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Official Statistics Order 2023

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, I will begin with the purpose of the order and briefly take the Committee through what we are considering.

The order updates the list of non-Crown organisations that produce official statistics, as defined in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. The Government and the UK Statistics Authority want to see official statistics enabling sound policy decisions and providing a firm evidence base for decision-making both inside and outside government. The role of the authority and the need for timely and high-quality statistics were never more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic. The code of practice for statistics plays an important role in ensuring that producers of official statistics inspire public confidence by demonstrating trustworthiness, quality and value in the statistics they produce.

The order revokes and replaces the Official Statistics Order 2018, updating the list of UK non-Crown bodies that may produce official statistics. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 established the non-ministerial department, the Statistics Board—known colloquially 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. The Act allows the flexibility to add non-Crown bodies to, or remove them from, the authority’s remit by order. The order provides an updated list of bodies whose statistical activities will be official statistics and so will be monitored by the authority.

The authority will work with bodies designated as producers of official statistics to promote good practice for the production and publication of official statistics, including through the code of practice for statistics; to monitor and report on the production and publication of official statistics; and to assess the treatment by producers of official statistics, at the request of those producers, against the code of practice and publish the results of those assessments. If statistics comply with the code, the authority will designate them as national statistics.

These changes are applied to UK-wide and English organisations. The UK statistical system follows the principle that the devolution of statistics should mirror the devolution of policy areas. This order takes the same approach to devolution as the order it replaces. Regularly updating the orders ensures that the scope of official statistics remains accurate and relevant in light of the establishment, abolition or name changes of public bodies. Section 6 of the 2007 Act provides that Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers or Northern Ireland departments can determine that statistics produced by non-Crown bodies are brought into scope. There have been equivalent amending orders for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It is important to note that, although the order covers a wide range of bodies, which are listed in the Schedule, the vast majority were already designated under the previous order, so this is a very minor adjustment. It adds five new bodies to the list in the 2018 order: the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the Regulator of Social Housing, Skills for Care Ltd and the Trade Remedies Authority. It removes five bodies from the list in the 2018 order that are no longer legal entities: the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Monitor, the NHS Trust Development Authority and the Natural Environment Research Council.

The order also alters the names of two bodies that were contained in the last order. The NHS Commissioning Board is now recorded as NHS England, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary is now recorded as His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services—and long may he live.

The UK Statistics Authority was consulted in preparing the order, in accordance with the Act, and is content for it to be laid. My department has laid the order on behalf of other government departments in preference to each department laying an order for the bodies for which it is responsible. That is intended to make the best use of parliamentary time.

My Lords, it is important for us to discuss this order. It may appear on the face of it to be simply a technical, procedural or managerial matter, but it does have a political import.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, it is appropriate for us to have a debate on this instrument. It is worth noting that the Commons dispensed with it in seven minutes. Perhaps the Front Bench is hoping for a similar record here but I will delay us for a little bit. Sorry, I am wrong; it was nine minutes.

The debate on postal packages caught me unawares; I thought that we would all be finished by now. Still, this is an important issue and I wanted to have my say about statistics, as I am interested in that sort of thing. Unfortunately—I apologise to the Committee for this—I did not do as much preparation early as I had intended. I shall ask questions that, of their nature, will be fairly technical so I shall indulge the Minister if she is unable to answer everything fully. It would have been a good idea if I had asked for a meeting before this debate; a meeting after the Summer Recess may be a helpful way forward but we will see.

We have these things called official statistics. There are actually two tiers of them because there are national statistics as well. As I read the rules, it has to be an official statistic before it can be a national statistic, and whether something is a national statistic is a matter of practical importance. It is not just a technical clarification; it makes a difference. This is a completely different issue, which I am not seeking to debate today, but the fact that the RPI is not a national statistic but an official one has an impact on the way in which policy is determined.

My problem is that I am still not totally clear what the point of an official statistic is. There is a certain circularity in the definition—important statistics are official statistics and official statistics are important statistics. It is quite difficult to break out of that loop and try to identify from published material what the criteria are by which official statistics are decided, what difference they make to the operation and what impact they have. I saw a claim somewhere in the documentation that there is an overarching policy on the scope of official statistics. If it exists, I have failed to track it down. It would be good to have a clear explanation online.

All this stems from the 2007 Act. In their wisdom, the legislators at that time decided that this order required the affirmative procedure, which to me means that they thought this was an important issue that required political review. I looked at the Explanatory Notes for the Bill; although there is an explanation of Sections 5 and 7, unfortunately there is a gap for Section 6 in the background explaining this legislation. It jumps straight from Sections 1 to 5 to Sections 7 to 21. It is a bit difficult to see what was in the legislators’ minds at the time about what exactly was the point of official statistics.

However, we have them now. We have this list of 40, if I am counting right. One by one, they all look entirely reasonable, although the sorts of bodies vary widely. The difficult thing is to spot which organisations are missing. I turned to the government website and looked up government bodies. Apparently there are 604, and here we have 40. The obvious question is why these 40 were chosen and the others excluded. There may well be good reasons but we do not know what they are, because there is a singular lack of clarity over the criteria and purpose of official statistics.

The Explanatory Memorandum to this order says that there was consultation. The way it is worded implies that it was the department—the Cabinet Office—consulting the UK Statistics Authority, but in practice it was plainly the other way around. This is all generated by the UK Statistics Authority. It consulted the Cabinet Office and all the departments, pulled all the information together and drew up this list. But it does not tell us what it said to departments about why they would want to put forward these public bodies to have official statistics status and not others. We just do not know what the criteria are, as far as I can tell. Maybe I am missing it; I hope the Minister can draw my attention to it.

So I got 604 results, and I looked through them all. We can dismiss the 24 ministerial departments; they are the Government, so they are included automatically. The non-ministerial departments are included—there are 20 of them. But 425 were described as

“Agencies and other public bodies”,

of which 33 are on the list—I went through them, and they raised all sorts of questions. I could go through all 390-odd remaining bodies and ask about them one by one, but I will save your Lordships that. Still, there are some that I do not really understand.

One oddity that I will mention is that the Financial Conduct Authority is included, but it is a subsidiary or part of the Bank of England, which is not. Another one that I was surprised about was the Certification Officer, which is very important as far as trade unions and employers’ organisations are concerned. It is not on the list, but one would have thought that its statistics were of some importance. The Electoral Commission is not on the list, and neither is the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which has had some controversy. The list does not include the Secret Intelligence Service, but I think we can let them off that one. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch seems an obvious candidate to me. Of course, it is of interest that the Office for National Statistics is not on the list, but that would have been a bit self-referential. So there are questions about why only a limited number are included and many appear to be excluded.

One particular oddity is that included in the list of 40 is the Service Complaints Ombudsman. Why is that ombudsman included in the list when the seven other ombudsmen—whatever the plural of them is; is it “ombudsmen”?—are not? We do not have the Housing Ombudsman, the Legal Ombudsman and so on—noble Lords get the point. Yet another oddity concerns public corporations; should they be included? On the government website, there is a list of public corporations, along with other lists of public bodies and so on. Only one public corporation is included in the SI: the Pension Protection Fund. Others are not. The National Employment Savings Trust Corporation, which in many ways is very similar to the PPF, is not included. The Post Office is not included, nor is the Oil and Pipelines Agency.

Once you start poking and pulling a thread in this tapestry, the whole thing, to my mind, starts to unravel. I have made my point and I hope it is clear. I suggest that the Minister does not try to respond on every single item I included in the list, but it would perhaps be helpful to have a meeting after the Recess to go through this and set my doubts at nil.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister comment on where, if not under these regulations, one can find out who decides the measures that will be included in official statistics by any of the authorised bodies?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, on the care and attention he has dedicated to this. I regret that I was not as thorough, although I did discover what JISC was, and one or two other things, as I looked at the list. I start with a confession: I do vaguely remember that there was a point when I understood the difference between national statistics, official statistics and other statistics, but I think I have forgotten. There were some very subtle, but nevertheless significant, distinctions between them. I was a Minister at the time, so I had to understand it.

I echo the recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, that we might have a fuller briefing when we return. It would be very helpful to know what the Government’s overall strategy on statistics is. I would also welcome, and I think quite a number of us would welcome, a government briefing on where we are now on the use of statistics across departments, as the Government go through the digital transformation.

I recall from my time in the Cabinet Office that there were tremendous barriers to sharing statistics across government, because the laws under which the Department for Work and Pensions operated were different from those of the Home Office. Therefore, when it came to something such as the Windrush scandal, where it was quite evident that there was material in other departments which would have showed whether or not the people concerned had been in Britain, in employment and registered with a doctor over the previous 20, 30 or 40 years, it was not carried through.

The digital strategy within government is extremely important to the future of government. It is also very much a non-party issue. It would be very helpful to have a briefing for all Peers to say where we are with that now. How far have some of those legal barriers been overcome? Is there now appropriate sharing across Whitehall? How far have some of the hesitations that so many people have about privacy and the use of their personal statistics been overcome?

I recall, at the time of the last census, a number of people, including the then Minister, Francis Maude, now the noble Lord, Lord Maude, saying that the question of whether we need future censuses ought to be moot, because one agency or other of our Government is collecting most of those statistics all the time. If one were able to put them all together, it would save us the effort and expense of a census and would provide us with a moving interpretation of what is happening in our schools, our ethnic communities, our ageing population, et cetera. So there were some very large, important questions there.

I welcome what the Minister said about providing a firm evidence base for government. We have, after all, been through a period in which a number of people, including at least one Prime Minister, were not entirely sure that evidence mattered, and one rather senior Minister decried government by experts as something we should get away from. I am very glad that the with the current Government we are getting back towards a concern with evidence-based policy-making.

I too was puzzled by the list of inclusions and exclusions. We would welcome a letter at some point to explain what that might be about, without delaying where we are now much further. From these Benches, we welcome the greater use of statistics. We welcome the wider publication of statistics, and we recognise that effective government for all British citizens precisely does depend on accurate information on what is happening, and on where there are problems which need to be identified. Good governance depends on that.

My Lords, I suppose a lot of these questions stem from the 2007 Act and the establishment of the Statistics Board as a non-ministerial department that operates under the name of the UK Statistics Authority. The issue then was, and now is: what stats do we rely on? What has public confidence and what has public policy confidence? Of course, the authority is meant to do that job and draw from a number of sources, not least the bodies that are listed. Apart from the government departments, it can add other bodies to it, which raises the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, mentioned. The official statistics from the five new bodies that have been added to the list must be accurate, credible and reliable.

The question for the Minister is: what sort of additional support will be given to the bodies concerned to ensure that they are able to meet the standards required? The Equality and Human Rights Commission is one of the bodies that is being added. I am certainly aware of how much its resources have been reduced recently; its ability to conduct a range of statutory work has been curtailed because of the lack of resources. Is it solely up to the UK Statistics Authority to do that monitoring and evaluation? It must have felt confident to recommend that the Equality and Human Rights Commission be added to the list. The question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, was important: how is that decision made and how do we maintain public confidence in official statistics by the mechanism established in the 2007 Act?

The 2007 Act was designed to have an independent stats authority that can challenge the use of statistics where necessary. If the bodies are receiving government grants or are in any way overreliant on the Government—particularly the five that are being added to the list—will that reduce their capability to challenge the Government where necessary? I suspect that there is always the temptation for Governments of whatever colour to use the principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune. We need to see just what mechanism is involved. Can the Minister assure us that the independence and credibility of these bodies will be properly maintained? That is the main focus of my concern. I would certainly welcome any briefing, but the 2007 Act is a useful starting point to look at the issues that my noble friend raised.

First, I thank all those who have taken part in this debate. I am delighted that it is a bit longer than the equivalent debate that my colleague, Minister Burghart, took in the Commons. He must have been very disappointed.

I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, for challenging us in such a delightful way. What he does not know is that I am almost as passionate about statistics as he is, so I was delighted when I discovered that statistics was in my portfolio at the Cabinet Office. I would be absolutely delighted to agree to a meeting, where we can take the conversation a little further. That will perhaps save us a little time this evening, especially if the Division Bells ring again.

I draw the Committee’s attention to the code of practice for statistics, which ensures that official statistics serve the public. I find it a very useful document that answers quite a few of the questions that have been asked this evening. It is on the GOV.UK website. Indeed, the definitions of “official” and “national statistics” are on the UK Statistics Authority website. The purpose of official statistics is made very clear in the code.

On why there are 40 bodies and how we consulted, I will explain a little about what we did in the run-up to this order. It is the product of extensive engagement between the Cabinet Office, the UK Statistics Authority, the listed bodies and responsible government departments. The scope of the engagement was to establish whether the list of bodies in the old order was up to date and what changes were required. We contacted the authority, which obviously led this work—as was explained, it is independent—and it contacted senior statisticians at all the departments involved. This involved a review of the schedule in the old order to establish changes. The authority requested input from senior statisticians regarding new bodies under its remit and the changes that might be needed. Its role as the national statistics institute gives the authority a special position in all this.

As we noted, many of the changes are proposed because of the restructuring of the bodies since 2018. It slightly took one down memory lane that some of the bodies that we all dealt with have now been replaced by others. I do not think I can match the brilliant analysis that we heard, but I look forward perhaps to having a more leisurely conversation about some of the reasoning behind the list that we put before noble Lords. On the overarching policy, I hope that noble Lords find the explanations online and in the code of practice helpful.

My noble friend Lady Lawlor asked who decides about the official statistics. All statistics produced by the bodies listed will be official. The ONS does not direct bodies as to what statistics are to be produced and, under Section 12 of the Act, producers of official statistics have the opportunity to request an assessment of their statistics against the code of practice. If the UK Statistics Authority determines compliance with the code, the statistics are designated as national statistics. That also helps with the question that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the departments’ need for help with statistics—that engagement is helpful there.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about barriers to sharing statistics. We have discussed this before in relation to legislation, where we have sometimes taken powers in Bills before this House to make sure that there is better scope for the sharing of statistics, which is important. From having visited the authority, my impression is that it plays an important role in bringing statistics together and sharing important information and consultations on important issues. Some migration statistics recently went out for consultation, and these kinds of things are useful and important.

I very much welcome agreement on the importance of evidence-based policy-making, which is one of the reasons why we have invested in this substantial statistics authority. I do not think that the future of the census is for today, but conversations continue about the terrific material that is now emerging from the last one, which is changing our view of things. We look forward to finding the best possible ways of collecting statistics for the future, which is an important focus of the authority’s work.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about challenge. Clearly, the UK Statistics Authority contains some of the best statisticians in the world and plays a world-leading role. The noble Lord’s question was about how the organisations supplying data to the authority would challenge. I am not sure I quite understand what he was getting at but, clearly, the code and the UK Statistics Authority’s links with different departments—

If I might assist the noble Baroness, it was a general point on statistics: he who pays the piper calls the tune. I suppose all statistics produced by government departments are official statistics. The Civil Service does that job, but we have these additional bodies—quangos and other things.

The point I was making was particularly about the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has been added. Is that because of its restructuring? I do not think so, but it could be. It does collect important stats on the groups for which it has statutory responsibility, but its resources have been substantially cut. Its ability to do the job that it was given by statute has been undermined by government funding. What mechanism is there to ensure that, when it is asked to produce statistics or statistics are drawn from it, it has the capacity and capability to do the job? I was amplifying the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor.

Bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission use extensive guidance on official statistics, which is available on the website and elsewhere. The Office for Statistics Regulation engages regularly with producer bodies. The impact of adding bodies to the list in the order is not huge, because various organisations are on this list because they produce interesting statistics. The commission, as we all know, produces very good research reports on a variety of topics relating to equality, race, ethnicity, disability and so on, which will be classed as statistics in the future.

I take the noble Lord’s point about resources, but I do not think the order makes a big difference. I note what he has said, and perhaps we will return to it when we discuss these issues further.

I hope I have responded to at least the spirit of this debate, which I found extremely interesting. The order updates the list of bodies subject to oversight by the UK Statistics Authority. I thank all those who have worked on this order and brought it forward. I hope colleagues will join me in supporting the order, which I now commend to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.47 pm.