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Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 12 November 2008

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

The noble Lord said: This order is part of a wider programme of work implementing the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007—many Members of the Committee will have very happy memories debating that last year—which gained Royal Assent in summer 2007. The order relates to the principles and rules to be followed when granting pre-release access to official statistics. The rules, along with the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice for official statistics, will be used as the authority’s benchmark for its formal assessment of national statistics.

Pre-release access to statistics is access primarily by Ministers and officials to the final statistical data in the form in which they are to be published in advance of their release. The aim of pre-release access is to enable such Ministers at the time of release to account for the implications of the policy areas for which they are responsible. Additionally, it allows Ministers and their supporting officials to take any immediate action that might be required in the light of the statistical information being released.

Following careful consideration of responses to its consultation on this matter, the Government propose to tighten the rules under which pre-release access can be granted. Pre-release access will be limited to a strict maximum of 24 hours, reduced from up to five working days at present. It will be limited to the minimum necessary number of people and a minimum number of statistics. Where pre-release access is granted, it shall be done in an open and transparent manner, with details documented and published at the time of release. The need for pre-release access to a publication and the people who are to be granted access will be reviewed ahead of release of the relevant statistics. The decisions on pre-release access will be led by the head of profession for statistics for each government department. Each department will publish the arrangements that it has put in place to implement the pre-release regulations.

Access will also continue to be allowed in a limited number of special circumstances, reflecting current policy, to allow, for example, the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England to make decisions about interest rates, with access to the latest up-to-date statistics, and to allow journalists to support accurate reporting and well informed debate. Details will be published of the journalists who are to be given access to statistics ahead of release. The justification for pre-release access for each person receiving it should also be available on request. Once pre-release access to a statistic in final form has been granted, it will be under embargo, which means that its contents cannot be shared with others until the point of publication.

Those granted pre-release access to statistical releases must, as now, not alter or attempt to alter the content or timing of these releases or the way in which they are presented, and the pre-release access period must not be used for personal gain or political advantage. Pre-release access may be removed from anyone knowingly breaching these rules.

Only statistics deemed by the independent UK Statistics Authority to comply with the rules in the order will be eligible to be branded as national statistics. The Government will review the new pre-release arrangements after 12 months of operation, including assessing whether they remain consistent with the broader objective of building trust in the statistical system. These rules ensure that pre-release will take place in an open, clear and transparent manner, with clear accountability and always with a due regard to the public’s trust in official statistics. It represents a considerable tightening of current practice. I hope that noble Lords will support the rules and principles set out in the order, to help improve the credibility and trustworthiness of official statistics. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008. 27th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

I thank the Minister for explaining the order, which deals with a very important subject.

In the United Kingdom, according to the Royal Statistical Society’s response to the Cabinet Office consultation, pre-release access to statistics has been permitted to many more people, for much longer, and for many more statistical series than it has in other advanced nations. This, in its view, potentially creates mistrust in the public’s perception of the independence of official statistics and increases the risk of leaks and improper comment. Since 2000, even for the key market-moving statistics, again according to the Royal Statistical Society, Treasury Ministers have allowed something like a doubling of the number of people to whom pre-release access is granted. Leaks have shaken confidence in Treasury statistics just when confidence in the markets is so badly needed.

The framework for statistics established by the Government in 2000 for the first time made explicit Ministers’ authority to determine who shall be granted pre-release access. Under this framework, departmental Ministers, including the Minister responsible for the ONS, determine which individuals should have access to national statistics produced by their respective departments in advance of their release, having first consulted the National Statistician.

The Government have too frequently spun statistical announcements to suit their own purposes. On 12 September 2006, the Prime Minister outlined the latest unemployment figures to the TUC conference prior to the public release of that information the following day. The Royal Statistical Society commented in its response to the Government’s consultation that advance access to statistics leads to,

“mistrust of the independence of official statistics. It is this public and journalistic perception of mistrust which is at the heart of the problem”.

The society would prefer the United Kingdom to follow the best practice of a number of advanced countries by dispensing with pre-release access altogether. Ministers would then only see the figures at the same time as journalists and everyone else. They would then issue a statement themselves, if necessary, later the same day. I can find no response from the Government to the points raised by the society but the Minister may care to comment on this.

Sir Michael Scholar, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, the very body established under the Government’s Statistics and Registration Service Act, said that,

“the order is a welcome step forward in that it formally restricts pre-release access for the first time. But in the view of the Statistics Authority it still leaves government departments and ministers too much latitude. A system which continues to grant pre-access to statistics to ministers and officials, but not to other people, is unlikely to further our aim of promoting public trust in the Statistical Service”.

He also said:

“The Authority’s draft Code of Practice … promotes the principles of equality of access to statistics and the release of statistics at the earliest possible opportunity. Pre-release access sits uncomfortably alongside these principles and must be kept to the minimum”.

Again, I would be most grateful for the Minister’s response to these points.

We on these Benches have been calling for some time for truly independent statistics, so we welcomed the Statistics and Registration Service Bill when it was published, although we felt that its proposals were too weak to ensure that statistics are genuinely independent of political interference. To recapitulate, our key issues with the Bill included the lack of an obligation for anyone actually to obey the code of practice; the fact that true independence of statistics would mean that all statistical activity in different government departments, not just national statistics, be subjected to the code of practice; the blurring of the lines between the executive and scrutiny functions of the Statistics Board; the fact that the board would be more credible if it were a part of Parliament, on similar lines to the National Audit Office, reporting to a committee of both Houses; and that the rules on pre-release access should be determined by the board and should be stricter. It is worthy of note that Section 11 of the Act explicitly states that the code of practice may not deal with any matter relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics, the rules and principles for which are to be provided by order by the appropriate authority.

We have the following specific issues with the order. First, the definition of those who are eligible to receive pre-released information is far too broad. Secondly, it includes advisers, which could include, at least, special advisers and third-party consultants. Thirdly, there is too much subjectivity over the circumstances in which pre-release access can be extended over 24 hours. Fourthly, there is no information about the sanctions for transgression of the code; frankly, we doubt whether merely not being allowed access to future information is much of an imperative. Fifthly, Ministers have the flexibility to dribble early information of their own selection to selected journalists. I would be grateful for the Minister’s responses to these concerns.

We are concerned that the Government have missed an opportunity, with the order as well as the Bill, substantially to strengthen the integrity and credibility of the system. The review in 12 months’ time is crucial, and we look forward to it with considerable interest.

I thank the Minister for his introduction to the debate and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for reminding us of the issues which remained on the table when we differed from the Government at the end of the Bill’s consideration last year.

I have a few questions of the Minister, some narrowly related to the order and some more general. We welcome the fact that there is now a restriction on pre-release. We argued strongly at the time that 24 hours as the norm was too long. The order provides that pre-release may be granted up to 24 hours. Does that mean that the Government will in every case take 24 hours as the norm, or can the Minister envisage circumstances in which the period would be significantly shorter? The order allows a significantly shorter period; indeed, it would allow the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, which we support, to have no pre-release period. Do the Government think that it will be 24 hours in every case? Although it was nearly five days in some cases, in others the tradition has been that the pre-release period was significantly shorter.

The Minister referred to a review after 12 months which would, among other things, consider the extent to which the new regime had increased trust in statistics. Will the Government or the Statistics Board undertake a survey to get a feel of whether trust has increased? When we were debating the Bill, well over 70 per cent of people, when asked, said that they had no faith in any government statistic. Do the Government or the Statistics Board plan to have a time series so that we can see whether the Act is having an effect on people’s perception of statistics?

One of the other provisions in the Act which is not referred to in this order but is hugely significant in terms of the way that it operates relates to the fact that the management of the release of information will be through a hub in the Cabinet Office. Is that hub up and working, and are the Government satisfied that those arrangements—which are literally as well as figuratively the central part of the new system—are now operating satisfactorily?

Can the Minister also bring us up to speed on one of the other major issues that we debated when the Bill was going through the House? I refer to the staffing problems that were arising for the UK Statistics Authority in the light of its move to Newport. Considerable concern was expressed that key economic data would not be released on time because of staff shortages. I should very much welcome an update from the Minister on how that staffing situation stands.

Finally, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, that there has been far too much leaking. However, does the Minister agree that provisions such as this have no value if those at the highest level of government feel capable of leaking the most sensitive information to senior journalists, as happened on the eve of the Government taking a major stake in the banks?

I am grateful to noble Lords who contributed to this short debate. I listened with the greatest interest to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, but his contribution could have been delivered in 2006 or 2007. In fact, it was delivered in 2006 and in 2007 by those who participated in debates on the Bill. I understand that he does not feel happy about certain aspects of the order that are now being taken forward. I understand his dissatisfaction with Parliament’s decisions, but he has to live with the fact that his arguments were not accepted either in this House or, much more crucially, in the other, democratically elected place. He can make promises on what he wants to change in the future, and he can certainly indicate his continued dissatisfaction if he so wishes, but he cannot expect me, at this Dispatch Box, to reiterate all the arguments that I put forward—I was going to say “succinctly” but will change the adverb—laboriously during the Bill’s passage, to the point where others were eventually either convinced or ground down by the sheer weight of the rhetoric. We have made it clear that we will carry out a review of this position in 12 months’ time, and we can return to the issues then. But all the criticisms that the noble Lord advanced related to the Bill which became an Act in the summer of 2007.

Somewhat grudgingly, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and, rather more generously, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, indicated that they welcomed the fact that pre-release was being restricted by the Act and that the time limits that obtained previously were being reduced. I have to say to noble Lords that other countries are involved in pre-release statistics, but I had the impression that it was being contended that the British Government were unique in suggesting that Ministers should be in a position to see the statistics before release. Well, I have a list of one or two minor countries, such as Germany, France, the United States, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, which all indulge in this practice. It was roundly condemned by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, but Governments find it to be essential in equipping Ministers to cope with material which in many cases is extremely complex and needs to be analysed.

It was suggested that Ministers would dribble out information to their favoured journalists. I cannot think of a single occurrence of that during any Administration that we have had in the United Kingdom. We intend under the Act to tighten up on pre-release. There will be no time for the practice to which the noble Lord referred to occur—although he did not give any illustrations of where it had happened. I emphasise the obvious and crucial fact that the legislation takes official statistics out of the hands of government and puts them into the hands of the independent authority.

Greater credit should therefore be given to this significant change. It is bound to take time to work through and win public confidence. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, spoke about the low degree of confidence in official statistics, but he will recognise that that the legislation sets out to address that by creating the independent authority. It will take time for the Act’s success to be seen. Being, like the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, a perceptive Member of this House, he will accept that official statistics tend to be in the eye of the beholder, and the extent to which they are believed reflects public perceptions of officialdom and, in particular, government. There will be fluctuations in that from time to time; Governments are used to having their reputation fluctuate during their period in office. However, a decent length of time in which we are able to judge the operation of the Act should bring the benefits which all sides of the House thought during the passage of the Bill should develop from independence of statistics. The order deals with the relatively narrow dimension of pre-release.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked whether the Cabinet Office is the hub of statistics. It is the base in which civil servants who serve the Government on statistics are located, which is why those who are here to support me today come not from Her Majesty’s Treasury, as they would have done if we had had this debate 18 months ago, but from the Cabinet Office. However, the hub of statistics is not the Cabinet Office but the Statistics Authority. That is whole point of our having relocated authority from a government department to an independent organisation.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will feel reassured that the Statistics Authority needs time to be grounded in public confidence. But it has a pretty fair wind behind it thus far. I do not think that I have seen, in any intelligent comments on the Statistics Authority, any comment that it is doing anything else than the job that it was set up to do—which was to be the central independent authority for government statistics and the crucial decisions thereto. Therefore, I look forward in due course to seeing the benefits of both the creation of the authority and the other dimensions of the Act which improve public confidence in government statistics. Of course, this order is merely a small dimension of that aspect.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, asked why the board did not report to Parliament via the Joint Committee. I remember us having that debate at some considerable length. The best way in which I may save the Committee’s time is if, perhaps, the noble Lord and I could have a gentle read through Hansard together, to my delight and his enlightenment over decisions taken in that area.

On Question, Motion agreed to.