I beg to move,
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 16th January) meet—
(a) at 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16th January;
(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 18th January;
(c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 23rd January;
(d) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th January;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 23; Schedule 1; Clauses 24 to 43; Schedule 2; Clauses 44 to 57; Schedule 3; Clauses 58 to 70; Schedule 4; Clauses 71 to 73; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th January.
I welcome you to the Chair, Sir John. I have had the privilege of serving under you on the Finance Bill Standing Committee, as have a number of members of the Committee. For those who have not, I recommend it as the usual channels are always looking for new recruits. Sir John, you take a close interest in general in Treasury matters, but specifically in the Chair you are always fair, and firm only when required. We look forward to your wise guidance in our deliberations on this Bill.
I also welcome all members of the Committee, particularly those on the Opposition Front Benches who have already taken a close interest in the subject, not just on Second Reading but in tabling a number of parliamentary questions to me and to the National Statistician. I am sure that they will contribute significantly to the scrutiny and debate on the Bill’s provisions.
It is an important Bill. Following the independence of the Bank of England, the independent competition authorities, the Debt Management Office and the Financial Services Authority, this Bill forms the next move in the Chancellor’s reforms to set up a system of modern economic governance.
On this day, which marks the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland, I am particularly pleased that this new statutory system, with the independent statistics board at its heart, will include Scotland as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. That is something that all in the statistics world, the Treasury Select Committee and others in the House had urged us to try and secure, but I think few believed we would manage to secure it. I pay tribute to those in Wales and Northern Ireland who have made the decision to participate fully and, in particular, to Tom McCabe and other Scottish Ministers who have decided that they too want to see these measures and this system to help improve the credibility, integrity, quality and consistency of statistics across the United Kingdom. That is what the Bill is designed to do.
I am glad that we reached agreement on the days needed when we discussed them in the Programming Sub-Committee. I know that those on the Opposition Front Benches and some Back Benchers on both sides will ensure that the Bill gets its fullest possible scrutiny. I am particularly pleased to have two members of the Treasury Select Committee also serving on this Standing Committee; they will bring their expertise to it. Committee members will notice that we are not proposing knives in the programme motion to dictate the progress, but I am determined to do justice to the full Bill, including part 2. Therefore, I and the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West will ensure that the Committee will sit late should that be necessary, although I hope that it will not.
Finally, I point out to the Committee that, contrary to customary practice, the programme motion proposes that we deal with new clauses and new schedules at the point in the Bill to which they relate—rather than after going through all the clauses. I hope the Committee will agree to that element being most sensible, and to the programme motion in total.
Itoo am delighted to serve under your chairmanship,Sir John. I propose to confine my remarks to the minimum here, since there will be ample opportunity when considering the lead amendment in the first group to look at some general themes in the Bill.
There is cross-party agreement that this Bill is important. If we do this right and amend the Bill appropriately, we could contribute significantly to the strength of, and confidence in, statistics. We will approach the scrutiny process conscious of that importance and in a constructive spirit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks recently pointed out, the motto of the Italian statistical office is “Statisticum republicae fundamentum”—that is, “Statistics are the foundation of the state”. The Opposition will be working with diligence and determination to strengthen the Bill to ensure the integrity and trustworthiness of those foundations.
It is a great privilege, Sir John, to serve under your chairmanship. I think that we all start from broadly the same position on the philosophy of the Bill. We want the quality of statistics to be maintained and improved and the independence of statistical production strengthened. There are a great many areas in which the Opposition parties see scope for improvement and strengthening, so we, the Conservatives, the nationalists and the chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, have tabled a substantial number of amendments. We need proper time to consider them.
There is no controversy about the programming. I think there was an amicable understanding that the Government are proceeding in a perfectly correct way; no knives are being imposed. I am sure that we will be able to conduct our business speedily but amicably.
I add my voice to those who have already spoken. The Bill is very important and has real potential to improve confidence in and remove the perception of political interference in the production of statistics.
I am relaxed that nine sittings will be more than sufficient. There are no knives in the motion and that is welcome. I was taken by the Financial Secretary’s comments about the 300th anniversary of the Union; this is the Statistics and Registration Service Bill—one would never have imagined that there was a Scottish election just around the corner. It is a pleasure to serve under you again, Sir John, and, mercifully, on a rather shorter Bill than the Finance Bill.
I, too, join in welcoming you to the chairmanship of the Committee. I convey the apologies of two of our colleagues, who are currently serving on the Select Committee on Treasury down the corridor. I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Braintree and for South-West Hertfordshire will be joining us shortly. That will give us three members of the Select Committee serving on the Committee.
I hope that the programme motion will be sufficient. Such things are always difficult when drafted by the Programming Sub-Committee before any amendments are tabled and before the sub-committee is aware, as it cannot be, exactly how many amendments there are likely to be. If we have to run a little longer sometimes, I hope that we will do so, because I think that the Bill is generally recognised to be very important. A Bill to reform statistics does not come round that often and it is important that we get it right.
I am encouraged, however, by the approach of Ministers throughout the process. They have been reasonably open-minded. I was a little puzzled by the letter that the Financial Secretary sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, in which he said:
“I am looking forward to Committee, which I am surewill prove invaluable in furthering understanding of the Government’s position”.
That is one function of the Committee, but not the sole function. One might argue that one of the purposes of the Committee is to further understanding of the Committee’s position so far as the proposals are concerned. We look forward to considering them in greater detail.
I beg to move,
That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.
Written evidence to a public Bill Committee is subject to parliamentary privilege, but, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received shall subsequently be reported to the House for publication. I believe that we may be the first Committee to resolve to publish in this way, now that the House authorities are ready to allow for that in the manner proposed.
I and, I am sure, the Committee welcome this modest step in further reforming the House’s procedures, which reinforces the opening up of scrutiny of legislation to a wider public. That may make it difficult in the short term for Ministers, but, in the end, stronger and better scrutiny leads to better legislation.
I welcome the move to incorporate formal consideration of evidence into the Committee’s proceedings. We on the Opposition Front Bench have been in touch with a number of interest groups and experts on the matter, to whose notes and representations we will refer alongside the formally tabled evidence.
Sir John, what a pleasure it is to appear before you again. Were this motion to be passed and given that it would give you discretion, can I tempt you to give an indication as to whether you would have a predilection towards transparency?