Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, all Members of the Committee will be aware of the important work that is being done by the UK Statistics Authority. This body was created in 2008 with a statutory responsibility to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics. This includes the authority monitoring and reporting on official statistics.
Under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics, government departments, the devolved Administrations and other Crown bodies are automatically deemed to be official statistics. The Act also makes provision for identifying other organisations as producers of official statistics. This is important as it enables their work to fall within the remit of the authority and for the public to have confidence in their statistics. The purpose of this order, which is subject to the affirmative procedure, is to specify these organisations.
The UK Statistics Authority has been consulted in preparing this order in accordance with the statistics Act, and is content for it to be laid. The Cabinet Office has laid this order on behalf of government departments in preference to each department laying an order for the bodies for which they are responsible. This approach saves considerable parliamentary time.
This is the third such order, and it revokes and replaces the one that came into force on 1 April 2009. The previous order contained 54 bodies. In arriving at the current order, three bodies have been removed from the previous order and six new bodies have been added.
On 14 October, the Government announced their plans to reform 481 quangos. Consequently, 37 of the 57 bodies in the order will be reformed. Once the Public Bodies Bill has received Royal Assent, many of these will be abolished through legislation. However, until the bodies are abolished or reformed, it is important to continue to recognise them as producers of official statistics so that the public can have confidence in their statistical outputs. The Government will lay a further order for the House to consider once the reforms have been completed. This is likely to be some time in 2012.
In summary, this order extends slightly the number of bodies that are subject to the UK Statistics Authority’s oversight. These bodies will have to work to the new code of practice for official statistics, and their statistics will have the potential to be nominated for formal assessment by the authority as national statistics. The agreement of the House to the order is a vital part of enhancing public confidence in official statistics. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his clear explanation. The integrity and validity of official statistics is an important issue. Numbers make the world go round, as the adage goes, and if the numbers are not right, authoritative and independent, the world has a greater tendency to go around wrongly. So the statistical output of a new number of public bodies being designated as official statistics is welcome.
The standards set for this designation are rightly high. The UK Statistics Authority, which we on these Benches established three years ago when we were in office, maintains high standards of integrity and independence, both in itself and in the statistics it produces—as, indeed, did its predecessor body the Office for National Statistics. It is important for the Government and for the country that it does so. Without proper statistics that are properly compiled, properly produced and properly presented, none of us can properly gauge the state of the country, the economy or where politics and government are taking us. So I welcome the inclusion of the statistical output of the new range of bodies listed in the schedule to the order and its status as official statistics. I am sure that the designation will be a benefit to the statistics, which will now be produced under official auspices.
One issue puzzles me, however. As the noble Lord recognised, as well as proposing this order he is also in the early stages of taking through your Lordships’ House the Public Bodies Bill, which aims to scrap or modify a number of non-departmental public bodies—or, as we might call them, quangos. The Bill had its Second Reading in your Lordships’ House last week, and although we on this side did not manage to convince the House of the value of sending the Bill to a special Select Committee, I think the Minister will agree that what was said in that debate gave him and his ministerial colleagues a considerable amount to think about.
The point that I wish to draw to noble Lords’ attention today is a point which the noble Lord has himself recognised: the overlap between the organisations appearing in the list set out in the schedule to today’s order and the lists of organisations set out in the schedules to the Bill. Let us take the new organisations that are listed in the schedule to today’s order. Of the six new additions to the list detailing the organisations that produce official statistics, half of them appear on a list in a schedule to the Public Bodies Bill as being under review and, in effect, two statutory instruments away from abolition: the Marine Management Organisation, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. On the one hand, the Government, the Cabinet Office and the Minister are saying that the statistical outputs of these bodies is of such value that they qualify to be designated as official statistics, while on the other hand the Government, the Cabinet Office and the Minister are placing these organisations on a list of public bodies that have been characterised, rightly, as having, in effect, the sword of Damocles dangling permanently above their heads. And that is only with the new bodies coming on to the list in today’s order.
The same applies to a number of bodies that are already on the list, such as the British Tourist Authority, the British Transport Police Authority and the Competition Commission; I could go on. So the question is this: where is the consistency here? Where are the signs that the Government have thought through all these issues? How does the Minister square the inclusion of a number of new and extant members on the designated list before us today with the proposals in the Bill? How can he value these organisations in one way but threaten their very existence in another? What will happen to the statistical outputs of these bodies if they are axed by another part of the Government in the future?
Consistency in politics is hard to achieve, but the Government seem to be doing two entirely opposite things at the same time. I would be grateful for an explanation of how and why the Government are doing so.
My Lords, I think I have the dubious distinction of being the only person in the Room who has taken part in previous debates on the equivalent order. I do not want to repeat the debates that we have had in previous years, but I draw to the Minister’s attention a point that was originally drawn to the attention of the House by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral. The body that produces the most statistics and is the most controversial, but sadly does not appear on this list, is the Bank of England. We have had happy debates in previous years about whether it would be a good idea to include the Bank on the list. I think that in the past the Bank has succeeded in persuading the Treasury that it should not be included—surprise, surprise—but the list would be strengthened, and indeed the way in which the Bank’s own figures are viewed would be strengthened, if the ONS could have a look at them. I do not expect the Minister to have anything of comfort to say because I know how formidable the Bank can be in guaranteeing and protecting its independence, but it is a logical body to be covered by the order. I remain sorry that it is not.
I thank both noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. I shall deal first with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. He is quite right that I am not in a position to give any immediate comfort, except to say that he will of course recognise, as does everyone, that the independence of the Bank of England has been a major development in politics. Indeed, one has to give credit to the previous Government for putting the Bank of England in a position of independent standing. Although the authority and the Bank are in regular contact with each other, they have agreed not to include the Bank in the 2010 order, and that has been done with the consent of the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The Bank has its own code of practice for statistics, which works well for its specific and important role. It passes a lot of data on to the Office for National Statistics, and any resulting statistics, including parts of the national accounts and their publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics, are national statistics and therefore fully compliant with the authority’s code.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the Leader of the Opposition, made a strong point about the overlap between this order and the Public Bodies Bill, and those who are responsible for my briefing for this short debate will vouch for the fact that my first reaction on receiving the brief was, “Oh, public bodies again”. There is, of course, an overlap, but I hope to persuade the noble Baroness that there is a consistency in that the Official Statistics Order deals with the current position and is designed to implement this year’s additional bodies and reinforce their standing.
As the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, the Public Bodies Bill is legislation in progress. It is not for me, standing at the Dispatch Box and dealing with this order, to presume the outcome of the legislative process in Parliament. The Government clearly have to allow for the passage of the Bill before they can address its statistical consequences.
I can reassure the noble Baroness that placing bodies in Schedule 7 does not mean that they are threatened with immediate abolition or that the statistics that they produce are not an important part of government. It is therefore very important to recognise that, although a number of bodies in this order are also mentioned in the Public Bodies Bill, the collation of statistics is a matter for government and will continue to be so. Any process that produces statutory instruments under the Public Bodies Bill will address the issue of the statistics that a body may well provide to government and to the public.