I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 120, in clause 5, page 3, leave out lines 14 and 15 and insert—
‘(b) employed to operate independently of the Board with scrutiny and oversight of the role provided by the Board.’.
No. 188, in clause 5, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(2A) No appointment shall be made under subsection (2) until it has been approved by the Commission established under section (Establishment of a Commission for Official Statistics).’.
No. 189, in clause 5, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(2A) Appointments made under subsection (2) shall be subject to review by the Commission established under section (Establishment of a Commission for Official Statistics) within one year of their having been made.
No. 16, in clause 5, page 3, line 19, at end insert—
No. 151, in clause 6, page 3, line 34, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 121, in clause 8, page 4, line 35, at end insert—
‘(4) The Board shall have responsibility to monitor and assess the performance of the National Statistician against the assigned responsibilities.’.
No. 100, in clause 9, page 4, line 37, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 101, in clause 9, page 5, line 2, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 102, in clause 9, page 5, line 4, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 103, in clause 18, page 8, line 15, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 104, in clause 18, page 8, line 17, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 105, in clause 18, page 8, line 19, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 106, in clause 18, page 8, line 21, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 107, in clause 18, page 8, line 23, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 108, in clause 19, page 8, line 26, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 125, in clause 19, page 8, line 30, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 126, in clause 19, page 8, line 36, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 109, in clause 20, page 9, line 11, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 110, in clause 21, page 9, line 20, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 111, in clause 22, page 9, line 23, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 112, in clause 22, page 9, line 25, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 113, in clause 22, page 9, line 27, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 114, in clause 23, page 9, line 34, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 115, in clause 26, page 10, line 34, after ‘Board’ and insert ‘and the National Statistician’.
No. 116, in clause 26, page 10, line 35, after ‘Board’ and insert ‘and the National Statistician’.
No. 197, in clause 28, page 12, line 6, at end insert—
‘(d) ensuring that, where appropriate, official statistics provide evidence of local variations and service needs.’.
No. 97, in clause 28, page 12, line 17, at end insert—
‘(5) The National Statistician shall be the government’s chief advisor on statistics, including, inter alia, matters relating to the planning, production and quality of official statistics, and shall provide professional leadership to all persons within government who are engaged in statistical production and release.’.
No. 127, in clause 28, page 12, line 17, at end insert—
‘(5) The National Statistician shall be the government’s principal advisor on statistics and provide professional leadership to all persons engaged in statistical production and publication.’.
No. 80, in clause 29, page 12, line 19, leave out ‘Board’ and insert
‘executive office created under the provisions of subsection (5) below’.
No. 98, in clause 29, page 12, line 22, at end insert—
‘(2A) The National Statistician shall—
(a) coordinate, and promote coordination of, statistical production across government and the devolved administrations; and
(b) take steps to ensure consistency in the production of official statistics across the United Kingdom.’.
No. 29, in clause 29, page 12, line 27, at end insert—
‘(3A) The National Statistician shall have responsibility for promoting—
(a) the co-ordination of statistical planning and production across government departments; and
(b) the production of statistics that are as consistent as possible across the United Kingdom.’.
No. 139, in clause 29, page 12, line 28, leave out from ‘Board’ to end of line 30 and insert
‘shall monitor the National Statistician in the exercise of his functions in relation to official statistics, inlcuding the duty set out in subsection (2A) above.’.
No. 128, in clause 29, page 12, line 28, after ‘may’ insert ‘not’.
No. 129, in clause 29, page 12, line 29, leave out ‘not’.
No. 117, in clause 31, page 13, line 26, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 130, in clause 36, page 14, line 35, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 132, in clause 36, page 14, line 40, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 133, in clause 36, page 15, line 4, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 134, in clause 36, page 15, line 23, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 135, in clause 36, page 15, line 25, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 136, in clause 36, page 15, line 27, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 137, in clause 36, page 15, line 30, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 138, in clause 36, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
I also remind hon. Members that, because it is a rather large group of amendments, if they wish to press any amendment separately, they should indicate that during their speech.
I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Olner. I hope that hon. Members recognise that I like to be as positive as I can, so I shall pick up on a positive note and reflect on some of the arguments that were put to support amendments Nos. 98 and 29. I am grateful for the acknowledgement and the warm words of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. That is a tribute to the work that has been done to bring all the devolved Administrations into the new system. I pay tribute to those in the devolved Administrations who have taken the decision to be a part of what we are legislating for.
Probably everyone shares the aims of hon. Members who have tabled amendments in this group. Everyone will recognise that consistent, UK-wide statistics are beneficial and desirable. Such consistency allows statistics about devolved countries to be combined, it allows figures for the UK as a whole to be produced, and for situations in different Administrations to be compared.
However, it is important that we recognise that some divergence is to be expected because of the different political, legal and administrative situations of the four nations. Many of the differences existed prior to devolution.
On the wider point of planning and co-ordination, we have given the board the overall objective of promoting and safeguarding the quality, good practice and comprehensiveness of official statistics. It hasthe specific duty to monitor, and can report publicly on all of the issues to which I referred, as is set out in clauses 7 and 8. In so far as the board considers consistency to be good practice, it can promote it through the code, through its advice and guidance on standards, or as part of the methodologies for the production of statistics, a matter covered in clause 9. We envisage that the board’s statutory objectives of safeguarding comprehensiveness, and the coherence between different sets of official statistics—the Bill defines that as an aspect of quality—will be the key ways in which co-ordination across the system will be assured.
There are a number of ways in which the board can seek to deal with work programmes that it judges are not comprehensive, or lack co-ordination. The board can report its concerns to the relevant Ministers, make its views public, and report concerns to Parliament and the devolved legislatures in either its annual or a special report. Additionally, the board can produce statistics if it considers that there is a gap in statistical coverage to be addressed, and no other body will deliver the statistics to meet that need. However, it would not be helpful—it would be restrictive—to set out in legislation the specific mechanisms that the board will use to deliver on those duties. I hope that my explanation of the options that are available to the board to meet any such concerns will satisfy the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and her hon. Friends.
The Financial Secretary has set out good reasons for not constraining the work of the board. Does he agree that the direction should be towards the quality, independence, and objectivity of statistics, but also that those statistics should be collected in a useful way, and inform public discussion? That is not a constraint on the board; it is a basic requirement.
I would go further than my right hon. Friend and say that it is a basic characteristic and purpose of statistics. I am sure that the board will reflect that in its work.
My hon. Friend’s amendment No. 197 would require the National Statistician as the board’s principal adviser to work to ensure that, where appropriate, official statistics provide evidence of local variations and service needs. As we discussed in an earlier sitting, I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns. I understand his argument about the need for local statistics to aid local and regional policy making. That is important. He said earlier that he was looking for reassurance through this amendment, and I hope that what I have to say satisfies him.
I expect that, in considering the comprehensiveness and quality of official statistics, the board and the National Statistician, when acting on the board’s behalf, will consider their use in local policy making and use them to help understand local variations and needs. However, for reasons that we have already discussed, it would not be helpful to focus in legislation on just some of these statistical uses, even particularly important ones, given the ever-increasing and rapidly changing uses to which statistics are put. As we have discussed, and as the Committee has accepted, we could never hope to be exhaustive in that area in primary legislation.
Finally, I turn to amendment No. 80, tabled by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. I am not certain about her point, having read the amendment and listened to her remarks. Let me try to be clear and, I hope, helpful and confirm our intention that the national statistician is to be the chief executive. The board as an organisation needs a chief executive who is accountable to the governing body for the effective, efficient operation of the whole department and who will be the board’s accounting officer. However, the person need not be involved operationally in every aspect of the body’s activities to discharge that responsibility—and the Bill ensures that they are not. It is important that the Bill establishes that, where there may be a perception of a conflict of interest, there is adequate separation of the operational activity. That separation is set out in the Bill, which establishes that the National Statistician cannot be involved in the activity of assessment, which will be operationally independent of the National Statistician’s executive office, where we expect that statistical production will take place.
The hon. Lady queried whether the National Statistician could be responsible, as chief executive, for part of the statistics board from which he or she was to maintain the separation. This is one area in which we are not breaking new ground. It may help the hon. Lady and the Committee for me to mention that, quite often, a body is authorised by Parliament to undertake a dual role. One only needs to think of a local authority—a number of Committee members have a distinguished track record in local authorities—which is empowered to promote, for example, development within its boundary and, at the same time, grant planning permission. When that happens, the local authority must structure itself to perform both functions as best it can, bearing in mind its overriding duty to act fairly, impartially and without bias. In such circumstances, a chief executive of a local authority would distance himself from planning, but would still be capable of ensuring the overall efficiency or governance of the body.
I do not wish to try the Committee’s patience. I hope that, in my response to a wide-ranging debate and serious, important amendments, I have set out the principles on which we are trying to establish the board and structure its operations in statute, where appropriate. I hope that I have given some indication, with respect to important matters, of what our expectation may be in practice. I hope that I have also explained that, in setting up an independent board with the capacity to draw up a code independent of Government that the board enforces and reports on, we do not bind too closely the judgments that the board needs to take. I hope that I have dealt with some ofthe specific points in the amendments and given the explanation and reassurance required. I hope that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks will not press amendment No. 15 and, that other hon. Members will not seek to move their amendments when we reach the relevant place in the Bill. I make it clear to the Committee that I cannot accept those amendments and if they press them, I will ask my hon. Friends to vote against them.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his lengthy response to the many amendments of significance that have been tabled. One of the most technically challenging parts of the debate is getting to grips with exactly who does what and who accounts for whom. As we have heard today, there is much confusion among those who are following the passage of the Bill about how the structures will work. I hope that this discussion has provided enlightenment and cleared up some of those confusions. I fear that some confusion remains, but I certainly hope that we have made progress. I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his comments.
I particularly welcomed his re-emphasis of the importance of access to the Prime Minister for the National Statistician. That is of key importance and it would be welcome to have it in the Bill. If not, it is at least welcome that the Financial Secretary has today confirmed that the National Statistician will have access and that it is an important part of the way in which the Government envisage the framework for Government statistics operating. Referring in the Bill to access to the Prime Minister would send a strong signal that would enhance the credibility of the National Statistician. As a number of hon. Members have made plain today, the political authority, standing and status of the National Statistician is crucial to ensuring a successful outcome for this reform. That is why I am sorry that the Financial Secretary is not disposed to accept the amendments that refer to the pivotal leadership role that the Opposition hope that the National Statistician will play.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his recognition of the importance of co-ordination of the statistical system. That was particularly well-emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire. There are a number of concerns that have not yet been answered and perhaps we can return to those on Report. It is particularly worth highlighting the point made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne when she referred to the evidence given to the Treasury Committee by Dr. Ivan Fellegi about the functions of the National Statistician. The weakness he saw in the consultation paper on which he was commenting has, I fear, not yet been addressed by the Bill. That issue would have been addressed by a number of the amendments. It is a matter of regret that the Financial Secretary does not feel able to send a visible signal regarding the importance of planning, co-ordination and leadership by inserting the amendments into the Bill.
I would be concerned if we were to go down the road advocated by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, which would be to roll back on the functions and responsibilities—
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is not with us, I should point out that he did state more than once that he was not advocating that particular approach; he was pointing out to the Opposition that there was a choice between two ways of approaching things. My hon. Friend is often quite clear in what he says and should not be misinterpreted.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I should have said that I would not support the option discussed following the intervention made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. He did say that he felt that the additional responsibilities in the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and me and by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne could make the role of National Statistician so onerous and difficult that it would become impossible to fulfil. I do not agree for a number of reasons. Many of those functions are currently carried out by the National Statistician, and the responsibilities are entirely within the remit of people holding similar posts in other parts of the world. A useful insight into international comparisons can be found in the Treasury Committee report that described the functions in the Canadian chief statistician’s remit. They are an excellent model and are entirely within the scope of the Opposition amendments.
I return to the supervisory and scrutiny issues. They are also matters of importance to which the Committee might be disposed to return on Report. It was a matter of concern and anxiety that the Minister was so clear that the board should not have a regulatory function and would not be a regulator in the sense in which that term is normally understood. Instead, the board will have what he described as a softer audit-type function.
That founds some of my fears about the Bill, a theme to which I shall return when we discuss the amendments dealing with scope. There is a key difference between the two Front Benches. The Conservatives feel that the legislation should allow the board to scrutinise and regulate the statistical system and believe that it is inadequate to do so at the moment. That is why we will seek to strengthen the powers available to the board to enforce the code. I remain concerned that merging the Statistics Commission with the Office for National Statistics, which is effectively what will happen, would remove an important safeguard.
In many respects, as I have acknowledged on the Floor of the House as well as this morning, the Bill is a step forward and in the right direction. The Minister deserves credit for taking those steps, but losing an independent scrutiny body and merging it with an executive body represents a step back. He was confident that the board’s executive function would not prevent it from criticising the ONS and its decisions. Again, we must consider perception. As I pointed out in an intervention, the problem does not arise where a criticism is made. A more difficult situation will be one in which the board decides that the ONS has got it right. The credibility of the board’s judgment will be undermined to a degree. It will not be seen as disinterested, because it will have been ultimately responsible for the decision in the first place.
I hope that the Committee will have an opportunity to vote on amendments Nos. 151 and 97, as they raise important issues on which it would be useful to divide. I am grateful for the Chairman’s patience in listening to my further thoughts.
I thank my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary for his closing remarks. The clarity of his important response will be welcomed by everybody concerned with policy development and delivery locally and, indeed, very locally. His words will also be welcomed by those engaged in local partnership work, where cross-cutting issues and the relationship between different elements of data are crucial, particularly in such things as local regeneration work.
I accept entirely the Financial Secretary’s view that it is good to keep the words in the Bill as simple as possible. It is also true that trying to underline something by making the wording specific can, by implication, make other things less important or exclude them. For that reason, I do not wish to press my amendment to a Division. With the Financial Secretary’s word on the record, it will be impossible for the National Statistician or the board to overlook the need to design the work with official statistics so that it provides evidence of local variations and service needs. That will be greatly welcomed everywhere.
I welcome you to the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Olner.
I would like to thank the Financial Secretary for his helpful explanation, which has not only provided clarity and shed light on the issues raised in Committee, but will have helped the statistical community, particularly in relation to the appointment of the National Statistician and the access that the National Statistician may have to the Prime Minister. I am still disappointed by the lack of acceptance that the leadership status of the National Statistician may need to change. The Financial Secretary has said, understandably, that not all the points can be included in the Bill, as we will have to wait and see how things pan out when the board is up and running. Until that happens, concerns, which may need to be raised again on Report, will remain.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire has suggested that a clear mission statement should be provided, whether as part of the Bill or separately. A statement of the functions of the board and the chief executive might go some way to providing greater clarification of how those roles interact. However, we will not press our amendments.
Comprehensive though the Financial Secretary’s remarks were, they did not specifically address the points raised by amendments Nos. 188 and 189. No doubt he considers that he addressed those points when he spoke to amendments Nos. 186 and 187, which relate to the appointment of non-executive members of the Statistics Commission. I assume that he has not had a change of heart and that he will not take this tremendous opportunity to put his name in history with a great constitutional legacy.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me,but his amendments relate to the proposal for a commission, the merits and demerits of which we fully discussed earlier, when the Committee chose not to give that proposal its backing.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary. I was hoping that there might be some indication of an alternative route, whereby Parliament could scrutinise the appointments.
I would be grateful for your guidance, Mr. Olner, as to whether it is possible to move the amendments, given that they relate to a commission that would be set up under new clause 2. I would do so, if it were possible.
I sense that the Committee wants to come to a decision on this large group of amendments, about which we have had a wide-ranging debate. Sadly, Mr. Olner, you missed the description of the accounting and auditing years ofmy hon. Friend the Member for Fareham. He has described himself as a “process man”, which I think falls into the category of too much information.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and it has been most revealing. The Financial Secretary started by saying that the Bill is part of the great new settlement and that it will devolve authority previously exercised by Ministers to the National Statistician and the statistics board. We fully understand why he has gone for the option of a single board, but, as we heard earlier, the flaw remains. It is not so much the distinction between the production of statistics and scrutiny, but that in our view those are not the sole functions of the new arrangement.
There is an S-word that does not appear in the Bill, and it never seems to escape the lips of the Financial Secretary. That word is “supervisory”. We do not see that word in the Bill, and the Financial Secretary is careful in his answers not to describe the new board as supervisory. He has used the word once in the context of Parliament. He wants the supervision of the system to rest with Parliament, which is a noble ambition, although we have no idea how it will work, because those arrangements are not for the Financial Secretary to propose.
We have a problem, because when the Financial Secretary was pressed on the matter, he had to concede that what he is setting up—he used these words—is not a regulator. He said that it is something softer than a regulator. I am not quite sure what that could be, but he said that it would set standards, make assessments and audit whether statistics had achieved those standards. At one stage, he described the work as technical—he said that the questions are technical and that they should be left to a body that is softer than a regulator. That is not where the Financial Secretary started. He started by saying that he was going to devolve authority, in which case the authority that he exercises now would be devolved to the National Statistician and the standards board. However, when we come to the detail, we end up hearing that the standards board is not a regulator, but a body involved in assessing rather technical questions. If we are not genuinely devolving authority, then we are not enhancing confidence in official statistics.
I turn to the three amendments that stand in my name and to the Financial Secretary’s answers on them—as you have said, Mr. Olner, it is for others to determine whether to press their amendments to Divisions at a later stage. I shall begin with themost important amendment, which is amendmentNo. 29. I did not attempt to write into the Bill a general duty of supervision—I could have done so, and itcould be done later. I confined my amendments to giving the board the duty of co-ordinating across Whitehall and ensuring consistency between Departments and between Departments and the devolved Administration.
I cannot see how even a softer form of regulator would not find it useful to have a specific duty to co-ordinate and to ensure consistency. I shall give the Financial Secretary another opportunity to explain why those duties should not be added. His initial answer was that the board will have the power to advocate and promote consistency. He said that if it does not find consistency, it will have the power to report to Ministers. I thought that we were trying to get away from that, but he said that it will report to Ministers or to Parliament. Finally, he said that if there is no consistency, the board can commission its own statistics to ensure that they are consistent.
It is not enough to promote, to advocate andto report. In my view, the board must have the power to enforce, which is why I tabled amendment No. 29 to clause 29. When we reach that clause, I hope that we will have the opportunity to vote formally on that amendment, as well as on some of the other amendments in the group.
Amendment No. 16 concerns the National Statistician’s right of access to the Prime Minister of the day. The Financial Secretary gave us some comfort by assuring us that under the existing framework the National Statistician has access, but it is not the direct access that my amendment would require—it is access through the head of the home civil service. I well remember that this precise point was explored when the framework was before the Treasury Committee four or five years ago.
I remain puzzled as to why the access has to be indirect, because I thought that the whole point of introducing these new arrangements was that we were getting away from Whitehall and that the National Statistician would be an independent officer of state who would no longer have to report back through the head of the civil service, the Cabinet Secretary or whoever. I thought that if there was a dispute with a particularly recalcitrant Department or Secretary of State—as Lord Moser told the Treasury Sub-Committee last summer that there was in his time—the National Statistician would have direct power to go to the Prime Minister. It is worth including the particular words of my amendment in the Bill.
Finally, I turn to amendment No. 15, which I moved earlier. I must again thank the Financial Secretary, because he has confirmed, importantly and usefully, that this appointment will be made by the Prime Minister. He then spoiled things in two respects. First, he compared the new National Statistician to the chief medical officer or the chief scientific adviser. They are important offices, but they are both creatures of Government; those people are advisers to the Government. I had hoped that the whole point of setting up the new post of National Statistician in statute was that its holder would not simply be an adviser to or a creature of Government—I hoped that they would also represent the public interest in statistics.
Under the framework that we seek to create with this Bill, the National Statistician emphatically will not be a creature of Government. If the hon. Gentleman refers to the record of this morning’s discussions, when it is published, he will see that my point was that we are breaking new ground. What we are looking at is unprecedented, as we are creating a new system, so there are no models for us to follow either internationally or domestically. The closest comparator might be the chief medical officer or the chief scientific adviser, but neither are truly comparable to the National Statistician. I hope that he will accept that, and if he checks the record, he will see that that is precisely my argument.
I am happy to accept that, and I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for clarifying it. The problem is that there is no exact parallel—I think that this is what he is telling the Committee—to the way in which he perceives the post of National Statistician. Yet, my point still holds. The National Statistician is to be not an officer of Government but, as I hope the Financial Secretary intends, an officer of the state. That is why it would be useful, given that he has helpfully conceded that the appointment will be made by the Prime Minister, to write that into the statute, and I see no objection to doing so.
As we have had a useful and extensive debate on matters relating to clause 5, I have just a very short point to raise, on which I should be grateful for the Financial Secretary’s thoughts. Subsection (6) states:
“The board may only appoint persons under subsection (4) with the approval of the Minister for the Civil Service as to numbers and terms and conditions of employment.”
As my hon. Friends will confirm, I am always concerned to ensure good value for money for the taxpayer and sensible and efficient use of taxpayers’ money, but I wonder in this case whether it is necessary for the Minister for the Civil Service to be involved in determining staff numbers. Obviously, there have to be budgetary constraints, and those will be set in the way that is set out later in the Bill, but it seems to me that, within the constraints of the resources allocated to it, there is an argument for letting the board take the decisions as to the numbers of staff whom it employs.
It will be useful if we just pause for a moment to consider clause 5 in a little more detail. Naturally, we have concentrated on the position of the board and the National Statistician. As my hon. Friend has said, however, the clause deals with the position of other staff, and those who currently work for the ONS are entitled to a little more explanation of their future position. On Tuesday the Financial Secretary claimed some credit for his work with the ONS. He said:
“I have played an active role, which has had a beneficial impact on the ONS”.——[Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 16 January 2007;c. 57.]
At the very moment on Tuesday when he was making that claim, the announcement was made that some 600 jobs were to go from London, to be movedto Newport. The Public and Commercial Services Union said that it feared “up to 200 compulsory redundancies”. A PCS spokesman added that staff were “livid” at the proposal and went on to say:
“These plans are unnecessary, ill thought out and will undermine the quality of the statistics that the government base new initiatives and policies on.”
So the Financial Secretary should have the opportunity to provide some reassurance. I say that as someone who has constituents who work at the ONS who are now completely unsure whether they will be among the 100 to remain in London, the 600 who will be moved to Newport, or the 200 who will be fired as a result of the proposal.
I have three specific questions for the Financial Secretary. First, are there going to be compulsory redundancies as part of the relocation? Secondly, will the board, from the moment when the Act is passed, be subject to the same manpower reduction targets that are being applied elsewhere in Whitehall? Thirdly, what will happen to those who currently commute to the Pimlico headquarters from constituencies like mine in Kent? Will they be offered assistance with relocation to Newport, which is some distance away, and what help will be made available to them? Will they have the choice as to whether they go or stay?
Some years ago I attended an engagement and had to confess to not knowing a lot about the geography of Kent. Clearly, however, the hon. Gentleman does not know a lot about the opportunities and the quality of life in the area of Newport and south Cardiff. Does he not realise the advantages that are being offered to his constituents?
I am ready to be persuaded of the advantages of relocating to Newport vis-Ã -vis Kent, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands that for anybody currently based in London or the south-east of England, the proposal is potentially a huge upheaval and a large distance by which to uproot oneself suddenly, however much we support relocation to the regions.
One of the other ONS offices is based in my constituency, at Titchfield. That was also at one stage subject to proposals for relocation to Newport. My own constituents expressed similar concerns to those being expressed by my hon. Friend today about the problems of relocation, ONS management, and the diktats to which it is subject as part of the Treasury. I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituents and with the views that they are expressing.
We are already hearing the interest of the various constituencies in the proposal.
This is not simply part of the Government’s relocation drive. It is the Financial Secretary who has decided to reclassify ONS staff as being within the employment of the statistics board. So I hope that when he responds, he will offer some reassurance as to whether compulsory redundancies are part of his plan, whether the board will still be subject to overall reductions in manpower targets, and whether assistance will be made available to those who will compulsorily have to move to Newport as opposed to those who choose to do so.
“The Board may only appoint persons under subsection (4)”— that excludes the National Statistician and head of assessment—
“with the approval of the Minister for the Civil Service as to numbers and terms and conditions of employment.”
As I read that, theoretically, the Minister for the Civil Service could refuse the statistics board any employees other than the National Statistician and the head of assessment. The difficulty is that under clause 3(6), the executive members of the statistics board are to consist of the National Statistician and
“two other employees of the Board”.
There seems to be a contradiction in the drafting. On the one hand, it states that the board must have three employees, and on the other that any more than two requires permission from the Minister for the Civil Service, who presumably is entitled to refuse it—a pedantic point, I accept, but none the less there seems to be a failure in the drafting.
Furthermore, what sort of information is it envisaged that the board will provide to the Minister for the Civil Service when appointing employees? Given that he has powers over the terms and numbers of such appointments, I would be grateful for reassurance that there is not a clearance procedure whereby the names of proposed appointees will be provided to him. That would give the appearance of a veto over the employment of individuals. I would be grateful also for greater clarification on how much flexibility the board will have in determining the pay and conditions of its employees. Clause 5(7) reads:
“Service as an employee of the Board is service in the civil service of the State.”
What impact will civil service pay grades have on executive employees?
On the approval process, are there guidelines for the Minister for the Civil Service when granting consent to the employment of additional staff? Could he delay granting that consent for a considerable period? I assume that there are guidelines and would be grateful for clarification.
Finally, on Tuesday, when we debated the residual body, we should perhaps have drawn attention to clause 5. However, given that the Treasury, not the Minister for the Civil Service, has residual authority over the statistics board, what form of Treasury consultation or representation is envisaged? How will the two interact in deciding these issues?
I can assure the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, who is concerned about some of the same points as the hon. Lady, that provisions in the Bill do not mean that individual appointments will have to be brought before the Minister for the Civil Service as a matter of course, principally because that is in fact the Prime Minister. The provisions in the Bill essentially reflect the fact that, because the statistics board will be set up as a non-departmental body, on the basis that we explained previously, we see the board’s employees as continuing to be civil servants. That move has been generally welcomed by those employed by the ONS, as well as by the principal unions that represent staff in the organisation.
The principal unions representing staff might also have views on other matters that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks raised. Before I address those, however, I should say that, on the procedural points that he and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet raised, I intend to write to the Committee to set out in detail what the broad implications of the provisions in the Bill are.
I was proposing to return to that point in the letter that I shall send to the Committee.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks picked up on work that is being undertaken in the ONS. That work is part of what was originally the Lyons review, as he will know, which set out, in a way that the Government accept, the general case for seeking to relocate a substantial proportion of central civil service jobs out into the regions and countries of the United Kingdom. The options that the National Statistician and the ONS are considering reaffirm that Newport will in future be the corporate headquarters, first of the ONS and then of the statistics board. That is a matter that is as welcome to certain Members of the House as it might be unwelcome to others.
In general terms, the Government have accepted the strong arguments put forward in the Lyons review and we are pursuing that with vigour. In the view of the National Statistician, there is a good business case for the sort of moves that she is proposing to staff and seeking to discuss with them, not least—but not only—because of a clear financial argument, when one considers that the cost of accommodation in central London is five times higher than in Newport.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks put three questions to me. Compulsory redundancies, relocation assistance or any other provision that would rightly be put in place for staff who were affected are properly matters that will be negotiated between the ONS managers and the representative unions that are recognised within the organisation.
On the third point, about manpower targets, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would expect that to form part of the consideration that will be given to the special arrangements and the special funding settlement, which will be made as a provision for the board. That will not be part of the normal comprehensive spending review process, but a separate settlement for five years, with any subsequent increases or changes set out in a formula. The hon. Gentleman asked me a specific question. I hope that he will accept that I cannot give an answer to it, although I can explain precisely how the matter will be dealt with as we move towards setting up the statistics board under the terms of the Bill, this House permitting.
I am grateful for that clarification, especially on the last two points. On the first point about whether there will be compulsory redundancies, I think that the Minister’s position is that that is a matter for the management of the ONS and of the new board. Presumably that means that compulsory redundancies are not ruled out and that the managers of the new board, as of the ONS, will be allowed if they need to to apply for compulsory redundancies for staff who are not prepared to move. Is that the position?
The statistics board will be a non-ministerial Government Department and will have employment responsibilities as other Departments do. The contracts, the terms and the way in which it deals with staff will be accordingly consistent.