Clause 8

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 18th January 2007.

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Monitoring and reporting of official statistics

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

I beg to move amendmentNo. 87, in clause 8, page 4, line 30, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

With this it will be convenientto discuss the following amendments: No. 18, in clause 8, page 4, line 33, at end insert—

‘(d) the funding and staffing resources allocated to the production of any official statistics,’.

No. 193, in clause 8, page 4, line 33, at end insert—

‘(d) the effective use of statistics to inform public policy,’.

No. 88, in clause 8, page 4, line 35, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

No. 99, in clause 8, page 4, line 35, at end insert—

‘(4) Where it considers it to be appropriate, the Board shall provide public comment on cases where it considers that official statistics have been incorrectly interpreted by ministers, departments or other civil servants.’.

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

The Minister has just said that he is keen to ensure that the board does not take on too much in its role in official statistics, but clause 8(1) says:

“The Board is to monitor the production and publication of official statistics.”

That seems to me like a responsibility that could in theory be quite weighty.

Amendment No. 87 would give the clause a better sense of balance. The explanatory notes say that subsection (1)

“requires the board to monitor the production and publication of official statistics. This role draws on the duties under the current framework for national statistics”.

Yet subsection (2) says that the board

“may report any concerns it has about—

(a) the quality of any official statistics,

(b) good practice in relation to any official statistics, or

(c) the comprehensiveness of any official statistics”.

The board is required to monitor statistics but not to report problems.

Furthermore, under subsection (3), the board is not required to publish any report that it undertakes. Amendment No. 87 highlights and seeks to redress that imbalance in the clause and make its weak language a bit stronger. We have been discussing restoring public confidence, but there is no scope for trust in the current proposals. The amendment is fairly straightforward, and I see no need to dwell on it.

I shall touch on amendments Nos. 18 and 193. We note that there are special funding arrangements outside the spending review process. It could be helpful to put them into the Bill in order to have the option to monitor such resources. Amendment No. 193, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, deals with issues in a similar vein to those raised throughout the debate. With those remarks, I look forward to the Minister’s response and his justification for the clause’s weak phrasing, particularly in subsections (2) and (3).

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

Without necessarily rejecting any of arguments that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne put forward, I wish to speak specifically to my amendment No. 18.

I fear that I must again criticise the drafting of the Bill, thus ensuring that I shall not be invited to parliamentary counsels’ summer drinks party, if they have such a thing. The problem with the clause, particularly subsection (2), is that it is exclusive. It lists the only things about which the board may have concerns. If we are to confine its role to that of commentator, warner, monitor or a softer version of a regulator, it is a mistake then to limit the areas about which it may express concerns. With my amendment, I seek to add an important category, of which there may well be others: the funding and staffing resources available.

The hon. Lady might have slightly misunderstood my amendment. I am not concerned here by the funding and staffing available to national statistics, although we are concerned about that elsewhere. Indeed, I welcome the arrangements that have been made to push that outside the three-year comprehensive spending review. Obviously, what is  important to the quality of statistics is the amount of funding and staffing resources devoted to them within each Department.

There are parallels to be drawn. The Treasury Committee, on which I have the honour of serving, recently took evidence from Mary Kagan, who is a senior official at the Treasury, as the Minister will know. One of her roles is to ensure that the finance function is properly discharged in other Departments, and she has been busily ensuring that we have more accountants and fully qualified financial officers in each Department. That role, for which the National Statistician had some responsibility in days gone by, is exactly the sort of role that I foresaw for the board: ensuring that that function is being properly exercised in each Department. I envisaged that if it had any concerns about budget cuts or a Department not giving priority to this area, it would be able to report them, but those are not matters about which it may be concerned under the clause.

It is a mistake to try to list and narrow down the areas about which the board may have concerns. We were told earlier that we should wait until the board has been set up and let it decide what it wants to decide, but with this clause the Minister invites Parliament to lay down the areas to which the board’s concern should be limited. That is a mistake.

The funding and staffing resources that are allocated to statistics in each Department is a primary area in which we want to ensure that the statistics board has a handle on what is happening. If it does not, it might not know why there is inconsistency or a problem in reporting a particular line of statistics. It needs to be able to go in and find out why. It may be that there are not enough statisticians in the Department or that the statistics division of the Department is not getting its fair share of the departmental budget allocation.

There is a strong case for rewriting subsection (2), or, if the Government are not prepared to do that, at least widening the categories about which the board may be concerned.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

I rise to speak to my amendmentNo. 193. I start from the position that the clause is helpful because it gives the board responsibility for monitoring and reporting on official statistics. Thereis no doubt that quality, good practice and comprehensiveness are key to the constant improvement of official statistics and their use. I draw attention to the words “and their use”.

I am pleased that there are two stages in the process: the board is expected first to comment to those who are responsible and may then publish its findings. That process will give bodies a chance to listen to what the board says and respond, and it therefore providesan opportunity for a dialogue about the quality of statistics.

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

Although the board is required to monitor, there is no requirement for it to report on that monitoring, or to publish it. That is the concern that has been expressed.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

No. The point is that the board may publish its findings or any report, and it may do so  after a dialogue with the organisation that produces the statistics. That may be productive and improve the statistics with an explanation of why they are being produced, and so on. In these days of greater transparency, one would expect the board generally to publish its findings, but not necessarily in advance of that dialogue. That is why the clause is constructive.

My amendment No. 193 addresses the issue of purpose—what the scrutiny is for—and answers that question: the board should report on concerns about whether statistics are being used properly “to inform public policy”. We can all think of examples of statistics being wrongly used, misunderstood or misinterpreted, not least by the media in search of a quick headline. The one killer factor seems to justify a headline, rather than asking what the statistics tell us about real life and what response is appropriate for public, non-governmental and private organisations to make to improve the situation and quality of life for people.

Misuse of statistics can be damaging, especially at local level. Those of us who have worked in inner-city areas will be used to one statistic being pulled out and used to cast aspersions on a whole area in a way that can be damaging to the local community. For those of us who believe passionately in an evidence-based approach to public policy, it is crucial to lift the quality of use of official statistics.

Misuse or lazy use of statistics often lets decision makers off the hook, because they say that the statistics were misinterpreted or not used properly, so they need not listen to the criticism. We need disciplined and hard-edged use of statistics to inform debate and to challenge decision makers at every level. It is also important for decision makers to use statistics as part of the process of priority setting and self-criticism. There are many good examples of that in central Government, local government and many other bodies, but it is not consistent across all organisations.

The purpose of my amendment is to make it clear that statistics are not just for academic purposes. It is all too possible to produce statistics that are interesting, but show what was happening 20 years ago, not what is happening now. As a local community worker, my interest has always been in the use of action research, so that the facts address the actions and decisions taken now. I hope that there will be that sense of urgency in the way the board pursues its activities. The amendment makes it clear that the statistics are not just for academic purposes or for looking back over long periods; they are for practical purposes and looking forward.

I therefore invite my hon. Friend to accept my amendment and to put in the Bill a power for the board to report any concerns about the use of statistics to the person responsible for them and, more widely, through a report in the public domain. I emphasise that “use” includes misuse or failure to use statistics in that context. I am happy to offer my hon. Friend an alternative—to tell us clearly and firmly that the board will indeed be able to act in that way because the words that I seek to put in the Bill are understood to be contained in the words in the clause about comprehensiveness and so on, and that, proportionate to the importance of the issue, he expects the board to do just that.

Again, I hope that what I have said will find favour with the Financial Secretary because my intention is to address the practicalities of how statistics are used at every level of the development of public policy and service delivery.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Armstrong, Minister of State (Cabinet)), Cabinet Office 2:45 pm, 18th January 2007

I wish to speak to amendment No. 193. Clearly, the relationship between public policy, policy making and statistics is important and we have rehearsed that argument well already. It is relevant not only to Departments and academics, as my right hon. Friend said, but to policy makers, including those at a local level. There are now a number of training programmes that seek to train local councillors and others about how to use statistics effectively. They aim to make them aware of the vast amount of information that is contained, particularly at small-area level, and how that can not only influence their policy making but be used to review the effectiveness of their policies and to plan ahead.

The Treasury Committee, on page 26 of its report, outlines various functions of the board. They include assuring itself that the statistical system takes account of the needs of all users. Presumably that means those involved in public policy making as well as other users. My question to the Minister is, how will that be assured? If it is recognised as a vital role for the board, should it not be included in clause 8, or clause 7(1) for that matter? I know that clause 32 deals with advisory committees and says that they should help the boards to address user needs, but as far as I can see that is not in the Bill. Perhaps it should be.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I want to address amendment No. 99, which builds partly on the contribution made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth when he talked about how statistics are used and the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks on the exclusivity of the list of areas that the board might comment upon in clause 8(2). We want to ensure through the amendment that the board feels that it has the opportunity, the power and the right to speak out on those occasions where it feels that official statistics have been incorrectly interpreted by Ministers, Departments or other civil servants.

When I considered the scope of the responsibilities of the Statistics Commission, I found that that was not explicitly covered, but it was a role that it performed. I want to demonstrate why it is important that the amendment be made by referring to some work that the commission undertook. A noted academic researcher, Professor Tymms, who is based in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Durham, looked at exam performance over time. He commented in a press article a couple of years ago that simply because the key stage 2 results had gone up, that did not mean that there had been an improvement in standards.

That comment was referred to the Statistics Commission, which went through a thorough process of consulting statistics users, and talking to academics and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It published a report in which it commented on how   statistics should be used and interpreted and the limitations that can be applied to statistics, as well as the caveats that should be disclosed alongside the publication of statistics so that they can be used properly. Paragraph 11 of that report states:

“We feel that public presentation of the key stage scores in statistical releases should include a clear statement about the uses to which the data may be put, and the limitations on it in respect of those uses. In that statement, it should be recognised that part of the rapid rise in test scores from 1995 to 2000 can be explained by factors other than a rise in standards.”

That criticism may not necessarily be directed at politicians, but it also said:

“Government departments have usually failed to mention any caveats about other possible reasons for rising test scores in their public comments. This may partly reflect a failure of communications on the part of the education research community.”

In a sense, there are examples already of how statistics, for various reasons, may be misinterpreted by Ministers, civil servants and people engaged in political debate. It is important that the board has the explicit opportunity to comment on the misuse of statistics. That provision is set out in amendment No. 99.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I support amendment No. 99 as well. It is attractive and offers the possibility of a mechanism that might restrain some of the looser or, on certain occasions, deliberately inaccurate representations of statistics. I shall speak briefly and go back to the general expenditure revenue Scotland caveats, which I described in considerable detail on Second Reading. Just to remind the Committee, the statistics that describe the deficit

“should therefore be used with some caution.”

The income tax figure was not based on a known or fixed taxpayer population. The VAT

“results should be treated with caution”.

The method used to determine landfill tax gives an

“underestimate of the total attributable to Scotland”.

Corporation tax

“is exceptionally difficult to estimate for Scotland, due to both conceptual difficulties and a lack of data. Therefore, the estimate...should be treated with extra caution.”

One of the principal conclusions is that the expenditure is wrong, yet even with all those caveats on errors in expenditure and in income, certain Ministers and politicians, mainly in Scotland, will take those raw data, aggregate them or put them alongside an equally flawed gross domestic product calculation that excludes some £22 billion in value from the Scottish sector of the North sea, which would be the GDP figure, and calculate a debt for Scotland of more than £11 billion, saying that there is an annual deficit of 12 per cent. of GDP. We cannot find a country in the world—not even the Democratic Republic of the Congo—with an annual deficit of such extent. None the less, those figures are used.

Amendment No. 99 offers some restraint, even if only to allow the board to reiterate the caveats that are already published in the commentary that runs alongside the data. That alone would be helpful. I anticipate that there might be one danger with the amendment: it may draw civil servants into the political arena, where they ought not to be. However, it suggests that the board does the work and offers protection for the statisticians.

Senior people involved in the production of such material do comment publicly. Dr. Andrew Goudie, the Scottish Executive’s chief economic adviser, went public this week to confirm what the husband and wife economic team, the Cuthberts, identified in the current Scottish Executive investigation of GERS, which is the underestimate of English identifiable spend by some £4.4 billion and a corresponding overestimate of spending in Scotland—the share of non-identifiable spend—of some £400 million. Dr. Goudie was able to do that only because he was a witness before a Committee.

With the protection of the board standing in the way of the economists and statisticians, I repeat that if amendment No. 99 allowed only the caveats that are already published in commentaries sitting alongside statistics, it would be very welcome indeed.

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

This has been a useful debate in respect of a number of points. I welcome the contributions from hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Fareham mentioned the Statistics Commission and cited some of its good work. In establishing the duty of the board under clause 8 to monitor the production and publication of official statistics and enabling it to report and publish its findings on the quality of good practice in relation to the comprehensiveness of official statistics, we drew on the similar responsibility currently placed on the non-statutory Statistics Commission.

The Bill is building on the work and approach established by the Statistics Commission by reflecting its functions and enhancing them by putting them into legislation, thereby entrenching the independence of those functions. The clause enhances them further by placing a statutory obligation on the board to monitor the production and publication of official statistics by the Government and their agencies.

That will provide the board with a very wide discretion to report to the person responsible for those statistics and to publish its concerns about any aspects of quality, good practice or comprehensiveness. However, we propose to leave it to the independent board to decide on the appropriate response when it has a concern, or a potential concern. We expect the board to bring its collective expertise and experience to bear on its judgments in each case. That will allow the board to select from a range of approaches within its discretion, depending on the relative importance, or the risk, attached to particular cases.

Ultimately, the Bill will allow some scope for informality in how the board might deal with a concern, or a potential concern. For example, in the case of a media report that the board believes is worthy of further exploratory inquiry or questioning, it is sensible to allow it the discretion to do that without requiring it necessarily to publish that fact because it constitutes a concern, which is what amendmentsNos. 87 and 88 would require it to do.

I say to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that the framing of the measure is not weak, but sensible. What she proposes is disproportionate; it would place an undue burden on the board to report and publish in all manner of situations, which may not be sensible or appropriate. We would not want the  board to have to publish a report every time it made an inquiry to the head of a profession in a Department on an issue of concern, or potential concern, that may have been raised with it. If that concern was properly and fully settled by the head of a profession in a Department, we would want the board to have the discretion to complete its function in response to such a situation and not be required to publish a report.

Nevertheless, the board can report; it can publish its concerns whenever it thinks that necessary. It can ensure that transparency is a key discipline and feature of the new system as a form of gaining credibility and authority, but it has the discretion under the clause to use appropriately and according to its own judgment whatever it feels is important. Surely that must be the right response, given that it is an independent board; it is well placed to judge for itself how best to fulfil its objectives. Parliament will also play an important role in commenting and questioning the board if it feels that the board is not fulfilling its obligations. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will not press her amendment.

Amendment No. 18 was tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. I hope he accepts from what I have already said that the drafting of clause 8 reflects the objectives that the Committee has agreed should stand part of the Bill under clause 7. Most importantly, it is not excluding, it is not limiting and it is very wide in scope. The broad range of powers that the board already has will enable it to report on funding and resources when they are relevant to the issues of comprehensiveness and good practice or the quality of statistics.

Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham were principally and refreshingly concerned about user needs. I hope to assure them. Their amendment seeks to permit the board to report on concerns about the effective use of statistics to inform public policy, but that is already permitted—indeed, it is expected of the board—as an aspect of good practice.

If the board considers that the statistical underpinning for a policy is inadequate, it could criticise the quality of its statistical base, including its coherence, relevance and comprehensiveness. If it considers that improper use has been made of statistics to support a particular policy, it may criticise the quality or relevance of the statistics, or any dubious practice. Ultimately, however, responsibility for the formulation of the policy itself lies with Ministers.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth 3:00 pm, 18th January 2007

My hon. Friend said that the formulation of policy would lie with Ministers. At local level, of course, it would lie with the bodies responsible. Presumably, that would be open to comment in the same way, would it not?

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

The board would be empowered and expected to report, and to publish its views, on anything connected with official statistics, as defined in the Bill.

I hope to reassure the hon. Members for Fareham and for Dundee, East. On amendment No. 99, the board is already empowered under clause 8. In other words, if the board judges that a comment by a Minister, a Department or a civil servant is not in keeping with good practice in relation to official statistics, it can report and publish its findings in that respect.

I hope that I have dealt with the concerns that lay behind the amendments. I hope that amendmentNo. 87 will not be pressed to a Division. I hope that the sponsors of the other amendments will consider not pressing them when we reach them.

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

I have listened carefully to the Financial Secretary’s response, and I am partly reassured. However, although he made much of the board’s independence, it is important in the interests of public confidence in national statistics that that is accompanied by openness and certainty. The board may have a responsibility to monitor official statistics, but there must surely be a commensurate responsibility to report.

Following on from the comments of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, informal negotiations might indeed take place, but the point at which the report must be published is not specified. If the clause is amended as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and I suggest, the report will be a matter of public record, so that there will be no shadow of doubt about the board’s independence. On that basis, I should like to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 7 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 8

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 88, in clause 8, page 4,line 35, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.—[Julia Goldsworthy.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 8 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 8

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 David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I have a quick question for the Financial Secretary. Under subsection (3), the board has the power to

“publish its findings or any report under this section.”

I should be grateful to him for confirmation that that subsection is not restricted to the provisions of subsection (2), which refers to the statistical concerns that the board may report.

No doubt, the vast majority of interest will be in what the board has to say about its concerns, but one could see the board producing a regular series of statistics about, for example, the comprehensiveness of waiting list statistics. It may not be concerned at a specific time, but it may wish to produce a series of reports. As I read subsection (3), it is not restrictive, but I should be grateful to the Financial Secretary for confirmation that the board can publish its findings or a report on any matter that relates to the production or publication of professional statistics, and not just when it has concerns.

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

I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. The provision in subsection (3) is not confined to the concerns laid out in subsection (2). When the board monitors the production and publication of official statistics, it will be able to publish its findings on aspects that range wider than simply the concerns set out in subsection (2).

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.