Clause 6

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:45 pm on 18th January 2007.

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Official Statistics

Amendment proposed: No. 151, in clause 6, page 3, line 34, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.—[Mrs. Villiers.]

Question put,That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 6 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 6

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

We could discuss many issues in the context of clause 6, a number of which will come up in the more detailed debate on the later sections. I want to ask a couple of questions of detail in connection with the clause and how it will operate in practice. I want to start with clause 6(2), which talks about an order that will be brought forward to specify

“statistics produced or to be produced by a particular person or description of a person.”

Those are statistics produced by non-governmental Departments and other Crown bodies that do not fall within the definitions set out in sub-paragraphs (i) to (vi) of clause 6(1)(a). Subsection (3) states:

“Before making an order under subsection (1)(b) an authority referred to in that provision must consult the Board.”

It must consult the statistics board, but it is not clear what the board is to be consulted on and what opinion it is to offer on any statistics that might be put forward in the order under subsection (2). Clause 12, which we will debate later, contains a process of assessment when an official statistic is nominated to become a national statistic. I assume that the procedure envisaged under subsection (3) will be softer than the formal assessment for inclusion as a national statistic. It is not entirely clear whether that is the case or to what extent a statistic specified by order should comply with the methodology outlined in clause 9. If the board is to be able to exercise its functions appropriately it would be helpful if the Minister could give some guidance on that point.

I assume that the board will be able to produce the list referred to in subsection (4) because of the order-making power in subsection (1)(b). I also assume that there is no comparable existing list of official statistics that the Committee and others could scrutinise. The definition of official statistics in subsection (1) is so broad that it could encompass virtually anything numerical that the Government might use, but I am not sure whether it will.

In subsection (5), the term “Welsh ministerial authority” is defined as encompassing three elements: the Welsh Ministers, the First Minister and the Counsel General to the Welsh Assembly Government. I am not as familiar as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth or other members from Welsh constituencies with the mechanisms of government in Wales. Why is that provision in place for Wales but not for the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire 2:00 pm, 18th January 2007

I wish to ask some questions on the same matter as those asked by my hon. Friend: statistics becoming official statistics by order. First, there is a  requirement that the appropriate Minister or authority consult the board, but as far as I can see there is no formal ability for the board to initiate that process. I assume that it will be able to put to a Minister informally any points that it wishes to make, but I would be grateful for confirmation of that.

Secondly, although a procedure for a statistic becoming an official statistic is set out in the clause, there is none for a statistic ceasing to be official. That might happen as a matter of course, presumably by order. I assume that it is of no significance that that is not specified, but I would again be grateful for clarification.

Finally, we welcome the inclusion in subsection (4) of the requirement for the board to produce a list of official statistics, because that is a matter for the board rather than the Minister. I suggest that when the annual list is produced, the board should highlight new official statistics and identify those that have ceased to be official statistics for any reason. One can imagine circumstances in which there might be controversy because a particular statistic was dropped. It might cause a political debate—this is a hypothetical case, I do not wish to make accusations. It would be useful for possible public debates if there were a comprehensive list each year of statistics that had ceased to be available as official statistics.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The questions posed by the hon. Members for Fareham and for South West Hertfordshire are useful and important in helping the Committee and those who are following our proceedings to flesh out new territory. There is no existing definition or list of official statistics as there is for national statistics.

Our approach in the Bill requires us to come up with some way of defining official statistics because of the broad scope of the board’s responsibilities set out in clause 7, which are to promote and safeguard

“the quality...good practice...and...comprehensiveness of all official statistics.”

Given that responsibility and duty, we have to draw up a definition so that the scope can be set. That is the purpose of clause 6, which is about the definition and specification of official statistics.

The hon. Member for Fareham says that it is not clear what the board will be consulted on. That will depend on what is proposed for inclusion in the order. In a moment, I shall explain why the provision is there and the sort of things that an order may cover. Specifically, as part of the consultation, the board might be asked to comment on whatever is proposed in the order.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire rightly observed that the board has no power of initiation in that respect. However, as we have discussed, there is in the Bill not just an important power but a duty to monitor, to comment, to report and to publish such views on the broad aspects of the quality, good practice and comprehensiveness of official statistics. As I have said, I expect the board to take a close interest in those things. I would not expect it to hold back if it believed that there were gaps in the  system. Clause 6 gives us the capacity to widen the scope for official statistics, if that is deemed necessary in future.

I turn to the question of whether statistics become new official statistics or cease to become official statistics. Given that official statistics define the scope of the board’s responsibilities, we would all expect the board to report on any changes to the boundaries and the scope of official statistics as part of its regular reporting functions.

Subsection (1)(a) is designed to ensure that, at the commencement of the Bill’s enactment, certain types of statistics will automatically be designated as official by reference to their producer. All statistics produced by the board, by Government Departments, including executive agencies, by the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or by any other person acting on behalf of the Crown will be official statistics.

Subsection (1)(b) provides flexibility so that the scope of official statistics can be extended. In such circumstances, a Minister of the Crown, a Scottish Minister, a Welsh Minister or a Northern Ireland Department can specify official statistics by order. I have made sure that any order would be subject to affirmative resolution, so this House will get a further opportunity to debate and approve or decline to approve such proposals. Let me be clear. If the Minister was in the UK central Government, the order would pass through this Parliament; the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly would have their own ways of dealing with the issue.

The order can add to the coverage of official statistics beyond those covered in subsection (1)(a). It might add all the statistics of a specified body, a limited number of that body’s statistics or a specified statistical series. I hope that the hon. Member for Fareham can see that the answer to his question will depend on those circumstances.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Chief Secretary To the Treasury, Treasury

Would that be in relation to the need for affirmative action to collect information in order to produce those statistics, or purely for the publication of the information that has been collected?

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

No. The importance of designation as official statistics is that it will bring such data within the scope of the duties and responsibilities of the statistics board, as specified in the Bill. An example might help the Committee.

We struggle, for instance, with the Higher Education Statistics Agency. It clearly produces important data, some of which are already classified as national statistics, but it does not fit, in terms of its constitution, into any of the categories set out in subsection (1)(a). Nevertheless, we are clear that its outputs and, indeed, those of the information centre for health and social care—which does not fit within the definition of bodies in subsection (1)(a) but certainly produces data, including national statistics, that we would want to fall within the scope of the new regime—we would want to be within the remit of the statistics board. Therefore, we would expect that the Ministers responsible would add the statistics from those two bodies to the scope of  the official statistics, and we would expect them to use the necessary powers under this clause to do so. In seeking to widen the scope of the official statistics, the relevant Minister must consult the board. This will be an area on which the board will want to take a view and comment, including publicly.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

What the Financial Secretary is saying is extremely helpful. If an autonomous body were producing statistics and an order were made under this clause that those statistics became official statistics, presumably there would be no ability in the Bill to ensure that that body continued to produce such statistics—it would have the flexibility to decide, say, to cease to produce those statistics even though an order had been made classifying its statistics as official statistics.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

We have previously had a long discussion about the nature of the function of the production of statistics. The ONS will become the responsibility of the board, and the board will play a part in deciding whether the ONS should continue to produce statistics. I have argued that clearly, and the Bill is framed in a way that recognises that as an appropriate executive function. Ultimately, the activities and resources that are deployed and undertaken within a Department should be the responsibility of the Minister who leads that Department. That is for the decision of the Minister responsible, but if official statistics are affected, the board might well want to comment and to publish its views on the matter.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I apologise. I probably did not make myself clear enough. I was thinking of circumstances in which statistics are produced not by the statistics board with its ONS hat on, nor by a Department, but by some third party under clause 6(1)(b). That third party might then decide of its own volition no longer to produce certain statistics, notwithstanding that those statistics had been classified by an order under the clause as official statistics. I do not propose a solution, but I would be grateful to know whether there is anything that the statistics board or the Government would do in such circumstances, however unlikely.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 2:15 pm, 18th January 2007

The likely situation is that autonomous bodies would make such decisions for themselves. Clearly, if that affected the availability, quality, good practice or the comprehensiveness of official statistics, the board would want to look at that and might want to comment and to do so publicly. The statutory enforcement of transparency in this process, which the Bill proposes, would allow a sensible view and a debate. The decision would rest with those running the responsible body.

Finally, I was asked why subsection (5) refers only to Welsh Ministers and institutions. The subsection reflects the fact that every devolved Administration has separate governance arrangements and, in some cases, legislation. Having consulted the Administrations to secure the fullest possible list of bodies producing official statistics, the specification for the particular  arrangements in Wales is necessary in a way that it is not for Scotland and Northern Ireland. On that basis, I hope that the Committee will allow clause 6 to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.