I beg to move,
That this House
insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72, does not insist on its Amendments 15B and 15C, but proposes the following amendments to the words restored to the Bill by disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15: (a), (b) and (c).
We are dealing with pre-release, which is the final point of contention relating to the Bill. Since our last debate on the Floor of the House, the Prime Minister has announced that the Government will call for a vote to confirm the recommended candidate for the chair of the Statistics Board, before the measure goes to the Queen. That is in addition to our commitment to reduce further the length of time for which pre-release access is available to 24 hours for all UK-wide and reserved statistics. Hon. and right hon. Members will recall that the previous agreement was for 40.5 hours. By committing to reduce pre-release access from the current period of up to 5 days to what will now be a maximum of 24 hours, the Government are demonstrating that they have listened and responded to the views expressed during the debates on the Bill in both Houses. It is time that the Government were given credit for the moves and changes that have been made during the Bill's passage.
Under the proposals, it remains up to the Government to determine the precise content of the new pre-release arrangements under the new system, but our commitment today is to provide on the face of the Bill that the board must also be consulted. Moreover, pre-release arrangements will be set out in secondary legislation. The affirmative statutory instrument will set out rules and principles to restrict the number of people who receive pre-release access and the statistical series to which pre-release might apply. It will also restrict the length of time for which pre-release access is available to a maximum of 24 hours for reserve statistics.
It has been more than 60 years since the previous statistical measure appeared before the House. We are concerned to ensure that the Bill leaves the House as "future-proofed" as possible in case it takes another 60 years to introduce another statistics Act. We want to ensure that the statistical community of the future operates under a system that is sufficiently flexible to remain relevant as needs change. The Government are therefore providing for pre-release arrangements to be contained in secondary rather than primary legislation. That is sensible, prudent and appropriate.
The processes will provide a powerful role for the board in determining the new arrangements. Under our proposals, the role will be confirmed in the Bill. It has never been the Government's intention, in including pre-release arrangements in secondary legislation rather than in the Bill or the code of practice, to give Ministers a free rein. The proposed arrangement would not lead to such an outcome. It ensures that pre-release arrangements are subject to public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny and open debate.
As I announced on
As hon. Members know from previous debates, under clause 25, the board may at any time produce a report about any matter that relates to the exercise of its functions. If it does that, it must lay it before one or more Houses of Parliament and the devolved legislatures.
Since the board has functions under clause 8 to monitor pre-release access and will be consulted on the draft regulations, it may, if it wishes, prepare its response—or any concerns that it may have once the system is operational—as a formal report under clause 25. Even after a full consultation, the Bill provides that should it not be content with the outcome, or should it, in the fullness of time, wish further changes to the regime to be established in secondary legislation, it could not only call publicly for further changes, but do so in a formal report laid before the House. Clearly, were such a report prepared and laid before Parliament, we would expect Parliament—and the media—to question the Government on whether they would take up the independent board's recommendations, and to ask, "If not, why not?"
As I have stated previously, the Government are committed to reviewing the operation of the pre-release arrangements after 12 months. That is precisely the sort of event in which we expect the board to be closely involved—and precisely the sort of event that might trigger its members to write such a report under clause 25(3), if they wished to do that.
The Bill, together with the new legislative duty to consult the board in determining the content of the pre-release regime, will ensure a strong and meaningful role for the board in influencing the content of the pre-release regime and in enforcing the new arrangements.
When the content of the secondary legislation has been agreed, it will be laid before the House for approval by affirmative resolution. Once commenced, clause 11(3) provides that the board must treat the content of the secondary legislation as though it were part of the code of practice.
The Government intend that the board should play a full and meaningful role in determining the new pre-release arrangements and ensuring that they are complied with. There is substantial consensus on the importance and value of the Bill, which will govern the statistical system in this country. We have reached consensus on most of the key structures and processes that the Bill will establish. I hope that the hon. Members will support our proposals.
The purpose of the Bill, which John Healey spelled out on Second Reading, is to restore confidence in the statistical base on which so many of our political decisions are made. That is much needed. When I was an Opposition health spokesman in the late 1990s, I remember patients being reclassified from one list to another, beds being reclassified as chairs, and, more recently, the former Chancellor's "revisions" of the start and finish dates of the economic cycle. Those and many other examples have contributed to undermining public confidence in the statistical data that are provided to us. The Bill is a welcome attempt to address that.
Conservative Members have long argued that an independent statistics service is a key part of the triple lock that will ensure fiscal and economic stability, along with the independent setting of interest rates and independent assessment of the fiscal rules. We have supported the principles of the Bill—after all, it enshrines much of our policy. My hon. Friend Mrs. Villiers made it clear from the outset that we would engage constructively in trying to improve the measure. There have been some successes so far. We welcome Government concessions that have strengthened the Bill and made it more likely to achieve its objective. Much has therefore been achieved.
However, we need one last heave to make the Bill a substantial break with the past in relation to pre-release. The former national statistician identified that as the key matter for gaining public confidence. It is the last contentious issue, as the Exchequer Secretary said, and the subject of the Lords amendments that we are considering today.
As the Bill left this place on
"Ministers themselves are best placed to judge how much pre-release access they require, and under what conditions they require it".—[ Hansard, 2 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 710.]
I bet they are. However, on that principle, Ministers may as well count the by-election votes tomorrow on the basis that they know best how many votes they require.
The earlier the access to statistics, the greater the scope of controlling the agenda. There is no other reason for wanting to retain such long pre-release periods and total control of the rules for pre-release.
Is the hon. Gentleman trying to persuade the House that all the arrangements that I have set out—board involvement, transparency, public consultation and an affirmative statutory instrument—amount to total control for Ministers?
I am trying to persuade the House that it amounts to much less than independent control of the rules by the board, for which hon. Members in this place and the other place have argued. We perceive it as the objective for which we should hold out.
Ministers have acknowledged, in proposing to reduce the five-day maximum for non-market sensitive data to 40.5 hours, that we remain way out of line with other countries. In France, the time is one hour; in Australia, the time is three hours, and Canada allows data to be released to Ministers the evening before general release. We must tackle those remaining, glaring anomalies.
We are considering a proposal for an independent statistics system that allows Ministers to decide how much advance notice they get, how widely advance data are disseminated, and under what conditions. That is wildly out of line with international norms and very much out of line with what ordinary, thinking people would expect from a Prime Minister who promised to abandon spin.
Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge, so that we can have a debate in which we are in contact with the arguments, that we are not considering unconstrained ministerial decision making? The maximum time is 24 hours and there is a range of provisions about, for example, the number of people who can see pre-release statistics. We have made several changes, and we are now considering constrained ministerial decision making. The process is systematically set out, is transparent and will be contained in secondary legislation. Surely the hon. Gentleman will admit that.
The Exchequer Secretary talks about 24 hours, but I do not see 24 hours in her proposal, which we shall come to in a moment. She must understand that there is a clear distinction between a decision by an independent board and a decision by Ministers after consultation with that board. If she does not understand that, why is the architecture of the rest of the Bill set out as it is, with the board having that degree of control?
If the Government do not get pre-release right, they will not restore public confidence in the system, regardless of whether the impartiality and the quality of the statistics will be improved by other initiatives in the Bill, and they will certainly not persuade the public that they have abandoned the spin culture. The issue has become the yardstick by which the success or failure of this attempt to clean up public data will be judged.
I freely admit to being something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Bill—
Indeed, although the Exchequer Secretary did not come quite as late to the Bill as I did. I have had the pleasure of reading myself in, by looking at the debates in this place and the other place over the past six months or so. I have been struck by the irony that in a Bill that is designed to tackle the public perception of a culture of spin, it is the clauses most closely identified with that spin culture on which the Government have proved most resistant. It is doubly ironic that the debate itself has been mired in spin, first, when the Exchequer Secretary tried to convince the House that her voting for a report that argues for a three-hour maximum for pre-release is entirely consistent with standing at that Dispatch Box arguing for 40 hours for pre-release. Then there have been Ministers here and in the other place affecting not to understand the expectation that a clear statement by the Prime Minister that there will be a 24-hour maximum on pre-release should mean just that, and not that the Government want to retain flexibility.
The intervention by the Prime Minister is an important element in this debate, but because it came on
Not 18 hours before the Prime Minister made that statement, the Exchequer Secretary was rather half-heartedly defending the 40.5-hour limit, saying:
"my duty at the Dispatch Box tonight is to say that the Government think that 40.5 hours is the appropriate time for pre-release, and that is what I will do."—[ Hansard, 2 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 728.]
That was hardly a ringing personal endorsement, one might think. Some 18 hours later, the Prime Minister said:
"I propose that we reduce the advance sight that Government Departments have of the release of statistical information from as much as five days currently to just 24 hours."—[ Hansard, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 817.]
That was straightforward, except that on
"We do not want to put the length of time for pre-release access in primary legislation as we want flexibility".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 9 July 2007; Vol. 693, c. 1237.]
Either there has been a serious communication problem at the heart of the Government or old-fashioned spin is alive and well.
The Exchequer Secretary cannot have known on
The Government of course claim that they have made a concession by requiring Ministers to consult the board before exercising the power to set the rules. However, the Exchequer Secretary must accept that the point of principle is that Ministers must not be judge and jury in their own cases, in relation to pre-release. The proper way to proceed now is for her to accept the Lords amendment—not scrapping pre-release, because that is not what is proposed, but allowing the board independently to determine the rules for pre-release, after consulting Ministers and taking into account their legitimate needs. The alternative way is for her to commit the Government to bringing in their own amendments to deliver a substantive role for the board in the pre-release process—I mean a substantive role, not merely a consultative role—if and when the Bill returns to the House of Lords after this debate.
While the Exchequer Secretary is at it, perhaps she will also commit herself to including the 24-hour absolute maximum limit on pre-release in the Bill—not because I suggest that, but because her own Prime Minister has said that. The principle behind the Bill must be that statistics should be allowed to speak for themselves, without the intermediation of politicians.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once more. He just used a phrase that is quite interesting. He talked about the legitimate interests of Ministers with respect to pre-release. Could he share with the House what he thinks they are?
We recognise, and we have recognised throughout the debate, that Ministers have a legitimate interest in having access to data before they are made generally available.
We have never disputed that. The issue is who should be the arbiter of the period of advance notice, who should determine the rules under which data are pre-released and how extensive the dissemination of those data should be. The Exchequer Secretary can um and ah as much as she likes from the Government Front Bench, but she will know that what we do in this country is wildly out of line with what is done in other developed economies.
If that is not because the Government want to be able to manage the release of information in a way that would have been called spin in the old days, she needs to come forward with a substantive explanation of why the Government think that pre-release is qualitatively different from all the other aspects of control of statistics. The truth, as she very well knows, is that certain Departments—ironically, more so those concerned with social statistics than economic statistics—are determined to keep control over the release of what is all too often bad news, even when it is dressed up as good news, and to have access to at least one full news cycle ahead of release, in order to soften up the media and the public for the formal release and set the pristine objective data in a subjective context.
"we now have a Bill that is extremely helpful and could historically lead to a new statistical system, except that it misses out on one particular. Unfortunately, that particular—pre-release—is probably the most known about in the statistical community and is in some ways indicative of the Government's ultimate attitude to the whole subject of public trust."
I concur with Lord Moser, as he continued:
"I still hope that it is not too late for the Government to think again on the only aspect that keeps this from being a really good Bill and makes it flawed".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 9 July 2007; Vol. 693, c. 1255.]
I hope indeed that it is not too late.
Unlike the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Hammond, and the Exchequer Secretary, I am not a new boy to the Bill. I have been with it at every stage and must have spoken at least half a dozen times on the issue of pre-release, so I do not need to rehearse all the arguments. Indeed, in any event, the hon. Gentleman made the points that I would have made about our continued reservations concerning how the Government have approached the issue.
The Minister asked for some acknowledgement of progress, and I am happy to acknowledge it in respect of the big picture of the Bill. It has been a good and useful Bill, which has been substantially improved in respect of official and national statistics, the locus of decision making in Departments and the role of the statistics board and chief statistician. Those are all big advances, helped by the fact that the other place has been engaged in improving the Bill.
The Minister also wanted acknowledgement of progress on the issue of pre-release. Again, progress has been made and she has played an important part in it, as did her predecessor. I acknowledge that 24 hours is less than 40 hours, so it amounts to an improvement, but it is still much more than in almost every other developed country. I acknowledge the Minister's recent innovation of allowing consultation with the board. Once again, that is a step forward, but I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that consultation can mean anything or nothing. If approached in a constructive spirit, it provides the essence of how good governance should work, but if a bloody-minded Minister wishes to defy the Bill's principles, he will still be able to do so.
Accepting that the amendment will suffice therefore requires a great deal of trust. It is important to stress that the amendment from the other place acknowledges the important role of Ministers. Indeed, amendment No. 13 states that access should be kept
"to the minimum necessary to meet the needs of Ministers".
The concept of the needs of Ministers is already clearly accepted in that amendment.
The Minister places great stress on the fact that the statutory instrument will be subject to a full consultative process. I am sure that she means exactly what she says and I am sure that the consultation will be good, but she knows perfectly well that there is a fundamental defect with the statutory instrument process. If it comes before the House in a defective form and fails to reflect some of the key points of the consultation outside the House, it is unamendable. We simply will not have access at that stage to the iterative process that we have had on the main Bill. That is why we are resisting the idea of simply trusting in that process. I acknowledge that a great deal of progress has been made, even on that very vexed issue, but it is important to return the matter to the other place. If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is inclined to move against the Government's proposals, we will support the Conservatives in a Division.
In common with Dr. Cable and my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond, I believe that we should support the Lords amendment. There are two main issues. One is the time period and the other is who should in the end decide.
On the time period, it is quite obvious from the changes of the past few months that the Government's proposal is completely arbitrary. There was no basis to 40.5 hours and there is no basis for 24 hours. There is no better illustration of how arbitrary the whole issue is than the position of the Minister. Last summer, when she signed the Treasury Committee's report, she was in favour of three hours. A couple of weeks ago, she told the House that she was in favour of 40 hours and spoke to proposals on that basis. Now she is put up to defend 24 hours. She is all over the place and the Government are all over the place. This is a completely arbitrary period being bandied around.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has already said, the proposed period is wholly out of line with international practice. Even 24 hours is much longer than the period allowed by statistical services of other developed economies. That is why, when the Treasury Committee came to look into this matter, we looked hard at it and settled on a figure of three hours. A case can be made for four hours, six hours or whatever, but even 24 hours is far too long. More important than that, the figure is completely arbitrary. It is simply a guessing game.
Then there is the issue of who should actually decide. I certainly welcome the Government's proposal to seek parliamentary approval for what is decided. I welcome the 12-month review of how the arrangements work. I welcome the fact that there will be a degree of consultation before those arrangements are set in stone, but what is the point of consulting everyone when it has already been announced that the period will be reduced from 40 hours to 24 hours? What is there then to consult on? The Prime Minister has said that the Government changed their mind and that the maximum period will now be 24 hours. What is the point of beginning a process of consultation on something when an announcement about it has already been made?
The Minister has said from the Dispatch Box this afternoon that she wants a meaningful role for the board. Let me remind the House that we are setting up an independent statutory body to deal with statistics, to take them out of the hands of politicians and to put them on an independent footing. Now she tells us that on the key issue of pre-release—the privilege given to Ministers so that they can spin material in advance of the announcement of a particular statistical series—the board will not determine what happens and will not, in fact, be meaningfully involved.
I was never senior enough a Minister to be entrusted with figures even to try to spin. What is interesting is that the Treasury Committee report was signed by no fewer than six former Ministers who were all quite content for the advance period to be reduced from more than 40 hours to just three. The issue is not simply the spinning of statistics, but the notice involved when Ministers know that a bad series is just about to be published. It is perfectly possible—sadly, we have seen it from this Government—for Ministers to arrange other statistics and other news to be announced to cover that particular negative line of statistics on that particular day. As we well know, the Government are fully capable of burying bad news when they feel like it.
We need to take all that out of the hands of Ministers and have it determined by a statutory board. What is the point of setting up a statutory board if the one key political issue of pre-release is the one issue that the board is unable to decide on in the end? We should support the Lords amendment.
I disagree on what is the central issue of the Bill. For me, the central issue is the independence of the statistics board. That is not a new issue. I recall raising the concerns of the statisticians working in my constituency with the then Prime Minister in 1989. They were concerned about moving control of statistics from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. They were right to be concerned about the independence of the figures and right to fear that they might be manipulated. Their argument then was that the Treasury had the greatest vested interest in manipulation of the figures. I received a letter from Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister at the time, stating that it was terribly unworthy to make such a suggestion and reassuring me that the director, Jack Hibbert, had assured her that if there were any ministerial interference in the figures, he would resign.
I am afraid that we have now clearly reached a position—based partly on fact, but mostly on fable—of great cynicism about the objectivity of Government statistics. There is a conception of spin, and the Government to their great credit have introduced the Bill, which has been hailed as one of the most important of the whole Parliament and on a par with the decision to grant independence to the Bank of England in deciding interest rates. That is absolutely right.
I regret that we are in a position of disagreement over the question of pre-release. It is unfortunate that the Bill may well be marred as a result of it. The Government have been extremely generous in accepting many of the proposed amendments. Furthermore, the 1,300 of my constituents who work in the statistics office hail this Bill as a measure that will give new authority and new value to their work. There is doubt about the notion of spin, but it is exaggerated, and I am sure that the Government fully intend to have a period in which no excessive use of spin is made. The days of spin are gone. No Government in their right mind would use spin, because it is so counter-productive, but the Government must have some advance notice so that they can prepare their case.
I will support my party and Government if this matter is pressed to a vote. However, I say to the Minister that it will be regrettable if the Bill goes from this House with this apparent, but not indelible, stain on it. Otherwise, it could have gone forward with the unanimous support of the other place, the Treasury Committee and other experts in the field, including my constituents who are professional statisticians.
The debate has resembled others on the matter, both those in which I have participated and those that took place before my appointment.
During the passage of the Bill, the Government have moved to meet the views of all sides. As a result, we have made real changes. I welcome the generous acknowledgement of that by Dr. Cable. Mr. Hammond also acknowledged that we have made considerable changes to the Bill during its passage.
We have amended clause 25, on the board's duty to produce and publish reports, to clarify that all reports must be laid before the devolved Parliaments. In clause 7, we have changed the board's objective, to underscore its role in promoting and safeguarding statistics that "serve the public good". In clause 10, we have changed the name of the code of practice, to emphasise its applicability to all statistics. We have granted the board a duty to comment on those statistics that it felt should be subject to the assessment process, which is an important aspect of this afternoon's debate, and we have clarified that when such statistics are produced by a Minister of the Crown, the Minister must state publicly when the board's request will be complied with; and if not, why not.
We have imposed a duty to comply with the code of practice. We have passed amendments to clarify the separation of functions between assessment and production of statistics, and to clarify the role, responsibilities and functions of the national statistician and executive office. We have passed the residual responsibilities for the board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. We have made a commitment, which will be enshrined in the Bill if the motion is passed, to consult the board on the content of the pre-release secondary legislation prior to its being laid before the House, and we have committed ourselves to consult publicly. We have announced that pre-release access will be tightened to 24 hours. We have made a commitment in principle to create a central publication hub through which all national statistics will be released in the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary. We have committed ourselves to review the pre-release arrangements after 12 months, including to assess whether they hinder the broader objective of increasing trust in statistics.
That is a good structure to give the newly independent statistics board, as it provides a firm foundation and basis on which to begin and continue its work. It should be recognised that the Government have been very responsive. We will not put the figure of 24 hours in the Bill, because the system may evolve further. It has been 60 years since we last had a piece of primary legislation on statistics. I would not want to put such a provision on the face of the Bill when it might take another 60 years before another piece of primary legislation is introduced, as that might get in the way of further progress. It is therefore only sensible, and justified by experience of primary and secondary legislation, to put the 24-hour figure in a statutory instrument, rather than in the Bill.
What is being suggested is that the 24-hour maximum that the Prime Minister has proposed should be included in the Bill. The Minister is resisting that on the ground that she needs flexibility for legislation to evolve. Is she seriously suggesting that it might evolve in the direction of the maximum pre-release time increasing?
Is the hon. Gentleman also seriously suggesting that when the Prime Minister makes a statement on the Floor of the House his word is not to be trusted?
The hon. Lady should recognise that Prime Ministers come and go and, as she said, the legislation must last a long time. The promise made by the current Prime Minister does not necessarily bind the next Prime Minister. The House, however, can pass legislation that will put that promise into law. The flexibility is there, because the 24-hour figure would be only a maximum. If she is seriously suggesting that a longer period than 24 hours is necessary, and that is why she cannot put the figure in the Bill, she does not trust the Prime Minister's promise either.
The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what I say. I made no suggestion that the Government were somehow intending to have a pre-release time that was longer than 24 hours. It is clear that 24 hours is a maximum.
I have set out the long list of changes that the Government have made to the Bill during its passage. It is an impressive and substantial list, and the Government should be given credit for their willingness to listen and for the changes that they have made. The time is now right for the Government to get their Bill, and for the other place to realise that they should allow the Bill to complete its passage without further changes.
All sides agrees that this is a desirable Bill, which enshrines in statute for the first time the independence of the Office for National Statistics and the UK statistical system. It makes huge improvements in the system and structure in place for the delivery of a trusted statistical system in the UK. The Bill is much too important to be put in jeopardy by the unelected Chamber continuing to send it back with demands for more changes, when we all now agree with 99 per cent. of what it contains. Moreover, the Government will wish to proceed quickly to appoint the new chair of the statistics board, with a parliamentary hearing and vote before the recess—the Treasury Committee is interviewing the gentleman in question this afternoon. That cannot seriously proceed without the Bill making progress. Nor can the establishment of a shadow board and the necessary preparatory work to achieve the independence of the Office for National Statistics by next April proceed quickly if the Bill's passage is further delayed.
I hope that the Opposition will not press for a Division on the motion. Given the amendments that the other place has achieved, I further hope that it will realise that the time is now right for the Bill to proceed. I commend the motion to the House.