United Kingdom Statistics Authority

Bill Presented — Passive Flue Gas Systems (Strategy) – in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 13th December 2011.

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[Relevant documents: The Sixteenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, on the Appointment of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, HC 910-I, the evidence taken before the Committee on 10 May, HC 910-i, the uncorrected evidence taken before the Committee on 6 December, HC 1634-i, and the written evidence reported by the Committee and ordered to be published on 10 May .]

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 3:50 pm, 13th December 2011

I beg to move,

That this House
endorses the nomination of Andrew Dilnot CBE for appointment as Chair of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority.

The motion is in my name and that of other Ministers. All Members will know that this appointment is a very important one. Without reliable and independent statistics it is impossible for the Government to make good policy, or for Parliament, the public and the media to hold us to account. The quality of statistics in the UK is recognised to be very high, and all Members will agree that it is essential that we maintain that position.

The UK Statistics Authority is at the heart of the system for maintaining the quality and credibility of official statistics. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 established the authority to provide independent oversight of the statistical system. Therefore, the credibility of the chair is central to the whole operation of statistics in the UK.

Before moving to the specific candidate whom the Government have proposed for the post, I should like to acknowledge two very important contributions. First, the current chair, Sir Michael Scholar, has done outstanding work in establishing the authority as a credible and effective body, and I should like the House to record our thanks to him, not just for the work he has done since 2008, but for staying in post until the Government secured his replacement. I am sure other Members would like to place on record their thanks and appreciation of his good work.

Secondly, I thank my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin and the Select Committee on Public Administration under his chairmanship for their constructive engagement in the whole appointment process. In particular, I welcome the contribution that Kelvin Hopkins was able to make as part of the panel that selected Andrew Dilnot.

Two particular qualities are essential for the chair of the UK Statistics Authority: independence and a passion for statistics. The Government believe that Andrew Dilnot is superbly qualified in both respects. First, on independence, Mr Dilnot has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to independent analysis and a willingness to stand up for his views. Members on both sides of the House—to varying degrees, I suspect—will have appreciated, and been challenged by, the sharp but fair analysis that the Institute for Fiscal Studies published under his leadership of Budgets produced by Governments of all parties.

More recently, Mr Dilnot chaired the independent commission on long-term care, which tackled, as I am sure all hon. Members agree, one of the most important and intractable policy problems that we face with great rigour. I am sure he will display the same qualities if appointed to this new role. Although that might on occasion lead to discomfort among my ministerial colleagues, I hope that Members agree that Parliament and Government are best served by a credible, senior and independent advocate of the proper use of statistics.

Secondly, on Mr Dilnot’s passion for statistics, he is an acknowledged leader in the field of statistics and, frankly, is second to none in that regard. He is the author of what his biography assures me is a best-selling book about statistics, and was the founding presenter of BBC Radio 4’s series on statistics, “More or Less”. He is currently chair of the statistics users forum of the Royal Statistical Society, and has held a range of academic and advisory positions that require a detailed understanding of statistics and their use and misuse. In short, it is hard to imagine a better qualified candidate.

To sum up, it is essential that we appoint a new chair for the UK Statistics Authority who can continue to develop it as an effective guardian of good statistics. We believe that Andrew Dilnot is an excellent candidate. I welcome the report from the Public Administration Committee on his pre-appointment hearing, and its conclusion that he should be appointed. I therefore commend the appointment to the House.

Photo of Michael Dugher Michael Dugher Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office) 3:55 pm, 13th December 2011

Before I turn to the nomination of Andrew Dilnot as chair of the UK Statistics Authority, I would like to echo the Minister’s tribute to the outgoing chair, Sir Michael Scholar. As the Public Administration Committee said in its report, published last week, his work over the last four years in establishing the UK Statistics Authority has been first class. He has performed his important public duties robustly and with complete impartiality.

The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 was designed to ensure that we had an independent statistics authority—one that can challenge the use of statistics where necessary. This was exemplified only recently when Sir Michael publicly rebuked the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for giving misleading figures to the Home Affairs Committee. I am sure that the whole House is also grateful to Sir Michael for agreeing to continue in the post for longer than was originally expected.

As the House is aware, the recruitment process for the post was significantly delayed when the Government’s initial preferred candidate withdrew. That followed serious, and in our view proper, scrutiny by the Public Administration Committee as to whether individuals had the necessary personal independence to carry out the role. I would like to take this opportunity to praise members of the Committee from both sides of the House—in particular, the Chair of the Committee, Mr Jenkin, and my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins. The Committee has understood—and repeatedly stressed—the importance of independence in this post, and I believe its actions were consistent with the principle of parliamentary pre-appointment scrutiny.

I also welcome the greater role that the Committee played in deciding the make-up of the selection panel when the recruitment process was rerun, as well as in persuading the Government to recognise explicitly in the re-advertised job description that a key responsibility of the role is to ensure the independence of the authority. I hope the Government have learned from this process and will take the changes forward for all future appointments.

In respect of Andrew Dilnot’s professional competence, I agree with the Committee’s report that his extensive experience makes him eminently suitable for the role of chair of the UK Statistics Authority. As the Minister has said, Andrew Dilnot has had a distinguished career, most recently at Oxford university and in chairing the commission on the funding of care and support. He also headed up the Institute for Fiscal Studies for more than a decade. Indeed, this experience should stand him in particularly good stead. As we saw after the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the IFS is famously an organisation that is not afraid of criticising Ministers’ use of figures. I am therefore both satisfied—and indeed rather hopeful—that Mr Dilnot will bring the same kind of robustness when challenging the present Government’s continued use of statistics.

Throughout the pre-appointment hearing, Mr Dilnot expressed differing views from the Government on a wide range of issues, which is always encouraging. Those issues include the reduction of the pre-release period. It is also worth noting that when he was questioned about the Government’s happiness index, which costs the taxpayer £2 million a year, he said that it was “really rather silly” and “a pile of nonsense”. It appears that the candidate has fine commonsense in addition to independence of mind.

The post involves the significant responsibility of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official figures that serve the public good. Mr Dilnot has already made it clear how “absolutely vital” it is to have consistency in how the Government produce their figures. Labour Members agree that to make the most of our data we must be able to compare information over significant periods of time. This is why, of late, we have been concerned about some public statements from members of the Government about possibly changing the methodology used in producing certain statistics—for example, how child poverty is measured. The fact that child poverty is increasing in a way that undoubtedly shames the Government is no reason to alter how it is measured.

The appointment of a new chair of the board of the UK Statistics Authority is an extremely important one. We need a candidate who can maintain the code of practice for official statistics and ensure that Government figures are produced and presented to the highest standards of independence and integrity. We share the view of the Government and the Public Administration Select Committee that in Mr Dilnot we have a candidate who can rise to meet that challenge.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee 4:00 pm, 13th December 2011

I am grateful for the support of the official Opposition for this appointment, although I wondered whether Michael Dugher was going to declare an interest during his remarks. He might have forgotten—it is a failing of us all, I suppose—but if he looks at the inside cover of the report from which he quoted, he will see that he is still a member of the

Public Administration Committee. He has very honourably absented himself ever since he joined Labour’s Front-Bench team, but I hope that he will involve his party in putting forward a new nominee for the Committee, because it would be of great service to the Committee and the House. I make no personal criticism of him whatsoever.

When he appeared before my Committee last week for his pre-appointment hearing, Andrew Dilnot was invited by Paul Flynn to reflect on a statement that he made in 2007 during the passage of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Andrew Dilnot confirmed that he still held the view that he held then: that the passage of the 2007 Act, which set up the UK Statistics Authority, was

“a turning point. It has made possible something that otherwise was not possible, which is the recovery of a sense of independence and integrity for statistics…This Act gives the control and management of statistics back to Parliament…I think that was a very, very important step.”

I shall briefly remind the House of what the 2007 Act did. It established a new authority, now known as the UK Statistics Authority, with the statutory objective

“of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good.”

To many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that might seem rather a dry subject, but the public good in this instance is defined as

“informing the public about social and economic matters” and

“assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy.”

This is serious stuff. The authority has the statutory duty

“to promote and safeguard the quality of official statistics, good practice in relation to official statistics and the comprehensiveness of official statistics”.

In this respect, “quality” means the “impartiality, accuracy and relevance” of official statistics and their coherence with other official statistics.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and for the chance to serve under his chairmanship when approving the appointment as head of the UK Statistics Authority of this excellent candidate. He mentioned the importance of informing the public about statistics. Does he agree that one of the main priorities for Mr Dilnot will be to improve the website to make it accessible to the public, to make it easy for them to use and to allow them to give some feedback on how statistics are presented?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, which he raised in the pre-appointment hearing and to which Andrew Dilnot responded favourably. I think he sees the potential of improving public access to statistics and the public’s ability to understand why they appear as they do, what value they offer and, therefore, how they can influence the democratic process. This goes to the heart of so much of what we do in this place, and the way in which we try to engage our public. Technology, particularly the internet, enables us to do that in an unprecedented way. There is no reason why every citizen cannot have access to the same information that we have—the information that informs the decisions that we make in this Parliament. We should therefore involve the public much more in that. Indeed, we have an obligation to ensure that what the Government and the Opposition say is objective, truthful and properly informative, rather than otherwise; we all know what Disraeli said about damned lies and statistics. We need to ensure that the quality of the numbers and the data that the Government produce genuinely informs the debate, rather than just advancing the partisan interests of those producing them.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

Does my hon. Friend share the view that it is a proper function of the UK Statistics Authority to be fully separate, over and above the Office for National Statistics, or does he see some scope for reducing the number of quangos in this area?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

We are talking about a quango that survived the cull. Given that it was so recently established by an Act of Parliament, it would have been an absolute travesty if it had fallen to the cull. The reason is that for many years, those who understand the rather arcane world of statistics have been campaigning for much more independent oversight of statistics. Indeed, independence is one of the key tests that the Government applied in the Public Bodies Bill and the review of arm’s length bodies. If a body’s independence is fundamental to the function it performs, that justifies its existence. Therefore, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority was never on the list.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Labour, Wentworth and Dearne

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to remind his hon. Friend Jesse Norman that the Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority are not two separate bodies, but are one and the same. Indeed, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 sets out the delicate balance between the regulator and producer of statistics, which is one of the big challenges that any chair of UKSA must be able to manage.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

I am grateful for that intervention, because one of the things that we discussed in our pre-appointment hearing was the balance between oversight and production. The ONS is basically the producer of statistics, while UKSA should provide the oversight. However, the two are not directly separated in the way that one would expect, which is why the independence of UKSA’s chair is such an important feature of the arrangement. Therefore, the authority has a particular duty to ensure the accessibility of statistics.

Since its establishment in 2008 the authority has had the duty to monitor and report publicly on areas of concern in relation to good practice and the quality and comprehensiveness of all official statistics across Government and arm’s length bodies. The authority consulted on and established a code of practice for official statistics in 2009. Indeed, it seems astonishing that there was no such code of practice until UKSA established it. UKSA set independent professional standards for statistics in government, and is assessing against those standards all government statistical products that are classified as national statistics. There are some 1,300 series of statistics produced by government. One third of those statistical products are issued by the ONS, for which the authority performs the governance function.

The other key function of the new authority has been to challenge Departments and Ministers on the quality and integrity of the statistics for which they are responsible. As hon. Members, including several Ministers past and present, will know—I see in his place Mr Straw, the former Home Secretary—the authority’s first chair, Sir Michael Scholar, has been ready to challenge Government practices in the preparation and release of statistics where he and the authority have considered these practices to be corrosive of trust in official statistics. I must say that UKSA should have a sense of mission about its purpose; the Public Administration Committee certainly shares this sense of mission.

Sir Michael’s interventions, made in public and invariably copied to my Committee and to the relevant departmental Select Committee, have, I can reliably attest, been regarded with a mixture of fear and outrage in Whitehall. I think the House would be worried if the pronouncements of the authority—a non-ministerial department accountable to the House through my Committee—were not feared and respected in Departments and ministerial private offices, or, indeed, by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would attest that when we were in opposition, we suffered from the whiplash of Sir Michael’s interventions.

One such early intervention, in December 2008, was to raise in public with the permanent secretary at 10 Downing street an allegation that 10 Downing street special advisers had

“caused the Home Office to issue a Press Release which prematurely published provisional statistics for hospital admissions for knife or sharp instrument wounding…These statistics were not due for publication for some time, and had not therefore been through the regular process of checking and quality assurance. The statisticians who produced them, together with the National Statistician, tried unsuccessfully to prevent their premature, irregular and selective release. I hope you will agree that the publication of prematurely released and unchecked statistics is corrosive of public trust in official statistics, and incompatible with the high standards which we are all seeking to establish.”

This intervention resulted in an apology from the then Home Secretary on the next sitting day and a swift investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, which led to substantial changes to guidance to officials on how statistics should be handled, particularly on selective publication from unpublished data sets. An explicit reference was also inserted into the ministerial code, requiring Ministers to abide by the code of practice for official statistics. I regard it as part of the mission of UKSA and my Committee to empower the professional statisticians in government to stand up for the integrity of statistics when under the political pressure that inevitably arises in modern politics.

More recently, Sir Michael has raised with the Chancellor the issue of pre-release access by Ministers, advisers and officials to sensitive economic statistics such as the consumer prices index and retail prices index inflation figures. Sir Michael has asked—I tend to agree with him—what reason there can be for allowing prior access to these figures to a group of up to 50 individuals some 24 hours before publication. I would add that that can be to the advantage only of the Government. For the sake of trust in the use of official statistics, Sir Michael has requested that the number of recipients of these figures be cut to an absolute minimum and the time reduced to the shortest period necessary. I would add: why not?

My Committee is very concerned by the Government’s adherence to pre-release practices. It greatly concerned our predecessor Committee under Tony Wright, and we thought that those practices would be abolished by this Administration when they took office. When the Statistics and Registration Service Bill was going through Parliament, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General gave explicit assurances when we were in opposition that we would abolish pre-release when we were elected. I have to say that we expect the Public Administration Committee to return to the issue in the new year.

Sir Michael Scholar has exemplified an independence of mind and a desire to be independent of Government, which we have thoroughly supported; it could be considered all the more galling as he also served as a most distinguished senior civil servant in Whitehall before he took up this appointment. When he gave evidence to us on the challenges facing his successor he was clear that the single most important feature of his office was its independence. We have been concerned that his successor should be similarly independent, with the judgment to know when to stand up to Ministers to make crucial points about the proper use of official statistics.

In March 2011 Sir Michael indicated his desire to step down, and a competition was initiated to find a successor. A panel—which I understand was chaired by the permanent secretary to the Treasury, and included the Cabinet Secretary—recommended a candidate who was presented to us for approval as the Government’s preferred candidate. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the fact that this debate is taking place, because he conceded, in answer to a question in the Committee, that it would be appropriate for the appointment to be confirmed by a resolution of the House, and for the appointment to be made only after having been so confirmed. If I am correct, that procedure did not apply to Sir Michael Scholar’s appointment and is not required by Act of Parliament.

That is a testament to the Government’s determination to ensure the independence of the appointment, although, perhaps ironically, my right hon. Friend will have rued the day that he made that undertaking. Earlier this year we held a pre-appointment hearing with Dame Janet Finch, an academic of great distinction and experience, to examine her professional competences and personal independence with regard to the appointment. It is a matter of record that the hearing was a somewhat difficult occasion. Subsequently Dame Janet wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, on her own initiative, to say that it had become clear during the course of the hearing that she and the Committee

“had differing views over how the job should be undertaken, and in particular how the independence of the Chair should be exercised.”

I commend her for applying for the post, for gamely putting herself up for the post, and for behaving in such a dignified way. She withdrew from the selection process entirely voluntarily. May I place on record the Committee’s appreciation for the dignified way in which she handled a difficult personal situation? Her conduct in the matter was exemplary, and the Committee continues to hold her in the highest esteem.

Photo of David Heyes David Heyes Labour, Ashton-under-Lyne

I have served on the Public Administration Committee both under the hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship and for many years before that, and only recently have we taken on the responsibility for pre-appointment hearings. Does he agree that this is a fine example of how a pre-appointment hearing can work to produce an excellent candidate, whom we talked about earlier, in a sensitive and intelligent manner?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

I am grateful for that comment. I also want to place on record my appreciation for the action subsequently taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who readily agreed that the competition should be rerun and generously consulted my Committee on the arrangements for rerunning it, as it was clear that the previous arrangements had led to the situation. He decided that the nomination panel should be chosen afresh, and the new panel did not include the Cabinet Secretary or anyone else of permanent secretary rank. He agreed that a parliamentarian should serve on the panel, to assess the independence of the panel from the Executive, and we are pleased that he accepted our suggestion that Kelvin Hopkins, a member of the Public Administration Committee and academic statistician of some distinction himself, should serve on that panel, which he duly did.

Having been consulted and had our views taken into account, the Committee was confident that the fresh panel was well placed to select an independent and capable candidate. The House has before it the transcript of the pre-appointment hearing held with the Government’s preferred candidate, Andrew Dilnot, who gave a stellar performance. He is no stranger to any of us—his work with the Institute for Fiscal Studies was for many years required reading at Budget time—and I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have been briefed by him on occasion. As he pointed out to us, he was always able to conduct his analysis of Budget documents without the benefit of pre-release access. He is an accomplished communicator of statistical issues, and communicates in a way that can make him truly engaging and relevant to the wider public. He was the first presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “More or Less” programme, which, whenever I turn it on, I find myself unable to turn off, because it is so revealing about what we need to know in public life.

In the arena of fiscal statistics, Andrew Dilnot has long demonstrated an independence of mind and confidence that have attracted criticism only from those who have found his truths inconvenient. He has made it clear that, if appointed, he will want to work constructively with the Public Administration Committee, and to improve the standing and presentation of official statistics. Certainly my colleagues and I did not hesitate to conclude that he had the professional competences and personal independence necessary to fulfil the role of chair of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority. In fact, the two—he and the job—seem to have been made for each other.

I also look forward to Mr Dilnot’s introduction of a number of innovations that will benefit the public. The authority faces considerable challenges in the years ahead. For instance, it must steer a course towards a more efficient and cost-effective way of collecting population data to replace the census in 2021. Its governing legislation gives it the dual role—mentioned earlier by Michael Dugher—of producer and regulator of official statistics, which is sometimes uncomfortable to negotiate, and which Mr Dilnot will wish to clarify. It must represent the statistical profession in Government effectively at a time when budget reductions mean the loss of statistical resources and the axing of whole statistical series. It must also act as cheerleader for official statistics when public trust in them is generally accepted to be low, and remains low despite the progress that has been made in recent years.

The Public Administration Committee is very confident that Andrew Dilnot is the right candidate to address those challenges, and to build on the considerable legacy left by Sir Michael Scholar, to whom I pay tribute. I particularly wish to mention that Sir Michael stayed on willingly for the extra months during what would otherwise have been an interregnum between his retirement and the delayed appointment of his successor. I wholeheartedly support the motion.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn 4:22 pm, 13th December 2011

Let me begin by declaring an interest: I am an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. The society graciously bestowed that honour on me for my work in the 1990s in advancing the case for an independent national statistical service and proper parliamentary scrutiny of statistics.

I am delighted to observe that my right hon. Friend John Healey is present. It was he who introduced the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which completed the journey from a statistical service that was half independent and half controlled by Government to a service in which the producers of the statistics, the Office for National Statistics and its agents, and the supervisor of that production, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority, had become entirely independent of Government.

I also commend the Public Administration Committee on its work both in monitoring the work of the authority and in conducting the process of this appointment. It is interesting to recall, as I do, the nervousness that was abroad at one time about Select Committees having any role in public appointments, given that this appointment has effectively been made entirely by Parliament, and has been endorsed by a Select Committee with the approval—hopefully—of the House.

I know Sir Michael Scholar well and I think that he did an outstanding job as the first chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, in difficult circumstances. Nobody should underestimate the pressure that was put on him when he dared to criticise the Government of whom I was a member. He criticised the frankly preposterous behaviour of part of the Government—special advisers in No. 10 and in the Home Office—in allowing not just the pre-release of statistics, but the traducing of statistics which should have been properly released by the Office for National Statistics.

That was part of a culture that went back to previous Administrations, and we have seen one example of it during this Administration, whereby special advisers in No. 10, all jockeying among themselves to show that they are more adept than their colleagues in getting material into the newspapers and anxious for attention from the master, cajole the people they believe are their subordinates—the special advisers in the individual Departments. They say, “We can see this on the grid”—the wretched grid—“and we must know about this. We want early information. There is something else coming up. We have heard a rumour that those nasty people in the Opposition are about to do X or Y, or there is a terribly bad news story, Z, and if only we can get this good news out, all will be fine.” That is all without purpose, it never works, it always ends in tears and it carries on. The problem is that previously, unless a strong and confident Minister was looking after those statistics, it was all too easy for this abuse to run away with itself. I had only one occasion when those at No. 10 tried this on me and I told them to get lost, saying that if they wanted I would come to the House to make a statement about what they were trying to suborn my officials and special advisers, who are of the highest integrity, into doing. I was securing my position and a very large number of Ministers, sadly, are not in that happy position.

I know what the chuntering was when Sir Michael Scholar criticised the practice of the Home Office and No. 10 in December 2008—I believe it was then. It is no coincidence that much of the attempt to bypass official release mechanisms has taken place in respect of Home Office statistics. That is not because the Home Office statisticians—or now the Ministry of Justice statisticians—are any less worthy or any less replete with integrity; it is because of the highly political nature of the information they convey. Sir Michael set out, in handling that abuse, to continue in a similar manner, and he put his foot down on a number of further occasions—two when the Labour Government were in power and once under this Government. I hope that, bit by bit, Ministers, officials and special advisers will get the message that in the 21st century it is no more appropriate to try to interfere with the generation, organisation, analysis and publication of official statistics than it is to interfere in the generation, analysis and publication of the accounts of a Department.

No Minister or senior official at any level would dream of saying, “We’ve got to alter the accounts. It is a bit inconvenient but this has come up and we seem to have lost some money.” Such alteration is a criminal offence for directors of companies. It is worth remembering that in the early part of the 19th century it was perfectly commonplace for Ministers to ensure that there was a bit of fiddling of the statistics. A lot of Ministers lined their own pockets, a few got charged with corruption but generally got away with it, and one or two were impeached. That was the culture of the times. We have moved away from that in respect of financial probity, but we now have to see a similar cultural shift in respect of statistical probity because otherwise the whole political debate and discourse in this country will be the loser.

We can have serious discussions when it comes to arguments about finance. We know what the deficit is and we can argue about what its components are, but no one suggests that it has somehow been made up. It is there. With other statistics—particularly social statistics, and particularly those on crime and immigration—there has been a ridiculous argument about whether crime has gone up or down. The same applies to unemployment and so on. We must move away from that, because it is a real turn-off for the public and it is very undermining for the quality of debate in this country.

Let me make two points, the first of which is on pre-release statistics. Mr Jenkin was quite right to draw attention to the fact that before the election the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General made a lot of play of the fact that he was going to abandon pre-release notice, or move at best to one hour. We should have abandoned it when we were in government, but we did not do so. He said that he would and then, when he came into government, hey presto, he supped at the royal jelly—or something like that—or had a nod from somebody at No. 10 and suddenly decided that he was wrong.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee, Chair, Public Administration Committee

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on what interests prevented him from persuading his colleagues to abolish it and does he therefore have some sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General as regards the opposition he might be facing?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

I have sympathy with the Minister, of course. He happens to be my pair, anyway, so I declare that interest too. I have every sympathy with him, but the forces of darkness get tiring after a while. People always think that the Government will do better if only they can get early information and slip this or that past, but that is all nonsense.

My officials and others used to regard it as slightly tedious that I was not terribly bothered about when the figures were coming out—although I was early on, when I was neurotic about when the crime figures were being released. My view was that one had to ask what the point was of knowing in advance. It just led to a suspicion that we had somehow fiddled the figures because we had had them early and all the rest of it. There was absolutely no point at all. Why not find out at exactly the same time as anybody else? It is impertinent to think that Ministers should have any right to find out in advance. Why should they? They are not Ministers of figures—the figures belong to the public and Parliament. It is also self-defeating, in my opinion.

My advice to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and his colleagues is: chill and defeat the forces of darkness. I am sorry I did not complete that task, notwithstanding being joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne. Ministers will do themselves an enormous favour if they abandon pre-release notice.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Does he not agree, however, that there is a very small case for certain statistics—particularly market-sensitive information—to be released to the Government early, given the effect they might have?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

There might be, and there could have been in the days when the Treasury was responsible for setting interest rates. At a time when by all-party agreement the Treasury is no longer responsible for setting interest rates, what can the Government do about it anyway? If they have advance information that there will be a sudden huge—mega—balance of trade deficit then, with a bit of luck, it will gradually emerge through the tax data anyway. What can they do about it? If the markets react adversely, the Bank of England will come in and buy sterling, or not. I accept that there might be a narrow case for examining that, however.

My second point is about the responsibility for defining the components of series. Let us recall the great debate about the components of youth unemployment figures.

There was irritation among those in the Government of whom I was a member that that series included people in full-time education, and I gather there is also irritation about that in this Government. Of course, support for the current definition has stayed on the Opposition side of the Chamber. My view is that there is a case for saying that people in full-time education should not be included in the definition of the unemployed because they are not available for work, although they might want a part-time job. There might not be a case for that but, whether or not it is to the advantage of Government, that issue ought to be examined independently and decided independently, without regard to which party might, for the time being, gain partisan advantage.

Lastly, I commend the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee that Mr Andrew Dilnot be appointed as the successor to Sir Michael Scholar. He is brilliant, he has a very fine mind and he has a great understanding of public affairs. I can think of no better successor to Sir Michael Scholar.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire 4:36 pm, 13th December 2011

I, too, am extremely pleased to support the motion. I speak not only as a Member of the House but as a member of the Treasury Committee. The House will be aware that we are extremely reliant on the quality of our national statistics as we supervise, regulate and seek to hold to account, at least at arm’s length, entities and agencies that are themselves extremely reliant on our national statistics. This appointment reflects very creditably on the Government for their willingness to choose, and to allow pre-selection hearings on, the highest quality candidates who can genuinely hold them to account rather than simply choosing placemen. This appointment fits into that good tradition, and the appointment of Robert Chote was another example of that.

I pay tribute to Sir Michael Scholar and also to the Public Administration Committee’s role in vetting not one but two candidates.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Would the hon. Gentleman extend those sentiments to the Mayor of London, who, when he was criticised for abusing statistics before a Select Committee of the House, reacted to the criticism of Michael Scholar by describing him as a “Labour stooge”?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

I certainly do not share that view and I am not sure that the Mayor would share that view if he had further time to reflect on it.

Sir Andrew Dilnot is a person of impeccable personal reputation and great intellect. He has been garlanded with honours from our finest academic institutions and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Anyone who has heard him present “More or Less” or heard his outstanding podcasts will know that he is an extraordinarily apt and adept presenter of information, and therefore perfectly fits an agency with the job not merely of presenting information and ensuring its integrity but of recruiting and engaging its users.

The truth is that we in Parliament and those in government cannot survive without good information and good numbers, and the Opposition, whoever they may be, cannot survive without the numbers that allow them to hold the Government to account. I hope that an early priority for the new chair will be to look at the private finance initiative, which hon. Members will know is one of my pet bugbears. I can think of no better example than that because there has been extraordinary abuse of those statistics, with things being pushed off-balance sheet, with standards that are not of the highest quality being adopted and—I am pleased that this is being addressed by the Government—with the creation of a situation in which it is possible to have an asset that is off-balance sheet not only to the country but to PFI contractors.

Sir Andrew Dilnot is also to be commended for his outstanding report on different ways of funding the provision of care for the elderly. It would be a very poor debate that did not recognise that and congratulate him on that report. His appointment fits into a pattern of improving the governance of our public agencies, and it is a principle that could properly be extended to other public agencies whose governance has been somewhat lacking of late. I think in particular of the Bank of England, whose court needs comprehensive restoration; the Treasury Board, which could do with refreshment; and the governance of HM Revenue and Customs, which needs higher quality senior officials and non-executives.

I conclude by congratulating the Government on this appointment, and Sir Andrew Dilnot on his acceptance, on his passion for statistics and on his independence of mind. I welcome the energy, the integrity and the intelligence which he will bring to the evaluation of policy, I hope, as well as to the assessment of statistics and their presentation to the public.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 4:40 pm, 13th December 2011

This appointment is a major development in our parliamentary procedures. This is the first time that the pre-appointment hearings made a significant difference and had an influence in changing the candidate. The pre-appointment hearings came out of an investigation in the previous Parliament by the Public Administration Committee, which went to America and recommended that certain senior appointments should be subject to the procedure. We have heard the explanation given by the Chair of how the decision arising from the interview with the first candidate resulted in a second candidate coming along and how a member of the Committee was appointed to the panel that took part in the process. These are important changes that reinforce the view that this is a useful way of proceeding. The House has behaved in a responsible manner in this process.

My right hon. Friend Mr Straw referred to the forces of darkness and the queen bee jelly that takes over Governments. Some of us can rejoice in being the forces of light who were against the previous scheme and against our own Government, and are still against it and against the new Government. So often when Governments change, it is not a change of philosophy, but an exchange of scripts. Of course Governments neurotically want to hoard their secrets for as long as possible. It seems extraordinary that it was only in 2007 that the arguments were exactly reversed—when I was sitting on the Government Benches arguing with my own Government, the Tory Opposition were saying that this was the big weakness in the Bill that went through. Now they flip over without a blush.

There was a time when I recall accusing Mr Alan Clark of supervising the largest and most shameless massage parlour in London, which was the Department of Employment, in his use of employment statistics. There was some truth in that. I had an exchange of letters with Margaret Thatcher in 1989, when a group of statisticians came to see me. They were distressed because the responsibility for statistics was being moved from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury, and they rightly said, “This is our life’s work. That will reduce these pristine, glorious statistics, wonderful graphs and histograms to garbage by politicians on the make.” They suggested that the Treasury was the Department with the greatest vested interest in fiddling the statistics and damaging the result of their work. Their whole professional raison d’être was diminished by that.

Mrs Thatcher sent me a letter in which she expressed her deep shock that anyone should express the unworthy idea that her Department would want to fiddle statistics in any way. We do not feel quite that way now. There has been a move forward. I mentioned the distressing episode involving the Mayor of London. It goes to show that the advance has not been complete—not all Departments have changed their mind.

The Mayor of London was rightly criticised by Sir Michael Scholar, and we have all praised him for the way in which he does that. Sir Michael has done very well. He challenged the Home Department with great courage. He challenged the previous Government and he has challenged Departments now. He did the job that he was set to do, but when he attacked the Mayor of London, the Mayor’s reaction was not to say, “All right, I got it wrong. I’ll change the statistics.” No humility from Boris, of course. Instead, he called him a Labour stooge. It was an outrageous thing to say, given his lifetime of independence. Michael Scholar, as all today’s contributors have said, has done a splendid job of establishing that independence, and it is what we see in Dilnot.

There are still a few old lags in the House from the passage in 2007 of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which went through with hardly a flicker of interest; this is a crowded House compared with the number of people who attended back then. There was only one tiny piece of interest in the press, too, but it was an article that I repeated ad nauseum to the House at the time, because it stated that it was the most important Bill of the Labour Government—we had been in power for 10 years—and would have a bigger effect than anything we had done, including handing over power and independence to the Bank of England. The article was written by a certain Andrew Dilnot, and his entire career has rightly been in that area—suggesting that statistics need to be independent.

In the Public Administration Committee, we all saw Dilnot’s boyish enthusiasm for statistics. He talks about them as “Statistics”—these wonderful things, which are the key to all happiness and the path to knowledge and wisdom—

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Indeed. I will turn to that point now.

I do have a slight vested interest in the matter, because the largest employer in my constituency happens to be the Office for National Statistics, and that is why I like to deal with the cynicism that occasionally crops up about the well-being statistics. They might have cost £2 million, but they have certainly added to my sense of well-being, because they provide work in my constituency, and we should not be cynical about them. In the past we measured happiness, success and politics on the basis of gross domestic product, but that is not a sensible thing to do, because, when the nation’s prosperity increased, unhappiness increased as well.

There was a splendid T-shirt in Hungary in 2000. On the front it said, “What has 10 years of right-wing government done that 50 years of communism could never do?” and the answer on the back was, “Made the people love socialism”. They had put up with the equality of misery, because everyone was treated badly, but when they moved to the inequality of choice they were unhappy, because young men were becoming millionaires on the stock exchange while pensions were increasing slower than inflation.

There is a crucial difference between the two, and one of the myths of politics is that choice is an example to be pursued, and that everyone will be happy if they have choice. No, they will not. I am a child of the war, when there was no choice and we wore utility clothes, but everyone was on the same level, and that was much better than what we have now, with our children wanting to wear quality, fashion clothes. All the great myths of politics are there, so it is crucial that we measure scientifically our sense of well-being.

Many points that I wished to make have been made, but it was telling of Andrew Dilnot to give us one striking example of the need for truth and honesty in statistics. He did not mention the newspaper, but most people will recognise that he was citing The Daily Telegraph, which put out a big, 36-point, front-page headline, stating, “Public pensions to cost you £4,000 a year”. It had divided £9.4 billion by 26 million and got an answer of almost £4,000. The answer is actually £400, but that particular piece of fiction was repeated on the “Today” programme and in the day’s headlines, and it became part of common knowledge which is actually common ignorance, so it is right that someone such as Andrew Dilnot should be there to take on the powerful forces that put fiction into the public domain because they are innumerate.

Mr Dilnot made a number of other points, which were entertaining, about how we should move forward. He talked about an idea called “Tell me a story”. He would suggest to schoolchildren that they go to the website of the Office for National Statistics or the Government statistical service and tell him a story about aspects of the country, but expressed in statistics.

It is a matter of great satisfaction and pleasure for my constituents that this Swansea boy should have been upgraded to Newport—a matter of some congratulations. He can work in Newport under the benign observance of a quality MP, and I am sure that he will be extremely content. The hugely successful relocation of the ONS to Newport can continue and prosper. Gales of applause will be coming up the M4 today as a result of the House’s decision, which I am sure will be to reinforce the decision of the Public Administration Committee to appoint Andrew Dilnot as the best possible candidate.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 4:50 pm, 13th December 2011

It is a pleasure to follow Paul Flynn, although I am not sure how I am going to follow some of the details that he mentioned. It will be a challenge for Mr Dilnot to find a statistical measure for happiness; I am not sure that he will find reliable data for that.

I start by welcoming Mr Dilnot’s appointment. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin. The process has shown that pre-appointment hearings should not always be simply to ratify the Government’s appointment. There should be a possibility that the proposal will be rejected and that the process will have to restart, and the occasional rejection should be seen in the context of the advantages that the process offers us.

Any politician will know how important statistics are. Soon after I was selected as a candidate, around the time of the change in the law, in early 2008, we used some crime figures in a leaflet. A couple of months later, I was phoned up by someone from the local newspaper, who said that the police authority was challenging the data that we were using. It cited some very different figures and had no idea where the figures that I had used came from. It turned out that my figures were from the most recent British crime survey and the authority was using police data. What was slightly unfortunate was that it used crime data for the year that ended two days previously—I could not possibly have used that in my leaflet, which had been printed two months before, and not even in the same year.

In retrospect, I was grateful as I got a front-page headline and a decent amount of publicity. The vast majority of correspondence said, “You’re right—we don’t believe a single figure that they tell us anyway, so we’ll happily go with the ones that you cited.” That sums up the public mood about official statistics—they just do not believe them, probably because all politicians tend to manipulate them, get them wrong or selectively use some that suit the argument and omit those that might go the other way.

It is a real job to make public the data used and make it clear when they are abused by politicians. We should all base government and policies on actual evidence, rather than on what we would like the evidence to be; we should make the policy fit the data, not the data the policy. It is ironic that, in a debate about the probity of the data we use, we have had comments about child poverty data. That is one of those footballs that we can bounce back and forward. What data do we want to use? Do we compare 2005 to 2010? Some of the numbers show child poverty going up by 300,000 and some by 100,000, or we can say that it has gone up since the election. Michael Dugher wandered into that argument. Mr Straw gave a far more balanced view: we have to be careful that we use realistic, accurate data that present a meaningful picture, rather than the one that we want.

I agree with the Minister that the person who heads this authority needs to be credible, senior, and, most of all, independent. If we are to have a Parliament that can effectively hold Government to account, we need reliable, honest, accurate data to be available to all of us so that we can do that job properly. I truly hope that Mr Dilnot can take that process forward. I, too, cannot see much justification for the Government’s having 24-hour advance access. I hope that the Public Administration Committee can make some further recommendations when it looks at that, because probably one of the last great abuses is our being able to see stories appearing in the press that rely on statistics that we have not seen.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 4:55 pm, 13th December 2011

It is a great pleasure to endorse the recommendation that Andrew Dilnot be made chairman of the UK Statistics Authority. I had the pleasure—indeed, the honour and responsibility —of serving on the selection committee. I cannot say too much about what went on in the selection process, but his performance was, as the chairman said at the pre-appointment hearing, stellar—and in a very strong field. We have got exactly the right person in Andrew.

Before saying more about Andrew Dilnot, I want to say something about Sir Michael Scholar. I agree with all the compliments paid to him this afternoon. Indeed, I praised him publicly at the Public Administration Committee when he came before us in the previous Parliament. The fact that he has been criticised by—or perhaps I should say that he has slightly disturbed—politicians on both sides of the House shows that he is even-handed. However, I think that he was just being truthful when he criticised special advisers in the previous Government for misusing statistics about knife crime. I am sure that they were not pleased, and they may have privately said that he was a Tory stooge—who knows? The fact that he has now upset the Mayor of London and has been accused of being a Labour stooge suggests that perhaps he is nobody’s stooge. Perhaps he is just his own man, telling the truth as he sees it, and that is what we want in a chair. He has done a splendid job.

Sir Michael has drawn attention to the fact that official statistics are not held in high regard by our voters. In a recent public lecture at Oxford university, he said that we came bottom of the league table in our attitude to official statistics and that our electors do not trust them. That is a very serious matter. In my view, our official statistics are of very high quality, and they should be trusted, but it is their misuse by Governments and by the media that leads to their being mistrusted. I think that I was appointed to the Committee because I have some modest experience of statistics; I studied the subject and used to teach it at a modest level. I used to show my students how one can use statistics to tell fibs, in a sense, by distorting things; one can exaggerate the vertical scale to make it look steeper than it should be, and so on. People can try all sorts of tricks to make statistics tell the story that they want to tell.

The great thing about the UK Statistics Authority is that it will present the statistics raw, and truthfully. If they are misused, it is up to the authority to point that out from time to time. I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend Mr Straw, the former Justice Secretary and Home Secretary, said about pre-release. Let us get rid of pre-release and we will solve some of these problems. We can then all see the statistics as they come out and make of them what we think, not get it all pre-digested by politically interested, politically motivated Governments of both sides.

Sir Michael has pointed out that we have to raise the status and the opinion of official statistics with our electors so that they are trusted. I personally trust official statistics, and I trust the splendid people who work in Newport in the constituency of my hon. Friend Paul Flynn. I have visited their headquarters and spoken to them many times, and they are clearly public servants who can and should be trusted. We want to ensure that the population at large regards them equally well.

I have had a long association with Andrew Dilnot, because long before I was a Member of the House I used to attend the pre-Budget presentation by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which he led. It was always a splendid occasion, and the statistics and analysis that the IFS produced were always first class. I still receive its green budget reports—in hard copy, I am afraid, because I am old-fashioned—and always pore over them with great interest.

I am one of those people who are fascinated by numbers and statistics. I like nothing better for Christmas than a book full of statistics that I can spend Christmas day entertaining myself with. People might call me an anorak, but I believe that numbers are important. The great thing about Andrew Dilnot is that he has a passion even greater than my own for statistics. The passion that he showed in the interview was almost as though he were talking about great works of art. Statistics tell truths if they are accurate and presented truthfully, and his enthusiasm and passion for statistics as almost works of art inspired us all. I believe that we have the right person for the job.

I agree entirely with what the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, Mr Jenkin, and a number of other Members have said about Andrew Dilnot. I could not attend the hearing, because I was a member of the selection committee, but I am sure his performance was as exciting and stimulating as it was at the interview. It was a great pleasure to be involved in the process, and I think we have got exactly the right person for the job.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 5:01 pm, 13th December 2011

It is a great pleasure to follow Kelvin Hopkins, a fellow member of the Public Administration Committee. I was at the hearing at which we interviewed Mr Dilnot—in fact, it was my first day on the Committee—and I was overwhelmed by his enthusiasm and passion and the degree of animation with which he spoke about statistics. On that basis, it gives me great pleasure to endorse his recommendation.

I wish to add to the points that have already been made one that has been spoken about only briefly, which is Mr Dilnot’s capacity to become a cheerleader for statistics. We have heard a great deal about the cynicism and negativity associated with statistics, but one of the strongest points that came out of our hearing with him was that he wanted to do significant work to change the perception of statistics. He wants not just to do that for the cynical oldies among us but to engage young people in statistics and increase their understanding of them.

As the hon. Member for Luton North pointed out, Mr Dilnot is passionate about statistics. Those of us who have had the privilege of studying statistics, maths or economics in the past will understand the significance of stats to our daily lives and well-being and what they mean to society as a whole. Mr Dilnot spoke about that with great enthusiasm and commitment, and he went as far as to state that it would be a priority for him.

Members have made points about the integrity of statistics. Mr Dilnot’s appointment provides a tremendous opportunity to redefine the relationship with statistics of all of us—the Government, the public and future generations. I wholeheartedly support the recommendation in the Committee’s report, and I hope that the appointment goes through with no flaws or problems at all.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Labour, Wentworth and Dearne 5:03 pm, 13th December 2011

It is good to follow Priti Patel, and I welcome the fact that so many Members on both sides of the Chamber have wanted to contribute to the debate.

I pay tribute to the members of the Public Administration Committee and its Chairman, Mr Jenkin, for the report and their work. I speak having been the Minister responsible for developing the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and leading it through the House. May I say that I had no greater supporter in government or more critical friend in that work than my right hon. Friend Mr Straw? I am grateful to him for that.

The fact that our debate this afternoon is in such terms causes us to reflect on and pay tribute to the work of several people in setting up the UK Statistics Authority after the House passed the legislation, especially the former national statistician, Karen Dunnell, and the current national statistician, Jil Matheson. However, I want to pay particular tribute to the outgoing chair, Sir Michael Scholar. He helped lead and set up the authority with great distinction. He helped provide important guidance and governance to the Office for National Statistics, and ensure that a good, strong code of practice for official statistics was introduced in January 2009 and is, properly, now also enforced. As hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber have observed, he has been ready, when necessary, to tackle Ministers from the previous Government and the current Government about the misuse of statistics. Indeed, he most recently tackled the Mayor of London for his misuse of official statistics.

The UK Statistics Authority has two most important features, which have a bearing on the appointment of its chair. The first is its statutory independence from Government and the second is its answerability to Parliament—to this elected House. The report of the Public Administration Committee demonstrates and reinforces the role that Parliament must play. My hon. Friend David Heyes called it a fine example and my hon. Friend Paul Flynn said that we mark a historic day in the extension of the proper role of Parliament in holding the Executive to account and in the conduct of public life. That is true, and the report reinforces the value and importance of the House’s role in the process in three ways.

First—and perhaps for the first time—the Select Committee played an important role in ending the appointment process for the Government’s previous preferred candidate for the job. Secondly—I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Hurd—the Government conceded a greater role for the Committee in the selection process for the chair, allowing it to comment on the person specification, the job specification and the recruitment process. Thirdly, they crucially conceded the point that a member of the Committee had a valuable role to play on the selection panel, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins. I note that the report stated that his role was to assess independence from the Executive. He proved his ability to do that over 13 years of the previous Government and continues to do that from the Opposition Benches.

It strikes me from the Committee’s hearings that Andrew Dilnot demonstrated an extraordinary passion for and commitment to what he called the science of statistics in his evidence session. One of the special qualities that he brings to the post is that of being a long-term user, not simply a producer, of statistics—a man who can be not just a guardian, but a champion of statistics in future. The Select Committee report’s conclusion states:

“We welcome his independence of mind and his enthusiasm better to communicate statistics and their importance.”

The contributions to the debate from both sides of the Chamber, particularly from Members who served on the Committee and heard his evidence, reinforced the point about passion and enthusiasm.

The Chairman of the Committee said that in the appointment process, the Committee was concerned to establish personal independence and professional competences. Any hon. Member who has ever worked with Andrew Dilnot, or who has worked in areas of his expertise and activity, has absolutely no cause to doubt his personal independence or his professional competence. Treasury Ministers—I am a former Treasury Minister—waited immediately after the Budget for the Institute for Fiscal Studies assessment and analysis, which was the most significant one. Invariably and reliably, that was delivered with great independence and competence, and it was often delivered personally by Andrew Dilnot.

In conclusion, like Jesse Norman, who is not in the Chamber, I too can think of no more fitting and suitable a person for this post in public life in our country than Andrew Dilnot. I welcome him as the Government’s preferred candidate and the work of the Committee in the process of his appointment, and I welcome and endorse the report, which concludes:

“His experience makes him eminently fitted for the role.”

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 5:10 pm, 13th December 2011

I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, and declare an interest: I am not the statistician in my family.

I believe that those who follow such debates would be well advised to get hold of the Public Administration Committee’s sixteenth report of Session 2010 to 2012, HC 910-I, “Appointment of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority”; the corrected transcript of oral evidence of 10 May 2011 of Sir Michael Scholar,

Jil Matheson and Richard Alldritt on the appointment of the chair of the UK Statistics Authority; and the written evidence on the appointment of the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, which contains all but one of eight papers submitted to the Committee. I tried to find out what the missing paper was—it was “UKSA 04”—but “UKSA” also stands for “United Kingdom Sailing Academy”, “the United Kingdom’s Strongest Athlete” and one or two other things with which I need not delay the House today.

To illustrate that statistics need interpretation, I remind the House that if the UK Statistics Authority reduces its number of staff as it intends, by 2015, the number of staff it had in 2005 would be approximately 42% higher. That is to say that it is a 29.5% reduction from the figure of 2005. That has come about via a 16% reduction from 2005 to now, and there will be another 16% reduction from now until 2015.

That is an example of how, in three sentences, one can cast a cloud over people’s understanding, but what it basically means is that we need statisticians and those who read their work. That is why the UK Statistics Authority has a vital role in getting information from the Government out into the open in a way that the outside world can understand and interpret, and feed back to hon. Members in a way that increases our understanding.

I did not believe that it was right to combine the Statistics Commission and the Office for National Statistics, but that is done. Sir Michael Scholar has clearly explained how the UKSA arrangements are supposed to retain a separation between the regulator and the producer of statistics. I am willing to accept that, but I am still not very happy about it.

When Sir Michael Scholar gave evidence to the Committee with Jil Matheson on 10 May 2011, he made some points about the problems that he put to the Prime Minister in 2010. On page 11 of the transcript, Sir Michael said that

“before any significant changes could be made to the statistical capability of a Department, or any major changes to its statistical output, the Department would be obliged to secure the agreement of the National Statistician. That would be going back to a system that pertained in this country during the time that Claus Moser”—

Lord Moser

“was head of the Central Statistical Office. I asked the Prime Minister if he would go back to that system, which would be something that he could do through administrative action without any need for legislation or for any additional expenditure. I also asked him if he would accept the proposals we had made on prerelease access…My third proposal to him was that he should give the Authority a place in the decision making about cuts in statistical capability across the whole Government. Recognising, in the difficult fiscal position that the Government were and are now in, that there were going to be cuts, we felt it was very important that the Statistics Authority, with a view right across the scene of the whole statistical system, should be brought into the process of decision making about where cuts should be made.”

It would be very helpful if the Government, now or shortly, could respond to each of those points. We know about the pre-release access—progress has been made on that and it has not brought the roof down—but the other two points still matter and should be made.

Kelvin Hopkins referred to himself as an “anorak”—which I think is the only word we get from Greenlandish Eskimo, but I stand to be corrected—and in the hearing on 10 May 2011 he referred to time series. Sir Michael Scholar, the chairman, said, in effect, “I don’t think we can give you the assurance that we aren’t losing something that is valuable.” It would be wise if the Government and the new chairman, together with the national statistician—

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I raised my concern about the loss of time series in the Select Committee in the last Parliament. I am also worried that the squeeze on expenditure may see valuable time series lost for the future and that would be a great mistake.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

It is not just the time series: we also need to protect the extra investment going into the longitudinal studies, which are a vital statistical treasury that can be used both prospectively and retrospectively.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex for the way in which he has chaired the Committee and to Dame Janet Finch, whose dignity helped to resolve an awkward situation. It is vital that we have a chairman who is fair, fearless and clear. That is not a comment on Dame Janet, but on Sir Michael Scholar—and I hope that it is one that we can make in retrospect when Andrew Dilnot retires. Those are the attributes we want from our statistics, and we also need them from the chair of the UKSA.

At one point, the House declined to give its support to someone for that kind of role—when Elizabeth Filkin was the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We paid a price for that. It was a parliamentary price, but there will be a national price to pay if we do not give our support to the chairman and the national statistician. I therefore commend the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House endorses the nomination of Andrew Dilnot CBE for appointment as Chair of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority.