Clause 10

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 23rd January 2007.

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Code of Practice for National Statistics

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee 10:30 am, 23rd January 2007

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 10, page 5, line 15, at end insert—

‘(3B) The Code shall include rules and principles relating to the release of official statistics, including—

(a) the location from which the release shall be made;

(b) the person or persons responsible for issuing the release; and

(c) the period of time before which department or ministerial comment is not to be permitted.’.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 92, in clause 10, page 5, line 15, at end insert—

‘(4) The Code shall include rules and principles relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics.

(5) The Board may, for the purposes of the Code, lay down rules and principles relating to the release of official statistics including specifying, inter alia—

(a) the location from which the release shall be made;

(b) the persons responsible for issuing the release; and

(c) a period, following release, during which time no departmental or ministerial comment is permitted in relation to the release.’.

No. 85, in clause 11, page 6, line 9, at end insert—

‘(9) The Board may, for the purposes of the Code, lay down rules and principles relating to the release of official statistics including, inter alia—

(a) the location from which the release shall be made;

(b) the persons responsible for issuing the release; and

(c) the time period before which departmental and ministerial comment is not permitted.’.

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

Good morning, Sir John, and welcome back to the Committee.

I emphasise that amendment No. 20 deals with the release of official statistics, not their pre-release. It is about run-of-the-mill statistics, not national statistics.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that introduction, as we will come to pre-release statistics in clause 11.

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

Thank you, Sir John. The rules would apply to people issuing statistics and a Minister commenting on the statistics and it is the view of those  in the statistical community outside this House thatthe rules need to be codified and clarified. This amendment and amendment No. 85 have the support of the Society of Business Economists.

The rules and principles are matters for the board to decide in detail, but we are perfectly entitled to suggest in the Bill at least some of the areas that the board should include when it decides that detail. By tabling the amendment, I am simply suggesting some of the matters that should be included. It is unlike the Minister’s drafting of clause 8, which prescribed exactly, and only, what the board’s areas of concern should be. The amendment states only that among the things that it must decide in detail it would be useful to include the location of the release, the issuer of the release and the time period for commentary on it. I shall consider each of those in turn.

Location is fairly obvious. Most official statistics will be released by the Departments and some will be released by the board, but it should be for the board to decide the location of the release.

As for the manner of the release, the Treasury Committee was concerned about that point. Paragraph 145 of the report states:

“Finally, in the interests of improving public confidence in official statistics, we recommend that the independent statistics office release alongside National Statistics its own considered and non-partisan interpretation.”

In other words, it would not simply be left to the Minister, his advisers or his press officers; therewould be an independent commentary from the new independent board itself. That is extremely important.

It is also important that there would then be an interval before politicians—the Minister, his advisers or the press officers—get involved, so that for a period of perhaps two or three hours the public could see the virgin statistics presented with an independent, non-partisan commentary alongside them. It would later be open to the Department, the Minister or his advisers, to add any top-spin if they wanted to do so. The board must decide on those three important matters when it draws up its code. The amendment does not tell the board precisely how to do that; it merely states that these are three matters at least which the code oughtto cover.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

I wish to speak in support of this amendment and also amendment No. 85, which is part of the same group, under the name of myself and my hon. Friend. It is a little confusing, as my amendment relates to clause 11 but it is subsumed within the group because issues of release and pre-release do come together when we are considering where the authority lies.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. We are aware of that and, of course, grouping amendment No. 92 here also deals with both release and pre-release. We thought it might be simpler for hon. Members to confine this present area of debate to release and then deal with the pre-release issues when we come to clause 11, which specifically deals with pre-release. I hope that that is helpful.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

Yes, indeed, it is very helpful. Thank you. The central point which unifies the debates about release and pre-release is where the authority should lie for setting the rules. The point that we are trying to make in our amendment—the hon. Member for Sevenoaks made precisely the same point—is that the rules governing both release and pre-release should be set by the board in the interests of statistical integrity. It is the details of those processes that determine the integrity of the system. They should not be set by the Minister operating through secondary legislation. That is the essential point about this.

I simply want to reiterate what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks has just said. The rules regarding release cover several different aspects, one of the most important of which is location. There is a very strong view in the statistical community that the rules governing location should provide for a split between the two functions of announcing the results of statistical work and commenting on them. The best way of preserving that distinction in the release process is physically to separate them. In order to preserve the integrity of the process, it should be the board, rather than Ministers directly acting through regulation, which determines how that is done.

It is not simply a question of getting it right in relation to location, the number of people, or the timing, but also of embedding in legislation a clear mandate for the board to set the rules under which release as well as pre-release takes place.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I, too, would like to speak in support of amendment No. 92 and amendment No. 20, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, which is more or less completely included in amendment No. 92.

Following the guidance of the Chairman, I will not address pre-release, although amendment No. 92 does contain a very important provision that pre-release should be a matter for the board, which I will come to in the next set of amendments. It is valuable to have an opportunity to discuss release practices separately from the rather higher- profile and more controversial issue of pre-release. It tends to be overshadowed by pre-release as an issue, but actually it is probably as important if not more important in getting the structure of the Bill right. The approach taken by the Chairman is very useful for the Committee as it considers important issues in the Bill.

Not only are release rules important in relation to the trust that we are trying to rebuild with this Bill but clear and well-enforced rules on release of statistics are an essential part of a strategy for economic stability. The release of key economic indicators, such as the inflation or unemployment rates, can have dramatic effects on financial markets. Providing for orderly and controlled release of such figures is vital to prevent unnecessary market volatility. If we are to retain a flourishing City of London, it is vital that rules on release of statistics are properly enforced and complied with.

The Minister’s announcement on Second Reading that there would be a move to a single hub for the release of statistics was welcome. I understand that that approach has already been adopted successfully in  Wales. I acknowledge that the Minister has moved on a number of issues during the consultation, and this further response to the concerns raised by the statistical community is welcome. However, I look forward to hearing further details about his plans, and I have a number of questions for him.

Done right, I think that the idea of a central statistical hub could do much to mitigate what the Royal Statistical Society described as

“an impossible tension at the heart of the release process”.

Opposition Members have already adverted to some of those problems. Political control over the release of statistics is responsible for some of the most significant spin problems that the Bill should be tackling. We believe that the perception, and very often the reality, of the spin placed on figures by Ministers at the time of release is a significant factor in undermining public trust in official figures.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Will the hon. Lady give a couple of examples?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I was going to come on to one, but briefly, I was concerned about the decision of the Department for Education and Skills to issue GCSE figures, which were good, on the same day as keystage 1 and 2 figures, which were poor. The Statistics Commission concluded that policy advisers had put pressure on the statisticians to release the figures on the same day in order to divert attention from the poor ones.

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

I recognise her concerns, although from my experience a lot of this seems to be made up by the media. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is equal concern about the way in which figures are picked up by the media? Very often, they are misinterpreted because not enough information is provided about the context of the figures.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There is concern about the way in which the media deal with figures and statistics. That is certainly true. But political interference is the greater concern, and the Bill should focus on that.

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

Does the hon. Lady agree that the media regularly whip up concerns, often in collusion with Opposition parties, and that the Bill needs to provide clinical precision on the way in which figures are dealt with in order to remove those concerns as well as those that she is expressing about Government interference?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I do not agree that there is a problem with the press whipping up concern about political interference in statistics. For example, on the problem with the GCSE results, it was not tabloid journalists who intervened or expressed concerns but the Statistics Commission—the very body set up by the Government to deal with such problems.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

The hon. Lady gave one example, not two. However, I caution her. These matters are delicate, as she pointed out. Had those statistics been released separately, allegations might well have been made in the press that the Government were sitting on poor key stage 1 and 2 statistics.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point—we do not want the Government sitting on figures for a sustained period. The commission recommended that there be a set date every year for the release of particular statistics in order to deal with his concerns and to ensure that statistics were released in an orderly fashion and that the public could look at them individually, rather than having the news on some displaced by the news on others.

The problem is that the first person to issue the news and analysis of a certain set of statistics has significant power to influence how the figures are understood. If the reforms in the Bill are to be successful, they will have to put in place measures to prevent that power from being abused for political ends. The Opposition believe that that can be achieved only if we allow the board to set the rules on how Government statistics are released to the public. We have received many representations from organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society and the Society of Business Economists on the importance of that approach. For the RSS and its president, Tim Holt, it is one of the most important components of a successful reform of statistical services.

The British Society for Population Studies has expressed the concern:

“Ministers continue to decide what National Statistics will cover, decide who will have access to National Statistics before their release...and then release those statistics through their departmental Press Offices, often accompanied by their own press releases. This has been a key reason why the description of roles set out in the Framework has not achieved the desired improvements in public confidence.”

They are referring there, of course, to the 2000 framework.

Some of the difficulties that can arise have been illustrated by the reference to the problems regarding the publication of GCSE results. Essentially, positive GCSE figures were deliberately released on the same day as poor key stage 1 and 2 results, which showed a decline in reading standards, in order to distract attention from those poor results. In the view of the Statistics Commission, there was concern that policy advisers had deliberately intervened to bring the release days together, precisely to distract attention from the bad news.

Leaving aside cases such as that, where there seems to have been deliberate political manipulation, even in cases where those who are issuing the release try to be impartial, there is a tension when they are responsible for both explaining what the numbers mean and justifying the policy and performance of their Department. A key problem that has been brought to my attention is that it is not always the departmental statisticians who are in charge of the content of the release and the release process—often it is the policy advisers who take control. Bill McLennan put that problem as follows:

“The reality of statistical life outside the ONS...is that with all statistical releases from...departments, statisticians do play a part, but so do bureaucrats, economists, ministerial advisers and even ministers. In general, it is not the statisticians who decide what is released, when it is released or how it is released, although they may give some advice. The bottom line is that the final decisions lie with the Minister. In fact, all national statistics that are not released by the ONS are ministerial releases. I’d be very surprised that when push comes to shove if political expediency doesn’t always take precedence over objectivity”.

Now, Mr. McLennan had a very cynical view of how politicians operate, but it is worth emphasising that such a state of affairs contributes to a lack of trust in the process.

It is also worth recognising that we have a problem that seems to relate to departmental statistics and not really to the Office for National Statistics. As I understand it, there are strict procedures for the release of ONS statistics, particularly in relation to sensitive economic matters. There is an argument for extending the ONS model and procedures to the release of other important statistics from Departments.

I have some questions for the Minister. The most important of all is this: will the board have the authority to set the rules on how national statistics are released? The views of the Minister on pre-release are clear—he does not believe that the board should set those rules—but does he accept that other rules relating to release should be set by the board? Also, would he have any objection to the code of conduct covering release practices, and does he envisage it doing so?

Regarding his proposal for a new statistical hub for the centralised release of official statistics away from Departments, who will manage that new central press office? Will it be the board, and will the cost of managing it come out of the board’s budget? Will this central hub cover only national statistics, or will the board have the choice of including other official statistics and the power to require that they are also released through the central statistical hub? Will any statistics other than national statistics be released through that central hub?

It is important, as hon. Friends have said, that the new hub is physically separate from the Departments to try to mitigate some of the problems that we have heard about. That separation seems to be more or less implied by the Minister’s statement on Second Reading, but perhaps he could confirm that. Does he envisage the hub being located on ONS premises? Does the closure of the London headquarters of the ONS have any impact on that? Those operational questions may be too detailed, but if the Minister can give us an indication of how he sees the system operating, that would be of some reassurance to the statistical community.

A key issue is who will be in charge of issuing the release. Will it be the statisticians in the ONS or will those who prepared the statistics in the individual Departments come to the new central hub to issue the release? Will policy advisers take part in preparing and issuing the release or will the board be able to determine who is involved? Again, if the board wereto have control over the process, that would do much to mitigate the concerns that we have heard about spin.

Will the board be able to set rules to prevent ministerial comment for a certain period after the release, as advocated in the amendments? If the board  can produce its own interpretation of the numbers before the Department gives its justification for the policies that underlie them, that could contribute significantly to securing the impartiality and integrity of Government statistics. Even a fairly short period would do much to separate the analysis and presentation of what the numbers mean from the ministerial justification for the policy. That would do much to restore the trust in statistics that the Government seek to achieve through their reforms.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree 10:45 am, 23rd January 2007

It was my intention to address amendment No. 92 to clause 10(4), but with your indulgence, Sir John, I shall address the issue of pre-release, as per your guidance, in the debate that follows.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

That is most helpful. Amendment No. 92 relates to clause 10, but also to the issue of pre-release, which arises in another clause. I did not want to prevent debate on the second aspect of the amendment, but it is perfectly appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to deal with it in the debate on clause 11.

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

May I welcome you back to the Chair,Sir John, and hon. Members back to the Committee? This group of amendments deals with release arrangements and, as you helpfully said in your guidance, with pre-release. That is also dealt with in the next group of amendments, which relate to clause 11.

I turn first to the subject of release practices. Under clause 10, the board already has the ability to prepare, adopt and publish a code of practice. That code may well include guidance on all aspects of release practices, except pre-release access, for which clause 11 proposes special arrangements, and we shall discuss those in due course.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet recognises the importance of the orderly release of statistical data to financial markets and the City of London, and that is why the current code covers the handling of release practices. That should lead her, as it does me, fully to expect the board to include similar rules and guidance on release practices in the new code. I hope that that clear statement is sufficient to reassure the hon. Member for Twickenham, too.

It is precisely to separate policy commentary from statistical releases and to remove the perception of political interference in releases that the Government are committed to the principle of a central publications hub. I therefore suggest that amendments Nos. 85 and 20 are unnecessary. Nothing in the Bill prevents the board from laying down principles and guidance relating to the location of releases, the persons responsible for issuing releases or the timing of releases; indeed, as I said, I would expect it to do so.

On the matter of the location and the person responsible for issuing statistical releases, the principle of the hub is important, as I outlined on Second Reading. The hon. Lady asked me a series of detailed operational questions, and we are continuing to work on the new arrangements. I will report to the House when I can appropriately. We will examine the questions she posed this afternoon.

An additional feature when considering the principle of setting up a central publications hub is how to accommodate the particular circumstances of the devolved Administrations. The hon. Lady mentioned the arrangements in Wales. The devolved Administrations will retain responsibility for wholly devolved statistics. However, when I am in a position to confirm arrangements for such a central publications hub and when it will become operational, I hope that some of the concerns expressed in the amendments today and by commentators can be settled.

More generally, as I have already argued on earlier amendments, the intention, which I believe that the Bill captures, is for the content of the statistics board’s code not to be prescribed in legislation but to be left to the determination of the independent statistics board, with the exception of pre-release and of data sharing, which we will come to presently. Specifically, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks argued in amendment No. 20 that the code should include rules and articles relating to the release of official statistics, including details about the location of release, the person responsible and the period of time after publication during which departmental or ministerial comment is not permitted. Quite apart from the amendment resulting in a farcical situation, where the press and Opposition would be free to comment on releases while the Department and the Ministers responsible for their preparation and for the policy were not, I cannot accept the amendment. I believe that the content of the code should be left tothe independent statistics board. As I said, I expect the board to follow through on many of the features of the current code of practice and to cover the concerns of the hon. Gentleman. The board will certainly have ample scope under the Bill to do so.

Amendment No. 85 makes a similar pitch to amendment No. 20. On the basis of my explanation of the Bill and of the Government commitment I gaveon Second Reading to the principle of a central publications hub, which should settle many of the concerns behind the amendments, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his amendment.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I should like to respond briefly before my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks returns to his amendment. I welcome the Minister’s statement that the new code will be expected to cover release practices. I regret that exceptions still make the pre-release book, but we will come to that. I recognise that some of my questions blend into operational matters, on which the Minister can obviously not give a detailed response today, but not all do.

I would briefly like to put two key questions to the Minister again. Will the board call the shots on how the new central publications office is run? Will the board decide which statistics have to be released and which do not through the central publications hub? Will the central publications hub cover statistics outside the national statistics system or will it be confined just to national statistics? In closing, I would hope that the Committee will be prepared to vote on amendment No. 92.

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

The hon. Lady asked me again at least two direct questions. Let me give direct answers. The principle of the central publications hub, which the   Government are committed to setting up, would be to ensure that all national statistics were published through that hub. Secondly, I would expect the board to have ultimate responsibility for the operation of a central publications hub, although I am not in a position to confirm that because, as I have explained, we are still working on the details, many of which have yet to be determined. As I have explained, beyond national statistics, the board, through the code, is free and has the scope—indeed we have the code already—to set standards and procedures for the release of wider official statistics.

I hope that is clear, direct and, as far as I can give at this point, an answer to the hon. Lady’s questions. If the Opposition press the amendment, we will have to ask my hon. Friends to resist it.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee 11:00 am, 23rd January 2007

I am slightly disappointed by the Minister’s reply and I am a bit puzzled. He is arguing two things simultaneously. He is saying that the code can include all these various things and that, although it is up to the board, it will probably get around to doing them. At the same time, he has told the Committee that the principle of a central publications hub is important and that it is something that the Government is going to do. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot say these are matters for the board to get around to and that they probably will and then, on the other hand, say there is one really important thing that the Government are going to do. That is illogical.

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

Has the hon. Gentleman not just argued, and is not the amendment designed to ensure, that a central publications hub will be an essential feature of the architecture of the new system? If itis, I would have thought he would welcome our commitment, which is entirely consistent with a belief that the board should draw up independently the code of practice covering the range of matters set out in the Bill.

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

I hope that we are not misunderstanding each other. If the Minister is saying that the principle of a central publications hub is vital, I do not understand why he is not prepared to ensure that the code will include the things that I have discussed.

Obviously the Committee does not have the full details of how the central publications hub will operate, but we know two things. First, the Government are going to set it up, as the Minister explained. It will not be done by the board or the existing ONS. Secondly, the Minister conceded that it was likely that the new board would have responsibility for operating the hub. That is not quite the same as ownership. It is not the same as saying that the hub will belong to the board and that it will be totally responsible for it. So it looks as if the board will be managing the day-to-day operations of the central publications hub on behalf of the Government who have set it up.

I am still slightly puzzled as to why the Minister wants to reject the amendment. Perhaps we are simply debating the difference between “may” and “shall”. Given that this code is not enforceable, a weakness to which the Opposition have constantly drawn attention,  I think it is useful to put into statute the key areas that Parliament wants the code to cover. That is why I tabled amendment No. 20 and that is why I think it would be useful to have something along its lines in the Bill. However, having looked carefully at the drafting of amendment No. 92, I think that it would be preferable because it is slightly more comprehensive. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 92, in clause 10, page 5, line 15, at end insert—

‘(4) The Code shall include rules and principles relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics.

(5) The Board may, for the purposes of the Code, lay down rules and principles relating to the release of official statistics including specifying, inter alia—

(a) the location from which the release shall be made;

(b) the persons responsible for issuing the release; and

(c) a period, following release, during which time no departmental or ministerial comment is permitted in relation to the release.’.—[Mrs. Villiers.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division number 9 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 10

Aye: 8 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 Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Of course there is welcome agreement across the Committee that the code’s content should be a matter for the board. However, we are considering one or two things that relate to its content, and in order to strengthen the new code, we should learn lessons from the current non-statutory code.

The Statistics Commission has expressed concern that there are ambiguities in the current code which have made it difficult to enforce. We touched on that when we discussed my amendment to require authorities to look to the board for interpretation of the code, and I need not go over that again. However, according to the commission, the fact that much of the current code is non-prescriptive makes it difficult to make an independent judgment on compliance. It seems from its experience that the commission needs something shorter, simpler and more imperative in style.

It would be useful to know how the Minister thinks that the new code of practice will interact in this context with the civil service code. It is important that  efforts are made to ensure that the two can be reconciled and operate rationally alongside one another.

I re-emphasise that in drafting the code it is important for the board to look to the international treaties to which the UK is subject to learn lessons and to draw useful examples from the codes produced by the European Union and the United Nations.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for saying that the content of the code should be a matter for the board. That is why the provisions on the code are non-prescriptive, as she rightly observed.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Statistics Commission and its observations and reservations about aspects of the current code. She is right. The Statistics Commission is doing valuable work in preparation for the new system. It is developing a serious and substantive new code of practice and consulting a range of interests about it. When the statistics board is appointed and up and running it will find it useful to draw on that work.

We debated the code and the provisions of the code that the statistics board is likely to produce. I have confirmed that the board is likely to draw on, and will be aware of, relevant codes in the European Union and the United Nations. It will also take into account any interaction with the civil service code, as the hon. Lady suggests. On that basis, I hope that she is prepared to give a fair wind to the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.