Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, all Members of the Committee will be aware of the important work 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”,
which includes monitoring of 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 the public to have added confidence in their statistics. The purpose of this order, which is subject to affirmative resolution, is to specify these organisations.
The UK Statistics Authority has been consulted in preparing this order, in accordance with the Statistics and Registration Service 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 it is responsible. This approach saves considerable parliamentary time.
This is the fourth use of this order-making power by a Minister of the Crown, and revokes and replaces the one that came into force on 3 December 2010. The previous order contained 57 bodies. The 2010 order was amended by Article 17 of the Education Act 2011 (Consequential Amendments to Subordinate Legislation) Order 2012. This omitted entries relating to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and the Training and Development Agency for Schools, which were abolished by the Education Act 2011. It will also be amended by the Financial Services Act 2012 (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Order 2013, which will come into effect on 1 April. This will reflect the change in name of the Financial Services Authority to the Financial Conduct Authority, which comes into effect on the same day.
In arriving at the current order, 21 bodies have been removed from the previous order and five new bodies have been added. Much of the reduction in the number of bodies is due to the recent reforms to public bodies. As noble Lords will recall, in 2010 the Government announced plans to reform 481 quangos to help reinvigorate the public’s trust in democracy; to ensure that the Government operate in a more efficient and businesslike way; and to radically increase the transparency and accountability of all public services. A number of these changes will come into effect on 1 April this year. It is important that these reforms extend to areas such as official statistics. Therefore, some of the changes have led to the streamlining of some statistics but those most important to public life have been preserved. The longer-than-usual hiatus between this order and the previous one has been to ensure that the new order fully captured these reforms.
In summary, this order reduces the number of bodies that are subject to the UK Statistics Authority’s oversight; those bodies listed on the order 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 to be national statistics. I reassure the noble Baroness that I have discovered the difference between an official statistic and a national statistic, even though it took me some time. This House agreeing the order is a vital part of enhancing public confidence in official and national statistics, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his introduction and explanation of this order. Perhaps the only point he missed was to stress the importance of always having accurate statistics, and indeed that is implicit in bringing forward the order today. It is a sign of the times that public confidence is higher and trust is greater in statistics if they are seen to be produced independent of government, and I think we should put on the record our praise of the UK Statistics Authority and of the Office for National Statistics, which is part of the executive wing, as it were, of the Statistics Authority. In many ways, the authority acts as a check and balance on some of the important areas of the economy. It is helpful that the Statistics Authority can look at statements and figures so that the policies of all political parties can be held to account. We can ask the Statistics Authority to check the accuracy of any statement that is made.
However, this is not just about the face value of statistics, but how they are used and how they can be misinterpreted either accidentally or deliberately. We have seen that recently. The Minister may be aware that the Statistics Authority had to write to MPs. Any of us can make a mistake, and in this case it was made in a Conservative Party political broadcast on 23 January. It got into a muddle between debt and deficit, and that had to be put right. My understanding is that the broadcast said that it had gone down, but information from the UK Statistics Authority showed that net public sector debt in June 2010, the end of the second quarter, was £811 billion, which represents 55.3% of gross domestic product, and that by the end of the fourth quarter 2012 it had risen to £1,011 billion. We should thank the Statistics Authority because it is able to make corrections to statements made by politicians of any party because it has the confidence of the public behind it.
I know that the noble Lord has worked through the order and looked at the different definitions. As a former Minister who was in the same position that he is in now, perhaps I should not have been puzzled by this, but I want to ask about the Statistics Board. The order refers to consultation with the board and it is referred to in the legislation, but it is actually the UK Statistics Authority and the ONS. The only reference I can find to a board is to the Board of the UK Statistics Authority, whose membership includes people from the ONS—the chief executive, the National Statistician and the Director General. I am slightly puzzled about why the order refers to the board when the entity is in fact the authority, but I hope I am correct in assuming that the board he is referring to is the board of the authority. It would be helpful if he could confirm that.
The board was consulted and I assume that the response to the changes being made was positive. It would be helpful to have the complete list in the schedule, but 21 organisations were removed. If I understood the Minister correctly, he has already answered part of my question in his opening. Part of that arises from the Public Bodies Act, about which he will understand we have mixed views, in particular with regard to the changes being made. If those organisations are no longer able to produce official statistics, does that mean that there is now a lack of available statistical information, or has the work of those 21 organisations which are no longer on the approved list been allocated to other organisations? Are we still able to get the kind of information that was being produced? Further, is the Minister able to provide a list of the 21 organisations? It would be helpful if he could write to me.
The explanatory note also said that the charities being included as producing official statistics will have no official burden placed on them. Does that imply that they have previously produced statistics of use to government and held in public regard, but that have not been regarded as official? If the Minister can say something about that, it would be helpful.
I was puzzled to find that two organisations were not on the list. As I mentioned to the Minister, later on today we will have a debate on crime statistics. It is helpful to have this debate today to help inform that debate later on. In my reading for that debate, it was clear that the UK Statistics Authority says that there are two sources of official figures for crime statistics: one is police records from individual police forces and the other is the British Crime Survey. Individual police forces are obviously not on here, I assume because they feed information to the Home Office which then issues that information. If I am wrong about that, I would be happy to be corrected. But the British Crime Survey is not here. It is interesting if the UK Statistics Authority recognises the British Crime Survey statistics as being very useful, if not “official”—because that is a legal term. If it uses those statistics, I wonder if it would be appropriate for the survey to be on the list. Why is it not?
My final point is on another organisation that I doubt has been missed: the Office for Budget Responsibility. When they came into power, the coalition Government were clear that they wanted to see independent figures and assessment of the economy, and set up the Office for Budget Responsibility in response to that. That was widely welcomed. Yet it is not included in the list. Clearly, it is highly regarded—as is what it produces. Like the UK Statistics Authority, it is a check and balance. The Prime Minister said in a speech on the economy:
“As the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has made clear, growth has been depressed by the financial crisis, by the problems in the eurozone and by a 60% rise in oil prices between”,
and he gave the dates.
“They are absolutely clear, and they are absolutely independent. They are absolutely clear that the deficit reduction plan is not responsible; in fact, quite the opposite”.
The head of the Office for Budget Responsibility then had to write to the Prime Minister to make clear that that was not the case. He said:
“I think it is important to point out that every forecast published by the OBR since the June 2010 Budget has incorporated the widely held assumption that tax increases and spending cuts reduce economic growth in the short term”.
Clearly the OBR has the authority and credibility to write to the Prime Minister when he gets something wrong in talking about statistics and the economy, but it is not listed as an official statistic-producing body. It would be useful were the Minister able to help me understand the reason for that.
Those are the only questions I have. Clearly, it is helpful to have the list and we are obviously supportive of the order. It would be helpful to have the responses to the questions I have asked.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her constructive speech. Of course, I should have said that this is very much an all-party set of issues. The last Government introducing this new system of greater independence for statistics was a very valuable contribution to more informed debate. I am in some ways a great admirer of the Daily Mail and its uses of statistics, and the wonderful way it manages to imply that statistics mean something entirely different from what most of us understand them to mean. Usually you have to read down to the tenth paragraph on the second page to discover that actually the story is not as good as it seems. In politics, we want an independent body that can point out that statistics cannot be twisted in that way. That is what this current system most attempts to do.
I do my best to skim through several newspapers of one sort or another.
The Explanatory Memorandum for this order lists the 21 bodies that are disappearing. I know that the noble Baroness will be deeply familiar with a number of them, such as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services Limited, the National Patient Safety Agency, the National Policing Improvement Agency and so on. In almost all respects, the functions of those bodies have now been transferred to other executive agencies and the statistics which they were responsible for producing will thus be provided by the new agencies. However, I will check to see whether there are any holes in that and will, of course, write to the noble Baroness.
My understanding is that the Office for Budget Responsibility—again, I will check this and write to her to confirm it—rather like the National Audit Office, is an independent body and is thus responsible for its own quality assessment rather than being a government agency which has to be checked by the UK Statistics Authority. Similarly, the Bank of England’s statistics are not checked by the UK Statistics Authority because the Bank is an independent body which is responsible for its own statistics and their quality. That is my understanding on the OBR, but again I will check on that.
I will have to check which agency is now responsible for providing the crime survey. I suspect that it is under the Home Office, which will therefore be responsible for it.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for looking into this. As regards the 21 that were off the list, if he can write to me to clarify any gaps, that would be helpful.
I think the noble Lord will find that the British Crime Survey does not come from the Home Office. I drew a distinction between the police force figures, which I think may be produced by the Home Office, and the separate, more independent British Crime Survey. If the figures are used by the statistics authority, I wonder why they are not included in the list. I am very happy for the noble Lord to write to me on that.
I will check on that. It is absolutely right that we should use a case like this as a chance to check that reliable statistics on important matters are coming from agencies which we all respect.
Having answered those questions, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments and very much hope that the Committee will be willing to accept the Motion.