply must be put right. The board must be put in charge, the rules must be made clear and the Bill must provide for the proper enforcement of those rules.
Naming and shaming will not be enough. Government departments have very thick skins. Those who deliberately flout the board’s rules must be held to account and reported to the parliamentary Select Committee, where perhaps they can be dealt with firmly.
I have been told that these proposals have emerged as a result of much argument between the Treasury on the one hand and departmental ministers on the other. I have been told that the Treasury would have liked to have been able to deal with this abuse of the system but was defeated by an unholy coalition of Ministers in other departments determined to cling on to the existing pre-release arrangements. Presumably these people hoped that that would preserve what they see as the political advantage that the current arrangements give them because of the opportunity to interpret the figures as I have described. Do they not realise the grave damage that is done to public trust by that process? Will not the consequence of clinging to the existing policies be simply to prolong or even deepen the public’s mistrust in the system? The Committee must deal with that along the lines so eloquently laid out a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Moser. We should support his Amendment No. 42 and the other relevant amendments that he outlined at the beginning of his speech. This is perhaps the most important issue that we will deal with on the Bill, and we have to get it right.
My view on this matter can be simply put. I have defended the principle of pre-release, which I think is consistent with the way we operate ministerial accountability. Nevertheless I support the central thrust of this group of amendments—that responsibility for this should be given to the Statistics Board, which should settle these matters after consulting with Ministers. I agree with the phrase proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin: “the minimum necessary”. That recognises the principle of need.
I have reservations about some aspects of these amendments. One, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, seeks to separate in time the release of the statistics and the release of the ministerial or departmental comment. I see no comment to separate the two in time, because in that lag various things could go wrong. I believe the principle should be separation of channels, which is why I think the “hub” idea, in which the statistics are released in one place in a central hub controlled by the board and the comment comes out of the department—separation in space, so to speak—is the better route to follow.
There is also an amendment from the Liberal Democrat Benches that seeks to give the power to the board, but then seeks to set a maximum time. If they are giving this power to the board, it should have the responsibility for settling matters, and different series of statistics may require different lengths of time.
I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Moser and Lord Jenkin, that this group of amendments is probably the most important of all the amendments that we are debating in ensuring that the Statistics Board has the best chance of enhancing public trust in official and national statistics and demonstrating its independence.
As Members of the Committee pointed out, we are dealing here both with release and pre-release aspects of statistics. On the release arrangements, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that it is very good that a hub is promised. “Hub” is an interesting word which can mean a lot of things, and I am absolutely sure that the Minister will explain them when he replies to this group of amendments. I assume that the hub will be based in the Cabinet Office. Given the amendments that we passed last week, that is appropriate. We look forward to hearing from the noble Lord exactly how the hub will work.
Whatever the details of that, I am less worried about it than the issue of pre-release. I think all Members of the Committee agree that the existing arrangements are unacceptable. It is quite extraordinary how far away we are from international best practice in this area. The way in which the Government have sought to argue that having a new norm of 40.5 hours is somehow a huge concession is completely ridiculous. Leaving aside that fact, what is so special about 40.5 hours? It gives a spurious accuracy to a huge degree of ministerial discretion. The figure 40.5 gives the impression that there might be a rationale for it, but there is no rationale. If it were 40.75, it might be even better, but 40.5 suggests that there is something hugely significant about this period, which is clearly nonsense.
As the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, pointed out, we have tabled a number of amendments looking at ways of dealing with this issue. The ones that we wish to support today give the power to decide to the board. We have also tabled an amendment that would limit the period to two hours, as we were trying to tease out what made best sense. However, we are persuaded that different statistics may have different requirements. Giving the responsibility to the board enhances its power and credibility. Therefore, we do not propose to move the amendment that limits the period to two hours.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, set out the amendments that we support. I urge all Members of the Committee to support them too.
This Bill is about nothing if not enhancing the public’s trust in statistics. I support the principle of pre-release. There are many occasions where government should have informed access to statistics before they hit the markets. However, it is an area where the Government are most open to the charge of manipulating the information if they have too great a head start. Therefore, it should not be solely in the gift of Ministers to determine how much of a head start they have over other interested parties.
The Government have gone to the trouble in the Bill of setting up the board and giving it powers. They acknowledge the reduction in public trust in statistics over past years. Therefore, they would miss a trick by insisting on Clause 11, which specifically states:
“The Code of Practice for National Statistics under section 10 may not deal with any matter relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics”.
The board should have a role in this, but perhaps the best compromise is for the board to be able to put forward advice to discuss with Ministers its requirements. Ultimately, the provisions of the code should be confirmed by Parliament through the mechanism of an affirmative resolution.
Our names are added to several of the amendments in this group, and I support what the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said about the core group of Amendments Nos. 42, 57, 57A, 58, 93 and Clause 11 standing part. We also have in this group Amendments Nos. 90 and 92, which we shall not be moving. They propose the publication of the names of the people who were granted access and the terms of the access. We commend that to the Minister as a good idea, whatever happens with this group of amendments, and we hope that he will respond to it.
Amendment No. 42 introduces a function of the board to monitor arrangements for release and pre-release. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the board will be setting the rules under the amendments via the code of practice, but it also needs to monitor how it will work out in practice and include that in its annual report. Doubtless, the Minister will argue that the Bill does not give the Government the power to set new rules but Parliament will make those decisions by approving a statutory instrument. The Minister will know that we regard that as a mere fig-leaf. The Government will customarily get their statutory instruments through, and they will certainly have control over whether any alterations are made to the rules once they are set by statutory instrument. It simply does not meet the public interest of ensuring that statistics are free from government spin.
To reiterate points made by my noble friend Lord Jenkin and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the hub for statistics, that is a very interesting idea about which we have heard almost nothing in detail. Whatever the Minister says today—and I am sure that we will be grateful if he gives us any further information—we believe that the issue of release should be in the Bill within the power of the Statistics Board, however persuasive the Minister is about the Government’s plans for a new hub.
Finally, I alluded a moment ago to the issue of changing the rules for pre-release. However they are set up initially, they may not work in practice, and we may find that particular Ministers abuse the pre-release access that they are given, or that too many people are given pre-release access. With a statutory instrument, we would be in the hands of the Government to make changes. Clearly, as the most interested party, it is unlikely that they would make changes. The key issue of giving the board control is that the board has the ability to change the arrangements over time if what is initially set up proves not in practice to provide arrangements that form an important part of restoring trust in statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, my noble friend Lord Jenkin and others have referred to the need for those arrangements to play their important part in restoring trust, which is why we firmly believe that the Statistics Board should be in charge of the arrangements.
At Second Reading, I deliberately said nothing about the pre-release issue for the simple reason that I did not really know anything about it. I had no experience of it, although clearly from the debate it is rather a murky area. At Second Reading, I was struck by the severe criticisms made by the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin of Roding, Lord Turnbull and Lord Moser, among others. All of them were persons of considerable practical experience whose views were important to me. The language used by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, was even rather colourful for an ex-Permanent Secretary. He said:
“Clause 11 … in effect tells the board to keep its nose out … leaving Ministers to help themselves to as much time as they want”.—[Official Report, 26/3/07; col. 1484.]
I was impressed by the measured way in which the noble Lord, Lord Moser, introduced the series of amendments on pre-release today and perhaps more importantly by the balanced nature of the amendments, which have other names added to them.
After Second Reading, I did not need much convincing that something along the lines of the amendments was clearly needed. Everything that the noble Lord and others have said this afternoon underlines this as being an important flaw in the Bill. I would have no hesitation in supporting the noble Lord’s amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, said that it was the most important group of amendments to the Bill. Given his great experience, I am sure that we should listen carefully to his view.
The amendments raise the central issue in the Bill, but a number of issues are being confused. It is very important that rules of pre-release be stated clearly so that everybody knows what they are. As far as is possible, pre-release times should be short. However, governments do not gain much advantage from pre-release. Whatever advantage is gained is quickly dissipated partly by incompetence and partly by the fact that clever people can see through any spin that statistics may be given. As I said earlier, when the party opposite was in power and changed the definition of unemployment 22 times, it was quickly seen through. In the case of this Government, the Prime Minister not only pre-released some statistics but got their interpretation wrong. Therefore, I am not much worried about that.
The next question is which agency will state the rules. I do not mind whether it is the board or Minister as long as the first statement of principles and the procedure for revision are not only clear but are placed before Parliament. However, if the board decides to change the rules of pre-release, Parliament should have the right to comment on it or at least to be told about it as soon as possible, because it will not be technical no matter how competent the board is.
As long as those rules are followed—that is, that the pre-release period is short, that a definite agency lays down the rules and that any revision of the rules should be conveyed to Parliament as soon as possible and Parliament is able to comment on it—there is no problem in handling pre-release in a way which best aspires to restore trust in official statistics.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this constructive debate. I am also pleased to record a measure of agreement between the Government and all noble Lords who have spoken today. Although some noble Lords indicated that they do not think that the Government are tightening up the system sufficiently within the framework of the Bill, it was conceded that the Bill is about tightening up the arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about what he called the extraordinary figure of 40.5 hours. That seeks simply to regulate the most sensitive of all statistics; namely, those relating to the economy and market-sensitive information. The 40.5 hours is not a figment of strange imagination, but merely the calculation of the time taken up by a clear day’s grace between the closure of the markets on one day and the their opening on the next day but one. It derives from a calculation of those hours: one clear day plus the hours before the markets open on the actual release day, and from the time that the markets have closed on the day before. It is not a strange formulation but rationalises a period within which statistics would be released under the pre-release arrangements, against a background of the necessary arrangements for market-sensitive material.
I understand the noble Lord’s point, but I am talking about London. The noble Lord will recognise that it is reasonable that we measure the amount of time for which Ministers should have access to information which they know to be market-sensitive, within the UK framework, against the period which I have indicated.
I also recognise that there is appreciation of the Government’s proposals to address these issues within the framework of a central publication hub. Pressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, indicated that he would like to hear more about it—I shall enlighten the Chamber on government thinking on these changes. I must add that there is consultation on this concept which will relate to the future working of the board. Final development of work in this area will therefore depend on consultation after the chair of the board has been appointed. I therefore cannot be definitive today, but I shall address those questions.
That pre-release is necessary is recognised in this House, in the other place and by the Treasury Select Committee in its July 2006 report. I am grateful that none of the amendments today, although spoken to in typically forthright terms, denies the principle of pre-release, but the movers of the amendments constructively seek to identify how it could be affected. I emphasise the obvious fact that the principle of pre-release is accepted in a large number of advanced countries, with many statistics available to Ministers in the USA, Canada, Spain, France and so on, the day before publication.
Pre-release access provides a fundamental safeguard, enabling the Government to consider and plan contingency or mitigation measures, release further clarifying information which might be needed on the basis of a statistical release, and to guard against disproportionate and potentially costly market reactions and currency movements. Governments are ultimately responsible for maintaining economic and financial stability. Pre-release access to data may be necessary to meet this fundamental responsibility. I therefore make no apologies for the Government having set out to emphasise the statistics pre-release structure in the Bill, thereby attracting a considerable range of ideas on how we could tackle it in a different way.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, gave a perspective on how government policy evolves. He is experienced enough to know that it does not fall out of a hat but is the result of considerable discussion within government, particularly over a policy like this which, as he rightly indicates, is of interest to all departments. There has been considerable discussion but I emphasise that the outcome is that agreed by Cabinet as government policy, which is contained within the Bill.
In line with the devolution settlement, we intend that the devolved Administrations will set their own pre-release arrangements for national statistics that are wholly devolved. The basic means—and I note the slightly derisive terms in which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to the parliamentary process—of putting the process within the framework of secondary legislation guarantees parliamentary scrutiny. I understand that these amendments provide for an alternative approach to the issue, but the Government are fully aware that there is parliamentary interest in how these statistics emerge in the process, and that we are guaranteeing parliamentary control in those terms. We guarantee that where the board, in fulfilling its purposes, gives rise to parliamentary anxiety, there will be a framework within which this can be tackled.
It is not fair to suggest that the Government are shying away from necessary scrutiny of this important part of the arrangements—far from it. We are proposing a real tightening up of the process as compared to current practice where pre-released arrangements agreed by Ministers are contained in a non-statutory protocol; whereas the new arrangements will be subject to full scrutiny.
We also commit ourselves to establishing a statistical system which can be developed in the light of experience. We will review the whole operation of pre-release after 12 months. If it is the case, as some noble Lords are indicating, that the Bill will not be sufficient to restore and enhance that trust in official statistics—which is the objective of the Government and is shared by all sides of the Chamber—we will revisit these issues in due course.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for his identification of the amendments which light the core of his argument on what needs to be changed in the Bill. I will first of all address those amendments, while recognising that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, tabled amendments which also need to be seriously considered.
Under Clause 10, the board will already have the ability,
“to prepare, adopt and publish a Code of Practice”.
Under Clause 12, it will have a duty to assess compliance with that code. The Government fully expect the board to include in its code of practice arrangements for the release of statistics. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent the board not only monitoring the arrangements for the release of official statistics, but determining them in the first place—after all, the main thrusts of the amendments relate to the significance of the board in relation to these issues. The Government would expect the board to do that.
The arrangements for pre-release are different in so far as they may be—and indeed in some cases will be—of special status, agreed by Ministers and approved by Parliament. But even under that provision, Clause 11 states that the pre-release arrangements contained in that order will be considered as part of the code for which the board will have responsibility. We are not therefore devaluing the role of the board with regard to pre-release; we are indicating that the board and its code will have a framework within which it can comment on government practice.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I was puzzled by what he just said. Clause 11(1) states:
“The Code of Practice for National Statistics under section 10 may not deal with any matter relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics”.
I do not think that that is what the Minister said. I think he said completely the reverse and I shall be grateful for his explanation.
We are identifying areas for which Ministers will be responsible and on which the board in its code will seek compliance with regard to statistics. If a practice is adopted which the board finds exceptional and of which it is critical, it will, with its code, have the framework for comment. It will be making a report to Parliament in any case and, as we have indicated, the prime responsibility for parliamentary scrutiny of ministerial action lies in the secondary legislation. The proponents of the amendments suggest that we substitute the board for ministerial action. I indicate that the Bill envisages ministerial action subject to parliamentary scrutiny with regard to secondary legislation and that the board, with its code of compliance, will, if necessary, comment on practices that are operating.
The release practices are set out by the board in the code. The only part reserved for Ministers is on the pre-release arrangements. We therefore have the board identifying the broad structure and Ministers dealing with certain sections of pre-release. Within that framework, the board is not devalued in its role on official and national statistics. A particular area of pre-release is reserved to Ministers, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Also within the framework, we expect to see the tightening of arrangements. I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that the 40.5 hours’ restriction is significant as regards present arrangements. It codifies the existing system and makes a due response to the view expressed in this Chamber that we need closer control over pre-release and I have indicated the basis on which the timescale is to be adopted.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, emphasised his anxieties about certain aspects of the process. Within the framework of the Bill, the Government address the main issue the noble Lord raised at Second Reading, when he emphasised the importance of the pre-release issue. It is sought to keep pre-release to a minimum and within the framework proposed by the Government on these matters.
Noble Lords raised a number of other points in the debate. The most important was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and reflected in other speeches, including that of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, which is the concept of the hub. That is also part of the Government's thinking on how we will seek to obtain greater coherence to the pre-release arrangements and guarantee that the structure in this country meets the needs of Ministers with proper responsibility for statistics, and the wider public's concern that this necessary responsibility of Ministers should not be turned into what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, identified as the possibility of spin by Ministers, which therefore affects the acceptance of statistics when they enter the public domain.
The key proposal is that the hub will be the separation of policy commentary from statistical commentary and release. Therefore, it will be clear that what are released are the official statistics with proper analysis of their significance, and then separately the policy commentary, which Governments are bound to have and which the nation is bound to be interested in, in response to salient and significant figures. How will that be done in the framework of the hub? The board has the responsibility for overseeing the hub and agreeing how it will operate. We expect, however, that as an executive function, the National Statistician will oversee the day-to-day operation. Indeed, the Financial Secretary has already announced that a key motivation of the hub is that very separation I identified a few moments ago.
I recognise that the hub does not appear in the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, would have sharply pointed that out to me had I not acknowledged the fact. Until the board is established the actual operation of the hub cannot be finalised. It will need extensive discussion on how it will work. It impacts on the role of the board and the relationship of the National Statistician and chairman of the board. I emphasise—the Financial Secretary has already made this quite clear—that it should necessarily be a clear separation between the statistics for which the board is responsible and which are issued, and policy commentary from Ministers. The hub concept would develop that.
The board will have a crucial role in overseeing compliance with the new pre-release arrangement. Parliament will oversee the general policy on the secondary legislation. The board will have a statutory duty to assess compliance with the new tighter arrangements that we are putting into place and enforcement of the code of practice. We expect that if these new rules are complied with, the board will take an assessment of those statistics. If the board is critical of the way releases have taken place then it could use sanctions, such as identifying the fact that those statistics do not meet national standards. The board would do so in a public report. It would also appear—this would be serious—in the annual report to Parliament, although it would not wait upon it.
We are emphasising that: first, we have sought to meet the anxieties expressed in the Committee that arrangements should be codified and that the period of pre-release should come down significantly to the limited time that we are proposing of 40.5 hours; secondly, that the board will have responsibility for assessing this process and ensuring compliance with it; and thirdly, that there has to be a distinction between the release of the statistics and the policy commentary on them by Ministers. The Bill is constructed against that background on these pre-release concepts.
It will, I hope, be recognised that the amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Moser, spoke first seek to put responsibility solely with the board. The Government’s strategy is one which will meet with public approval in terms of guaranteeing that the pre-release period is restricted, that there is proper supervision of that process, and that the board has a crucial role in commenting on the way national statistics are used by policy makers. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able therefore to accept the Government’s position and withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed reply to the debate. There were one or two points that I felt uncomfortable about. One was the reference to international acceptance of pre-release; this is true, but not in the sense of international acceptance of the degree of pre-release that we have. In most places it would be regarded as excessive. I said when I introduced the amendment that tightening up to 40.5 hours for non-market-sensitive data is a mini-step in the right direction, but no more than that.
The Minister made very clear that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the board commenting on pre-release arrangements, or monitoring anything to do with statistics. Listening to that took me back to the early days of the route towards this debate when the Chancellor first mentioned what he had in mind. I was one of many in the professional statistical world who welcomed the Chancellor’s initiative, as I still do. I welcome that there is a Bill. I welcome the fact that this is all intended to improve public confidence in official statistics. It is evident to everyone that the lack of public confidence has less to do with the quality of the statistics than with how they are used by Ministers, the media and everyone else. That is the central issue.
Any commentator from the statistical world, either here or abroad, considering the Bill and welcoming this route towards greater confidence would want to know what is proposed about pre-release—the one subject on which this country is so out of line with most others. They would be surprised to find that Clause 11, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has already drawn attention, states that that is nothing to do with the code. It would surprise everyone that the board is evidently not given prime authority.
It is not enough to know that nothing can stop the board from taking a key interest in the area. The amendment provides that governing pre-release—in other words, deciding on pre-release arrangements, which, incidentally, should be uniform across Whitehall—should be a prime responsibility of the board and a prime content of the code. It should be able not just to comment or to monitor; it should be in charge of that central aspect of public trust.
Because that view is still some considerable distance from what the Minister said, I suggest that we test the opinion of the House.
[Amendments Nos. 43 and 44 not moved.]
45: Clause 8, page 4, line 40, at end insert “or
(d) the way that official statistics have been misinterpreted whether by Ministers, departments, civil servants or otherwise.”
The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendment No. 148. Amendment No. 45 seeks to ensure that the board has a clear power to draw attention to the misinterpretation of official statistics and can notify the Minister and others responsible of offenders. At present, there is no adequate safeguard against misunderstandings or the misuse of statistics. Clause 8(2) deals only with the production of official statistics and not with their dissemination. Even flawlessly accurate statistics can be misrepresented. Almost all statistics can be presented in a manner that is designed to confuse or to present only one side of an argument. Data can be misinterpreted deliberately or accidentally by a government department or respected media source. Either way, the Statistics Board should be the appropriate authority to be given the responsibility for monitoring and highlighting any concerns so that the appropriate steps can be taken to correct the damage and prevent further mistakes happening in the future. I beg to move.
I support the amendments. As we have already heard this afternoon, the creation of public trust is at the centre of the endeavour. Public trust will be better created if there is independent and professional critical analysis of statistics. I would like the amendments to be widened at the next stage to include the positive aspects of critical analysis as well as the negative ones.
We are dealing with a profession whose workings are not widely understood by the public. Therefore, the public will always have a feeling that these matters need to be explained to them by someone whom they can trust, which means someone who they believe really understands what they are talking about. That means the professionals. It is therefore central to the working of the Act that the board has the role of critical analysis and that it delegates that role to the National Statistician. Indeed, one would hope that, when there is a question of interpretation, a consultative process would be undertaken between the interested parties to consider where the issues lie and to work out who might be in support of what before the dialogue goes into the public domain. The thrust of these amendments is entirely right.
I believe that we are also discussing Amendment No. 148, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and his colleague, and of the noble Lord, Lord Moser. That amendment states:
“The National Statistician may comment publicly on statistical matters including correcting misunderstandings or public commentary based on erroneous interpretation of official statistics”.
That is a duty that the National Statistician should certainly be encouraged to perform, and it is the duty of the board to back up the National Statistician if, as has happened to previous chief statisticians, they are subject to serious criticism by Ministers. If Ministers quote selectively from statistics and thus distort the full message that those statistics are intended to convey, it must be for the head of the profession, the National Statistician, to point out that that is misleading the public.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, may have views on this, but I can well understand that it would be a brave National Statistician who chooses to take on a senior Minister. Nevertheless, as my noble friend Lord Eccles has just said, if we are going to restore faith, this may need to be done. Further, the knowledge that the National Statistician can say, “Minister, you have actually misled the public with this and we are going to make a statement”, and that he is backed by the board on that, would act as a pretty condign disincentive to Ministers who try to fiddle with statistics. While I have not put my name to the amendment, I regard it as important. It would be the head of the profession who would comment professionally on the misuse of statistics. I hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to address himself to that.
I apologise to the Committee for not being in my place when the noble Lord moved his amendment. In my long experience of dealing with statistics, I know of few which have a single interpretation. I spent a lot of my professional life debating monetarism, and no money number ever commands even partial unanimity, let alone universal unanimity. We have to be very careful. Freedom in these matters is important and, once a number has been released, it is impossible for anyone to declare, “That is a misinterpretation”, because there is no single interpretation. I will not cite examples but, whenever a number is released, if the rate of growth looks good, you talk about that; if the absolute increase looks good, you talk about that; and cycles can go long or short. We should not burden the Statistics Board with this absolutely useless and time-consuming duty.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken to our Amendment No. 148, not least the noble Lord, Lord Desai, because he has given us a starkly different interpretation from that of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. In an ideal world, this amendment would not be necessary. One would imagine that the National Statistician, who is responsible for the corpus of statistics—if that is the right collective noun for statistics—would comment publicly if she felt that they were being misinterpreted.
While I take what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, says and agree that many statistics are open to a number of interpretations, I believe that in some cases they are clearly misinterpreted, whichever logical view one might take. The reason for tabling the amendment is to give the National Statistician legal cover so that, if or when she wished to comment on a set of statistics that had been misinterpreted, she would be protected against a barrage from Ministers. If, in responding to the debate, the Minister says that the amendment is completely unnecessary because the Government accept that this would be part of the role of the National Statistician, we would be pleased to hear that. Otherwise, the amendment is important.
When I was in charge, many years ago, I had no problem publicly in doing what is suggested in the amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, if the Minister can reassure us that the amendment is not necessary and that the National Statistician still has this freedom, even encouragement, to comment on misunderstandings, I should be happy.
My second point relates to what I have just said. The Statistics Commission, which has done an increasingly powerful and important job in recent months and years, is to be abolished. When it was set up a few years ago, I took the opportunity of saying to Ministers that I hoped that its terms of reference could include the power and encouragement to comment on Ministers as well as on statistical officials. However, that was not accepted. This is an important point for the future role of the board.
I am delighted to be able to respond positively to the amendments. I shall not accept them—that would be asking a little much—but I shall respond in exactly the terms that the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Jenkin and Lord Moser, suggested. I give assurances that that is exactly how we believe that the situation will obtain after the Bill becomes an Act. Clause 8 guarantees that. It has the added advantage—the noble Lord, Lord Newby, drew attention to this in his amendment—that the National Statistician, provided that his judgment is right and is supported by the board, has that dimension to his representation, too.
Under Clause 8, the board is empowered to do exactly what noble Lords have suggested. Where the board judges that a comment by a Minister, department or civil servant is not in keeping with good practice in relation to official statistics, or would undermine their quality, it can report and publish its findings. I give those assurances. I hope that they will be taken in good faith and that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances, which I should like to consider carefully when I have the opportunity to read at leisure his words in Hansard. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 not moved.]
Clause 8, as amended, agreed to.
[Amendment No. 48 not moved.]
49: After Clause 8, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The Board is to monitor the resources that are available for the production and publication of official statistics.
(2) If the Board has any concerns about the resources that are available for the production and publication of official statistics it may report such concerns to the person responsible for those statistics and to the Treasury.
(3) Any report made under subsection (2) may be published and must be laid before each House of Parliament.”
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 49 would give an additional function to the board. It would add a new clause after Clause 8 requiring the board to monitor the resources available for the production and publication of official statistics. If the board has any concerns on that, it must report its concerns to the person responsible for the statistics and to the Treasury, and it must publish its report and lay it before Parliament.
We have already discussed resources for the Statistics Board. The Government did not accept our amendments that would have put resources in the hands of a parliamentary commission. That leaves the Government and, of course, the Treasury in charge of resources. The amendments passed last week, which provide that the Cabinet Office, rather than the Treasury, has residual functions, may assist the Statistics Board’s case for resources to be heard in Whitehall, but we know who ultimately controls the purse strings. Whoever sets the level of resources, we believe it important that the board should have a duty to review that resource level and act if it believes that the resources are insufficient. That in turn could generate a debate about the proper level of resources devoted to statistics, which, if the case were well made, could lead to the provision of more resources. There would be no obligation for resources to be provided, but public debate would be encouraged.
We have not yet discussed the resourcing of official statistics prepared outside the board. Problems could easily arise in other departments as a consequence of the resource squeeze that is applied via departmental expenditure limits. Let us take an example. The board could take the view that the crime statistics produced by the Home Office were deficient, but Home Office statisticians could say that the statistics were the best that they could do with the resources that had been made available to them within the Home Office. The ability of the Statistics Board to report publicly would provide a useful negotiating weapon in getting departments—such as, in my hypothetical example, the Home Office—to ensure that their statistical services were properly resourced. This is not just about making sure that the resources of the Statistics Board are correct; it is about resources right the way across Whitehall.
I am sure that the Treasury will hate this amendment, because it sees itself as the sole arbiter of resource levels in all government departments, but I hope that the Minister will not be bullied by his officials in this case and that he will recognise that there are real issues here. It is clear that statistics have suffered in the past through resource squeezes, and they will almost certainly do so again, quite possibly as a result of the latest budget settlement. The new clause is a modest counterweight against that. I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing this amendment forward. It raises a live issue. It is important that the Statistics Board has adequate resources; if it did, one might question whether an amendment was needed to ensure that it could make a noise if there were a problem.
It is important to remind the Committee of the situation in which the ONS finds itself in light of staffing cuts that have been imposed on it by the Treasury. Within the past few months, it has announced that its annual cross-check on the accuracy of the national annual accounts will not be published in full. To quote the ONS, that will create,
“some temporary additional uncertainty about the path of the economy”.
The annual statement of the UK’s balance of payments will,
“include less analysis than usual”.
The Bank of England has also expressed concerns that planned so-called “improvements” to the measurement of the service sector are being delayed. Preparations for the 2011 population census are falling behind, as are plans to collect improved immigration data. The ONS has also admitted that a survey on wealth is behind schedule. This is a terrible state of affairs. The amendment would give the new board the maximum chance and, again, the maximum legal cover to make its case to Parliament if it believes that this kind of cost-cutting is jeopardising its ability to do its job properly.
This point will come up later on an amendment that I shall move about location. I would have thought it axiomatic that, if the board is not to be a charade, it must be able not only to monitor resources and the quality of any official statistics but actually to do something about them. If the board is not there for that purpose, it looks right from the start as if it is not being given a reasonable job. That is sending a lad on a man’s errand, as they used to say. I am sure that the Minister can reassure us that it is within the scope of the board to ensure that it has the resources to do the job.
I do not want to anticipate the debate on the noble Lord’s amendment, but much of the problem that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has drawn attention to is the consequence of the relocation of the ONS to Newport. We have already heard that substantial numbers of senior staff concerned with precisely the matters to which the noble Lord referred have proved reluctant to move to south Wales, and that this is hampering the work of the ONS.
To come back to the point of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Noakes, I referred in an earlier debate to the European principles on statistics. I do not want to anticipate the amendment that I shall move on that matter, but Principle 3 refers directly to the adequacy of resources. It states:
“The resources available to statistical authorities must be sufficient to meet European statistics requirements”.
Then there is a list of indicators:
“Staff, financial, and computing resources, adequate both in magnitude and in quality, are available to meet current European statistics needs”.
I repeat what I said before; namely, that that includes the statistics needs of individual countries within the European Union. The document continues:
“The scope, detail and cost of European statistics are commensurate with needs”.
I shall not read it all now, but the clear international requirement of the convention to which we are party is not only that the resources are sufficient but that they are seen to be sufficient and that there are procedures to ensure that they are sufficient. That is what the convention requires. Therefore, it seems to me that my noble friend’s amendment is entirely justified. I hope that the Minister will be able to give her a reassuring reply.
I shall certainly do my best to give the noble Baroness a reassuring reply. We should distinguish between two sets of resources. The resources for the board will comprise a five-year settlement, as we have indicated. Like any other body, it would speak out if it found itself inadequately financed and would identify where new obligations had severely increased costs. We are undertaking a five-year settlement to give the board independence. It will be expected to reach its objectives within that framework of resources.
The other resources to which noble Lords referred concern where the board has identified that a department is falling short in its production of statistics at the appropriate level and quality. It is for the board to draw attention to that, and the National Statistician will take responsibility for doing so. The Minister in charge of the department that produces the statistics will be responsible for meeting such criticism. Those people are accountable for resources and will need to meet any failings identified by the board and to allocate resources accordingly.
I hear what my noble friend Lord Lea said about the present position. We shall discuss the issue of relocation on a later amendment. That precedes the setting up of the board and the new financial arrangements that we have indicated we have in mind. I shall comment on the Newport move in due course, but the ONS already has more senior managers based in Newport than in London. The relocation of senior posts is key to the overall success of the ONS’s strategy for relocating work. That process is under way. We shall debate that later and I shall reserve my position until then.
As regards whether the ONS is able to meet its current obligations, it is embarking on the next stage of modernising the UK national accounts, which will deliver significant long-term benefits. In respect of that, the Blue Book in 2007 will be reduced somewhat in scope to release skilled and experienced staff to carry out the modernisation. The ONS will deliver one significant improvement by incorporating into the national accounts estimates for in-house software development in businesses, which has been a weakness in the past.
Modernisation is going on. I hear what noble Lords say about resources and I accept the obvious point that the board needs resources to carry out its work. It will at times, if the board comments adversely on a range of statistics, be clearly identified that resources will be necessary to be devoted towards improvement. That responsibility is bound to lie with the department or whoever is responsible for such statistics. Within the framework of Clause 8, where the board has to monitor the quality, good practice and comprehensiveness of official statistics, it has the base to achieve what the amendment suggests that it needs to achieve. The powers are there in that clause, and we expect the board and the National Statistician to exercise their powers to reach exactly the objectives identified in the amendment.
It seems to me as if the Minister might even accept my amendment, so much were his words in alignment with what I sought to achieve in it. There are two separate strands. There is the issue of the board’s resources, on which most noble Lords taking part in the debate on the amendment concentrated. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the board could comment on its own resources; that is at least one bit of reassurance. However, he as usual trotted out the five-year settlement as the answer to all things financial relating to the Statistics Board. We are not convinced that the five-year settlement will prove adequate as it is currently announced. It is not provided for in the Bill, so it applies only to the first five years and does not form part of any argument for the security of the resource levels available to the board.
The Minister sought to make the case that Clause 8 allows the board to comment on the resources that are available in effect to those outside the board who prepare official statistics. I will need to consider that carefully when I read Hansard tomorrow to see whether he has covered everything that I sought to cover in my amendment. I am grateful for his support, but it is a pity that he did not go that little bit further and agree to the amendment. I will look at this again before Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 9 [Definitions etc for official statistics]:
[Amendments Nos. 50 and 51 not moved.]
52: Clause 9, page 5, line 8, at end insert “, taking account of the principles set out in the European Statistics Code of Practice, the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and any other relevant international codes or agreements”
The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 52, I will speak also to Amendment No. 60 in the name of my noble friend Lady Noakes, which is grouped with it. Amendment No. 52 would require the board when giving,
“guidance and advice to persons responsible for official statistics”,
to take account of the two main international statements of principles; namely, the European code and the United Nations fundamental principles.
In Amendment No. 60, my noble friends have exactly the same objective, but they have linked it to the board’s code of practice. The result might be almost exactly the same, but I see some merit in making the requirement explicit and directly binding on the board, which would happen if it comes into Clause 9, but I would not die in a last ditch for that.
The two primary international codes are the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, which were adopted in 1994 by the UN Statistics Commission, which describes itself as,
“the highest statistical authority in the world”,
after lengthy international discussion, and the European Statistics Code of Practice, which was a EU Commission recommendation endorsed by EU economic and finance Ministers in November 2005. The EU code, I am advised, explicitly recognises the UN code and is consistent with it. There are other international statistical agreements and principles—I instance the 1993 System of National Accounts—but all such more specific agreements are consistent with the overarching codes.
My argument for making reference to these well respected international codes in the Bill is that it would leave no doubt in the mind of Parliament, government or the board as to the scope of the ground that is to be regarded as the proper territory of the board. Without such express reference, the board might find itself accused of stepping beyond the remit that Parliament intended or act in fear of such criticism. There is almost nothing in the Bill to indicate the nature of the guidance that the board may give. The two codes give express guidance to the board as to what is legitimately within its remit. That is the purpose of including the reference.
Equally important, reference in the Bill to the international codes will remind the board to make sure its guidance is consistent with international expectations or to consider fully the consequences of offering advice that might be seen to be at odds with the international consensus. That is important in building the international credibility of the UK statistical service. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has already told the Committee that other countries do not face the same problem of the falling-away of public trust and are puzzled as to why we suffer it. Therefore, it is important that we should be able to satisfy them that our statistical service has the international credibility that it deserves. Reference to the two codes is important in that regard.
I shall not go through the international codes in detail—they are lengthy documents—but there is nothing in either of them that need cause anxiety. They are the synthesis of good sense in statistical matters. For instance, Principle 1 of the UN code makes it clear that,
“official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honor citizens’ entitlement to public information”.
Some people might think that that is a clearer exposition of what the Bill is about than appears in the Bill.
Principle 6 of the UN code states:
“Individual data collected by statistical agencies for statistical compilation, whether they refer to natural or legal persons, are to be strictly confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes”.
That is an international obligation to which this country has subscribed. Individual privacy, which we shall come to discuss, is a matter of concern to many in this Chamber, and it is helpful to have such a clear statement of principle from the UN.
The UN code has stood the test of time—some 14 years have gone by without significant amendment—and the EU code, while newer, has been accepted by all the European statistical offices as the basis of a Europe-wide assessment function carried out under the principles of peer review. The UK statistical service is, I am advised, to be reviewed against the EU code this year. It would be wrong for the Statistics Board to do anything other than work in close partnership with the EU arrangements.
Amendment No. 52 would expressly import the two conventions into the Bill by requiring that the board take account of those international codes. I beg to move.
Our Amendment No. 60 in this group supports the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. We hope that, if the United Kingdom agrees to take note of international principles, encouragement will be given for both this and other countries to move towards a higher world-wide standard.
The Government recognise, along with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, the important and valid role that international best practice codes play in the UK statistical system. As the noble Lord mentioned, the Explanatory Notes make clear that the Government expect the board to draw on relevant guidance and principles contained in various documents mentioned by the noble Lord, particularly the United Nations’ Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, when undertaking its functions.
Having said that, it is potentially unhelpful to place a statutory obligation on the board always to follow specific mandates, not least due to the potentially temporary nature of such guidance, which may of course be updated, revised, renamed or even become obsolete. As we have also suggested in previous debates, the Government’s general approach, where possible, has been to seek not to over-prescribe in legislation but to leave it to the independent, non-executive majority board, composed of those with a range of expertise and background, to use its own judgment in working out how best to fulfil its statutory duties. As we have indicated in the Explanatory Notes, we fully expect the board to take account of such guidance. However, as I have also said, it is not sensible to place in the Bill a statutory obligation on the board to take account of many of the codes mentioned.
On Amendment No. 60 and the general approach to the development of the code, the Government’s approach was, as in much of this legislation, not to over-specify the requirement on the independent board as to how it fulfils its duty to develop and produce a code. As set out in Clause 10, however, the board is under an obligation in developing or revising the code to consult those it thinks necessary, and we would expect it to take due account of other relevant principles and guidance. The final content is for the board itself to determine.
We expect a wide consultative process, taking account of many of the important guidance issues which have been mentioned. We also expect the board to look at the commendable work of the Statistics Commission, which has put out its own proposals on a revised code of practice. Again, however, we do not think it appropriate to place statutory obligations upon them, and I repeat that we should leave what is right to the independent board’s judgment.
I will study what the Minister has said. I take issue with him on the point that, if the United Nations decided—after the comprehensive consultative process when it first introduced the code—that the code required some amendment or strengthening, it would be inconceivable that the board and the whole of the UK statistical system would not want to come into line. His argument that we should not put it in the Bill because it might be changed therefore seems fanciful. The Minister has rather scraped the barrel with his argument against putting this in the Bill, but I will study what he has said. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 53 not moved.]
Clause 9 agreed to.
Clause 10 [Code of Practice for National Statistics]:
54: Clause 10, page 5, line 12, leave out “National” and insert “Official”
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 54 has attracted the support of the noble Lords, Lord Moser and Lord Newby. I shall also speak to the other amendments in this group which stand in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising.
In Clause 10 and the scope of the code of practice, we encounter another area of the Bill where the Government will fail to achieve the full potential of the new arrangements to restore trust in official statistics. Clause 10 requires the board to prepare a code of practice for national statistics. This is the first time in the Bill that we encounter national statistics as opposed to official statistics, which are referred to elsewhere. We support the existence of the code of practice and pay tribute to the work that the Statistics Commission has done in developing the content of a code.
What we do not support is the Government picking and choosing which official statistics are to be assessed against the code, leading to designation as national statistics. We believe that the distinction between official and national statistics is unhelpful and confusing to lay users of statistics, and simply that no official statistics should be prepared without regard to the code of practice. Our amendments are slightly different from those in this group tabled by the Liberal Democrats, as theirs have a distinction between official and national statistics, admittedly on the basis of being within the control of the board rather than the control of government.
Amendment No. 54 changes the title of the code to the “Code of Practice for Official Statistics” in Clause 10(l). There will be no separate national statistics in our scheme for this part of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 78, 80, 81, 82, 84 and 85 amend Clause 12 so that it is not for government departments to choose whether to have their statistics assessed against the code. The board will be required to assess all statistics. Amendments Nos. 87, 88 and 89 make consequential amendments to the reassessment provisions of Clause 13. Lastly, Amendment No. 91 converts the obligation of the board to publish a list of national statistics to one which publishes all official statistics together with a note of when they were assessed and the result of that assessment.
The Statistics Commission and the Royal Statistical Society oppose the treatment of official and national statistics in this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, who I see is unfortunately no longer in his place, pointed out at Second Reading,
“That can only give rise to suspicion, even if unwarranted, that the Government want either 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”.—[Official Report, 26/3/07; col. 1484.]
I do not know much about football leagues but I know that “second-rate” is not consistent with achieving high degrees of public trust. I beg to move.
It was the most extraordinary event in the statistical world when, in 2000, those of us responsible for the reforms invented the distinction between national and non-national statistics. It had never appeared before; we had always talked about official statistics or government statistics—it is also the practice worldwide. Then this division was made between the kosher statistics, if I can call them that, which deserved all the discipline of a code and so forth, and the non-national statistics of a lower league. It is quite unhealthy and, on the whole, meaningless.
What is unhealthy about it is that Ministers themselves decide what is to be called national, and therefore subject to strict rules, and non-national, which will not be so subject. For example, when the Secretary of State for Health deals with waiting lists, the quarterly waiting-list statistics are national statistics and monthly waiting-list statistics are non-national statistics. No one could explain to me the justification for that distinction, the monthly statistics not being subject to exactly the same rules. Unauthorised migrant statistics are non-national statistics and at this time only 20 per cent of all official statistics are non-national. It is therefore a minority group, arbitrarily divided from the majority and unhealthy because, as has been said, it causes more suspicion.
A simple and, I would have thought, uncontroversial change to the Bill would be to call all statistics official, or national, or government. The simplest way of dealing with the problem, as proposed in the amendment, is allowing the board to decide what to call different kinds of statistics. Above all, it is important that Ministers lose that power. With that in mind, I support the amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has put the case cogently and briefly and therefore I do not want to say much. However, I want to remind the Committee that lying behind much of this is the report by Professor Adrian Smith on criminal statistics. In that, he poured considerable doubt on the validity of the various series of criminal statistics which are produced by the Home Office. Under the definitions in the Bill, those are official statistics; they are produced not by the ONS, but by the Home Office. In the light of Professor Smith’s comments and criticisms of the handling of that in recent years, I regard it as bizarre that they should be outside the code that the Bill sets up.
The Minister owes the Committee a considerable explanation of why the Government think that that is right. If you are going to have a code of practice for statistics, it should apply to all statistics, as my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said. An unreal distinction is being drawn which once again, I suspect, has been included in the Bill at the behest of the departments which want to keep a tighter control over their own statistics. They do not want the board crawling over them too much and they certainly do not want them to be subject to the board’s code of practice. Well, who is in charge? This is a Treasury Bill and, surely to goodness, the Treasury should say to the other departments, “Look, we are all in the same game of trying to restore trust. Now, go away. We’re going to have all official statistics under the guidance of the code”. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not prepared to say that to his colleagues, Lord help us.
I support the simple solution to have one category of statistics and not two, but I have a specific question on the start-up of the board. I may be reading the Bill incorrectly, but it seems that there will be no national statistics on the day when the Act comes into force. They require a code of practice which we do not yet have and there must be negotiation within Whitehall on the statistics that are agreed suitable to become national.
That process could take quite a long time to resolve and it never does an institution any good if it gets off to a slow start. Having heard about the amount of work going on within the present Office for National Statistics in respect of relocation, changing numbers of staff and so forth, I think that it might be the victim of a slow start. The worst thing for public expectation on the effect of the Bill, and the effect on their trust of what will come out of it, will be the board making a slow start. That will also greatly prejudice its independence. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will comment on whether the board will be able to get off to a quick start and hit the ground running.
We have supported a number of these amendments and have tabled some of our own. The more we have looked at the arrangements in the Bill, the more unsatisfactory they appear to be. All statistics start life as official statistics. As new creations, they have a small “o” and a small “s”. If for some reason the Minister wants them to be made big, grown-up national statistics with a capital “N” and a capital “S”, he says to the Statistics Board, “I’d like these statistics to be made bigger, more important statistics”. The board then looks at them. If, for a whole raft of reasons—some of which might be quite sensible under the thought processes that have gone into the Bill, but others might be quite reprehensible—Ministers do not wish their little statistics ever to reach the higher status, they just keep quiet about that and, as the Bill is drafted, the board is unable to do anything about it. That is why we tabled at an early stage a halfway house, proposing that the board should at the very least be able to initiate an assessment of any statistics it chooses, with a view to assessing them against the code and therefore seeing whether they qualify as national statistics.
The second unsatisfactory issue in the drafting of the Bill is that if the board assesses the statistics against the code—the Minister having said that he would like some statistics to become national statistics—and they do not meet its requirements, all that will happen is that they return to being little official statistics and everything is all right. Again, that does not seem satisfactory. The proposal in Amendment No. 54 largely gets around that problem, so we support it.
I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, that it is desirable that the board should hit the ground running. Under Clause 12(1), on day one of the new system, all the statistics designated as national statistics shall be regarded as being designated as national statistics for the new system and automatically subject to assessment by the board. Therefore, there are no problems with the board being able to set about its work immediately.
I want to reflect on the nature of the code of practice for which the board is responsible and why it is valuable to have the concept of national statistics. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, indicated, all statistics start as official statistics and I assure him that we envisage that the board, within its operation, will see the picture changing and statistics becoming of such import, salience and significance that they move from official to national within the operation of the code. Furthermore, we do not look on the code as restrictive. The formal statement of the code is one of practice against which national statistics, or candidate national statistics, will be assessed. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, indicated, we expect the board to promote its code of good practice against all official statistics. However, as a special responsibility and obligation is identified with regard to national statistics, I shall seek to explain why I must resist the amendments.
Why do we make a distinction between official and national statistics? The noble Lord, Lord Moser, asked that excellent question, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who reiterates it now. In a modern statistical system it is most important and practical that the board’s independent audit function covers all the statistics that are most relevant to policy formulation, delivery and accountability. Those statistics are the most valuable to business, academia and a wide range of other users.
Statistics produced and published by the Government differ in importance. Unemployment statistics are important for a wide range of purposes and uses. They are a bit more important than the number of television licences held by a government department. Few would argue that such statistics should all be treated in the same way or have the same status. An active assessment programme will necessarily bring with it resource implications, both in funding the process itself and in placing a compliance burden on those assessed for the code. It is right that we should limit this assessment to the core set of national statistics—the key statistics that government, business and the public rely on for an accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive description of a modern United Kingdom.
Currently, about 1,300 national statistics cover the vast majority of key statistics on health, education and crime. That set of national statistics is already comparable with our international counterparts. That is not an unimportant factor in terms of issues of international comparison.
Most of the key national indicators are already national statistics. Some have suggested that national statistics comprise around 80 per cent of all official statistics. That is not the case. The very broad legal definition of official statistics, which we use in the Bill, means that it is not a straightforward task to quantify the volume of official statistics.
The definition in Clause 9 includes all statistics produced by the Government, their agencies, the devolved Administrations and other Crown bodies. Statistics from other public bodies can also be added to the scope of official statistics. That reflects the Government's desire to ensure a wide coverage and definition of official statistics which is flexible and can capture the wide, evolving and increasing range of data produced and used by government. The volume and range is vast and covers all sorts of information.
The Government have adopted this broad definition, as set out in the Bill, to ensure that the vast range of statistical information produced across government is within the scope of the board's objective. The board is required to promote and safeguard its quality, comprehensiveness and good practice. We believe that we should remain committed to the principle that it is right within the vast category of official statistics that the board’s assessment process starts by focusing on those key national statistics on which we all rely, and which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said, will enable the board to hit the ground running.
The Bill creates a framework that can evolve in the light of experience and changing demands from data users. It means that inevitably the set of national statistics will evolve. There will be a strong incentive for Ministers to look actively at submitting additional departmental statistics for approval as national statistics where they are central to the policy functions they carry out or to the delivery of programmes for which they are responsible.
As my honourable friend the Financial Secretary said many times in the other place during the passage of the Bill, we also expect the board, as part of its statutory duty, to comment on the comprehensiveness and coverage of official statistics and to comment on any official statistics if it thinks they should become national statistics. That is the process of evolution to which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, drew attention.
I treat with the greatest respect the position indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, when he suggested that it is difficult to draw the line—as inevitably it is, although we are indicating that the line is an evolving line, at which official statistics get translated into national statistics once a case has been made out for them. Also, he sees no need for such a division. There are implications for resource allocation when the board is doing its job properly and makes comments on departmental work and the adequacy of statistics. There will be resource implications if departments have to respond in order to guarantee that they meet the board’s requirement, wherever it occurs, that certain statistics should be brought up to standard. The board should primarily be concerned with the national statistics central to the development of policy formulation in the country.
Obvious criticisms could be made of any division in these terms, but I ask the Chamber to recognise that we must have some regard to the priorities for the board and its work across the massive range of official statistics which exist. Any line drawn is bound to raise the kind of challenges that the noble Lord, Lord Moser, expressed so forcefully in his contribution, but we are indicating that we are devolving to the board considerable responsibilities and very important powers. The role of the National Statistician is greatly enhanced against the background of the rest of the Bill in terms of how the system works. Within that framework I defend what the Bill already says about the definition of national and official statistics. I recognise the valid points that have been made in this debate, but I am hopeful that noble Lords will see the wisdom of the Government’s position and feel able not to press their amendments.
I am not sure that we can discern wisdom in the Government’s position. I start by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. They have highlighted the practical areas where illogical distinctions exist at present. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, put the matter rather well when he said that there would be big statistics and little statistics, and that it would be the Government who determined which escape having to comply with the code and thereby become big statistics. The Minister said that it was valuable to have this distinction, but I did not hear him say anything that made it at all valuable to have the distinction between national and official statistics. The Minister made much about the resource implications, not only for the board but also for those needing to comply with the code. I do not think we would have any problem with that.
The key issue is who should decide the priorities and therefore who should decide what is to be assessed against the code of practice. The Minister's argument is that the Government, through the devolved Administrations and government departments, should decide whether or not they want their statistics judged under the terms of the Bill against the code of practice and thereby become big statistics—national statistics. We have argued that it should be for the board to determine that. The board will determine what it does in the light of the resources available to it. It does not have infinite resources and therefore will have to set its priorities.
The Minister argued, in effect, that departments that do not put enough resources into their statistics should be allowed to carry on putting out ropey statistics. That simply does not stack up. There is a large difference between us on whether it is the Government or the board that calls the shots. The board is being set up to restore trust in official statistics. We do not think that trust will be achieved in the way that the Government have described. We would like to think carefully about what the Minister said but it is fair to put him on notice that it is likely that we will be returning to this on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
55: Clause 10, page 5, line 13, at end insert “within 12 months of being established”
The noble Baroness said: I can be brief with Amendment No. 55, which is probing. The amendment inserts additional words at the end of Clause 10(1) so that the code of practice required by Clause 10 must be issued within 12 months of the board being established. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the work of restoring trust in our official statistics must begin as soon as possible. In the absence of a code of practice there may be some degree of statistical mayhem, as the Government have the opportunity to manipulate statistics and their release.
We strongly support the statutory code of practice, but our concern is to ensure that it is available as soon as possible. We know that the Statistics Commission has done good work with its draft code, but it is by no means certain that a new statistics board would pick up that work. We do not know if the Government will use their appointment rights to secure some continuity with the Statistics Commission or will try to make a clean break from a body which they have sometimes found troublesome.
If there is a clean break, there is a possibility that the code will be delayed. The code should be operational within weeks of the new arrangements coming into effect. However, we have allowed 12 months, to allow some leeway, from the time that the Statistics Board is established. I hope that the Government will share our desire that the code should get out and be available early in the life of the Statistics Board. I hope that the Minister will set out how and when the Government expect the new code to be issued. I beg to move.
In relation to this amendment, it is interesting to remind ourselves what the chairman of the Statistics Commission wrote in his letter of 8 December when he sent copies of the draft code of practice as an interim report for consultation. He wrote:
“Although the new Board is unlikely to be in a position to take decisions on the Code until late in 2007 or early 2008, we are seeking comments at this time so as to be able to deliver well-considered public advice in summer 2007”.
He goes on:
“All the comments we receive will be provided in full to the new Board, along with an updated text of our proposals”.
It is clear that the commission has regarded this as an exercise which has to be taken at a measured pace. It is right that it is consulting on the December draft, but it does not believe that the new board is likely to be able to take decisions until early next year—2008. If the code is going to play the important role which the Government have earmarked for it, it is really important, as my noble friend has said, that it should be operative at the earliest possible opportunity. That timetable, which is already long drawn-out, should not be delayed more than conceivably necessary.
An amendment along the lines of that proposed by my noble friend seems highly desirable. We all support the idea of the code. No doubt, when the commission has considered all the representations we shall have another draft to consider but we must get on with it. Otherwise, we are going to have a long delay and we do not want that. In the words of my noble friend Lord Eccles, we will not hit the ground running.
That last contribution emphasises how important the code is. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, made a persuasive case on the need for the code. By the same token, the code is of such importance that the board should get it right. The Government are conscious of the necessity for urgency. That is why we are making provision for the early appointment of the chair of the new board so that they can turn their mind to the key issue of the code’s implementation. We all recognise the code’s importance.
If the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is probing to find out if the Government are aware of the significance of the code and the necessity for urgent work upon it by the board, I say that we are fully aware of that. We are taking steps to ensure that the code is developed as rapidly as possible. It will also be recognised, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, indicated when he talked about the present consultation from the commission, that this is a challenging task. As the code is the fundamental building block of the board’s work, it is essential that it is constructed and in place properly.
The noble Baroness was kind enough to indicate that this is a probing amendment. I hope that she feels that she has communicated her sense of urgency, buttressed by others who have spoken, about the importance the code. The Government are fully apprised of that, but to put a 12-month timescale on this may not be particularly helpful. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
I thank all noble Lords who took part in this debate for their contributions. I had hoped that the Minister would set out in some detail how he saw the timing, and the relationship with the current code which is being consulted on by the Statistics Commission and that he would flesh things out, but of fleshing-out we got nothing. All we got was that the Minister was aware of the issue’s importance.
I am coming round to my noble friend Lord Northbrook’s view that my amendment, which gave 12 months to issue the code, which was merely a sighting shot for the purpose of debate, is clearly inadequate. A much shorter timetable may well need to be put into the Bill because there is no sense of urgency or purpose or clarity about what is going to happen. I indicated that it was a probing amendment therefore I shall withdraw it. I would like the Minister to reflect on whether the answer that he has given is satisfactory; we will possibly come back to this on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
56: Clause 10, page 5, line 13, at end insert “and to monitor compliance with it”
The noble Baroness said: I will also speak to Amendments Nos. 65 and 115. These amendments concern compliance with the code of practice. The Statistics Commission and the Royal Statistical Society believe that the code of practice must be accompanied by an obligation to comply with it. The Bill is silent on this because the Government contemplate that some statistics will not comply with it. In effect, that is the distinction between national and official statistics, or big and little statistics, which we debated earlier. My amendments would ensure that compliance is required.
Amendment No. 56 amends Clause 10(1) to ensure that the board both prepares the code and monitors compliance, leading to compliance being specifically included in the board's annual report, as set out in Amendment No. 115. Although Clause 12 deals with the assessment of individual statistics against the code, there is nothing in the Bill that mandates the board to oversee compliance. There may be generic issues about compliance as well as specific ones related to particular statistics or statistical series. The duty to monitor compliance complements the assessment provisions in Clause 12.
Amendments Nos. 56 and 115 shift the public emphasis to compliance with the code, but the real meat is found in Amendment No. 65, which would add a new clause after Clause 10 requiring compliance with the code. The new clause requires compliance by the board, the National Statistician, government departments, the devolved Administrations and anyone else who produces or publishes official statistics. It is important that that obligation applies not just to statistical staff who produce statistics but to government departments and their Ministers.
That would make it easier for professionals to adhere to the standards that I am sure that they want to attain, because it will be in statute that compliance is obligatory. The amendment also requires consultation with the board on matters of interpretation. I do not understand why the Bill does not emphasise and require compliance. I beg to move.
We have considerable sympathy with the amendments. Our Amendment No. 64 is in the group. If the earlier amendment about the difference between official and national statistics were carried, our amendment would need amending, but it makes two points. The first is of lesser importance, because it is highly unlikely to arise often. If a department feels that it cannot comply with every aspect of the code for some reason—I do not know what it might be, but in theory that is possible—it should consult the board and the board will be required to deem whether that deviation from the code was acceptable.
The second point, which would be a valuable addition, is that the amendment places a requirement on departments continually to monitor their compliance with the code and, where they find that they have breached the code, to report that breach to the board. At the moment, the board must assess whether departments have complied with the code, but where a department has for some reason not complied with the code and discovered that, it should have a statutory responsibility to report that breach to the board.
I am grateful to the two noble Lords who have spoken to their amendments, which are intended to make compliance with the code mandatory. I have emphasised before, but I take this opportunity to emphasise again, that the Government do not believe in over-prescribing in the Bill the requirements on the board, especially when, in respect of Amendment No. 56, the Bill already provides for the board to be responsible for monitoring. That is already in Clauses 12 and 13 and we do not see the need for additional prescription.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, made his case, but we do not think that reporting breaches of standards of the code should be set out in legislation. Of course the board, working with all the relevant stakeholders, will develop mechanisms to engage on interpretation of the code and reporting breaches of it, but that is not a matter for legislation. The approach to reporting breaches may well be set out in the code itself, for which, after all, the board will be responsible. The board may choose to continue with something akin to the current requirement that any accidental or wrongful release of statistics must be immediately reported to the National Statistician. If a suspected breach is brought to the board's attention, or if for any reason it becomes concerned about a possible breach, it can carry out an immediate assessment. The board must publicly report its findings. That is all within the framework of the Bill and I do not think that the amendment adds a great deal.
What I am saying is that under the framework of the Bill—the code is still to be evolved—if there is a breach of the terms, the board may state in the code that it needs an immediate report to the National Statistician, which would involve it in taking action. I am asking for it to be respected that we are allowing the board to judge the code that it will produce for its operation, rather than writing into the Bill, as the amendments do, how the board should act. We expect the code of practice to be a model of good practice for official statistics and for the board to promote it as such.
We had the discussion on a previous amendment about official versus national statistics but all along I have sought to emphasise that the board has responsibility for official statistics. It will seek to bring some statistics within the framework of national statistics when that is merited. The role of the board is to promote the concepts and requirements of the code to cover all statistics. We should not tell the board in detail how to do its job, which is the main thrust behind the amendments. I recognise that they are well intended, because they are directed at objectives for which the board must surely see an obligation. We were earlier asked to ensure that the board moves with dispatch to take responsibility for the operation of its code. I sought to give assurances on that. That does not mean that we would aid the process by being overly prescriptive in legislation, which reduces the flexibility of the board and, potentially, its competence to get its work done.
Will the Minister address the core issue of whether departments or those who produce statistics should comply with the code? He sought to deal with the first amendment in the group, which concerns whether the board should monitor compliance. I do not think that he addressed at all whether departments and others who prepare, produce or publish statistics should comply with the code. That is the meat of this group, as I explained in my introductory remarks. Will he comment on that?
I resist amendments that specify in detail the role of the board, but clearly if the board considers that statistics are not meeting the standards of the code, it can act. The ultimate sanction of the board is obvious enough: it would include in its annual report presented to Parliament any criticism that it had voiced about national statistics produced by anyone. Within that framework, in ensuring compliance with the code of practice for national statistics, the board has clearly both the powers and the obligations under the Bill. We should leave the board to develop the code of practice against those obvious expectations.
I think that I am being slow. The Minister has said that we should not be trying to tell the board how to do its job. Perhaps we could focus on Amendment No. 64, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Oakeshott, which states:
“All those who produce National Statistics must conform with the Code”.
Does the Minister accept that?
I am seeking to avoid the prescription put forward by the noble Baroness on how the board should go about its work. In consultation with and working with all the relevant stakeholders, the board is to develop the mechanisms for engaging on the interpretation of the code and reporting breaches of it. Of course, behind all that lies the obligation of the board to report to Parliament. If, within that report, it identifies a breach of the code by any official, it would put that in its national statistics. Under Clause 13, the board can reassess the national statistic if it believes that there has been a breach; it can indicate that it is dissatisfied with the quality of the national statistic and it has important sanctions for guaranteeing that its judgment is respected.
So far I have not taken part in this debate but, having listened to the Minister trying to defend his position, I am galvanised into action. The Minister is failing to take account of the fact that the board does not regulate statistics; the board regulates the people who produce and disseminate statistics. The code will cover the performance and the activities of those who produce and disseminate statistics.
My noble friend and noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches—particularly in the amendment just referred to by my noble friend—are asking that there should be a sanction if people do not conform to the code. If the board tries to put into the code certain sanctions in the event of a failure to observe the code, surely people will say that it has no statutory authority to do that. Nothing in the Bill gives it any power to impose sanctions. They will refer to this debate and say that the Minister expressly refused to allow there to be any provision, on the excuse that he does not want to tell the board what to do. If the board wants to impose sanctions, it has no power to do so, without this group of amendments. I just do not think that the Minister is addressing the arguments.
I thank the Conservative Benches for putting the case. If the Minister feels that this is too prescriptive—we look forward to hearing why—could he simply and straightforwardly say from the Dispatch Box whether he agrees that all those who produce national statistics must conform with the code? Could he at least say that?
I do say that, but I thought that I was being pressed on the mechanisms—the potential sanctions—by which the board would give effect to that. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. Of course, he is right to say that it is the people who produce the statistics against whom the comments are made, but the board can comment on the fact that a standard has not been achieved on a national statistic. In such circumstances, we would expect the board to work with those involved in a breach to effect change. That would occur and there would be improvement. I was merely indicating that the board has the power to report such a development if it thinks it necessary. That is a very significant sanction. All those working on the production of national statistics will know that, if they are in breach of the code, that sanction might be deployed against them. That underpins the Bill, in relation to the code and its significance, and we do not need to be prescriptive about the work of the board in line with these amendments.
That is an interesting point. Departments also respond to issues of public pressure and it will be recognised that the salience of some statistics often follows the nature of political debate. To take the most obvious example in recent years, we are all aware that the absence of statistics on the number of illegal immigrants in the country has raised the political debate to an intensive level, thereby occasioning Ministers to indicate that weaknesses in such areas should be repaired. The noble Viscount will recognise that that is meant to relate to high levels of policy, to such statistics and certainly to national ones.
The Minister has sought to respond to this group of amendments solely in terms of what should be prescribed for the board. That was not the heart of these amendments. The heart of them was to create an obligation on those who produce statistics to comply with the code and then to monitor against that. The Minister has consistently not addressed whether the Bill should contain that obligation, which, I remind the Committee, both the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistics Commission thought would be an important component of the new scheme for statistics set out in the Bill.
Today, I shall withdraw the amendment. I should like to have discussions with the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Oakeshott, on the best form of amendment to bring back on this topic on Report. Clearly, this is not a subject that we can regard as settled by debate in Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
57: Clause 10, page 5, line 13, at end insert—
“(1A) The Code shall include rules and principles relating to the access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication (“pre-release access”), including—
(a) the circumstances in which, or descriptions of statistics in relation to which, pre-release access may or may not be granted;(b) the persons, or descriptions of persons, to whom pre-release access may be granted;(c) the period, or maximum period, during which pre-release access may be so granted;(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.(1B) The Code may make different provision for different cases.”
57A: Clause 10, page 5, line 13, at end insert—
“(1C) The rules and principles for pre-release access required by subsection (1A) shall keep such access to the minimum necessary to meet the needs of Ministers.”
58: Clause 10, page 5, line 13, at end insert—
“( ) The Code shall include rules and principles relating to the release of official statistics, including—
(a) the location from which the release of official statistics may be made;(b) the time at which the release of official statistics may be made; and(c) the identification of the person or persons who are responsible for the release of official statistics.”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 not moved.]
61: Clause 10, page 5, line 16, at end insert—
“( ) the Treasury,”
The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 61 corrects what can only be assumed to be an oversight by the Government. Clause 10(3) lays out those whom the board must consult in preparing or revising the code of practice. It specifies only the Scottish and Welsh Ministers and the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel. Why is the Treasury, one of the most prolific producers of official statistics, not included? This clause gives the unfortunate impression that the Treasury will be in such control of the board and have such a close hand in drawing up the code that it will not be necessary to consult it. The Minister will no doubt rush to assure the Committee that that is not the Government’s intention. Will he explain why no government departments are included in the list? I beg to move.
We have an amendment in this group to insert “Cabinet Office” instead of “Treasury”, which reflects those amendments passed last week that give the residual functions, in central government, to the Cabinet Office rather than the Treasury; we think that the Cabinet Office is the appropriate place. For the reason given by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, it seems perverse that Scottish, Welsh and Irish Ministers would be consulted but not the main body of government. It might seem slightly surprising that we are suggesting an additional area on which the Treasury—in this case, the Cabinet Office—should be consulted, as we have been keen to reduce its influence, but, as I said, it seems perverse not to do so in this case.
The question is why the Government are stipulating that the board must consult the devolved Administrations, but no other government department, on the development of the code. The particular constitutional status of the devolved Administrations and devolved statistics makes it appropriate that we specify that those Administrations should be consulted on matters such as the code and the appointment of one member to the board.
Under the devolution settlement, devolved Administrations have responsibility for devolved matters and related statistics. By joining this legislation, they agreed that the board should have jurisdiction over devolved, as well as reserved, statistics. Given their constitutional responsibilities for devolved statistics, it is right that the legislation should explicitly specify that they should be consulted on matters such as the code or the appointment of one member.
As we have said on a number of occasions, we expect the board to consult widely on the code, including government departments. As I think has been suggested, it would be unthinkable for the board not to consult the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, as well as other government departments. That is why the devolved Administrations, but not government departments, appear in the Bill. It is in line with a theme that has emerged this afternoon—that we do not wish to over-specify to the independent board how it should fulfil its duty in developing and producing the code, other than in relation to its responsibility to the devolved Administrations.
That is a remarkable statement and part of me is rather pleased. In our discussion on the previous amendment, the Minister said that it was for the board to decide how the code might address breaches. The board might put in the code that a department had to report a breach to it. Suppose a department has a Minister whom the board feels has sought to undermine the integrity of statistics for political purposes. The board decides to strengthen the reporting requirements against that Minister and is in any case fed up with Ministers behaving in that way, so it thinks, “Right, we are going to change it and we are not going to consult on it. I have to consult the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, but they are behaving perfectly adequately, so we do not mind doing that, but we do not have to consult the Treasury, the Cabinet Office or the Home Office, so we are not going to bother”. In a way, that suits my purpose, but I am surprised that the Government feel that that is an acceptable way to proceed.
I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. However, I did not ask why he was consulting the Scottish and Welsh; I asked why he was not consulting the other government departments. This is not an attempt to specify how people carry out their duties and their jobs; as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has pointed out, it is about specifying whom the board should consult so that it does not have the option of not consulting people, or, as I said, of giving the impression that the Treasury is so on top of the case that it does not need to be consulted. I am sure that we will want to return to this subject at a later stage, but in the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
62: Clause 10, page 5, line 19, after “Ireland,” insert—
“( ) the Information Commissioner,”
The noble Earl said: From the Bill’s drafting, it is unclear to what extent it is intended that the code of practice will deal with the raw data from which statistics are derived. I could infer from our earlier debate on the amendment of my noble friend Lord Jenkin that the Government expect that the code will deal with that. Notwithstanding that, I would welcome clarification from the Minister. It will come as no surprise that I believe that the matter should be covered, not least because, as I indicated previously, the Bill envisages granting the Statistics Board access to broad swathes of administrative data that will qualify as sensitive and/or personal under the Data Protection Act. In those circumstances, it would be wholly appropriate for the code to be prepared and revised to reflect the expertise and advice offered by the Information Commissioner. I beg to move.
My name is added to this amendment. It is curious that the Bill does not mention the Information Commissioner anywhere, yet there are some heavy-duty clauses later in the Bill dealing with information disclosure and information sharing. I am sure that the Minister will have read reports of the evidence given by the Information Commissioner to a committee in another place earlier this week. The commissioner drew attention to the fact that he does not at present have sufficient powers to protect the way in which information is shared and disclosed. My noble friend’s amendment is but one small step that we must consider taking to ensure that the Bill fully reflects the important role that the Information Commissioner can and should have in relation to the information provisions contained within it, as they affect the Statistics Board.
This amendment, like the previous one, would require the board to consult the Information Commissioner when preparing or revising the code of practice. As I explained in relation to the proposal to add a requirement for the board to consult the Treasury and Cabinet Office during the preparation and revision of the code of practice, we fully expect, as we set out in the Explanatory Notes, that the board will consult widely across government, as well as with a wide range of other bodies with relevant experience and interest. Similarly, the Government fully expect the board to consult the Information Commissioner when drawing up the code. However, as I have said previously, we do not intend to stipulate specific organisations on the face of the legislation. At the risk of repeating myself, we think it best to leave it to the independent board, which is composed of those with a range of expertise and backgrounds to ensure that it conducts an effective consultation on the code. As with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, I should say that it would be almost inconceivable for the code of practice to be drawn up without the Information Commissioner being consulted.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I could also be slightly worried about the risk of repeating myself, because the sort of response that technically I should be obliged to give is pretty much the same as was given in response to the last amendment. An idle thought crosses my mind, particularly about the Bill and particularly given the recent evidence provided by the Information Commissioner to the Home Office. I wonder whether I might be tempted, in view of the Minister’s response, to compile a privacy impact assessment for the Bill. I am certainly not entirely happy with the situation that persists at the moment, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 63 and 64 not moved.]
Clause 10, as amended, agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 not moved.]
Clause 11 [Pre-release access]:
[Amendment No. 67 not moved.]
A number of amendments in the previous group were quite similar. We moved formally Amendments Nos. 57, 57A and 58, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Desai, will find are similar but relate to a different place in the Bill to the one that he just queried.
75: Clause 11, page 6, line 4, leave out “Treasury” and insert “Cabinet Office”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 76 and 77 not moved.]
Clause 11, as amended, negatived.
Clause 12 [Assessment]:
[Amendments Nos. 78 to 86 not moved.]
Clause 12 agreed to.
Clause 13 [Re-assessment]:
[Amendments Nos. 87 to 89 not moved.]
Clause 13 agreed to.
Clauses 14 and 15 agreed to.
Clause 16 [List of National Statistics]:
[Amendments Nos. 90 to 92 not moved.]
Clause 16 agreed to.
Clause 17 [Code: transitional]:
93: Clause 17, page 8, line 15, leave out subsection (4)
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 17, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 18 [Production of statistics]:
[Amendments Nos. 94 to 99 not moved.]
Clause 18 agreed to.
Clause 19 [Retail prices index]:
[Amendments Nos. 100 to 102 not moved.]
103: Clause 19, page 9, line 4, at end insert—
“( ) If the Board is prevented from making a change to the Retail Price Index because the Chancellor of Exchequer has withheld his consent under subsection (3), it shall report that fact publicly.”
The noble Lord said: The amendment would open up some of the areas of obscurity covering the methods of calculating the retail prices index. The honourable John Healey laid out in Committee in another place the circumstances that justify the Chancellor continuing to have a veto over the changes to the calculation of the retail prices index. He explained that, given the right of holders of these gilts to sell them back to the Government at face value, if the RPI is to be changed to the holders’ material detriment, the potentially huge cost to the taxpayer makes it essential that there is provision for such a change to be prevented.
The amendment is not intended to reduce the Chancellor’s role, but if the Bill is to restore public trust in the production of statistics and the accuracy of the figures, it must above all be transparent. Even if there is a reason for the Executive’s continuing involvement in the methods used for calculating the RPI, the Government should ensure that it is obvious that there is complete transparency at every stage. As mentioned in another place, it was a lack of transparency and an unclear division of responsibility that led to the confusion and suspicion over the February 2004 changes incorporating hedonic regression methods, even though there was no evidence of political partiality. Although the Bill clearly improves matters, the amendment would go a little further and would be that much more useful for addressing public fears. I beg to move.
When the issue arose in another place, as my noble friend has just described, I recognised that I was not familiar with “hedonic regression”. I therefore asked the Library here if it could make me a report, which it did. It was a good quarter of an inch thick and contained a huge amount of material, which sat on my desk for a number of weeks before I felt that I no longer had any room for it. It is a hugely complex concept that can affect the measurement of both the retail prices index and the consumer prices index, and I should think that it is one of those things that very few people, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and others who are and have been deeply involved in statistics, understand anything about. I must say that, despite the evidence that the Library was able to give me, I am still not much the wiser. However, I accept and reinforce the point that my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising has made that, if the Chancellor is going to withhold consent from a change that the board feels is necessary to measure the RPI, that should be transparent and should therefore be reported. I hope that the Government will see the sense of that and be able to accept the amendment.
I do not know how far my noble friend will have been briefed on the whole history of the RPI, but I was a member of the Retail Prices Index Advisory Committee for many years. There were frequent changes as new products came on the market—there were changes certainly every few meetings—and I do not recall the Treasury vetoing any of them. But what did happen—it was a memorable moment—was that when the RPI Advisory Committee had a debate about housing costs, we made a decision that mortgage interest rates should be retained within the RPI. The Treasury did not so much reject the advice—it was not in a position to do so—but decided to go in the direction of RPI minus X and sell that to the City of London. Will my noble friend take account of that variation on the theme? The downside is that it has led to a proliferation of indices. When we take the international dimension into account, there are now three indices when one counts RPI minus X, and the CPI, which is used internationally. I am a bit doubtful about whether the position is as simple as the Bill or the amendment implies.
In the early 1960s, I was in probably the first batch of people to be subjected to a seminar on the hedonic prices index. It was an attempt to explain how the price of an automobile changes in terms of its various characteristics—its top speed, comfort and so forth—because there was no other way of explaining why the price of a car changes. It was agreed that it must be because the various components are valued differently by different people. That started the hedonic price statistics movement and made available a theoretical basis for why it makes sense in terms of economics. I shall spare noble Lords from listening to the detail.
In the light of what my noble friend Lord Lea said, what concerns me is that the reason for including or not including something may be technical, and perhaps sensitive. By making these issues public, we may create interruptions in the market because of a problem so technical that most people do not understand it. However, they will say, “If the Chancellor has forbidden it, he must be hiding something”. It is quite possible that the Chancellor had taken the view that a certain issue was not yet settled. He would not be ready to judge whether a particular item should be incorporated into the index. I understand that someone should have oversight in this area and I would like to find a way for the board to deal with such matters, but not so as to cause unnecessary fluctuations in the market for, say, gilts. Those things affect people’s livelihoods. I do not want our universal suspicion of the Chancellor and the thought that he or she is up to no good to be incorporated into the Bill, because that may cause problems later on.
I support the amendment. Clause 19 refers solely to the retail prices index. Am I getting hold of the wrong end of the stick or do we need to have a similar form of protection for the consumer prices index if the board is prevented from making a change to that index because the Chancellor has withheld his consent under subsection (3)? Should the amendment be extended to cover that circumstance?
The RPI is the measurement that really matters. To be honest, I found the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, rather difficult to follow. If the independent Statistics Board wants to change the basis of the RPI—changes are made from time to time—and if the Chancellor of the Exchequer prevents it doing so, that is a very material and public thing to know and is not something that affects only the holders of index-linked gilts. Given that there is an obligation to raise pensions by 2.5 per cent a year and similarly to increase public sector pensions, it would affect virtually every pensioner in the country. At the very least, the pensions of millions of people would be affected. I would have thought it a matter of perfectly legitimate public concern to know if the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to stop the independent Statistics Board doing this.
I hope that I will not have to engage with my noble friends Lord Lea and Lord Desai on the broader issues of the RPI, and not even with the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, because things are difficult enough on the narrow focus I have before me, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, indicated. The intention behind this provision is to deal with a highly specific circumstance, one that can be justified on the basis that it relates to the UK debt market and certain holdings of gilts. The holders have the right to redeem their gilts if the RPI changes in certain circumstances. If it did so when these gilts were below par, the implications for the nation’s finances would be very considerable. We are talking about significant sums of money which relate to what are fortunately time-limited gilts, so I can say that this applies only to the year 2030 so far as this provision is concerned. However, we are reflecting here a highly sensitive change in the RPI which would trigger certain market consequences.
What is being sought, therefore, is that the consent of the Chancellor would be required only under these narrow and specifically defined circumstances. It will be required when the Bank has determined that the proposed changes to the RPI are likely to trigger the clause in relation to gilt-edged securities. Should the Bank determine that the change is not both fundamental and materially detrimental to the holders of index-linked gilts, the Chancellor will play no part in the proposed change. It is very restricted and is set against the background of the nation’s financial needs—not just potential costs on the financial markets, but real fiscal costs because it is likely that the new gilts would need to be issued at higher yields if those they were replacing were redeemed at high yields. That could lead to substantial additional fiscal costs.
We do not expect the Chancellor’s role to be triggered very often. Since 1997, the Bank of England has not assessed any of the changes as being both fundamental and materially detrimental to the holders of the relevant index-linked gilts. Accordingly, if this provision had been in place over the past decade, the Chancellor’s role under this clause would never have been activated. While of course I respect the well motivated representations on transparency and openness made by noble Lords, as well as a certain anxiety about the role of the Chancellor in this sensitive area, I assure them that this provision is narrowly defined, highly specific and in the national interest. That is why we have included it in the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister, and I agree with him and with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that nothing should be done in a way that upsets or disturbs markets unnecessarily. But it would be much worse not to make changes, and I include in that negative changes in the form of preventing an element going into the RPI because it suited the Government not to include it. That would be considerably worse than any damage that could be caused by announcing them. Not announcing changes would be much worse because markets are quite capable of working these things out. Markets are extremely sophisticated. They can work out the elements which go into the RPI—the changes that may or may not be necessary. All we ask is that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer withholds his consent, it should be made public.
Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment, let me say one thing. If it is to be reported, that should be done in camera or in a confidential way. Parliament ought to know it, but I am not sure that the whole world needs to know. There is no true measure of inflation anywhere in the world. The best experts can take a view on it; other experts can take a different view. In cases where there are problems, the Statistics Board should report them. I do not want it to keep it secret, but I want that reported in such a way that Parliament can know about it but can restrict the release of that information.
All kinds of negative interpretations can be put on matters which are completely technical, and that will cause problems. The market can know something but it knows it eventually rather than immediately, so you will cause fluctuations.
I agree with the noble Lord that all inflation is subjective. However, I still think that problems become considerably worse by keeping knowledge from people rather than letting them have it. His faith that if Parliament were given this information it would not get out is very touching. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 19 agreed to.
Clause 20 [Statistical services]:
[Amendment No. 104 not moved.]
105: Clause 20, page 9, line 25, leave out “, adapting and developing”
The noble Earl said: Manifestly, in seeking to delete the words “adapting and developing”, the amendment is probing in character. It may be of assistance to the Minister if I intimate to him and to the Committee that the principal thrust of all my remaining amendments is to try to ascertain the extent to which, if at all, the Government envisage that the Statistics Board could or should perform a function as a repository for raw data which could then be disseminated more widely throughout government. Indeed, if he could offer me assurances on that point, much of the sting of my later amendments would be drawn.
As I argued at Second Reading, I believe that it would be a mistake if, in seeking to make our statistical service more independent, we were to create a different but no less powerful reason for the public to distrust the work of the board. Use of it as a conduit for widespread sharing of information or data rather than just statistics would be just such a reason.
With regard to the amendment, it goes without saying that the board should have a power to adapt and develop raw data in order to be able to produce meaningful statistics. However, as I read the drafting, the power here is not confined to statistical purposes. In other words, it could be interpreted that it permits “adaptation and development”—for example, for onward transfer of raw data to government departments or public authorities other than that from which they were originally obtained. I do not believe that the Statistics Board should be embroiled in that sort of merry-go-round. I beg to move.
I hope that I shall be able to reassure the noble Earl on his genuine concern. The amendment relates to the board’s function in Clause 20 of providing statistical services to any person in any place within or outside the United Kingdom. It might be helpful if I first say just a little about what we envisage by statistical services provided under Clause 20. This power is intended to allow the board to provide the range of services which the ONS provides currently.
The ONS undertakes services which include providing information and advice on the production of statistics, including to Governments in other countries developing their statistical infrastructure. For example, the ONS supports statistical capacity building in Ukraine, and undertakes a range of surveys, such as the English House Condition Survey that the ONS carries out for the Department for Communities and Local Government or the “omnibus” survey, which allows government departments or agencies that conduct work with a direct policy purpose to commission a few questions in a survey, providing a fast, cost-effective and reliable way for organisations conducting work in the public interest to obtain information. I think that the noble Lord accepts that there is necessary adaptation in some of the statistics which are provided.
Amendment No. 105, a probing amendment, seeks to prohibit the board from “adapting and developing” data under this function. However, in the course of carrying out statistical services, the board may be required to adapt or develop, and not just collect, data. Adapting of data is a significant part of any useful data-processing service the board is likely to provide and as such this should be retained.
At present, for example, the DTI undertakes surveys on construction, selecting businesses from its register of construction businesses as the sample frame. The DTI passes this list of businesses to ONS, where ONS adapts these data using information in its own business registers. For example, the ONS would add records of new construction businesses discovered through its own surveys of business or would inform the DTI that a business on the DTI’s register is no longer trading in construction. The adapted data are returned to the DTI, thereby keeping its construction register in step with the main ONS business register. A service level agreement governs this service and a fee is charged.
Given that such work is currently undertaken by the ONS, we think it appropriate that the clause makes it explicit that one example of statistical services that may be provided by the board is in adapting and developing data. This will not allow the board to become simply a conduit of information across government through Clause 44 as it is clear from Clause 44(9) that the regulation may be made only where disclosure is required by the board to carry out its function; and, furthermore, when disclosure is in the public interest. I hope that the noble Earl is satisfied with the explanation I have given.