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Official Statistics Order 2008

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 25 March 2008

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Official Statistics Order 2008.

The noble Lord said: The order is part of a wider programme of work implementing the Statistics and Registration Service Act, which gained Royal Assent last summer after a thorough and helpful scrutiny process in this House. Before explaining what the order does in detail, I should remind the committee about that Act and the wider statistical reform programme.

In line with the wider government agenda of delegating ministerial power to credible, independent institutions with a clear remit set by the Government and Parliament, the primary goal of the reforms is to reinforce the independence, integrity and quality of the statistics produced in government, helping to improve evidence-based policy-making, contributing to better public services and long-term stability in the UK economy and for the wider public good.

At the heart of the Statistics and Registration Service Act is the creation of a new independent body, the UK Statistics Authority, which is known in the Act as the Statistics Board, with a statutory responsibility to promote and safeguard the production and publication of UK official statistics that serve the public good. The authority will begin its work fully on 1 April 2008. Two of the Statistics Authority’s main functions are to monitor and report on all official statistics, wherever they are produced, and independently to assess the quality of a core set of key official statistics for formal approval as “national statistics”.

The order relates to the definition of official statistics; the set of statistics that the authority must monitor and report on. Under the Act, all statistics produced by the Statistics Authority, government departments, the devolved Administrations and other Crown bodies are automatically deemed to be official statistics. This means that numerous bodies are automatically under the oversight of the Statistics Authority.

However, the Act also allows us to add further statistics by order. This is necessary for bodies that are clearly producers of important statistics but which fall outside the core definition in the Act. That may include, for example, NHS bodies such as the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which produces statistics on, for example, the number of people in the country who are obese.

The order that we are proposing today is particularly pressing for those bodies that produce national statistics in the current system, such as the Health and Social Care Information Centre and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Under the Act, statistics must be official statistics before they can be national statistics. To allow current producers of statistics to continue to produce national statistics at the start of the new system, these statistics must therefore first be specified as official statistics by order. If we do not make this order, these key statistics will no longer have “national statistic” status. These statistics will of course need to pass an assessment by the authority to continue as national statistics in the longer term, but we are taking about the immediate future.

Not all of the bodies on the list are national statistics producers. We are taking this opportunity to add a number of other bodies as official statistics producers. This may not be a complete list of all future official statistics, however. We want to work further inside government, and with the new Statistics Authority as it establishes itself, in order to ensure that the boundary of the official statistics system is set in the appropriate place. After that work has been done, it is likely—I know that this prospect will be greeted with great enthusiasm by the Committee—that we will bring another order before the Committee to add further bodies to the list in due course.

We have, of course, consulted the new Statistics Authority on the order, as required under the Act. The authority was keen to be sure that all current national statistics could continue to be national statistics under the new system, and that we had processes in place to ensure that the eventual scope of official statistics would be as comprehensive as possible. I am glad to say that we have been able to reassure the new authority on both points.

In summary, then, the order needs to be made now to ensure that a core set of crucial statistics can continue to be branded as national statistics come the start of the new system. I hope that the Committee will agree that this is necessary and appropriate, and can support the order, which is a necessary part of implementing the vital reforms to the statistical system that the Government have put forward to improve the quality and integrity of statistics for the public good. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Official Statistics Order 2008. 12th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

I thank the Minister for explaining the order. We on this side of the Committee supported the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, the strengthening of which we are proud to have contributed to as it passed through both Houses. For all of us, as the Minister said, the integrity of statistics is important. We welcome the Statistics Board, and look forward to its work guarding against the spin which has so undermined public trust in statistics.

There was a useful final report from the Statistics Commission last week on first releases, from which it was clear that, of the 37 sets of statistics released in 2007 that it chose to review, judged under six different sets of parameters, 20 per cent got a red traffic light, 57 per cent scored an amber, and only 23 per cent got a green light. That is some indictment, and shows the magnitude of the task ahead of the Statistics Board.

There also remains an issue concerning the distinction between national and official statistics. We who are closely involved might understand the difference, but a layman, I suggest, will have considerable difficulty understanding it and, importantly, the different level of scrutiny applied to each. There is the important matter of the lack of independence in the selection of statistics referred to the Statistics Board. It is apparently for Ministers to refer a particular series of statistics to the board to consider whether such figures should be national statistics. Surely it ought to be for the Statistics Board rather than Ministers to decide what statistics should be defined as national statistics. Only national statistics will have to comply with the code of practice.

The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the Minister decides whether an official series of statistics is suitable for reference to the board. Only then can the board decide whether that should be a national statistic, in which case the code of practice should apply or it loses its designation. Furthermore, if the Statistics Board has a code of practice to ensure the rigour of the preparation and production of statistics, should it not apply to all official statistics, not just national ones, especially, as I mentioned earlier, if no layman can be expected to appreciate the difference between them?

This brings me to the lack of an appropriate sanction for failure to comply with the code. Section 13 of the Act makes it clear that failure to comply with the code,

“in relation to any statistics”,

means that the designation of the statistics as national statistics may not be confirmed. It goes on:

“(but no action shall lie in relation to any such failure)”.

No action? Surely, if we have a code of practice that is designed to ensure the integrity of statistics and the body responsible for producing that series, especially if it is a government department, fails to meet the requirement of the code, just to have the designation “national” removed is not much of a sanction. The code needs to have teeth so that deficiencies can be remedied.

There also remains the important issue over the timing of the pre-release of statistics to Ministers. Despite the fact that pre-release periods were much reduced by the Act, we on these Benches still think that they are too long. We, and I am sure the new Statistics Board, will be keeping that under review.

My honourable friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells referred in the other place on Thursday to the fact that, under Section 11, the code of practice is not to deal with the pre-release access to official statistics. He pointed out that decisions on the timing of pre-release access will be handled by the appropriate authority, which rather astonishingly in the circumstances is the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office rather than the Statistics Board. That will do little to enhance public confidence in the process of the release of statistics. The Minister’s answer was simply that there had been consultation and that the department would have to consider its findings before it reported back. It seems, to put it mildly, rather odd that we are being asked to wade through this order before that reporting back has been done.

I note from the first Liaison Committee report of the 2007-08 Session, in response to a case powerfully put by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, that the Leader of the House agreed to relay to the Leader of the other place the committee’s recommendation that a Joint Committee of both Houses should be established to scrutinise the Statistics Board. I gave notice to the Minister that I would be asking him today whether the Leader of the House had had a response from the Leader of the other place, and if so what that answer was.

I note from the debate on this order in the other place on Thursday that the Minister responded to the same question that the Select Committee on Public Administration was the selected parliamentary scrutineer of the Statistics Board. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister why the Government think that a Committee of a single House, with already a very high remit, is more appropriate for this function than a specialist Joint Committee of both Houses with specific expertise in statistics that your Lordships’ House can bring. The latter, as my honourable friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said on Thursday, would provide greater reassurance to the public over the integrity of the preparation and release of statistical information.

Lastly, I observe that there is a haphazardness about the process of selection of the statistics that are covered by the order. The Minister went some way towards explaining this, but the list of bodies producing statistics so covered is in fact fairly short, containing only 37 bodies ranging from the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland to the various Armed Forces museums via some, but surely not all, the agencies producing statistics on various important government services. I would be grateful if the Minister could expand on the process for that selection. He mentioned that there would be more such bodies and more such orders. Perhaps he could explain why they cannot be dealt with here.

We welcome the broad thrust of the order, but it gives rise to rather more questions than it answers. I am worried that it will neither improve the integrity of statistics nor contribute to an increase in public confidence in them. It is significant that, in its final report published last week, the Statistics Commission, which is about to be wound up, singled out for criticism no fewer than three government departments, saying that they went,

“to some lengths to ensure that the press receive ‘the departmental line’ on the figures, through separate press releases giving a departmental steer on the numbers with attributable quotes from ministers”.

That emphasises, as I said earlier, the scope of the problem facing the Statistics Board. We look to the Minister for an assurance that things will improve dramatically.

I am grateful to the Minister for carefully setting out the background to the order. It reminds me of the heady days of last year when we considered the Bill. The Minister gave a masterful exposition of the difference between official and national statistics, which reminded me why we sought to abolish this difference.

Given that one of the arguments for the order is, as I understand it, that by making the statistics produced by these bodies official statistics they can in some cases become national statistics in due course, the relevant list is very curious because it contains both significant and relatively insignificant bodies. I can, for example, imagine why the statistics produced by the Audit Commission for Local Authorities and by the National Health Service in England and Wales might become national statistics and be of considerable concern. However, I find it very difficult to understand why the Hearing Aid Council would produce statistics of equal significance. I think that the reason for this lies in the somewhat tortured and artificial distinction between official and national statistics which the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, pointed out.

I have three questions about the order. First, it concerns England and Wales. What will happen in Scotland? Is there a process that the new Statistics Board will follow to ensure that when bodies in England and Wales are included in the framework an equivalent process takes place in Scotland so that the Hearing Aid Council for Scotland, for example, can be brought within the purview of the legislation?

My second question relates to the revenue implications of the order and more generally the current position in respect of resources available to the Statistics Board. When considering the Bill we spent a lot of time discussing whether the new Statistics Board would have an adequate number of highly qualified statisticians to do its work, particularly bearing in mind the move to Newport. Considerable fears were expressed in this House and by members of the statistics community that the new board would in effect be hobbled because it would not have enough highly qualified statisticians to do its work properly. As the order adds bodies that will be scrutinised by the Statistics Board, the question of resources is obviously highly relevant.

My third question relates to other orders that will come forward under the Bill. This is the first such order and must be about the least significant one that we are likely to see. Significant issues are still to emerge, not least of which is the question of pre-release activity on which the Government sensibly engaged in consultation that is now completed. However, if it is important that these bodies should be legally within the framework of the Statistics Board on day one, it is also important that the Statistics Board should have a legal framework on day one within which to operate in respect of pre-release. Can the Minister tell us when the order relating to pre-release will come forward?

We have no problems with the substance of the order, but it gives rise to a number of underlying issues that still cause us concern.

I promise not to delay the patient Minister for long. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the creation of the new board under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Scholar. As the Minister set out—I use his words—among its many duties from 1 April will be its responsibility to assess the quality and integrity of all key statistics in an independent manner.

As the Minister has stressed today, I realise that this is the first order that will be brought before us and that it is a first shot. Further orders will be laid and schedules listing other organisations will be before us before long.

I do not wish to diminish the importance of the organisations on this list—from the Hearing Aid Council to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. They are all extremely important. The reason for my short intervention is to ask the Minister to explain whether any consideration has been given so far to the inclusion of the Bank of England—the key organisation that will make the new body more effective and which should be included on a subsequent schedule. If the Bank of England is omitted from its work, the new body will have far less credibility in future than we all hope it will possess. If the Minister has not considered the inclusion of the Bank of England on this schedule, would he elaborate on whether he expects this to change when he lays the next order? What consideration might he and his colleagues give to the inclusion of the Bank of England?

As the Minister has explained, and other Members of the Committee have observed, the Government retain the right to determine the scope of national statistics and the organisations that can be placed on this and subsequent schedules. I shall not delay the Committee in underlining why the Bank of England should be included in future. It is clear that the credibility of the new body will depend on the Bank of England appearing on a future schedule. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to explain, if not today perhaps in writing as soon as possible, what consideration has been given to that organisation.

I am grateful to the three Members of the Committee who contributed to this debate. I appreciate their questions and their assertion that we are all concerned about the integrity and validity of statistics, and their recognition that the Act passed last year makes significant movement in that direction. I am also grateful that the Committee has welcomed this order. I appreciate their criticisms, some of which I shall attempt to explain in the form of constructive action that the Government will take to meet the anxieties that have been expressed. However, in one or two cases I shall have to disappoint noble Lords opposite.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, returned to one of the fundamental and most significant issues that we debated last year, which he will have known having read our proceedings; namely, who should select the statistics? The noble Lord says that he still finds the position adopted by the Government unsatisfactory and that this should be done by the authority. We had a very intensive debate on this issue last year. The Government’s view was that Ministers should do the initial selection regarding the work of their departments but, the authority—as it now is, but the board as we discussed it then—will have a fundamental role in evaluating and commenting on such statistics. The essence of the board’s role is assessment and scrutiny of the quality of official statistics, which is why it has been brought into existence to fulfil that most important of roles.

I hear what the noble Lord says about the difficulty that the layman will have with the distinction between official and national statistics. There is no easy way to solve that issue. I have looked at others' attempts to produce a definition of the difference between the two and have seen them struggle. My honourable friend in the other House made an analogy according to military ranks. I thought that that was a path which I would certainly not follow today. I just make the obvious point that, when statistics have been defined as national statistics, they are of increasing import in the role of the board in assessment and scrutiny. That is why the order is necessary to guarantee that those statistics that are already national should continue under the new regime once established on 1 April.

The difficulty with the establishment of the board—or the authority, as it is to be known—is that it drops into an ever moving stream of the evolution of statistics. We are not setting up a board with a clean sheet where it can say, “Now we will approach the whole of the work that we have to do afresh”—far from it. It is dropping into a very important role as an assessor, analyst and evaluator of statistics that are in constant flow. The order reflects that difficulty. Although I very much respect the broad case made by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about some of his anxieties, he probably underestimated that aspect. It is inevitable that the Government are involved in constant work to meet the necessary framework within which the board will operate, but everything is not cut and dried at this point. That is why we will need the additional orders.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to one of the most important of those orders, which concerns pre-release. That work has not been completed yet. It needs to be in place, but, of course, it is subject to parliamentary approval and will be tabled as an order. I agree with the noble Lord that it is likely that noble Lords opposite and the Government will think that order at least as important as this one, but I will not put them in rank order.

The noble Lord will recognise that the significance of this order is that it gives us the framework in which national statistics will be defined as such for the Statistics Board—a very important concept. I do not disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that, if last year's debates were anything to go by, he is likely to subject the concept of pre-release to as much interest as he does this order.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, referred to an issue debated extensively during the passage of the Act on which the Government have made some progress. As he said, as a follow-up to the passage of the Act, there has been correspondence between the Leaders of the two Houses about whether there should be a Joint Committee. Of course, they are the proper authorities to look at the issue of Joint Committee scrutiny. The noble Lord will recognise that one of the great strengths of the structure that we established last year was to create a new structure of scrutiny for statistics. It is transferred from the Treasury—his colleagues were very assertive that that should be so—to the Cabinet Office. It was argued at the time as one of the great strengths of the Cabinet Office that it had some responsibility across government and could provide that surveillance. Of course, that is also true of the Select Committee that scrutinises its work; the Public Administration Select Committee. It enjoys that strength too.

Regarding the proposal for a Joint Committee, the noble Lord is really saying that this Select Committee of the other place may not be adequate to do the job of scrutinising the Cabinet Office in this important work with regard to the Statistics Authority; when the Government take an entirely different view. In all parts of the other place and this place there is general respect for the work of Select Committees, the extent to which they keep their departments up to the mark and the power of their reports. The Public Administration Select Committee has a superb record, and several of its reports in recent years have been at the forefront of public concern and debate. That committee is poised to take responsibility for this work with regard to the Cabinet Office. That seems to the Government entirely appropriate.

Of course, I am at one with one of the noble Lord’s arguments; that there are key colleagues in this House who have vast experience of statistics and who can bring a dimension to the debate—we saw that during the passage of the legislation—which it is difficult for the other place to match. But I do not think that it can be gainsaid that the Select Committee structure provides an excellent basis for scrutiny of the process on behalf of the people whom Parliament represents. We can all have every confidence that the Public Administration Select Committee, which will take responsibility for this scrutiny work as far as the Cabinet Office is concerned, will do its work to great satisfaction.

Does that mean that noble Lords have no role with regard to the scrutiny of statistics? I am all too well aware of the skill with which this House deploys its resources and the way in which it holds the Government to account. I am not sure that I have done this, but my ministerial colleagues often say that they think their jobs are a good deal more difficult at this end than they are for colleagues at the other end—I am getting a few nods from colleagues, who are well equipped to respond. If any issues or problems crop up regarding statistics—the work of the Statistics Authority or of Ministers with regard to the material that they present to it—I have not the slightest doubt that we would have the fullest scrutiny at this end; and I can enumerate those key figures who will play their full part in that. I have not the slightest doubt that this House will play its part in that work, but I defend the Government’s decision that the government department that now supervises statistics is the Cabinet Office, and it is appropriate that its Select Committee should be responsible for supervising its work.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked me about Scotland, largely because he knows that I always quake the moment any devolved Administration issue arises. Any of us close to the devolved Administrations have every right to quake when we are operating in the British Parliament, and are all too well aware of the challenges which can be thrown up in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. They are responsible for the production of statistics in Scotland, subject to the scrutiny of the Scottish Parliament. They have every reason to look closely at the models that we are establishing for parliamentary scrutiny and will be engaged in similar processes themselves. The noble Lord ought not to worry unduly about that.

With my past interest in Newport, I took the opportunity of the wonderful occasion of the Welsh victory against the French in the Grand Slam the week before last to speak to a Newport colleague about resources, how the office was bedding down in Newport and whether some of the forebodings articulated in the middle of last year had come to pass. I got the report back that things were settling down extremely well in Newport. There is no problem with recruitment of expertise. The noble Lord asked about the revenue implications. I have no doubt at all that one of the aspects of the move was an advantage in redistribution of work and resources to parts of Britain other than London. Also, however, it has revenue implications in so far as it is somewhat less costly to run these big operations outside London than inside. That is the plus factor, which I remember we discussed last year at considerable length during the passage of the legislation.

I mention the issue that the noble Lord raised on the other orders. I can promise him those, one of which I know that he will enjoy debating. There will be a second version of this order. I confess that that is because not all the work has been completed on the bodies that should be included. If they look somewhat arbitrary, there is an element of that in virtually all statistics. Some of these bodies are able to produce readily assimilable material which is a guide to their work, but may not be on the same level as that of other organisations. That will be a feature of such a disparate range of bodies, but we are determined to include all those bodies which generate official statistics that may be considered worthy of being, in due course, national statistics.

The noble Lord, Lord Ryder, asked me about the Bank of England. Of course, I quaked again at that. We have had our moments of debate on the Bank of England over the past few months in a different context. The Bank has its own code of practice for statistics. The Government will certainly want to discuss this with the Bank, and are doing so against a background where we are now only a matter of months from a significant reform of the role of authorities such as the Bank of England and the FSA, and their work in scrutinising the banking sector. That work is continuing, but the noble Lord will have to await the outcome of those deliberations before he is able to turn a searchlight on the Bank of England’s own code of statistics and its effectiveness. The code established by the Statistics Authority will now certainly be an important benchmark against other codes.

I may not have answered every single question. I can see to his agitation that I have not answered the question of the noble Lord, Lord Ryder, to his satisfaction. I do not have a great deal more to add at this stage. If I can supplement the answer I have given him, I will, of course, write to him and ensure that other Members of the Committee receive a copy of that letter. I do not have anything beyond that, but the noble Lord will recognise that the work of the tripartite authorities, particularly banking scrutiny, is the subject of considerable work in government in the preparation of legislation which we have already announced to be only a matter of months away. He will appreciate that the issue which he has raised is bound to be included in that framework.

On Question, Motion agreed to.