Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:26 pm on 18th March 2021.

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Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 1:26 pm, 18th March 2021

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to present to the House the latest report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for accommodating us in today’s proceedings. May I also place on record my thanks to fellow members of the Committee for their work during this inquiry on Government transparency and accountability during covid-19: the data underpinning decisions? We are also indebted to the Committee staff for their hard work, particularly Claire Hardy, who has been with us this past year on secondment from the National Audit Office

To be clear, this report does not critique the Government’s decisions, but asks important questions about how transparent those decisions were and whether the data are available for parliamentarians and, indeed, the public, to hold them to account. The report also examines whether data were shared with local leaders for the purpose of informing the response to the pandemic. As we say in the report, data transparency is not just a moral issue, but integral to the success of the response to the pandemic. Transparency builds trust and trust aids compliance with the rules.

It is important to acknowledge properly the progress to date. The Government have amassed enormous amounts of data from a standing start, making much of it available to the public, including on the covid-19 dashboard and through surveys by the Office for National Statistics, including the infection survey. The report pays tribute to the hard work of public servants involved at all levels in this huge endeavour.

However, although the report welcomes the publication of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies minutes, which we called for in a letter to the Prime Minister last May, it also states that publication needs to be more consistent and timelier. It is worth noting that SAGE minutes have been published, on average, 49 days after the meeting, with some significantly longer gaps. For example, a SAGE meeting that took place on 30 July 2020 did not see its minutes published until 134 days later, on 11 December.

The report considers public communications and, while recognising that the Downing Street press briefings have been an important exercise in gaining some democratic consent, it is not without criticism for both the use of reasonable worst-case scenarios and sometimes poorly presented data. The report notes that some data presentation appears to be have been impacted by political considerations.

The Committee is very clear in its view that statistics should be used for the purpose of genuinely informing the public and that open and honest communication builds trust, even when, on occasion, the Government have, for whatever reason, fallen short of their promises. If I were minded to deploy Disraeli’s quote about statistics, this would be the point at which to do so.

The first principle of the UK Statistics Authority code of practice is trustworthiness.

It states that data should be presented “impartially and objectively”. It is, I am afraid, evident that Ministers have not always lived up to the expectations of the UK Statistics Authority code of practice.

The report finds that creating a sense of anxiety—for example, through quoting large numbers—could be counterproductive in the effort to encourage behaviour change, because, to quote from one of our expert witnesses,

“inducing fear leads people to turn away and to turn off.”

On the other hand, being open and honest, and communicating uncertainties in data, builds trust, and trust is central to the social contract between Government and the people.

While SAGE has certainly become prominent in the past year, the report notes that it might not be well understood by the public, and it is questionable how helpful some public statements by individual members have been. The 2012 SAGE guidance from the Cabinet Office states that SAGE members should be provided with “clear guidance on confidentiality”, but it is unclear if this had happened. The Committee recommends that the ministerial code should be strengthened to require Ministers to abide by the UK Statistics Authority code of practice. When Ministers or senior officials quote statistics, underlying data must be published. Some expectations should be laid out about the appropriate way for SAGE advisers to communicate publicly.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of our inquiry is that the Committee struggled to establish who the Government see as accountable for ensuring that decisions are underpinned by data. For example, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster passed questions and letters from me to the Department of Health and Social Care on issues that must have included wider considerations beyond health. It is not acceptable to pass apparent responsibility for decisions between the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care when so much is at stake. Lines of accountability must be clear and decision making must be transparent. Of course, while only the Prime Minister can be accountable for key decisions such as the lockdown, it is the Committee’s view that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should be accountable for ensuring that these decisions are informed by data through Covid O and as part of the co-ordinated response.

We were disappointed that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster declined to appear before the Committee on this specific inquiry and sent junior Ministers in his place to answer questions on these specific matters. Unfortunately, the Ministers sent before us were not able to answer many of our questions. Both Ministers who appeared stated that they were not involved in the decision-making process, and our report questions why they were sent to the Committee, given that both the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care were alerted to the themes of the questions prior to the session. The ability of Select Committees to hold Ministers to account for decisions is a vital part of our democratic process. This is particularly true at a time when the country is facing the toughest possible restrictions on our freedoms and when detailed scrutiny of the Government’s decisions has not always been possible in the timeframes required.

In May 2020, the Committee heard from the national statistician that responding to the next stage of the pandemic would require more localised data. The report criticises a national “by default” approach to data that included local leaders not receiving data in sufficient detail early enough. There was a reluctance from Whitehall to share granular data despite requests by directors of public health. New systems were set up outside existing systems, so data could not flow easily. Indeed, initially, test and trace data was being collected in spreadsheets. The consequences of this approach were manifold and included interoperability issues, problems with data sharing and extraction of data, and concerns or, indeed, mistrust about data quality. To quote the president of the Association of Directors of Public Health,

“if we had had all the data we have now in July or earlier, we would have had a stronger response to the epidemic.”

We also heard that existing health data systems were fragmented. Data that is key to decision making on the road map should be shared immediately, ahead of the potential renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020 next week. The Government should publish a comprehensive list of what data is actually available. The Department of Health and Social Care, with support from the UK Statistics Authority, should undertake an urgent review of health data systems in England. Ministers who appeared before our Committee were unable to provide answers to the most basic of these questions as it was evident that neither of them had been involved in the decision making. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General directed the question of the first lockdown to the Health Minister when clearly the Department of Health could not have made decisions that involved much wider considerations such as the economy.

There was not a consistent framework in place for tiering decisions. There were five tests in June 2020, five indicators in November 2020, and now there is a road map with four tests. Indicators have not had data thresholds, which has created confusion. It was hard to find data under the indicators, and “pressure on the NHS” was not well defined. On 19 December, 26 local authorities were put into tier 4, in spite of having infection rates at the same range as areas in tier 2. In October, local leaders told us that they were not informed about decisions prior to them being announced, and could not prepare communications and reassurance for local communities. In the midst of opaque decision making, there developed a sense of confusion and mistrust, and it quickly became apparent that some areas had been placed in higher tiers than neighbouring areas with worse infection rates.

The February road map contains dates, but not much in the way of data. Wording such as

“vaccine deployment programme continues successfully” is not sufficient, as success is not defined. Although evidence on the safety of hospitality venues was far from conclusive, the report states that the Government were “not clear” on the evidence underpinning the decision to close hospitality in higher tiers. Fundamentally, if the Government are asking businesses to close—risking jobs, livelihoods and the very survival of those businesses—it must be clear why this should happen, and the evidence outlined demonstrates that the lack of clear communication of any evidence that does exist to underpin the decisions has created frustration and mistrust.

The Cabinet Office must outline the range of data and information it will use to lift the current lockdown. The priority must be a clear and consistent framework. The Government should provide links from road map indicators to local authority level data. They must publish thresholds aligned to the road map, and they should publish the data justifying restrictions that will remain in place on businesses at each step of that road map. I commend the report to the House.