Clause 7

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 18th January 2007.

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Objective

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

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I have a straightforward question for the Minister about whether the numbering in clause 7(1) is correct. The clause sets out the objective of the board:

“In the exercise of its functions under sections 8 to 19 the Board is to have the objective of reporting and safeguarding” what are then referred to specifically as “official statistics”. However, when I look at clauses 8 to 19, clauses 8 and 9 apply to official statistics, as does clause 11 on pre-release access, but clauses 10, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 refer specifically to “national statistics”, not “official statistics”.

I am concerned that someone reading clause 7 casually might assume that the reference applied to national statistics and was not limited to official statistics. I wonder whether the drafting should have been

“sections 8, 9, 10 and 12” instead of “sections 8 to 19”.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

I am probably a lone heretic on the Committee in that I am not sure that I buy the fundamental premise of the Bill, which is that statistics will automatically be more trusted if they are taken out of the hands of politicians. I fear that we are falling into a trap, in the Bill and elsewhere, in somehow believing the message that politicians are inclined to do things that are scurrilous and bad, for their personal advantage. However, the clause seemsto be something that everyone can sign up to enthusiastically. We need to have mechanisms to deliver what the clause promises, such as

“the quality of official statistics” and

“their impartiality, accuracy and relevance”.

I have bored members of the Committee enough on this matter, and I promise them that I will not do so again, but I have said that the most important official series of statistics—the census and the inter-year census figures—in relation to the town that I represent is inaccurate. A politician’s input could help in that regard.

Let me explain. The hon. Member for Fareham referred to the fact that officials who prepare statistical series are working in Pimlico. He said that they were doing a good job, and I believe that, in most cases, they are, except in the matter on which I have bored the Committee. A politician’s input can bring to bear experiences beyond Pimlico, beyond Kent and beyond  Newport from around the country that can hold the system accountable. As for the errors in the statistics of the Office for National Statistics, the Minister for Local Government reacted more positively to representations made on behalf of Slough than did ONS officials.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Order. I remind the hon. Lady of the objectives under clause 7. Will she speak to them?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Indeed. I was wondering whether the Minister would, given his present duty to achieve the objectives under subsection (2)(a) of the clause in respect of impartiality, accuracy and relevance of statistics, including ONS mid-year estimates, be willing to meet me and Slough council to discuss such matters in relation to the town that I represent?

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

I have a brief comment that follows on from what the hon. Lady said. The clause sets out laudable objectives, but I suppose that the key issue is how to deliver them. It relates to official statistics, so it has been widely welcomed. The statistics user forum said that it was

“pleased to note that ensuring access to official statistics is specifically mentioned as part of the good practice the board is intended to promote”.

Does the Minister have a view on whether having a code that is applicable to official statistics as well as national statistics would help to deliver that aim?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee

I am a supporter of the Bill, but I am in the words of the hon. Member for Slough not a particular enthusiast of the clause for a different reason. It is an example of incredible dreary drafting. It is late in the Bill to describe its objective. As I said on Tuesday, that should have happened at the beginning. The wording of the clause is rather humdrum. I do not know whether parliamentary counsel had an off day, but to set up such matters and say simply that the objective is to promote and safeguard quality and good practice, without setting a higher purpose, is a mistake.

There is stuff in the clause about accessibility and officialdom, but where in the clause is reference made to the higher purpose of the Bill? The Minister encouraged us this morning when he spoke of the Bill being part of the new settlement. Well, the new settlement does not have a poet. It is groundhog stuff. I should like to have seen in the clause some recognition of the wider public good that Ministers, to their credit, have said is the point of the new arrangements. It is not a matter simply of enhancing confidence in official statistics, checking quality as the clause describes, or checking up and spreading good practice. We need somewhere in the objectives of the board a reference to matters not simply being for the convenience of Ministers or for the benefit of Parliament, but “for the public good”.

I urge the Minister to consider those words, if it is possible to do so even at this late stage. I know that he asked the Committee to vote against my amendment to clause 1, a matter to which we cannot return, because that was a reference to other duties. I included in that definition of the purpose of the board the phrase “for the public good”.

The Minister clearly felt that the words were not appropriate on Tuesday. He certainly felt that they were not appropriate in that particular clause. However, if they are appropriate and he accepts the principle that this new arrangement is for the public good, those words ought to be incorporated into this clause. I would like to give him a further opportunity to say why they should not be.

John Healey rose—

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

In responding, I take it that the Minister will be writing to the right hon. Lady as to whether or not he is going to Slough and does not intend to put it on the face of the Bill?

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

Mr. Olner, I am grateful for that guidance. I thought for a moment that I might have overlooked an amendment tabled to the Bill. This is an important clause. In many ways, it is the cornerstoneof the Bill because it establishes the board’s core purposes, something already discussed under previous amendments.

May I say to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks that I will pass his comments, on the drafting being humdrum and dreary, to parliamentary counsel, but I shall make it clear that I do not agree with them. As Chairman of the Treasury Sub-Committee, the hon. Gentleman has—this is a serious point—studied this area and the provisions in the Bill probably more closely than many others. In view of the fact that he has returned to the question of higher purpose and brings particular authority to it, I will reflect further on his concern about the public good.

On the question raised by the hon. Member for Fareham, I hope that no one reads this legislation in a casual way. His puzzlement may come from the fact that national statistics are a sub-group of official statistics. That clarification may help in reading the cross-references that he—

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

In the interests of accuracy, with which much of this Bill is concerned, would it not be better for clause 7 to be precise about what the objectives relate to and how the clause interacts with subsequent clauses rather than contain some catch-all definition? I expected the Minister to say that national statistics were a sub-set of official statistics. However, I still think that we need to be much more precise about how clause 7 interacts with others in the Bill.

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

In future proceedings, I will bear it in mind that the hon. Gentleman knows the answers to the questions that he asks me before he asks them. There is a distinction because national statistics are quite a significant set—approximately 1,300. Under these proposals, they are sufficiently important to have a code of practice that the board will draw up, one by which they will be assessed and approved.

In many ways, that is the answer to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. It is important to concentrate the board’s attention, and its assessment and auditing function, on the statistics that are most important. The national statistics—which were established under our national framework for statistics  when we introduced them following reforms in 2000—give us an established list. They cover many of the most important statistics that we all use and depend on. I think that the hon. Lady accepts that proposing similar arrangements for official statistics is impractical given the wide scope that the Committee recognises would exist in the definition in clause 6.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough is not heretical but honest and right to observe that simply putting the production or management of national statistics on that basis by taking Ministers out of the current set of responsibilities will not automatically restore trust in official statistics. It will not. In many ways, that will depend on two things. Its operation and the authority with which the board establishes itself will be important, but in the end, those who produce statistics build up authority and trust by being consistent, ensuring good quality and meeting user needs. That is why I have been at pains to stress that the quality of statistics, as much as their integrity and credibility, is an underlying aim of the proposed reforms.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough has been tireless in drawing the particular concerns of Slough to the attention of officials and Ministers. She has pursued them with great determination and energy and argued the case sharply. If she would like to discuss them directly with me and the lead officials concerned and to bring experts from Slough to join her, I will by all means be happy to meet her, particularly if it means that we shall not have any Slough amendments to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.