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Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Revenue Information) Regulations 2015

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

The Grand Committee do consider the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Revenue Information) Regulations 2015.

Relevant document: 23rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, these regulations represent the sixth occasion on which the data sharing powers in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 have been used. They are designed to meet demands for the development of a single official house price index, as well as work being taken forward by the Census Transformation Programme to improve population and housing statistics. Statistics on house prices are of key importance to policymakers, including those setting interest rates, carrying out economic analysis and developing housing policies. Statistics on population and housing underpin resource allocation, policy formulation, decision-making, research and outcome monitoring across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

The feasibility work undertaken by the Office for National Statistics has provided the basis for identifying the information that is needed for research and analytical purposes. The data will be taken from information collected by valuation officers and held by the Valuation Office Agency for the administration of council tax. The information required for each residential property in England and Wales includes the following: the address of the property, the date of allocation to a council tax band, the date of the last inspection by the Valuation Office Agency, and property attributes such as total floor area and number of rooms. These details are required to create, for the first time, a single official house price index and to support the programme of research for the census and future provision of population statistics in England and Wales.

The ability to take forward work on a single official house price index will satisfy requirements identified by the National Statistician and provide a better basis for understanding and monitoring changes in house prices. The new index will be able to represent the prevailing market price of residential property at completion of sale, measure both house prices and house price inflation based on the price paid for transacted properties, have UK coverage, provide a consistent index to enable trend analysis, offer robust sub-regional estimates, and provide comparable estimates for subsets of transactions or properties.

Access to data on residential properties will contribute to the comprehensive programme of research, testing and evaluation being taken forward as part of the Census Transformation Programme. It is anticipated that the data will be used for the following purposes: to help develop an address register; to replace or supplement characteristics information traditionally collected in the census such as statistics on type of accommodation, number of rooms and central heating, and to produce new statistics such as information on the age of buildings.

The 2021 census will be online first. The address register will be central to a successful operation. The physical attributes of properties such as floor level and type of use will be invaluable in building the address register. Census statistics provide objective evidence to support decision-making processes and funding allocations across the public, private and voluntary sectors. For example, housing data from the census play a part in prioritising approximately £4 billion of annual capital spend by local authorities on housing. Furthermore, planning decisions on housing are frequently underpinned by the use of census data to ensure that optimal decisions are made based on local need.

In accordance with Regulation 4 of the instrument we are debating, the information may be used only by the Statistics Board, which is now referred to as the UK Statistics Authority, for its statistical functions. The ONS is committed to safeguarding all the data it uses to carry out its statistical functions, and perhaps I may assure noble Lords that full account has been given to specific statutory obligations, including those in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998. A privacy impact assessment for this proposed data share has been published. This confirms that the proposed disclosure is lawful and will not breach any statutory requirements in respect of the processing, transfer or handling of the required data. In all cases, the ONS complies with government standards for data transfer and handling. No data will be transferred to the ONS until both the Valuation Office Agency and the ONS are satisfied that appropriate arrangements have been agreed and confirmed in a data access agreement.

I hope that the need for and benefits of the proposed regulations are clear, and for those reasons I ask the Committee to support and accept them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I must thank the Minister for that. I tried very hard to get hold of the Statistics Board to ask it to send me information and completely failed to get anything from it, so I am delighted by the clarity with which he explained these regulations. This is a slight but sensible measure, which we are happy to agree to. As he said, it will allow Valuation Office Agency to pass house price data to the UK Statistics Authority. We are supportive of any better use of government data because we understand the benefits that can bring. We certainly need to be able to draw upon as accurate a picture as we can of the housing market, partly because of the incredibly important role it plays in the lives of a huge number of people but also because the market can be dysfunctional.

I shall ask the Minister a couple of questions. He answered quite a few as he was going through, but there are a couple left. In his introduction, he mentioned some of the safeguards about privacy. Clearly, data anonymity is crucial. The last thing homeowners want is any data being allow out there which would enable them to be identified. Although the Minister said there would be agreements, I was not quite clear what will be in them that will ensure that the information remains anonymous, particularly if the data sent over, when combined with other data, could become more identifiable than when they exist on their own. Perhaps he will be able to confirm that there is absolutely no way in which anyone’s data could be identifiable.

We are aware of the importance of the housing market to the lives of people who live in the homes and to the macroeconomic health of the nation. We know, as I am sure the Minister knows, that housebuilding is probably at its lowest level since the 1920s. If we are returned to office, we are committed to increase housebuilding to 200,000 a year, so we will need to get this right before we build all those new houses. We are therefore very interested in the supply side of the housing market. One of our criticisms of the Government’s current measures is that they have been aimed at the demand side of the housing market rather than supply side, which might fuel inflation rather than housebuilding. Therefore, these attempts to get better data on existing housing have to be to the good because they will help a concentration on the supply side of housing.

We also need, as I think the Minister suggested, government policy to keep a close eye on supply and prices. The future housing market turning into a bubble and collapsing is something on which we need better data, and I think we probably did not have it at the time of the last recession. It sounds as if this will help us towards that. Indeed, the lack of a definitive official index for house prices has been a problem. We have tended to have to rely on information provided by private companies, such as Halifax or Rightmove, or partial government statistics, so a much better official index will be of considerable use. We note that when the consultation on this measure took place, the majority welcomed the proposal for a single house price index and the clarity it would bring to the use of house price statistics. We agree strongly with that, but perhaps the Minister can say whether other datasets such as the Land Registry’s price-paid dataset will be used alongside this or is it going to be subsumed in it? I think, from what he said, it was going to be subsumed, but maybe he could just confirm that for me.

The Minister also said that this is part of the process of looking at whether part of the census could be undertaken electronically. While I completely understand the idea that this might help the address register for the census, I was slightly less clear on how the details regarding the amount of floor space, if it is unrelated to the number of people living there, were going to play a part in the census. I assume the aim is not to improve the comprehensiveness and quality of the census, but if it is, perhaps the Minister can spell out how those improvements could be made.

The population and housing statistics are obviously subject to an enormous amount of churn so again this index is going to be welcome, though it may have some of the statisticians running to keep up with change. We wish them luck in that. We support the statutory instrument and hope that it will contribute to a more accurate and comprehensive house price index, which will therefore be—as the Minister indicated—of much greater to use to policymakers in the future.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her broad support for these measures. She is absolutely right that these are sensible measures and it is very important—to use her words—that we make better use of data and create an accurate picture. These regulations are designed to ensure that. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of safeguards. The data access agreements will specify that the information is to be used for statistical purposes only. The ONS is not authorised to disclose personal information—indeed, that is a criminal offence under Section 39 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. The safety and security of personal information is of paramount importance to the Office for National Statistics. It has stringent procedures in place to protect confidentiality and to safeguard the security of personal information on addresses.

As I have said, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 contains a confidentiality obligation, with a potential criminal sanction for revealing or sharing personal information unlawfully. Anyone found guilty of unlawfully disclosing information will be liable to a term of imprisonment of up to two years, a fine or both. The body responsible is absolutely clear about the need for safeguards, and I emphasised the importance of that in my introductory words.

The noble Baroness also asked about the Land Registry. The Land Registry’s price-paid data will be used in the new index, so it will be subsumed into that. The noble Baroness is absolutely right about formulation of policy. The whole purpose of this is to help us with policy formulation. I am not going to engage in trading statistics on housing, but clearly the housing of people who live in this country is of huge importance, and a range of housing units needs to be available for people around cities and in rural areas. I feel very strongly about rural housing and that villages should continue to be vibrant.

How will all this help and support the census in 2021? Census field operations are underpinned by the address register, with coverage checks and quality assurance. Details of property attributes will inform design and processing arrangements, particularly through requiring the identification of mixed-use properties: for example, obviously, shops where there are also dwellings, flats and other properties with restricted access, and communal establishments such as nursing or care homes.

The noble Baroness asked about the details of floor space and how that will play a part in the census. Details of total floor area will be provided to inform work on the house price index. The size of a property, for instance, influences its price, which is one reason why that was included. I recall from filling in census forms before—if I remember rightly—that the number of rooms has always been part of the census on property and that certain rooms should be included and others not.

I will obviously look at Hansard to see whether there are any outstanding points, but I think that I have covered all the issues raised and I hope that the Committee will agree to these regulations.

Motion agreed.