United Kingdom Statistics Authority

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 7th March 2017.

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office) 4:40 pm, 7th March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
endorses the nomination of Sir David Norgrove for appointment as Chair of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority.

May I first offer my thanks to Sir Andrew Dilnot, who has performed the role very commendably over the past five years? I truly believe that his initiative has driven all of us to think more critically about statistics and how we can make better use of them.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin for his help in the selection process. I am pleased that that process, which included a pre-appointment scrutiny session before the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, has identified in Sir David Norgrove an outstanding candidate and a worthy successor to Sir Andrew Dilnot.

I, like the Committee, am convinced that Sir David has both the professional and the personal qualities necessary to make an excellent chair of the UK Statistics Authority. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office), Campaigns and Elections Chair 4:41 pm, 7th March 2017

Before I turn to the nomination of Sir David Norgrove as chair of the UK Statistics Authority, I should like to echo the Minister’s tribute to the outgoing chair, Sir Andrew Dilnot. In so doing, I want to acknowledge two important contributions.

First, the outgoing chair, Sir Andrew Dilnot, has, as noted by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its report published in January, worked tirelessly over the past five years in maintaining both the independence and the overall excellence of the UK Statistics Authority. There is no better example of that approach to independence than when Sir Andrew took the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the current Health Secretary to task for presenting to the public misleading figures on supposed increases in NHS spending.

I note how, in the four years that have followed, the Government have been less than attentive to Sir Andrew’s concerns, but it is important to recognise the impartiality that the role brings to challenging the spin and the misuse of data and statistics to which all politicians, if we are honest, succumb from time to time. If we look back over his term, we will see that Sir Andrew has performed his public duties robustly and with complete impartiality, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful to him for his public service.

Secondly, I thank my hon. Friend Meg Hillier and the Select Committee on Public Accounts under her leadership for their engagement in the appointment process. In an age where terms such as “fake news” are bounded around regularly, it is more important than ever that we have an independent, rigorous and reliable official statistics body.

It is also important in the current climate that the public have faith in such an institution. A 2014 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that only 30% of the general public had confidence in Parliament as a public institution, which amplifies the new chair’s task in maintaining the rigid independence demanded by his post. The public deserve accurate statistics, free from political interference, and Members on both sides of the House must do more to ensure that the public have total confidence on the issues that matter most.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I assure the shadow Minister and the Minister that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee gave full consideration to ensuring that there is a worthy successor to the current chair of the UK Statistics Authority. As the shadow Minister says, it is vital that the public have faith in public statistics. Does he agree that a key job of the new chair may be to challenge statistics presented in UK referendums? We are aware that the country may face another referendum in Scotland. Some of the statistics used in the EU referendum could usefully have been challenged by the chair of the Statistics Authority.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office), Campaigns and Elections Chair

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are talking about the misuse of statistics and data not just within the parliamentary forum, but in elections. He mentioned the EU referendum, in which the origin and robustness of the statistic about health spending post Brexit, in particular, were quite questionable. I share his view on that.

In respect of Sir David’s professional competence, I agree with the Committee’s report that his extensive experience makes him highly suitable for the role of the chair of the UK Statistics Authority. As the Minister noted, Sir David Norgrove has had a distinguished career, most recently as the chair of the Low Pay Commission, where his leadership in support of campaigns for the national living wage and national minimum wage has been crucial. In addition to that experience, he has also chaired the Pensions Regulator, and that will stand him in good stead in driving forward the structural changes needed in the Statistics Authority, as laid out in the Bean review.

We are convinced that Sir David’s skills and professional background as chair of two highly regarded and statistically driven public bodies will allow him effectively to oversee the twin tasks of statistical production and strictly regulating Government statistics and the veracity of Departments’ claims. Throughout his career, Sir David has been unafraid to question authority when those with power threatened to abuse or distort the process. That was seen when he famously faced down Sir Philip Green after the retail entrepreneur tried to buy Marks & Spencer with a bid that jeopardised the solvency of the pension scheme. Sir David’s record speaks for itself, and I am therefore satisfied—and rather hopeful about the fact—that he will bring the same toughness and fairness to challenging the Government’s use of statistics.

The Opposition are less concerned about the suitability of Sir David for the role in question than they are about the lack of diversity in the wider appointment process, which gives the impression of a closed system. Of the 14 candidates who applied for the chairperson’s position, only three were women and 11 were men. Added to that, all three previous authority chairs have been white, male, and Oxbridge-educated. The Labour party recognises the quality that diversity can bring to both the selection and appointment processes, and we urge the Government to take steps to ensure that future candidates are from as diverse a pool as possible to ensure that every part of Britain is represented and that each person has an equal opportunity to aspire to the highest posts in the land.

The post involves the significant responsibility of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official figures that serve the public good. Sir David has already made it clear how crucial it is to have consistency in how the Government produce their figures. The appointment of a new chair of the board of the UK Statistics Authority is extremely important. 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 and Constitutional Affairs Committee that in Sir David Norgrove we have a candidate who can rise to that challenge.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:49 pm, 7th March 2017

SNP Members welcome the appointment of Sir David, and we certainly wish him well in his future role as chair of the UK Statistics Authority. However, we have some concerns about the UK Statistics Authority’s rather narrow approach to the way in which it reviews and undertakes a critique of the statistics used by the Government and others.

Tomorrow, we will be faced with the Budget. I predict that it will have forecasts from the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility, and may possibly even throw in the odd forecast from the Bank of England. One thing that will be true of every forecast produced by all those bodies is that not a single confidence interval will be mentioned. We know that their forecasts are consistent—consistently wrong and always need revision, partly because the models used are inappropriate.

I notice in the description of the UK Statistics Authority that part of its task is to make sure statistics are available to aid Government decision making, which is a very worthy purpose. I have struggled to find any expertise in, for example, Bayesian statistics that could be used as decision aids. That is possibly because the Government do not use any statistical decision aids in their decision making. I think there is a long way to go in developing the authority to provide the kind of critique that will realistically help the Government both now and in the future. For that future, however, we wish Sir David well.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich 4:50 pm, 7th March 2017

I rise as a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which scrutinised the appointment, to give a warm welcome to Sir David’s appointment. I pay tribute to his predecessor, Sir Andrew Dilnot, for his work, which did well in holding the Government to account and ensuring that statistics were used reasonably when debating the NHS.

It is a difficult time for politics for all of us. We have come through a referendum campaign, during which various statements and assertions were made on both sides of the debate. At the forefront of the minds of members of the Committee when scrutinising the appointment was the need to ensure that we had a new chair who would scrutinise the use of statistics in future referendum campaigns. It does credit to nobody in the House to see statistics potentially misused in referendum debates that captivated the mind and votes of the overwhelming majority of the public. The shadow Minister quite rightly outlined some of the concerns about NHS spending that were raised by those on one side of the referendum debate, while other perhaps somewhat exaggerated claims were made by those on the other side of the debate. No matter which side of the debate we have sympathy with, we can recognise that the referendum campaign did no credit to the use of statistics. It is important to have an independent chair—I am sure Sir David will fulfil that role—and I hope that that will restore some public faith in the independent challenge offered to the misuse of statistics in the future.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I, too, congratulate Sir David. However, I want to pick up the point that the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly made about the importance of looking closely at statistics during elections and referendums. May I add to that list by encouraging the authority, under its new chair, to look at the statistics that may well be claimed by Sinn Féin for a border poll in Northern Ireland? This is not just about referendums and elections, but about such a border poll. It is very important indeed that propaganda perpetuated by Sinn Féin and the popularity of Sinn Féin do not lead—unexpectedly, and without any good reason—to a border poll in Northern Ireland. The authority should look at that.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

The hon. Lady is absolutely right in her comment. She may be reassured by the fact that, when scrutinising the appointment, members of the Committee asked Sir David directly about his approach to the issues involved in his scrutiny of another possible referendum in Scotland, and of debates in all devolved parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland and Wales. He assured our Committee that he will be keeping a keen eye on these issues. We are very aware of the recent concerns that may have manifested themselves as a result of the election results at the weekend. I am sure that Sir David will be mindful of that as he comes into post. When we have what are sometimes emotive debates, it is vital that the public can have faith that there is an independent authority that will hold politicians to account. It is important that that happens in Northern Ireland and, indeed, elsewhere.

I am sure that another pressing issue on Sir David’s mind will be ensuring that claims that may be made in a future Scottish referendum are properly scrutinised. I remember that there were a lot of discussions about North sea oil and its potential revenues during the last referendum debate. I am sure that he will be mindful of that when taking up his position. When there is a referendum, or an important debate of that nature, the public must have faith that politicians are in no way willingly misleading the public, although they may exaggerate statistics. We would not wish to do that in this House, and we should not do it in debates outside this place.

The Committee was satisfied that in Sir David we have a new chair who meets those criteria, will be a robust defender of the correct use of statistics, and will hold Executives—and, indeed, political parties—in all parts of the United Kingdom to account when they make claims in referendum campaigns.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I will call the hon. Gentleman even though he was not here at the beginning of the debate. We are not short on time and he has promised that he will be brief.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 4:56 pm, 7th March 2017

I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise for being late; the earlier business finished much sooner than I expected so I was caught short, so to speak.

As I chaired the confirmation hearing for Sir David at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I thought it would be appropriate to say a few words. We thought he was the right person for the job and strongly approve of him. He has some great predecessors. Sir Michael Scholar, the first chair, challenged the Government over misuse of statistics, and we want the chair to take a strong line with the Government or any other official body that makes light of official statistics. Sir Andrew Dilnot, who is coming to the end of his term, is a great friend and another great communicator with broadcasting and so on in statistical matters. He is an excellent chair. Sir David has two great predecessors to follow. I am sure that he will measure up and do a good job, but I hope that the UK Statistics Authority continues to hold the Government to account if they misbehave.

Question put and agreed to.