Census of Distribution

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17 November 1965.

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10.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Darling Mr George Darling , Sheffield, Hillsborough

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling) rose

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly?

Photo of Mr George Darling Mr George Darling , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I beg to move. That the Census of Distribution (1967) (Restriction on Disclosure) Order 1965, a draft of which was laid before this House on 22nd July, in the last session of Parliament, be approved. This Order relates to the Census of Distribution which is to be taken by the Board of Trade in 1967 in respect of trade done in 1966. It is concerned with one limited aspect of that census—the non-disclosure of information about particular undertakings. Under the Statistics of Trade Act, disclosure of particulars about individual undertakings is generally prohibited, but there are exceptions. The President of the Board of Trade may direct information to be passed to other Government Departments for the purpose of exercising their functions and information may also be disclosed for the purpose of proceeding in respect of offences under the Statistics of Trade Act.

The Act empowers the Board of Trade to impose further restrictions on the disclosure of information about particular undertakings, and the present Order is submitted as a proposed exercise of those powers. In effect, it prohibits the disclosure of information obtained from individual undertakings to other Government Departments except with the written permission of the firms concerned. It does this by prohibiting all disclosure of information about particular undertakings except for the immediate purpose of census returns and for the purpose of prosecuting offences under the Act, for instance the furnishing of false returns. In this way everyone can be sure that the information which they give will be treated in the strictest confidence. The Order is on the same lines as those made in connection with all the three previous censuses, and I therefore hope that the House will approve it.

10.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Patrick Jenkin Mr Patrick Jenkin , Wanstead and Woodford

It is comforting that my first appearance at the Dispatch Box should be on a matter which is wholly uncon-troversial and should also be accompanied by the virtue of total evacuation of the Chamber.

As the Minister of State said, this Order is confined to one very limited aspect of the provisions of the Statistics of Trade Act, 1947, but I agree with him that it is a very important aspect. It is interesting to note that on the last two occasions on which very similar Orders were debated before the censuses took place, the debates were extremely short, in no case exceeding more than half a column of the OFFICIAL REPORT, and on one occasion the Order went through this House on the nod. I will, therefore, be extremely brief.

There is a need, indeed a growing need, for full, up-to-date and accurate statistics of trade. Whatever one's view may be on central Government planning, everyone must agree that there is a need for more information in our modern and highly complex economy. It is, therefore, of the highest importance that the business community should co-operate to the full in giving this information, because it is they and only they who have it within their power to provide this information. They are the only source of the figures upon which this information may be based. This applies particularly to distribution. The 1961 census showed that there were nearly 600,000 different establishments carrying on a trade to a value of nearly £9,000 million and employing over 2½ million people—by far the biggest sector of our economy. If this cooperation from the business community is to be procured, the figures which they provide must be treated as confidential. Indeed, I would say that not only must they be treated as confidential; they must manifestly be known to be treated as confidential.

Section 9(1) of the 1947 Act allowed disclosure to other Government Departments. As the Minister of State said, subsection (3) gave the Board of Trade power by Order to extend this restriction, and this is what the Order which we are debating in fact does. There is to be no disclosure of individual returns except for the purpose of taking the census and providing any report or survey following on it. That seems to me to be absolutely right. I would say that it is essential.

But I have for the Minister of State— and I should be grateful if he would deal with them—one question and one request. The question is this: Section 9(5) of the 1947 Act deals with the use of the information provided by the census for the purpose of preparing reports, summaries and other communications to the public. That subsection, too, provides the restrictions which must be observed. In the first place, there is to be no disclosure about concerns if the number of returns is fewer than five. The reason for this is obvious: it would give away information, possibly valuable commercial information, to competitors. Secondly, there must be no identification of the particulars relating to any one person or undertaking.

This is the question which I should be most grateful if the Minister of State would answer: would he confirm that the Order which we are discussing in no way overrides the provisions of subsection (5). Paragraph 1(a) of the Order provides for one of the exceptions to the rule against disclosure for the purpose of preparing or providing, in relation to or in connection with that census, any survey, report, summary or other communication required by fee said Act.— I am sure that this is right, but I should be grateful for his confirmation that the restrictions to which I referred, contained in subsection (5), are in fact left entirely unaffected, that they still stand and will apply.

My request is for an assurance, which I am certain the hon. Gentleman is able to give, that the requirements both of the Act and of the Orders passed under it are strictly observed in practice. I am sure that this is so but it is right that it should be publicly stated by a Minister at the Department responsible and should be stated on the Floor of this House.

The whole exercise rests on trust— the trust which those who make the returns have in the secrecy with which those returns are treated—and they are entitled to be reassured publicly that their trust is indeed well placed.

With these few remarks, I conclude by welcoming the Order as a necessary and entirely proper piece of machinery relating to the forthcoming census of distribution.

10.23 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Darling Mr George Darling , Sheffield, Hillsborough

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will reply to the hon. Gentleman, but to begin with I should like to congratulate him on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I think that over the years ahead he and I will be facing each other in some capacity or other, but from our present positions, and no doubt we shall cross swords about many contentious things. But this Order is non-contentious. The hon. Gentleman asked for an undertaking about what will happen under subsection (5). I give him a categorical assurance that the provisions under that subsection will be scrupulously observed in the preparation of the reports, as in the past.

I also welcome this opportunity on the Floor of the House to make it clear to the traders that there will be no disclosure of individual information that would identify firms or any disclosure of information outside the scope of the Act and the Order. In addition, when we have the Order in operation—and this is the purpose of the exercise—it will enable the Board of Trade to give traders who receive the forms for the census the strongest possible assurance that their returns will be treated in the strictest confidence.

Thus, we are giving them two public assurances. The first is in this House through the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman has given us and the other will be in the forms sent out.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That the Census of Distribution (1967) (Restriction on Disclosure) Order 1965, a draft of which was laid before this House on 22nd July, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.