Government: Independent Statistics

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 15th June 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 4:48 pm, 15th June 2006

My Lords, on behalf of the social policy organisations that use statistics for their research and analysis—bodies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in which I declare an interest as director—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for initiating the debate. While at university I rather grudgingly read the seminal statistics textbooks written by the noble Lord; however, today it is a great pleasure to follow his lead in the debate.

My organisation relies on the Office for National Statistics and admires the excellent work it does. We belong to the Statistics Users' Forum, alongside eminent bodies such as the Royal Statistical Society and the research councils. In our case the researchers whom we support in numerous universities and research institutions are mining the national statistics for insights which can help social policy formulation and policy change. For this work, which is often in politically sensitive areas, it is vital that official statistics are independent of government and are seen to be so. From the perspective of users of official statistics, we welcome the proposals to ensure that they are independent of government and to give oversight of the system to Parliament. Perhaps I could raise four questions that concern us relating to the content of the Treasury's consultation document.

First, the lack of coherent statistics for the different countries of the UK is a major problem for users. Statistics are often produced on different bases, making it impossible either to make comparisons between countries or to aggregate figures to create statistics for the whole of the UK. At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we publish with the New Policy Institute an annual monitor of poverty and social exclusion statistics using nearly 30 statistics-based indicators. Surprisingly, it is not possible to make adequate comparisons between countries in the UK on their progress in tackling several elements of poverty and deprivation, including some measures of educational attainment.

We are also publishing a new annual monitor of housing statistics edited by Professor Steve Wilcox of the University of York. Again, I have discovered that incompatibility in the bases for official statistics makes a UK-wide aggregation of the figures impossible. Of course, the devolved Administrations have legal powers over statistical matters in their countries, which means that Westminster has limited legislative opportunity to intervene. That argues the case for the new central organisation taking a special responsibility for ensuring coherence between countries and holding the system together. Are any steps contemplated for enhancing the opportunities for comparison through achieving greater compatibility of the statistical evidence? That could help us all to understand what works in social policy and practice.

Secondly, we feel that facilitating user access to statistics needs to be an explicit objective of the new body. To that end, we want to see user input into the new body's planning processes so that user needs can be identified, evaluated and met. The consultation document suggests that the proposed board brings a perspective on user needs, but that is rather vague. Proper structures and funding will need to be in place to ensure that happens. Could places be reserved on the board specifically for user representation?

Thirdly, we would like to see the proposed body having oversight of all official statistics, some of which, including many on the health side, are produced outside departments and are not classified as national statistics. The new body presents the opportunity for oversight of a more comprehensive range of official statistics, which would bring more statistics within the quality control and code of conduct of which the proposed new body will have oversight. Could the scope of the proposed body be widened in this way?

Finally, from the user perspective, access to information is sometimes not allowed on somewhat zealous grounds of confidentiality. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is very interested in the social issues that affect neighbourhoods, which are relatively small geographical areas. That kind of analysis is difficult if administrative data are not released at a sufficiently local level. The confidentiality of individuals is important, but this line can be taken too far. We would wish to ensure that the new body is empowered to enable increased access to such local data. Will the Minister look at the role of the new body in that regard, to ensure that the somewhat draconian guidelines currently in place can be reconsidered?

With those four questions, I conclude, with appreciation for the Government's efforts to ensure the independence of official statistics, which is the essential prerequisite for so much social policy analysis, and with thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for initiating this debate and for all that he has done to enable social policy-making to be based on sound statistical evidence.