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Statistics and Registration Service Bill

Volume 694: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

commons amendments

[The page and line references are to Bill 53 as first printed for the Lords.]

Motion A

12: 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 granted; and

(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.

(1B) The Code may make different provision for different cases.”

15: Leave out Clause 11

The Commons insist on their disagreement with the Lords in their Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67, 68, 69, 70 and 72, do not insist on their Amendments Nos. 15B and 15C, but propose Amendments 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment No. 15.

15D: Page 5, line 22, leave out “National”

15E: Page 6, line 4, leave out “Treasury” and insert “Minister for the Cabinet Office”

15F: Page 6, line 13, at end insert “and the Board”

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by their disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15.

There was much discussion of these matters when the Bill was last before this House, and I understand that the other place had a full and robust debate on this issue only yesterday. As we discussed when we last considered this issue, the Prime Minister has announced the Government’s commitment further to reduce the length of time for which pre-release access is available to 24 hours for all UK-wide and reserved statistics, which is down from the previously agreed reduction to 40.5 hours. By committing to reduce pre-release access from up to five days, as is enjoyed at present, to a maximum of 24 hours, the Government are demonstrating that they have listened to the strong views on this issue expressed both here and in the other place.

Under the Government’s proposals, as noble Lords know, it is for Ministers to set out in secondary legislation, and for Parliament to agree the precise content of the new pre-release arrangements under the new system. These arrangements will be set out in secondary legislation. This statutory instrument will set out rules and principles to restrict the number of people who receive pre-release access and the statistical series to which pre-release might apply. It will also restrict the length of time for which pre-release access is available to a maximum of 24 hours for reserved statistics.

We are not yet in a position to prepare a draft of this statutory instrument. The reason for that is, of course, straightforward. As I indicated when we last considered this issue, the Government intend to consult the shadow board when it has been established on the content of that order before laying it before the House. This provides a powerful role for the board in determining the new arrangements, and this role will—under the amendment made by the Commons that we are considering today—be confirmed on the face of the legislation. In this, as with so many of the other changes the Government have made through the Bill’s passage, we are accepting some of the arguments presented in this House. It has never been the Government’s intention to hand Ministers a free rein in this matter—indeed, quite the contrary. The legislation, together with this new legislative duty to consult the board in determining the content of the pre-release regime, will ensure a strong and meaningful role for the board, both in influencing the content of the pre-release regime itself and in enforcing the new arrangements.

We have a substantial degree of consensus on the importance and value of this Bill, which will govern the statistical system in this country. We have reached consensus on most of the key structures and processes that the Bill will establish. Wherever possible, the Government have moved to meet the views of all sides and have made real changes to the Bill.

We have amended Clause 25, on the board’s duty to produce and publish reports, to clarify that all reports must be laid before the devolved legislatures and the Scottish Parliament. We have changed the board’s objective in Clause 7 to underscore its role in promoting and safeguarding statistics that serve the public good. We have changed the name of the code of practice in Clause 10 to emphasise its applicability to all statistics. We have granted the board a duty to comment on those statistics that it felt should be subject to the assessment process, and clarified that when the statistics are produced by a Minister of the Crown, the Minister must respond publicly, stating when the board’s request will be complied with—and if not, why not. We have imposed a duty to comply with the code of practice. Amendments have been passed to clarify the separation of functions between assessment and the production of statistics and to clarify the role, responsibilities and functions of the National Statistician and the executive office. We have passed the residual responsibilities for the board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. On the face of the Bill we have made a commitment to consult the board on the content of the pre-release secondary legislation before it is laid before the House, and we have committed to consult publicly. At the highest level, there was the announcement that pre-release access will be tightened even further to 24 hours, as I have already mentioned. We have made a commitment in principle to create a central publication hub, through which all national statistics will be released in the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary; and we have committed to review the pre-release arrangements after 12 months, and to assess whether they hinder the broader objective of increasing trust in statistics.

The House will recognise that the Government have been responsive to arguments that have been presented here and in another place. Today we have suggested further clarification of the board’s important role in relation to pre-release. That is the last remaining area of contention. The Government propose real and significant reforms to the current pre-release regime, with a meaningful and strong role for the board in determining the new arrangements. The sooner the Bill receives Royal Assent, the sooner we can begin the important business of making a reality of the new system.

We have had very intensive and constructive debates on these issues and I thank all Members of the House who participated in them. I hope the House will recognise that the Government have listened to the strength of feeling on these issues. However, the Bill is too important to be put in jeopardy at this late stage. I hope it will be recognised that the best way to enhance confidence in our national statistical system is to ensure that the Bill gets a ready passage. Although I understand noble Lords will not be totally satisfied by this last response from the Government to the amendments that were tabled in this House on a previous occasion, I hope the House will consider that the Government have been sufficiently responsive and that the Bill is sufficiently significant for noble Lords not to press their Motion. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do not insist on its Amendments 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by their disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Motion. The other place continues to assert that the rules for pre-release are more appropriately made by Ministers. It has been the consistent position of your Lordships’ House that the independent Statistics Board, created by this Bill, should set the rules.

When we last debated the issue, the Minister said that the board would be consulted on the draft statutory instrument containing the rules, but he resisted the notion that consultation should be placed on the face of the Bill. We did not understand that then and we are not surprised that the Government climbed down on that in another place. Amendment No. 15F places consultation with the board in the Bill. It is not even as much as half a loaf, but we accept it none the less.

The Minister has also made much of the Prime Minister’s announcement that pre-release would be reduced to 24 hours. The Government have resisted here and in another place putting that maximum in the Bill. The Minister explained that very succinctly on 9 July when he said:

“We do not want to put the length of time for pre-release access in primary legislation as we want flexibility”.—[Official Report, 9/7/07; col. 1237.]

That can mean only one thing: that the Prime Minister’s announcement of the 24-hour limit is not a maximum; it is a minimum to be varied upwards without statutory constraint. The Prime Minister’s 24-hour commitment, therefore, lacks substance. However, neither of these commitments, to consultation and to 24 hours, really addresses the core issue—that the Government should not be setting the limits at all; it should be done by the independent Statistics Board.

We have thought carefully about whether we should ask the other House to think about this again. We thought especially carefully about it in the light of the views expressed by Sir Michael Scholar, the Government’s nominated chairman of the Statistics Board, when he appeared before the Treasury Select Committee in another place yesterday afternoon. Sir Michael's very clear view was that it would be preferable for the Statistics Board to set the rules. He also expressed the view that less than 24 hours would be desirable. I should say at this point that we welcome Sir Michael Scholar as chairman. He is known to many of us in your Lordships' House as a man of exceptional integrity and ability. If the Government think that they have selected someone who will be a pushover, they had better think again.

The Minister in another place tried to argue that, because the Government had conceded a number of points in amendments to the Bill, that was a reason not to give in on pre-release. The Minister set out those changes again today though he did not go as far as claiming that that meant he did not have to change anything more. When the Bill was first presented it was not a good Bill, and it is now a much better Bill; but the fact that the Government accept that they got it wrong on several issues does not entitle them to remain in the wrong on the issue of pre-release. All of that led me to believe that we should fight on for the principle of pre-release not being in the hands of the Government. But we recognise that the other place has clearly expressed the opposite view. We have therefore reluctantly come to the view that your Lordships' House should accept the judgment of the elected House on the issue of pre-release.

The Government continue to toy with ideas of elections to this House, and we shall perhaps hear more of that later today. They should be very clear that if this House were wholly or mainly elected it is very likely that we would not give way on issues of principle such as this. So we cede this point today to the elected House. In so doing we express the strong hope and desire that the Statistics Board will act independently and forthrightly in relation to all its functions but in particular to pre-release. We want the board to speak out openly and fearlessly against the Government when necessary. The consultation on the draft statutory instrument creating the pre-release rules will give the new board an early opportunity to show us what it is made of. We shall be watching the board’s words and deeds with great interest.

That leads me to my last point: who will be watching the Statistics Board once it is up and running? The case was made during our deliberations most forcefully by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding—who is not able to be in his place today—that there should be a Standing Committee of both Houses set up to oversee the work of the Statistics Board. That reflected our view that the board's work is so important that it transcends departmental boundaries and should involve the expertise of both Houses. I hope that the Minister can today give the House an indication of the Government's views on this. We accept that it is a matter for the authorities of both Houses, but we all know that the reality is that the views of the Government of the day are influential. I hope that the Minister will be able to conclude our proceedings on the Bill by giving some positive news on that front.

My Lords, a good number of humorous remarks were made yesterday in another place about those who were new boys and new girls to the Bill, but, like my honourable friend Vincent Cable in the other place, I am not a new boy on the Bill, although I am not the head boy either. I have to give the apologies of my noble friend Lord Newby, who has a long-standing business appointment in Yorkshire, but I am happy to deputise for him.

We on these Benches concur, as we have throughout the Bill’s passage, with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. She set out the current position very fairly. I must say in fairness to the Minister that we believe that the Bill has been substantially improved by scrutiny in this place. It has had rigorous scrutiny, fully backed by the threat and reality of substantial amending votes. It has been a very worthwhile process. The substantial and distinguished Cross-Bench input, led by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, has greatly improved this Bill. I pay tribute to him and to noble Lords on the other Benches.

I, too, welcome the proposed appointment of Sir Michael Scholar. I should declare an interest in that St John’s College, Oxford is one of my longest-standing investment clients, so clearly I must not say anything even nicer about him than we have heard already. However, I know him well and believe that he will do an excellent job.

We are concerned, as we so often are when dealing with measures of this type, that so much is left to secondary legislation. As my honourable friend Vince Cable pointed out, that is unamendable. If it is defective, we cannot discuss it and amend it. That raises a serious point of principle, which is why we fought to get as much as possible included in the Bill.

All that said, it would be churlish not to accept that this is a greatly improved Bill. We have not 99 per cent but probably 90 per cent of what we wanted. I pay tribute to the Government for accepting that they have to take this House seriously.

My Lords, my views are very similar to those of the previous speakers. The amendment proposed by the other House is not quite what we had in mind throughout our debates. As far as I understand it, it does not cover the place of pre-release in the code and it still leaves far more control to Ministers than we think is desirable. However, like the noble Lord, I do not want to be churlish. The amendment brings the board explicitly into the pre-release business, which accepts the spirit of what we have argued for throughout. That is coupled with the Prime Minister’s decision to reduce the pre-release maximum to 24 hours. Great progress has indeed been made. I, too, appreciate that and take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the flexibility that the Government have shown throughout the Bill’s passage in this House. I agree with the previous speaker that it is very much to the credit of this House that the Bill has been so substantially improved. I know that I speak for substantial parts of the statistics profession when I say that this work of the House of Lords is very much appreciated.

As we approach the end of the Bill’s passage, we recognise that much will now depend on the new board and its work together with that of the National Statistician and her forces. Their task will certainly be helped by the final form of the Bill, achieved after its long journey through this House. If I were allowed one final wish for the work of the board, it would be to emphasise for probably the 10th time that it must be concerned with the statistical system as a whole and not just with its centrepiece, the ONS. I was much cheered by the words of the Minister in the other place yesterday, who said:

“All sides agree that this is a desirable Bill, which enshrines in statute for the first time the independence of the Office for National Statistics and the UK statistical system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/7/07; col. 321.]

It is crucial that, in ending our discussions, we remind ourselves that what has been achieved is the independence not just of Treasury Ministers but, I hope, of Ministers as a whole.

I very much welcome the proposed appointment of Sir Michael Scholar as chair of the new board. That is not only because he is a very good pianist—we do a lot of music together—but because he has a remarkable record in public life, both in the public sector and in the academic world. To my mind, he has exactly the right combination of personal and professional qualities, together with the vast experience that the job needs. It is a splendid appointment, which augurs well for the future of the board.

Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, there is still one gap in the organisational framework to be dealt with, which is the role of Parliament. It has been crucial from the very first thoughts on the Bill that the board reports to Parliament. That is the top layer in the new system on which the reforms must rest. There must be more than just the occasional formal report or questions. That is totally critical to the new reforms. It seems self-evident that the committees in the present structure, with the Treasury Sub-Committee in the other place and the Economic Affairs Committee here, though excellent in what they do, are not adequate to perform the task that is now before Parliament. Rightly, they are focused on economic affairs, whereas the whole point of the new reforms must be that they cut right across Whitehall and the whole government system. That has to be achieved and both Houses have to be involved in a new system. With that still to be done, this is a very happy moment for the Bill and, if I may say so, for the statistical world.

My Lords, the proposal underlying the Bill was excellent, but the original Bill was seriously flawed. It displayed a lack of conviction, with Ministers showing great reluctance to let go and trust the board. Happily, this House has done what it is here to do. Even if we have not achieved everything that some people wanted, we have secured some major improvements. Within a unified board, there is greater clarity between the role of the board and the role of the National Statistician and executive. Her status as National Statistician and head of profession has been enhanced. Ministers no longer decide unilaterally which statistics are national statistics and which are not. The code now applies to all statistics, not just national statistics. The principle of pre-release has been accepted, the board is to be consulted and, if it is not satisfied with the way in which the regime is working, it can say so. I, too, accept that this was not my first preference, but I am prepared to accept the position that we are now in. The Cabinet Office is now the residual department and, as the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said, it is clear that the regime applies to the totality of official statistics.

By happy coincidence, the Government have belatedly accepted what this House has been arguing all along, that improving trust in statistics is an essential component of the wider initiative to improve trust in government life. As a result, they have volunteered the 24-hour maximum on pre-release. I am more sanguine than some that this will never be pushed higher than that figure. It has come forward late on, with the creation of the hub separating release from comment, which is possibly the single most influential change in the whole system.

I, too, endorse the proposal to appoint Sir Michael Scholar as chair. His excellent qualities have been referred to, but he was also for a while Permanent Secretary at the Welsh Office and so has a vested interest in making a success of the move of the headquarters of the board to Newport. I hope that the other place—although, of course, it should be not the other place but Parliament as a whole—will endorse this appointment.

I agree, too, that there is an unfinished piece of business and that we need a Joint Committee with the change to the Cabinet Office as the residual department. The responsibility will now move to the Public Administration Committee. I hold the chairman of that committee in very high regard but I do not think that that committee is really equipped to take on the role, so I strongly support this proposal.

The process of the Bill has been arduous. We have probably had one more round of ping-pong than we needed but I think that we can take satisfaction from the work that has been done. However, it is ironic that we started work on the Bill shortly after the other place voted that the Cross-Benchers should be thrown out of this House, in which case the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and others on the Cross Benches would not have been made.

My Lords, perhaps a non-Cross-Bencher may intervene briefly. I welcome the improvements to the Bill, as I do the effort that is being made, as a result of those improvements, to create a thoroughly independent and trusted system of statistics in this country. However, statistics must have another important quality relating to the service that they perform. I speak as a former Minister who, in the past, has been a consumer of these statistics. That quality is to provide Ministers in as timely a way as possible with the statistics that they need to make the right decisions.

I should be grateful if, when he responds to the debate, the Minister could give an assurance that, without in any way prejudicing independence—this has nothing to do with that—under the new regime Ministers will be better able to get the statistics that they need to do their job properly and to get them in time and that, if that requires extra resources to be given to the Government Statistical Service, the Government will provide those resources.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to what I hope will be the last stages of the debate on the Bill. I note the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who, I understand, is not able to be in his place today, and that made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who assuredly would have played a part in our deliberations at this late point had he been able to.

Throughout the Bill’s passage, the Government have sought to be responsive but, at the same time, they have strongly resisted moves to put in the Bill things which are intended and which will happen in any case. Nothing could be clearer than that with regard to the 24-hour maximum period for pre-release. The Prime Minister included that in his important announcement and it was an iron-clad statement. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said when she reiterated that she would have preferred that to be stated in the Bill, but she should acknowledge that the Government could not have been more categorical or authoritative on this issue, nor could they have committed themselves more fully than the Prime Minister did a short while ago.

I emphasise that there is always a problem with putting figures in a Bill. The maximum period is 24 hours but we want flexibility potentially to move that downwards and not only to have, as the noble Baroness suggested, flexibility in one direction. The problem with putting figures into the Bill is that they form part of the definitive law of the land and to change them requires primary legislation. We want this Bill to last for a very substantial time. It will certainly do well if it matches the previous legislation on statistics, which lasted for more than 60 years. The Government have a legitimate anxiety in such circumstances about putting such a figure in the Bill.

My Lords, what we have always failed to understand, both in this place and in another place, is why the Government cannot put in the Bill the provision for a maximum of 24 hours, since we understand that to be their firm intent.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that we bring a powerful new structure into place and a very powerful new actor in the board and its responsibility for statistics. Yet, with her proposal, should the board reach any different judgment on pre-release at any time in the future for any reason, it would be faced with a fixed position in primary legislation. We all acknowledge the significant role of the board. I do not see why the noble Baroness cannot accept that the Government are resistant to the rigidity that her proposal would impose.

I add a further point, to which the noble Baroness has scarcely referred at any stage during the passage of the Bill. The Government had to negotiate aspects of the Bill with the devolved Administrations; the Bill of course refers to national statistics and reserved statistics. We did, and do, discuss with the devolved Administrations their roles and legitimate interests in such structures. If we changed this position, as suggested by the noble Baroness, we would have difficulties with the agreements that we have struck with the devolved Administrations. This would cause considerable difficulty and delay.

My Lords, that raises a very interesting question. The Minister says that there is an iron-clad assurance from the Prime Minister. Is that iron-clad assurance also given on behalf of the devolved Administrations?

My Lords, it is within the framework of the Bill. The problem with regard to the legislative position, as the noble Lord will recognise, is that we have proceeded with the blessing and good will of the devolved Administrations and we did not say that we would put this issue into the Bill. I am sure that he will recognise our difficulties in that area.

I very much appreciate the approval that noble Lords who are very knowledgeable about this issue have given to the putative appointment of Sir Michael Scholar as chair of the Statistics Board. I enter a caveat of reservation at this stage, because the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that this appointment should be subject to parliamentary consideration. The Treasury Select Committee interviewed Sir Michael yesterday and is due to produce a report before the vote in the House of Commons on his appointment. I have no doubt that the other place will take firmly into account the widespread approval expressed in this House today by noble Lords with great expertise in these areas that this is an excellent appointment. Certainly, the proceedings in the Select Committee went well yesterday. The appointment is subject to parliamentary approval. I am quite sure that no one in this House will not applaud the Government’s intent with this and, of course, with the role that Parliament plays in a number of critical appointments.

The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has played a very constructive role in our deliberations and I thank him for his contributions. On not every occasion have I been able to accept his suggestions wholeheartedly, but I greatly appreciate the amount of work that he has done on the Bill. The only thing that I want to emphasise in response to his short contribution today is that the Bill provides that the board must treat the content of the secondary legislation as though it was part of the code of practice. I can give an assurance that it locks it into the board’s operations in those terms.

We have been asked again how Parliament will organise parliamentary scrutiny. Even at this late stage, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has expressed a further anxiety. Let me make it absolutely clear that it is for Parliament to decide. How we best approach the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of the statistical system, including the board, must take into account the change of responsibilities to the Cabinet Office. Proposals will be put forward, but it should be recognised that it is not for me to attempt to be definitive about arrangements that are for Parliament to make. Suffice it to say that the crucial role of Parliament in this area marks a considerable step forward in terms of our scrutiny of national statistics and the role that the board will play. I hope that this will be looked on in this constructive way.

I believe that we are concluding as we have proceeded throughout our deliberations. The contributions made at all the stages of this Bill have been thoughtful and constructive. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, has come to the debate rather late and has raised a somewhat extraneous point on the question of legislation, because he is in fact talking about government resources. I shall make the obvious point that the board is going to be a very powerful lobby for the effectiveness of the national statistical system and its credibility. I have no doubt at all that, in doing so, from time to time it will have occasion to express its view that certain resources need to be increased to improve that effectiveness, and Ministers will need to respond to such pressures. The whole point of this legislation is to enhance public awareness and the accountability of the statistical system. To that end, all these issues relate to the question of available resources. That, in the end, is why the Government need to have the last word, because it is the democratically elected Government who take decisions on such resources.

On Question, Motion agreed to.