With this it will be convenientto discuss the following amendments: No. 17, in clause 7, page 4, line 21, at end insert—
‘(1A) In order to fulfil its objective under subsection (1) above, the Board shall have authority to—
(a) supervise the production of any official statistics; and
(b) require any improvements and corrections that it considers necessary to official statistics.’.
No. 191, in clause 7, page 4, line 21, at end insert—
‘(d) the effective use of official statistics to inform local and regional public service delivery.’.
No. 192, in clause 7, page 4, line 26, at end insert
‘and effective use in the public interest’.
No. 194, in clause 9, page 5, line 1, at end insert—
‘(c) have regard to their usefulness at a local level and the importance of coterminosity of data.’.
I, too, welcome the motion that we have just passed. I feel a sense of history settling on the shoulders of the Committee.
Amendments Nos. 152 and 17 stand in my name. I hope that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth will speak to his amendments, which are very much in tune with mine, and the gist of which I certainly support.
Amendment No. 152 states the purpose of the Bill, which is not set out anywhere in the Bill. That might be a surprise. Clause 1 simply establishes the statistics board, and we do not discover until we reach clause 7 or 8 what its objects are and what its functions are to be. That is a mistake. This is a big Bill, and an important one, and it is rather dull drafting that it does not set out what the purpose of the new statistics board is to be. I rather regret, given the historical importance of the Bill and the infrequency with which we update statistical legislation, that it does not have a preamble. Other statistical laws around the world have preambles, and we could easily have incorporated one here. However, I am advised that, as a preamble has not been tabled by the Minister as part of the drafting, it is now too late to incorporate one.
We can and should set out up front the purpose of the new statistics board, and I hope that the Minister will concede that it is important to do so. This is not simply a Whitehall rearrangement. He has made it clear—as was stated explicitly in the Queen’s Speech—that this is a worthwhile attempt to enhance confidence in statistics by strengthening the independence with which they are collated and published. In other words, the new statistics board is avowedly a public good—that is the intention of the Bill—and I believe that we should affirm that loud and clear.
I have drafted a declaration in three parts: first, to ensure that the board upholds the quality of statistics; secondly that it should have the overarching duty of supervising their dissemination; and thirdly that it should perform both those tasks for the public good. There is a reference to quality in clause 7, but there the definition is more restrictive—it is to promote and safeguard the quality of official statistics. My wording is much more general, namely that the board should have an overarching duty to enhance the quality of all statistics—I have not said “official” or “national” or anything else. I have used tighter drafting, using the word “uphold” rather than “promote”, and I have widened it so as to refer to official, national or other statistics.
The point about supervising dissemination is self-evident: statistics belong to all of us. The board should be under an overriding duty to be involved in their dissemination and to supervise them because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet said, statistics are a key part of democracy. If we believe in more active citizens and in empowering people to participate more fully in democracy, they should have a right to statistical information, which was once the sole preserve of Ministers and Governments.
I would like the new board to adopt a motto rather like that of the Italian statistical office, but we cannot put that into the Bill. The point of that motto in Italy is its recognition that information is one of the cores of the state and that statistics are a key part of democracy. If we believe that we should say so loud and clear.
Amendment No. 17 strengthens clause 7. One of the fundamental criticisms of the Bill, outside and inside Parliament, is that nowhere does it give the new board the duty or the power to supervise the statistical system as a whole. That is a weakness; the board should enforce high standards throughout the system. It is not enough for it simply to be given the power to monitor, to get reports or to publish commentary. We want the new board to be more than a commentator; we want it to have real teeth in all Departments to supervise the high standards that we require and if necessary to intervene to secure them.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak to the amendments in my name. I echo the commentsof others in welcoming your benign but firm chairmanship of the Committee, Sir John.
I am passionate about taking an evidence-based approach to the development of public policy down to the most local level. The amendments are consistent and support the Chancellor and the Government in creating an independent statistics system. However, it is important to make explicit the need for information to be available locally. On the day when we celebrate the Act of Union, it is important to remember that very few policy areas make sense if they are considered on only an England-wide basis. One has to drill down to regional and local level to understand what is really happening.
As a Welshman, I underline the fact that it does not make sense to consider policy for Wales on average either; statistics for Wales only are not terribly helpful in developing policy and service delivery, nor are they very helpful in ensuring that good intentions, at Government, Assembly or local level, match the reality. That has been recognised by many organisations throughout the country, by the Office for National Statistics, the national statistician and Ministers and officials in many Government Departments.
During my time as a Minister, I have been involved in discussions that have acknowledged the importance of making that detailed analysis in order to ensure that public policy is appropriately delivered at the most local level. The problem is that it is easily overlooked. It is very easy for statistics to be produced in a way that informs the general understanding of what is going on, but does not allow targeted action in order to make a difference. I would illustrate that from my own experience in a number of different ways.
Some 25 or 30 years ago I worked in the Ely areaof Cardiff, which is represented by the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). It is an area with considerable social problems. Those of us who worked there thought that we understood the area. It was only when we undertook a major project of research, kindly paid for by the Welsh Office, and analysed what was happening right down to the most local area statistics, that we realised that there were big variations within the area. We had to produce an overlay of acetates, rather than the computer-assisted graphics that are now available through geographical information systems, and we realised that the way that we delivered services, worked with young people and produced diversion to try to get young people out of criminal activity needed to be much more finely tuned and targeted within the area if the resources available were going to help to deliver the right results.
There are many other systems around the country now, such as those used by the police to identify the needs in their area and to identify criminal activity. One needs to overlay that with the structure of an area and detailed information to understand what is happening and to tackle the causes through policies such as the crime reduction partnerships, as well as identifying what is happening in terms of the economy, criminal activity, social problems and so on. That is why it is important to write in the sort of amendments that I have proposed here.
“the quality of official statistics, good practice in relationto official statistics, and the comprehensiveness of official statistics.”
The board would also have to promote and safeguard
“the effective use of official statistics to inform local and regional public service delivery.”
Similarly Amendment No.192, which is also in line with the Government’s objectives and what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks sought, would insert:
“and effective use in the public interest.”
There is no point having statistics unless one enables and promotes their public use. I am certain that this was in the mind of the Chancellor and the Government in introducing the Bill.
Going forward as a Member of Parliament—I am sure that many colleagues will have shared this experience—one looks to understand the problems in one’s own area. Very often it is not possible to get the information in the form that one wants it. Where that information is available, such as in the House of Commons Library and Government Departments, the staff do an excellent job in providing the analysis. But sometimes the information has not been gathered in a way that allows it to be aggregated to the level of the local authority, the local ward area or to overlap with school catchment areas or with specifics where the comparison is important for those of us who are trying to improve the quality of life for the people in our area. I have already referred to the importance of using statistics intelligently to understand what is happening in an area in relation to matters such as crime reduction.
I had a meeting with the police in my area lastFriday specifically to discuss that issue. Despite the improvement in the way that statistics can be handled and manipulated through the development of computer-assisted systems, we are still not using them effectively. Frankly, I know less about the statistics and the link between crime and other figures in my constituency than I did when I first became a Member of Parliament. That is because the opportunity offered by the techniques is not being developed adequately and because there is insufficient focus on the all-important local information, which can be aggregated up to inform wider public policy.
The issue came very much into focus when I became Minister for Rural Affairs in the later part of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. As we looked at policy on the issue, I discovered that we did not have information at a sufficiently local level to tell us what was needed in the very local economies of villages or rural areas. A lot of that information exists now, and some excellent work has been done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Professor John Shepherd, who undertook detailed academic work for the Department. That means that there is a much better fit and that organisations such as local authorities and regional development agencies have a much better understanding of what is needed area by area. Some of that statistical information enables us, for instance, to look at the location of post offices in a rural area and to ask whether they are in the areas of greatest need, where closures might cause reasonable hardship, or in better-off areas, where people would, by and large, have the facility to drive to a nearby post office. Those are very much the practical stuff of delivering policy, and the illustration that I gave will be of interest to voluntary and community organisations, as well as to central and local government.
The point that I am making also applies to amendment No. 194 to clause 9, which states that the board should
“have regard to their usefulness at a local level and the importance of coterminosity of data.”
If the basic raw data is not collected coterminously at the most local level, we cannot aggregate up. At that local level, the raw data might have to remain confidential, because individuals might otherwise be identified, but there are ways of handling that through professional scrutiny and data protection methodology. The point, however, is that if the data are collected and coterminous at the most local level, it will be possible to aggregate up to where they will make sense and enable policy decisions to be taken at the most local levels, whether at ward level or within a ward. It would be a missed opportunity if we did not make it explicit that that is the intention and that the board, in looking at quality at a Scottish, Welsh, national and even regional level, needs to ensure that there is an understanding of variations right down to the most local level.
That seems to be a most basic point, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will indicate sympathy and support for it. It certainly fits with the Government’s wish to ensure that delivery is focused and effective at the most local level. I very much hope, therefore, that I will have a sympathetic response to my amendments, which, as I said, look fairly innocuous, but which could make a big difference to the effective use and the good design of statistics if the requirement that they propose is built in from the commencement of the new structure’s activities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Sevenoaks for tabling amendment No. 152, because, as he said, it goes to the heart of the whole discussion that the Committee will have over the next two weeks. It allows us to address the question of how we set up structures to ensure that statistics are high quality and produced according to a sound and reliable methodology. It also gives us the chance to consider how we ensure that statistics are produced and disseminated in a way that serves the public good, not the political ends of the Government of the day. It is important that we do not conflate those two distinct issues. Both, including working to improve the quality, accuracy and reliability of official statistics, are important, but as former national statistician Lord Moser said, it is often not the figures that people distrust, but the people and institutions that use them. The most pressing issue relates not to quality and accuracy—important though they are—but to how statistics are used, released and interpreted. The key problem that we need to address is ministerial spin.
We must ensure that statistics are produced and released according to principles of integrity and impartiality, and seen to be so. As Bill McLennan, former head of the Government Statistical Service and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, has stated:
“It is essential of course for integrity to exist, but it is also important for it to be perceived to exist.”
Tackling the perception of political interference is as important as tackling the interference itself. Along the same lines, the Audit Commission recently stated:
“A new statistical system needs to ensure robust methodologies to produce statistics, and also ensure that the perception of political interference in the publication of statistics is minimised.”
That trust will never be restored unless we can secure real independence for statistical services.
The hon. Lady appears to be speaking to an amendment on the use of statistics, not the amendment before us, which is to do with the quality and dissemination of statistics. She is talking about the use of statistics—a completely separate issue.
The term “dissemination” covers the use of statistics broadly, and embraces the points that I have made. We need to discuss the crucial issue of the dissemination of statistics and the interpretation put on them.
Another former National Statistician, Len Cook, emphasised the important role that statistics can play in democracy and in influencing political change. Professor Sir Denis Pereira Gray, of the university of Exeter, has stated that lack of trust in statistics
“is a tragedy and seriously undermines democracy and all governments of all parties.”
The Opposition agree that statistics are part of the essential fabric of democratic debate, as has been adverted to this morning. That is a key reason why reform is so important.
Professor Pereira Gray went on to talk of the economic benefits of reform in terms of the international reputation of the UK and inward investment. Distrust in official figures is not only damaging to democratic debate but can cause grave practical and economic problems. The Statistics Commission has pointed out:
“Decisions affecting our lives are driven by official statistics including allocation of public money, operational decisions, policy intervention, policy evaluation, assessment of public service performance”.
Wisely, it goes on to warn:
“Unless the decision-makers trust the statistical evidence, they will ignore it—potentially at a high economic cost.”
We would do well to heed that warning.
If decisions are taken on the basis of incorrect statistics and if a Government make the mistake of believing their own propaganda, they are likely to take the wrong decisions, with damaging consequences for the quality of public services and the stability of the economy. That is one of a number of reasons why for some years the Opposition have been calling forthe independence of statistics and why we have made the independence for statistical services a key part of our triple lock to entrench stability into the economy. That is also why we have tabled amendments to strengthen the Bill and achieve the overall goal set out by amendment No. 152.
I turn to amendment No. 17. The Opposition believe that it is vital to ensure that the reforms encompass not only the ONS but the decentralised statistical activities in the different Departments. If they do not, we will not have secured genuinely independent statistics, nor addressed the problems that I have outlined. One of the weak spots of the Bill is that the reforms are insufficiently rigorous on departmental statistics. The new board is given the obligation to oversee statistics that fall outside the scope of national statistics, but insufficient power and authority to live up to that responsibility.
Amendment No. 17 would go some way to remedying that problem by giving the board explicit authority to supervise production of all official statistics and require improvements. However, we need to go further than that and seek to apply the code of practice across the range of official statistics. Only then will we have a reform of the strength and scope necessary to restore trust in Government figures. I look forward to discussing that matter in detail when we get to clause 10.
Amendment No. 192, tabled by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, provides us with a useful opportunity to look in more detail at the use of statistics. If we are to have a world-class statistical system, we need to have regard to the use to which those figures are put. Therefore, it is important that the new structures set up by the Bill are responsive to the needs of users, both from inside and outside Government. Clearly, there will be necessary constraints on meeting the needs of users dictated by the availability of resources allocated to statistical services. However, within those inevitable constraints, it should be the goal of the new reform system to produce statistics that are relevant to important policy areas and statistics that people want to use.
There is no doubt that whatever problems there are with trust in official statistics, those statistics are still used by many thousands of people, businesses, charities and other organisations both within and outside Government. The Treasury Select Committee heard evidence that the ONS website received, on average, 700,000 visitors per month between April 2005 and January 2006.
The National Statistician, in planning and co-ordinating statistical services, should have user needs at the forefront of her priorities. It is important that those needs are identified and evaluated in running the system. It is also essential that both the National Statistician and the board engage in frequent and productive consultation with the user community to ensure that this comes about. I welcome the amendment proposed by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. I also welcome the fact that accessibility is explicitly recognised as important in clause 7(3).
The statistics users forum has highlighted the important contribution that users can make in ensuring that statistics are relevant, effectively distributed andof good quality. It acknowledged that the interaction between Governments, statisticians and usergroups have proved to be productive but feels that further work needs to be done and that there is insufficient non-governmental user input into high-level planning.
I agree with much of the sentiment behind amendments No.191 and 194. Statistical services should take into account the requirements and concerns of local government. As we have heard from the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, the London Government Association, in a helpful note circulated to the Committee, state that it would like to see further standardisation,
“collection and presentation of statistical information”
It is important to facilitate comparison of information at a local level so that we can create meaningful local profiles of service needs and meaningful performance standards and indicators.
Such work will inevitably be subject to the constraints of the resources budgeted for ONS and the Government’s statistical services. Nevertheless, within these constraints, it is important to ensure that local government concerns are recognised, particularly given its role in the collection of data and provision of public services, the measurement of which is a significant function for the statistical services.
I hope that the Government will take notice of the concerns expressed by the Local Government Association and those outlined by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The amendments also refer to the regional use of statistics, and perhaps this is where I have a different view to that of the right hon. Gentleman. As I strongly oppose English regional government and regionalisation, I am sceptical about this aspect of the amendments. However, the moves in the Bill, which I am sure we will have the opportunity to discuss at a later stage—
Does the hon. Lady recognise that whether or not there should be any elected regional government in English regions, a great deal of activity takes place at a regional level? Economic development, transport considerations and a whole host of activities take place at a regional level. Therefore, governance, whether by officials or combinations of local authorities, needs to be well informed.
I acknowledge that a lot of policy making goes on at a regional level, and that should be supported by reliable statistics. However, I would challenge the extent to which policy making should be going on at a regional level, and would like to see more of those policy issues determined at a local rather than regional level. That is in many cases the better level at which to take such decisions.
With that, I will draw my remarks to a close. As I have said, I look forward to discussing similar issues later in relation to reconciling differences in statistical collection in the different nations of the United Kingdom, when important issues arise that I hope will be tackled by the Bill and the Committee.
I just wanted to say a few words in support of amendment No. 152, and the consequential amendment No. 17. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth also made some compelling arguments in favour of his own amendments, which persuaded me. I want primarily to address amendment No. 152. I do not think that there is anything contentious in it. The issue is about having a simple, clear, pithy statement from the outset about what the board is for, emphasising quality dissemination. In the modern jargon, that would be called the mission statement for the board. It is true that further on in the Bill, there is a more complex description of the board’s purposes. Clause 7, in particular, sets that all out in some detail, but it is rather cumbersome and not easy to get one’s head round. I would have thought that in order to save the future board the small consultancy fee that it would probably have to pay to get its mission statement clarified, it would probably be useful for us to do that.
The reasons for emphasising quality and dissemination were eloquently set out yesterday in the press coverage about Home Office statistics. In a remarkable report by the permanent secretary to the Home Office, he acknowledged, rather contritely, in front of a parliamentary Committee, that one in five of his Department’s statistics were seriously defective. He acknowledged that 30 data sets received a zero rating for reliability. What was remarkable about that was, first, the positive point that our system is sufficiently transparent and accountable that the Home Secretary can acknowledge such defects, but what was also clear is that a major Department of State is producing statistics—it was not clear whether they were official or national—that are of such poor quality. They have been reproduced for a long period and used in political debate without any correction. There is also an absence of any mechanism in government for ensuring that that is stopped and corrected. We hope that after the Bill is passed such activity will not continue, and that there will be a much greater emphasis on quality in Government statistics, and better accountability for them all round.
It is absolutely right for the hon. Member for Sevenoaks to suggest that we set out clearly from the outset what the board is for. There are primary and secondary purposes, but the quality of Government statistics as a whole, whether official or not, must emphasise the dissemination and the wider public interest, not the internal purposes of the Government. That is essentially what it is all about, and no harm and potential good is done by setting that out clearly in the first clause of the Bill, in a clear and simple statement of one sentence.
I invite members of the Committee, particularly colleagues on the Labour Benches, to disregard totally the remarks made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet on amendment No. 152. Although she trained as a lawyer, and talks law, she seems to have great difficulty in distinguishing between two simple nouns, “dissemination” and “use”.
I want to speak to amendment No. 17. Although I suspect that its requirement for improvements and corrections is implied in the existing clause, it is important to dig into the issue of accuracy, and the ability to change where statistics are inaccurate. Much of the debate on the Bill has focused—as did the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet in her remarks today—on how people use statistics. There is an implication that it is only the Government who spin statistics. We all know that that is not the case.
Other members of the Committee will have heard, as I did, an argument about immigration statistics on the “Today” programme this morning between my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and somebody from some pressure group. We are used to people using statistics in ways that are convenient to them. We require from the Bill an ability to ensure that the statistics that the Government publish are accurate, and that they are corrected when they are not. Some ability to be confident that their statistics are above that kind of argument is one thing that I believe everybody in the Committee seeks to achieve.
Let me illustrate with an example that I used in my speech on Second Reading. The census figures for the town that I represent are wrong. By quoting from a campaign postcard, I shall show how my local council is spinning the figures. The council’s postcard states:
“For example, in 2004 the government said only 15,000 people a year would migrate to the UK from Eastern Europe.”
That is based on a letter from a Minister that referred to the only research that had been done at that point. There is a question about whether such research ought to be commissioned by the Government. It was undertaken as part of an academic study, and it predicted incorrectly that the figure would be 15,000. The Government did not say, “Our statistical predictions are”, but they referred to the research.
My hon. Friend is right. Nevertheless, the number was wrong. It was arrived at for the purposes of an academic study, and it was referred to by Government Ministers, but it was never claimed as a Government statistic. The postcard continues:
“In 2006 it”— that is, the Government—
“admitted as many as 600,000 could have come since 2004.”
Of course, “could have come” includes people who visited the UK, and I think that that figure is probably accurate. “Yet”, the postcard goes on,
“in August 2006 official statistics found that the number was only 74,000 in one year.”
Of course, that relates to how long people have stayed.
That is an example of spinning. It is a perfectly responsible piece of spinning because it is done in the context of my local council’s feeling reasonably aggrieved by the fact that the ONS calculation is inaccurate. In fact, it does not refer to the case that the major source of inaccuracy is not international migration, but internal migration, because ONS counting in relation to internal migration is based largely on registrations with GPs, and in Slough, 17 of our GPs—nearly all of them—have closed lists and have had closed lists for a long time because they are full. We have a walk-in centre that takes up the slack and treats 200,000 patients a year. In addition, we have a large number of young single men in our population and, as we all know, young single men are more unlikely than other parts of the population to register with a GP. All those factors mean that there is an error in the calculation.
Anyone with an iota of sense would recognise that statistics that say that everywhere in the south-east except for Slough, one of the most booming economies in the south-east, has a growing population do not compute—they do not make sense. It does not require a sophisticated statistician to work that out, yet Slough council, despite all its efforts and the lobbying that I have done with it, has failed to persuade the ONS or anyone else to correct the errors in the statistics. The campaign postcard goes on—
Order. We are all very interested in hearing some examples of past errors in statistics, and we know that that is what the Bill is designed to address, so I have allowed the discussion to range widely, but we are getting away from the amendment. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady would be satisfied with the number of examples that she has already given.
You interrupted me just as I was bringing it all to the point, Sir John, using the same examples but focusing on the amendments. The final paragraph of the campaign postcard states:
“Despite this huge discrepancy the government still refuses to change Slough’s funding saying it is using ‘the best available data’ to count our population.”
They are indeed the best available data. That is the point. The data available from the ONS mid-year estimates are flawed, but there is no independent mechanism to drive change when figures are inaccurate. Amendment No. 17, tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, would specifically give the board the responsibility for correcting inaccuracies.I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to eitherreassure us that the Bill will do that or accept the amendment.
The census is not a minor statistical series: it counts the population of Britain and is the spine of many of our other official statistics. If we do not have a mechanism to correct gross errors swiftly, that will undermine public confidence in our statistics. The current arrangements, which are slow, bureaucratic and unresponsive, and which insert the Government between the public and the statisticians, are inadequate. The amendment is one way forward, although whatever happens under the Bill will not be fast enough for the people of Slough. I will not go down that road as you have urged me not to, Sir John. Nevertheless, we need a mechanism to correct errors properly, and I hope that the amendment might provide it.
I was intrigued by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet citing the Italian statistical service’s motto, “Statistics are the foundation of the state.” I am glad that she translated it for me. It is absolutely true, but statistics are not the property solely of the state. As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks said, statistics belong to us all. I therefore hope that all members of the Committee will welcome the initiative launched by the ONS last week of a website that gives individuals access to their own inflation calculator. That is the sort of popularising and greater public access to statistics that increasingly characterises their use and the interest in them.
The hon. Member for Twickenham might have been persuaded by the amendments, but I am less so. I was, however, persuaded by the succinct point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West about dissemination. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw our attention to the importance of the quality of official statistics. The Bill is not just about confidence in Government statistics, or Government spin, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet called it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough eloquently explained, we have concerns about the quality and accuracy of statistics and the need for corrections to be made properly when the required standards are not met. I draw her attention to clause 7(1)(a), which specifies the board’s first objective and provides the mechanism that she wants. I shall explain in a moment why amendment No. 17, tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, which would give the board power to direct Ministers and Departments, is not the right way to meet his concern. I expect to hear further telling examples from Slough to help illuminate the later stages of the discussions.
I welcome the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. He speaks from a position of experience of use work and constituency work in Cardiff, as well as ministerial experience at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Home Office. I will give him a sympathetic response, but I hope that he understands my reluctance to accept his amendments.
I will now deal with the amendments and the arguments that were put before the Committee by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. I pay tribute, as I did on the Floor of the House last week, to his chairmanship of the Treasury Sub-Committee. He self-effacingly waves me away, but the Select Committee on the Treasury has taken a consistent interest in the quality of statistics. It produced an important inquiry and report in the run-up to Christmas, which has helped to inform the Government’s approach to the Bill and I know will do the same for the deliberations of the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Bill is not simply a Whitehall rearrangement. He is right to say that it is a public good. He encourages the Committee to consider the purpose of the statistics board, but I point out to him that the board’s core objectives are set out in clause 7. In dealing with the amendments, it may help the Committee if I set out the reasons for the objectives being drafted as they are. Clause 7 is the cornerstone of the Bill. It is appropriately succinct, broad and high level, stating that the board should promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of official statistics. From that core objective flow the board’s functions in relation to the production and assessment of statistics, which will allow it to deliver. The board will report on and be judged against the extent to which it delivers on that objective, with Parliament playing the central role in holding it to account, supported by the annual report of the board, which it will be required to lay before Parliament and publish at the end of each financial year.
Amendment No. 152 seeks to add to the purposes of the board as set out in the objectives in clause 7. As I have argued, clause 7 already captures the essence of what the board has been established to do. It states that the board should promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of official statistics. I believe the objective to be appropriate as it stands. The additional statements proposed in the amendments are unnecessary. I think that if Committee members pause to reflect on what is in the Bill, they will accept that it is appropriately succinct, wide in scope and sufficiently high level to serve as the core terms of reference for the board. Having prompted a useful debate at the start of our deliberations, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Amendment No. 17 is more substantive. It would provide the board with the authority to
“supervise the production of any official statistics; and
(b) require any improvements and corrections that it considers necessary”.
Clauses 8, 12 and 13 already give the board wide monitoring and assessment functions, but as we have heard, the intended effect of the amendment is to enable the board to compel action in Departments. That would turn the board into a directional body, and go against the decentralised system of statistical production that we have established and chosen to retain in this country. The decision to retain that system was supported by most of the respondents to the consultation and, indeed, by the Treasury Sub-Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks.
Clause 29 gives the board a directional power in relation to the National Statistician. If that is right for the National Statistician, why is it not right for other Departments? What practical problems will arise from giving the board more effective authority to comply with the duties imposed by the Bill?
The provision is appropriate to the National Statistician—this is dealt with in clause 29—because under the terms of the Bill, she will be accountable to the board and not to Ministers. That is one way of putting the statistics system on an independent footing and of removing the board from direct accountability to Ministers. The power to compel Departments and Ministers is of an entirely different order. In our democracy, Ministers are responsible and accountable for allocating the resources of their Departments, including those resources devoted to statistical production. Decisions on how to manage the resources and operation of Departments are—properly—taken by Ministers, who are answerable to Parliament for those decisions. Giving the board the power to compel Ministers to take decisions about their departmental resources and functions would fundamentally change those relationships of responsibility and accountability.
The hon. Lady and other Opposition Members are very interested in the model of the National Audit Office in relation to potential reforms. The NAO does not compel Ministers or Departments to act. It advises, audits, reports, challenges and generally equips Parliament better to fulfil its function of holding Departments and Ministers to account. The NAO does not direct Ministers or Departments. In the same way, it is inappropriate to suggest that the statistics board should direct Ministers, as amendment 17 proposes. Rather than compelling action, the transparency of the board is one of the key ways in which it delivers on the objective. It will be the actions and interests of Parliament in following the work of the board by examining its reports and in holding Ministers and Departments to account that will play a crucial role in the development of the system. Those actions and interests will also play a part in the impact that we have designed the system to have on the nature and quality of, and confidence in, official statistics in the long run.
The Minister makes a good case on the problems of giving a body the power to compel Departments to make particular decisions and to have particular practices. Does that case not apply equally well to the National Statistician? Is there not a case for amending clause 29, so that the board’s focus is on transparency, holding to account, and reporting to Parliament, rather than on seeking to take decisions for the National Statistician?
I am sure that we will deal with this issue when we get to clause 29. One of the functions of the National Statistician will be to head the executive office—currently the Office for National Statistics. As chief executive of that body, as well as the Government’s lead professional adviser on statistical matters, he or she will report to the board. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the National Statistician is made accountable to the board by the Bill. We are legislating because it is not appropriate for the National Statistician to be accountable to, and therefore under the general direction of, Ministers, as she is at the moment. I expected the hon. Lady to welcome that element of the reforms.
I shall make similar but less forceful comments in relation to amendments 191 and 192, which were tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, as I did for amendment 152. Both the amendments would add to the board’s objectives, but, although I agree with my right hon. Friend that official statistics have an important role to play in informing local and regional public service delivery, I do not think that it is sensible to specify that among the Board’s core objectives. The important uses to which official statistics are put are extremely varied, ever increasing and rapidly changing. It would not be helpful to specify some and not others in the legislation, not least because—as my right hon. Friend would accept—we cannot hope for primary legislation to be exhaustive.
In addition to the core objective that is set out in the Bill, I expect the independent board to set out its own, fuller, statement of aims, objectives, priorities and goals in the medium and short term. That would give some of the core uses to which it expects official statistics to be put. I am sure that, in preparing and consulting on its code, the board will take careful note of the comments and debates made during proceedings on the Bill.
I rise to press my hon. Friend further. Unless that objective is made explicit as the expectation of Government and Parliament, competing pressures—for instance for academic use rather than for practical public policy use—may push aside the importance of statistics being available for local purposes. Surely that should be at the core of anything that the board sets out. Is that his expectation?
Sir John, it is indeed my expectation that the needs of users will be at the core of the direction and decisions that the statistics board takes. I foresee no circumstances in which a strong concern for public policy and public service delivery at national, regional or local level, as appropriate, will not be fundamental to the concerns that the statistics board reflects when it draws up its code, goes about its operations or—as we will discuss later in the Committee’s proceedings—appoints it members, particularly non-executive members.
I make the same point on amendment No. 192. The proposed objective does not list exhaustively all the aspects of quality, comprehensiveness or good practice that the board will exist to promote and safeguard. It would not be sensible to include some rather than others, or to believe that it is possible to construct an exhaustive list for inclusion in the Bill.
The central concerns for any statistics board, once it is set up independently, will be the uses to which statistics are put and the users of those statistics. The desire to see public service policy and delivery reflected in those concerns is inevitably going to feature strongly. However, as I have suggested, to specify that in the Bill—to elevate it above a rapidly changing, ever evolving, increasing sources and uses of data—is not sensible at this point. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reflect on that.
I am trying to understand what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he expect the board to promote the effective use of official statistics in the public interest? If he is indicating that that does not need to be made explicit in the Bill because it is implicit in the structure and the requirements placed on the board, that is one thing and I would understand it. However, if he is saying that it may or may not be important in future, that would be a little more disturbing.
Let me try again. I would expect thatto be a central concern of the statistics board. I am suggesting to my right hon. Friend that, at this point, it is more sensible not to legislate for that matter in the Bill, but to leave it to the judgment of the board, which will, as I have explained, amplify in a number of ways the core objectives and standards set out in the Bill. In setting up this powerful and independent statistics board, it is appropriate to leave such matters finally to its judgment and to the judgment of those who are holding the board to account for the code that they devise and for the discharge of their objectives—in other words, to leave it to hon. Members and Parliament to scrutinise and hold the board accountable.
Amendment No. 194 would ensure that definitions, classifications, standards and methodologies that are developed by the board are useful locally. In many ways, the same arguments apply. Again, under clause 9 the board’s duty is wide, so it is not necessary to specify now the specific ways in which they are to be used. The board will develop those as appropriate and will be able to promote them widely. In developing and promoting the definitions, once again I would expect the board to provide contextual information about how and when to use them, including their appropriateness at local level. I have no doubt that the board will wish to develop definitions and classifications on local and regional issues, such as the regional classifications that my right hon. Friend is interested in, and will wish to develop ones that can be applied and used locally. However, at this stage it is not sensible or right to over-specify such matters in primary legislation. Therefore I hope that he will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Order. Can I just say to the Minister, probably for the benefit of the whole Committee, that in respect of amendments Nos. 17, 191, 192 and 194, it will not be necessary for the right hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member to withdraw his amendment, because they have not yet been moved? However, they have been debated, so if hon. Members are minded not to press them to a Division they can simply not move them at the appropriate time when we are discussing the relevant clauses. We have discussed those amendments with the lead amendment in the group, but they have not yet been moved.
I just want to make one point in concluding the consideration of the amendments, which have not been moved but have been discussed as part of this group. My concern about the points made by these amendments have partly been answered in the Minister’s response; none the less, I encourage him to strengthen the words that he uses about our expectations of the board.
I accept that we do not want the Bill to contain forms of words that are too prescriptive or that, by specifying one requirement, imply that other requirements are not necessary. I understand the Minister’s reluctance to accept the detail of my amendment. However, unless the board is clear that the statistics are going to be used not only by Government departments or people operating nationally or regionally, but locally, it could wander away from the expectations of Ministers and Parliament.
That point particularly relates to amendmentNo. 194 because it is surely a matter of political judgment and generally the expectation of MPs that statistics are collected in a way that allows aggregation that makes sense in terms of analysing what is going on in the communities that we represent not only at a constituency level but at a much more local level. The figures are useful in terms of small area statistics and the sort of work on rural development that I referred to earlier. What is going on under the surface in urban areas is also very important.
I would hope that what is spelt out in my three amendments in this group is something that we as Parliament should make clear that we expect from the new board. I do not necessarily think that these particular amendments are necessary, but I found the discussion useful.
The Minister may find one or two of my other amendments more acceptable. I want to make sure that this local element is appropriately spelt out and explicit. I shall not press these amendments to a vote, but I hope very much that during our discussions the necessity of ensuring the coterminosity of raw data—allowing proper analysis of statistics in a way that is useful at a local level to local authorities, to decision makers, including ourselves, and also to local voluntary organisations, for instance non-governmental organisations—is made explicit. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on those points. I might push him a little further when we come to other amendments.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. It is obviously up to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth to deal with his amendments when we reach them.
I am grateful for the support that amendment No. 17 has had from hon. Members across the Committee. The hon. Member for Slough was right to draw our attention to the need to deal somewhere with the accuracy of statistics, not least because we have had a whole series of corrections and revisions to official statistics over the years. Poor statistics, somebody once said, are rather like the 13th stroke of the clock, which is not only misleading in itself but casts a shadow of doubt over what has gone before. Obviously there is updating, and there are revisions and so on, but there are also corrections and that is why I felt that it was important to put into the statute some power and authority for the board to supervise accuracy.
What strikes me is that we are setting up this board and giving it responsibility without giving it authority. The way in which the Bill is drafted means that the board is not able to enforce standards. That applies to the code of practice, to the collection of statistics and so on. In response to this amendment, the Minister said something very important. He said, “This board is not to be directional”. That causes me concern. If the board is not to be directional, the only conclusion that I can draw is that, so far as departmental statistics are concerned, we will still have a system run by Ministers.
“Although departmental statisticians should remain close to policy colleagues in departments, they should have formal responsibility to the national statistician for any statistics they produce which are intended for the public domain.”
That was the conclusion in paragraph 7. In paragraph 10, on the designation of systems, we said:
“We are nevertheless concerned that retention of this control by Ministers would undermine the perceived independence of the system.”
So the Financial Secretary’s reply gives us concern that a system will be perpetuated, for departmental statistics at least, which is still ministerially run. I am disappointed, because I thought that the whole point of the Bill and of setting up the board was to get away from the idea that Ministers were responsible in the end for Departments’ statistics. That is why I want the board to be given the overarching power where necessary, not to direct or boss around statisticians in Departments, but to put things right where they believe that there is a lack of consistency or a series of poor data. I was very disappointed by the Minister’s response. Amendment No. 17 is to clause 7, so we shall doubtless return to the matter when we reach that clause.
I am encouraged by the support that amendment No. 152 has received from members across the Committee. The wording could of course be polished. In designing a motto or purpose, we all come up with our own drafting. I found the Minister’s response to the amendment rather thin. He said that we did not need to state the board’s purpose in clause 1 because clause 7 set out objectives. Objectives are not quite the same as purpose; a purpose is a higher aim. Clause 7 is also limited to official statistics, which is precisely why I did not include the word “official” in my definition.
I shall press the Financial Secretary one more time. Is he really suggesting that we should vote out of the Bill a reference to the public good? That is what lies at the heart of my amendment. It is the idea that we should put it in statute that the purpose of the board is to act for the public good, not for the convenience of Ministers or even for the benefit of Parliament. I cannot believe that he really wants to reject an amendment that would simply insert the words “for the public good” into the statute. I want to give him one more opportunity to explain why he should.
We propose to continue the system for statistics established in this country for 400 years, since the Government first started collecting data on imports and exports. The UK’s decentralised system is overwhelmingly and widely recognised to have great strengths. Statisticians are kept close to data suppliers and customers, which gives them a good understanding of their data. They have good working links with policy makers and are given necessary insights into developments and future needs. The system also maintains professional statistics and expertise across government. That is the decentralised system thatwe proposed in our consultation. It attracted overwhelming support, including the Treasury Committee’s endorsement, and we wish to continue it in the Bill.
When I said that directional powers were inappropriate for the statistics board, I drew an analogy with the National Audit Office. It is an authoritative body that no one seriously doubts is manipulated by the Government. It does not have the power to compel Departments and Ministers in the way that amendment No. 17 suggests. Therefore, it is not appropriate to suggest that we should seek such powers for the statistics board.
As I have told the Committee, the board’s central objectives as we have set them out are succinct, wide in scope, high level and likely to be independently developed further by the board, when it has been established and is up and running. That is the right approach. The amendment would not contribute significantly to setting out the direction and purpose of the statistics board. If the hon. Member for Sevenoaks presses the amendment, I shall ask my hon. Friends to resist it.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for trying one more time to persuade me. We shall of course return to the issue dealt with by amendment No. 17 in clause 7. However, I emphasise that I am not suggesting that we should centralise; rather, I suggest, as many outside the House have suggested, that the board needs an overarching supervisory duty. If I may say so, it is slightly disingenuous of the Minister to suggest that I did not say that the current system should continue. Of course we believe in a decentralised system of statistics, but if we are to put the proposals on to a better statutory basis, there must be somebody with the overarching power to supervise the system.
Amendment No. 152 is too vaguely worded. It refers to supervising
“the dissemination of statistics for the public good”,
but, although the hon. Gentleman pointed out that it refers to “statistics” rather than official statistics or national statistics, it could drag the board into a role that was something akin to that of the Advertising Standards Authority. If a product was perceived to be better for the public good, say, because it used less energy and the producers of that product wished to say that in a newspaper, the board would have to decide whether that statistic should appear in a newspaper, because a newspaper is a means of dissemination. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would not be in our interests to include that in the Bill.
Yes, of course it is possible to pick holes in the drafting of the amendment, and perhaps legal training helps with that. If the hon. Gentleman wants to offer an improvement to the word “dissemination”, I shall be perfectly happy to accept that. However, the core issue is why we should not specify in statute that the purpose of the board is for the public good. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury is a generous man, so I wonder whether I could try him one more time.Is he suggesting that clause 7 could not more appropriately contain a reference to the public good? Is he saying that nowhere in the Bill would he accept a reference to the phrase “the public good”? Is that his position?
I have dealt with the amendments before the Committee. I have made my arguments and I shall let them rest. If the hon. Gentleman presses the amendment, I shall leave it to the Committee to decide what view to take.