Motion to Approve
My Lords, the purpose of this draft instrument is to update the list of non-Crown organisations that produce official statistics, as defined in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and within the scope of the Code of Practice for Statistics. Statistics are part of the lifeblood of democratic debate. They are a foundation of society, supporting the decisions we make. The Code of Practice for Statistics plays an essential role in ensuring that statistics published by government command public confidence through demonstrating trustworthiness and providing high-quality data that enhances public value.
The draft Official Statistics Order 2018 will revoke and replace the Official Statistics Order 2013, updating the list of UK non-Crown bodies that may produce official statistics and whose statistical activities will be monitored, scrutinised and reported on by the authority.
The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 established the Statistics Board, the non-ministerial department known as the UK Statistics Authority, as an independent statutory body to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. Under the Act, official statistics are those produced by Crown bodies, such as government departments, as well as non-Crown statistics specified by an official statistics order.
The authority will work with bodies designated as producers of official statistics to promote good practice, and will monitor and report on the production and publication of official statistics. The authority will also assess the treatment by producers of official statistics against the Code of Practice for Statistics and publish the results of these assessments. If statistics comply with the code, the authority will designate them as “national statistics”.
There have been four previous UK orders, in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013. Updating the orders regularly ensures that the scope of official statistics remains accurate and relevant in light of the establishment, abolition and name changes of public bodies. There have been equivalent Welsh orders in 2013 and 2017, Scotland orders in 2008 and 2010, and Northern Ireland in 2012. The Scottish Government are in the process of updating their own order, expected to be completed later this year. Northern Ireland began the process of updating its own order, but this process is currently stalled, pending resumption of the Northern Ireland Executive.
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is important to designate these bodies as producers of official statistics to bring them within the scope of the Code of Practice for Statistics. The code is consistent with the UN’s Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, which were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2014, emphasising the high recognition at a global political level and the importance of good statistics for decision-making in democratic society. Compliance with the code of practice provides assurance that the statistics produced are trustworthy, of high quality and of public value.
This statutory instrument makes a small number of sensible changes to reflect changes to non-Crown bodies since 2013. It is important to note that although the order covers a wide range of bodies, the vast majority of bodies were already designated under the previous order, so this order represents a relatively minor adjustment. The statutory instrument adds four new bodies to the list contained in the 2013 order. These are Monitor, the National Health Service Trust Development Authority, the Office for Students and the Service Complaints Ombudsman. Monitor and the National Health Service Trust Development Authority are the main organisations that make up NHS Improvement. The instrument also alters the name of one body contained in the 2013 order, following a legal change to the body’s name. The Rail Passengers’ Council was renamed the Passengers’ Council by order in 2010. The instrument removes no bodies from the existing list. 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.
In summary, the order updates the list of bodies that are subject to the UK Statistics Authority’s oversight. Those bodies listed on the order will be expected to work to the Code of Practice for Statistics, and their statistics will have the potential to be nominated for formal assessment by the authority to be national statistics. This House agreeing the order is a vital part of maintaining public confidence in official and national statistics and the integrity of the official statistics system. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for such a clear explanation, even if he did not manage to make it sound zippy or a lot of fun. It is an important and non-contentious draft order to which we are happy to give our support. Indeed, we welcome the additions to the schedule of organisations providing official statistics; the more, the better, and especially the better-monitored statistics we have, the better for all of us—the public, the press and politicians—so that we can judge the performance of the Government.
The system that has evolved in this country, particularly the requirement that has been mentioned to abide by a code, in how statistics are kept and how and when they are published, is one that we applaud. As mentioned, the UK Statistics Authority, an independent authority, has the statutory objective of promoting and safeguarding the production and the publication of official statistics. That is a key part of the system although of course it depends on all of the organisations on that schedule and particularly the Government abiding by the code.
The Minister described UKSA’s objective of serving the public good so as to mobilise the power of data to improve decision-making. That accountability includes:
“Informing the public about social and environmental matters, assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy”,
“regulating quality and publicly challenging the misuse of statistics”.
This latter task of monitoring, and in particular when necessary challenging, the use of statistics is particularly important when we see the Government sometimes being a little too free and easy over their handling of data.
In February, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, found that the comparison made by Mrs May during PMQs between waiting times figures for accident and emergency between England and Wales was not valid, leading to the Prime Minister having to correct the Hansard record. However, she is not alone in being found wanting in her use of statistics. Sir David also had to write to the Foreign Secretary expressing his surprise and disappointment that Mr Johnson continued to repeat the infamous £350 million figure which confuses gross and net contributions. In his words, Sir David judged this, rather seriously I thought, to be,
“a clear misuse of official statistics”.
It is not just the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary who have transgressed. The then Home Secretary received one of these letters over the disclosure of Home Office migration statistics to members of the media ahead of their official publication. Not only was the main leak made to the Daily Telegraph, but whoever briefed the journalist only half understood the data or inadequately communicated it, thus seriously misleading the public. Mind you, even a more accurate leak would still have been misleading because it was partial and lacking in context. As Sir David wrote, the leak was,
“more damaging in view of the sensitivity of migration data”.
I have cited these examples obviously not to chide the Government but to champion the system. It has an independent scrutineer and a voice to challenge the misuse of data in its collection and interpretation, as well as in its publication by any of the bodies set out in the schedule, including from now the four new ones. I wish those four new bodies well in maintaining the high standards that we expect from any public body, but I hope that they never have to receive one of those letters from Sir David. We hope that the order is duly agreed.
My Lords, I too welcome this statutory instrument. We now have a good and robust system of gathering national statistics and it is excellent that this degree of independence has been established and is being maintained. We all know, particularly in the debates on Brexit, that statistics are thrown about and are interpreted and misinterpreted. Given that, having an independent authority which does its best to hold those together is highly desirable. When I read first the Times and then the Daily Mail on the latest economic statistics and I am given entirely opposite interpretations of what is happening in the economy, I realise that it is impossible to reach a completely mutual understanding of the statistics, but at least this gives us a baseline that we must do our utmost to maintain.
I have to admit that when I looked at the full list, I was puzzled by it. The Explanatory Notes explain that some bodies are charities, others are regulatory bodies, while some are agencies of government departments. Some consumer bodies are included but I am aware that other such organisations are not. One research council is on the list, but not others, as is the case with some regulatory bodies. Perhaps the Minister can write to explain the rationale for inclusion on this list and why it is that some bodies appear on it while others do not. Is it because some have higher standards than others and that the standards of the latter bodies have not yet reached this level, or whether there is a different set of criteria because other government regulatory bodies such as Ofwat and Ofcom do not appear on it. That may reflect my limited understanding of the area, but having said that, of course we welcome the order as a way of reinforcing the independence and authority of our statistical system.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the interest they have taken in this instrument, the time they have spent scrutinising it and for their support. I apologise for my opening speech not being zippy. It would have been a real challenge to make this issue something that will appear on “Yesterday in Parliament”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, produced examples. I am sure that if I wanted to I could have gone back a little further to show that previous Administrations may have made similar mistakes. The important point that she made is that the system is working, all the correspondence is in the public domain for everyone to see and the Government are rightly held to account by an independent body.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, asked about the basis. Part of the answer to that lies in paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum:
“Bodies included in the list are those which produce, or will produce, national-level statistics which (a) inform the public about the social or economic position of the country, (b) are likely to be used to judge government performance or targets or (c) the government considers it is otherwise important that the public has particular trust in”.
I gratefully accept his suggestion that I write to him in more detail about the specific issues he raised. I commend the order to the House.