With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 22, in clause 11, page 5, line 19, leave out ‘appropriate authority’ and insert ‘Board’.
No. 82, in clause 11, page 5, line 22, leave out subsection (3).
No. 83, in clause 11, page 5, line 31, leave out ‘, or maximum period’.
No. 84, in clause 11, page 5, line 32, after ‘granted’, insert
‘up to a maximum of two hours before general release’.
No. 23, in clause 11, page 5, line 38, leave out subsection (6).
No. 43, in clause 11, page 5, line 38, leave out subsections (6) and (7).
No. 24, in clause 11, page 6, line 6, leave out ‘appropriate authority’ and insert ‘Board’.
No. 25, in clause 11, page 6, line 7, leave out from ‘consult’ to end of line and insert—
‘(a) the Treasury, except in a case under the provisions of paragraphs (b) to (d);
(b) the Scottish Ministers, in relation to official statistics that are wholly Scottish devolved statistics;
(c) the Welsh Ministers, in relation to official statistics that are wholly Welsh devolved statistics;
(d) the Department of Finance and Personnel for Northern Ireland, in relation to official statistics that are wholly Northern Ireland devolved statistics.’.
No. 26, in clause 16, page 7, line 34, after ‘publish’, insert ‘(1)’.
No. 27, in clause 16, page 7, line 36, at end insert
(2) a list of all persons granted pre-release access under the provisions of section 11.’.
No. 86, in clause 17, page 8, line 9, leave out subsection (4).
Under your expert guidance, Sir John, we come to the issue of pre-release. The thrust of amendment No. 21 and consequential amendments Nos. 22 to 25 is that, as has been stated so often, pre-release should be a matter for the board ratherthan for Ministers. I am not alone—it is almost universal—in my belief that the provisions on pre-release are the biggest single mistake in the entire Bill. The amendments give us an opportunity to put it right and put the independence of statistics beyond all doubt.
It will be for the Minister to explain why he believes Ministers should keep control over the arrangements for pre-release. The Government have adopted an extraordinary position: in essence, they are saying that Ministers should decide how Ministers should behave. I do not know whether you are a cricketer, Sir John, but that is like giving batsmen the ability to decide whether the leg before wicket rule should apply to them. It is wrong in principle and wrong in practice.
The practice of pre-release has grown to a large extent. When the Treasury Committee considered it, we rapidly came to the conclusion that it was far too extensive and involved too many people. Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 would oblige the board to publish a list of people granted pre-release access. At the moment, it is necessary to trawl various websites to establish exactly who is entitled to pre-release access to each statistical series. I would start the other way around: if pre-release is to exist at all, it ought to be a privilege. The board should therefore be obliged to maintain a register of persons entitled to it.
Who is entitled to pre-release access? It might interest you, Sir John, to know how extensive the practice is. To take relatively humdrum statistics such as the series on weekly deaths in England and Wales,14 named civil servants get two and a half days’ advance notice of how many people have died. Three of those 14 are in the Health Protection Agency. One might think that it is a little late to inform the HPA of deaths in the previous week.
A series of statistics of more obvious economic importance are those on the labour market. Of course, they were the statistics famously abused by the Prime Minister in his speech to the TUC annual congress this year—he leaked them two days before they were due to be released and then sent the Cabinet Secretary, of all people, to apologise. How many people would the Committee estimate have pre-release access to the labour market statistics? There are 18 people in six Departments who get more than two days’ notice of them and a further 22 in nine Departments who get pre-release access “through the press office”.
In other words, 40 named officials have two days’ advance notice of the likely unemployment figures. One might well ask, “Why?” The list of those entitled to that information of course includes important figures such as the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor. There might be a case for arguing that the Governor should have two days’ advance notice of the unemployment figures. However, the last two officials on the list of those 40 people are referred to as “Treasury official clearing brief” and “Treasury official preparing brief”. Do 40 people, including Treasury officials preparing a brief, really need two days’ notice of the unemployment statistics? I think not.
Let us turn to the consumer price index—the key index of inflation on which the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee has to base its judgment, and which was the cause of some excitement last week when inflation edged 3 per cent., which was very close to the target range. Some 12 people have advance access to the consumer price index, “through the press office”—11 in the Treasury have two days’ notice of the inflation figure and one hapless official in the Department of Trade and Industry gets one day’s notice. The Committee might be surprised to learn that a further 12 officials have access to the CPI, including a Mr. Gareth Jones from the States of Guernsey policy and research unit and a Ms Hayley Harris from Customs and Excise who gets the figures in advance only in February. All 12 officials seem to get differing amounts of notice.
That is a mess. It is an abuse, and it has spread far too widely. There is no justification for 12, 20 or 40 different officials having far more advance notice than everyone else of what the figures are going to be. Nobody in Parliament gets that degree of notice, so we need to clean things up. I have not argued, and neither did the Treasury Committee in its report, that there is no case whatever for pre-release. There might well be a case for some very senior officers of the state, such as the Governor of the Bank of England or the Chancellor, having access to information as early as it is available—a day or two before publication. However, 40 people should certainly not have two days’ advance notice, and certainly not Treasury officials in charge of briefing.
When the Treasury Committee looked at that matter, it concluded that pre-release was far too extensive and needed to be cut back. Our recommendation was three hours. It is worth pointing out that the Committeewas Labour-dominated and included six former Ministers—people who had experience of pre-release and who saw no case for the extension. Furthermore, the Minister himself accepted that the practice had got out of hand. He gave evidence to the Committee on14 June and said, in answer to question 287:
“First of all, I would certainly accept that the pre-release arrangements contribute to the perception of interference in statistics.”
To be fair to him, he went on to argue that there had been very few proven cases of abuse, but then said:
“Nevertheless, there is a perception there.”
If there is a perception that the independence of statistics is threatened by the extent of the pre-release arrangements, we should take the first opportunity in the Bill to put the independence of statistics beyond all doubt. I cannot understand the point of setting up a new independent board but then saying that only Ministers should continue to be allowed to regulate the arrangements that apply to themselves, albeit with the approval of Parliament, and that that is the one matter with which the board should not deal. That is wrong in practice, as I think I have demonstrated, and certainly wrong in principle.
I wish to speak in support of the amendment. Other amendments in the group relate to the issue—including those that stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne—particularly amendment No. 82, which would specify a time period for pre-release, in line with what we believe to be good international practice. Amendments Nos. 43 and 86 give effect to the proposal that we should clearly specify a non-political process for the determination of pre-release.
I wish to focus on the time period and on why it is seriously bad practice for the UK to have long periods of pre-release. There are several reasons for that, the first of which is that the longer the period of pre-release, the greater the opportunity for political mischief, through spinning and interpreting the data. I mean “political” in the broadest sense—I am not talking just about Ministers, but about advisers and press officers. That could also include civil servants, who might not act in a political capacity but who might feel that a set of statistics puts their Department in a particularly bad or good light, and will want to emphasise certain elements, given the opportunity to do so. We have seen many examples of that happening with social statistics.
Secondly, even if the practice that I have described was exaggerated—it is possible that we exaggerate what goes on—there is none the less the issue of public perception. We discussed at considerable length on Second Reading the figures showing poor public perception of Government statistics. The pre-release process has helped to forge those negative political perceptions.
A third reason is that the longer the figures are out there, the greater the likelihood that they will be leaked inadvertently, with damaging consequences. There have been some examples of that; for instance, in 2003 somebody leaked the retail sales statistics. They are a key market-moving indicator, but they got out in a way that they should not have.
The Government’s argument is that there is a case for pre-release, which we concede in the amendment. We do not take the extreme fundamentalist view that there should not be pre-release, although some countries do take that hard line. I understand that the Nordic countries have no pre-release at all. Norway, Finland and Denmark have no pre-release, and neither does Austria. However, we concede the principle thatthere is a justification for pre-release under certain circumstances, which are quite clear. There are some important economic statistics that move markets, whether it be the bond market or foreign exchange markets. The shift in numbers might be such that action by Government is required to deal with it. If the Government have not been given at least some opportunity to take action, market movement will be considerably influenced by the release. There is therefore a need for a certain time period, in order to prepare action. Many developed countries accept that principle, which is also accepted in the amendment.
However, it is worth reviewing what most other developed countries actually do, which is quite different and much less permissive than what occurs in our country. I shall just go through some of the key examples. Australia, for example, has a three-hour period, which is a little more generous than this amendment allows for, but of the same order of magnitude; I think that the Select Committee suggested a figure of three hours. Crucially, that three-hour pre-release provision applies to only a handful of key economic statistics—it does not apply at all to social data. France has a period of only one hour, which is again restricted to key economic data, unemployment, trade and inflation figures. Ireland gives a period of one hour for the most important economic statistics and two hours for national accounts, with no pre-release for anything else.
One would have thought that the United States was at the frontier of good practice because its statistics affect the world, not just the US. As I understand American practice, the President has pre-release access of only 30 minutes for key economic statistics. We have not got around to this topic at all in the Bill, but the Americans hve not only release and pre-release rules, but post-release rules. Civil servants are not allowed to comment on the data for at least an hour after they have been released. The American practice is very severe, disciplined and restrictive in terms of both the amount of pre-releases allowed and the statistics that are pre-released. If we are to adopt good international practice, we should be aspiring to something much closer to the American model.
Finally, by way of contrast, I cite Canada because its position is much closer to what the Government aspire to. The Canadians allow 15 hours for Ministers and18 hours for civil servants. Essentially, they pre-release data at the end of the afternoon, the day before they are due to be published. Ministers and civil servants get a night to reflect on the data and react to it, but crucially again, that is allowed for only a handful of key economic statistics, and does not apply to social data.
We can have an abstract argument about the pros and cons of pre-releasing data, but the question the Government have to answer is why British practice, even as modified under the Bill, is so far out of line with that in the rest of the developed world, and in a way that perpetuates either bad practice or the public perception of it. This is a key clause in the Bill and I hope that the Minister is listening to the criticisms that are coming from those on the Opposition Benches and the profession, and I hope that he will respond sympathetically to the amendments.
The Opposition believe that it would significantly strengthen the proposed reforms if the board were given the power to decide the rules on ministerial pre-release access to statistical information prior to publication. That is why we tabled amendment No. 92, which the Committee just had the opportunity to vote on, to put pre-release into the code of practice. That is also why we support amendment No. 21 and why we will be voting against clause 11 when we get the opportunity to do so.
If the Government genuinely wish to devolve power over statistics, as they claim, and make a genuine step towards “modern economic governance”, they should not exclude pre-release rules from the devolution proposed. In theory, under the logic of the scheme expected in the Bill, one would expect pre-release rules, at least in relation to national statistics, to be included in the code of practice and thus to be determined by the new reformed structures that the Bill will set up.
The Government’s decision to put pre-release into legislation, by making a specific exception to the principle that the board decides how national statistics are dealt with, significantly undermines the credibility of the reforms they propose. It seems to us that there is nothing inherent in pre-release rules that makes them qualitatively different from other rules governing the treatment of statistics. Not only should the board have the power to decide the rules, but I hope that it would choose to exercise that power to restrict the current scope of pre-release access. Like many others who expressed a view during the consultation process, we believe that the time has come to tighten the rules on pre-release.
Pre-release should be restricted by limiting the range of statistics to which it applies, reducing the number of people who are granted access and by shortening of the period of access.
As a provisional view, I believe that fundamentally the board should decide. There is a case, however, for allowing Ministers four hours advance notice of data that are not market-sensitive. That is a little more than the Treasury Committee suggested, but it is still a significant tightening of the rules. In the case of market-sensitive data, and drawing on the conclusions of the Treasury Committee, I think that there is a case for allowing Ministers access after the markets close on the day before release at 9.30 the next morning. I stress that those are provisional views. The board should decide: taking into account all the relevant factors and bringing its expertise to bear, it should make an impartial decision. There is a case for pre-release access, but it should be more restricted than under the current rules. Retaining limited pre-release access for Ministers could be useful in relation to the points made by the Minister on Second Reading, in providing for emergency measures that need to be taken in relation to sensitive statistics and allowing Ministers to prepare a response to them.
That is my provisional view of the minimum justifiable duration of pre-release access. I am prepared to let the board decide, as it is more likely than the Minister or I to get the answer right. We both havean interest in the outcome—neither of us is truly disinterested. The board, on the other hand, will have to consider only the public interest and is therefore most likely to be impartial and objective and to be seen as such. The thrust of the reforms presumes that the board making the decision is more likely to inspire trust in the integrity of that decision than if it were made by Ministers, as the Financial Secretary proposes. Let us take the decisions out of the hands of the politicians. We believe that we can trust the board to get the decision right. The premise that we can trust the board to make sensible and objective decisions surely underlies the thrust of the reforms.
I repeat the appeal that I made to the Minister on Second Reading to publish the draft secondary legislation that he intends to propose under the clause. Only then can the Committee have an informed debate about the consequences of clause 11 and the regime that the Government envisage. When does the Minister plan to publish the secondary legislation? Will he propose any changes apart from the reduction of the access period to 40.5 hours to align the pre-release access period for market-sensitive and non-market-sensitive statistics? That was the change that he announced on Second Reading. Apart from that change, are the current rules to be replicated? Will pre-release access apply to the same number of people? If not, what restrictions does the Minister envisage imposing? Will pre-release access apply to the same statistics as it does now? If not, what restrictions does the Minister propose? Will any distinction be made in the pre-release rules between official and national statistics? Will the National Statistician or the board have any discretion to extend early access in particular cases in which they feel there is a pressing need to do so? Will the procedures for investigating pre-release access be strengthened, given that the Statistics Commission has expressed concern that they are insufficiently robust?
That the time for reform has come is clearly illustrated by the responses to the consultation, of which virtually every one expressed dissatisfaction with the present rules. The Minister’s announcement of a reduction in the access period for non-market- sensitive data, from five days to 40.5 hours, is welcome, but it does not go far enough to allay the real concern of the statistical community and the general public about pre-release access, about which my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have already spoken.
The UK’s rules stand out as being out of line with best practice and International Monetary Fund standards. As we have heard, many countries do not allow pre-release access at all and in those that do, the longest period is considerably shorter than it is here. Tim Holt, the former head of the Government statistical service, makes a compelling point when he says that the UK rules
“give pre-release access to more people, for a longer period and for a much wider range of statistics than in any other...country”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks highlighted the lengthy list of people to whom pre-release access is given. When I sent to Tim Holt a few examples of the people listed by Departments as having pre-release access, he told me that he was dismayed by the number of people who have been granted access since the Government’s framework for statistics in 2000 explicitly gave Ministers authority over pre-release.
The fact that Ministers get figures days in advance of the public and their political opponents fuels the understandable concern that that time will be used to prepare the ground and spin figures. The Prime Minister’s leak of unemployment figures to the TUC was a clear and blatant breach of the rules, which moved the markets. Still worse, the Prime Minister put a misleading spin on the figures. He said:
“Tomorrow I think we shall see—for the first time in some months—a fall again in unemployment which will be very welcome indeed”.
In fact, the International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment increased that month, although there was a modest fall in the claimant count. Thatis an example of a leak that was spun for political reasons.
On Second Reading, the Minister pointed out that the cases listed by the Statistics Commission in which figures have been leaked in that blatant manner prior to publication are limited and sometimes the leak was inadvertent. More prevalent is the use of pre-release access to give Ministers an advantage in preparing the ground for bad news. Professor Roger Jowell of City University highlighted the fact that
“the period during which ministers have sole access to new statistics is a great deal longer” in the UK than elsewhere. He concluded:
“This allows bad news to be discounted in advance and generally encourages leaks.”
The discounting of bad news identified by Professor Jowell is the more prevalent problem. Simon Briscoe, statistics editor of the Financial Times, told the Treasury Committee:
“there is an awful lot of softening up that goes on.”
To illustrate that he talked about a story on the importance of animal testing in medical research that was placed in the media shortly before the Government were due to publish statistics on the rising levels of animal testing, so a controversial statistic was softened up in advance by a story that might reduce the public’s concern about the statistics.
“I can tell you from personal experience that pre-release is constantly used by the government to divert the media from numbers which make for uncomfortable reading. It allows pre-emptive spin, with government departments sometimes putting out data designed to contradict evidence about to be revealed by the industrious, independent boffins at the ONS.”
We should remember that even a few cases in which inside information on the content of upcoming statistical releases is used to massage the news agenda can significantly undermine confidence in official statistics. Len Cook said of the problem:
“In my time as National Statistician, I was never made aware of any statistics that were falsified, but I believe that the prevalence of practices by Ministers to influence the context of release for politically sensitive statistics has led to some believing that even the worst practices could occur.”
The laxness of the rules on pre-release significantly contribute to undermining trust.
Many have called for a restriction on ministerial access to pre-release, including the Statistics Commission. Professor David Rhind said on its behalf:
“The Commission starts from the position that Ministers and departments must accept the principle that no political capital should be made from statistics before they are in the public domain and that the opportunity to do so should be severely restricted.”
“We do recognise that narrowing, or even eliminating, existing arrangements for Ministerial pre-release access might have significant benefits on the public’s perception of the integrity of the statistical process, which might outweigh the gains in policy formulation.”
In the light of the concerns that have been expressed, I appeal to the Minister to accept that if his reform is to restore trust in statistics, it should embrace fully the controversial issue of pre-release. If we can trust the board to make decisions on how other statistical matters are determined, we can surely trust it to make decisions on an issue that has such a significant impact on public trust in official statistics and on Ministers’ ability to spin them for their own political purposes.
I rise to defend the principle of pre-release access to statistics for Ministers. It is sadly cynical to claim that the privilege automatically leads to abuse as Opposition Members have tried to make us believe. It is right, for example, that the independent Phillis review of Government communications considered the practice and questioned the 40.5 hours advance notice for Ministers. That is an arbitrary figure, and although I agree with the hon. Lady that the time can be changed according to circumstances, to cut it to four hours would surely prevent Ministers from giving the statistics any serious treatment—[Laughter.] The Phillis review did not question the principle.
Ministers in other countries manage with much shorter periods. Is that not an argument for saying that Ministers could cope with a four-hour period for non-market-sensitive statistics?
Perhaps the hon. Lady will be able to inform me whether performance in those other countries is effective, because I would question that.
It is also true that the Phillis review found no evidence that the right has been abused.
I shall come to that later in my speech.
Regardless of that lack of evidence, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has implied that an overzealous Government regularly use statistics for unethical over-hyping. I think that that is also what the hon. Member for Braintree is referring to. However, all the evidence shows that abuses have been extremely rare—I acknowledge that they have happened—and that if they have happened, they have been minor and the Government have apologised where necessary.
The general principle of pre-release access needs to be kept. Ministers are publicly accountable. We have talked about market-sensitive statistics. Let us imagine a time—I hope it is far away—when an official economic statistic sparks an extreme reaction by the financial markets. We know that that has happened in the past, albeit not recently. That would have disastrous consequences for mortgage lenders, pension savers and shareholders. We simply cannot leave the Government unprepared or leave them only four hours to prepare and expect Ministers to come up with a reasonable policy reply. How the statistics are used by the media is a side issue compared to the need for the Government to have the information on how to govern effectively.
Can the hon. Lady explain what is particular about the ability or intelligence of her Ministers that means that they cannot deal with the four-hour parameter when Ministers in most other countries seem to be able to deal with less time? Is it their intellectual shortcomings?
That is a rather cheap point, if I may say so. What I find difficult to understand is why the hon. Gentleman feels that giving Ministers sufficient warning to deal with something that might affect the livelihood of our business leaders is a mistake. To be honest, the media spin is less important than Minister’s ability to deal with problems as they arise. In the past, we have had situations where statistics have suddenly been presented that have had disastrous effects.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is important also that Ministers are able to deal with the correct statistics rather than the hype put out by the media.
On the point that my hon. Friend is developing about ministerial reaction in relation to market-sensitive information, would she agree that of the major industrialised countries the United Kingdom has been the most economically stable in recent years, as indicated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?
I entirely agree. It is in stark contrast with earlier years, when Ministers may not have had sufficient time to rescue the economy from statistics that, for them, were extremely unfortunate.
We can argue about the time frame, although to cut it from 40 hours to four would in fact pre-empt a decision by the board—the board that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet is so anxious should have the power to set a limit. Any time frame needs to be decided with common sense and should be subject to particular circumstances. For example, crime statistics are different from the retail prices index, which is different from figures about recycling.
I stated clearly that the board should decide. I was asked my opinion of the justifiable pre-release access rules, and I gave an opinion. It should be the board taking the decision.
I agree that the hon. Lady made that point; that is why I found is so surprising that she came up with a figure on the spur of the moment.
I agree with the Government that pre-release access is not dishonourable. It is a means to govern. It is necessary. I also agree that the exact time frame should be regulated by secondary legislation rather than by Opposition Front Benchers.
Clause 11 begins with two important provisions. The first is that
The second is that:
“The appropriate authority”— a rather vague phrase—
“may for the purposes of the Code by order provide for rules and principles relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that instructive information.
I have a number of difficulties with the deliberate exclusion of pre-release from the purview of the board’s code of practice. In many ways, it is the black hole at the centre of the Bill. We heard much about “perception” from the hon. Member for Twickenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. The Financial Secretary told the Select Committee inquiry that he
“would certainly accept that the pre-release arrangements contribute to the perception of interference in statistics.”
He then said that
“Part of the drive to legislate now to entrench the independence is to try to deal with some of the problems that are still there in perception.”
The problem is therefore simple. Does the omission of pre-release arrangements from the remit of the board’s code of practice harm the perception of independence? I believe that it does. If the Financial Secretary disagrees, let him give his reasons.
The greater problem is that pre-release has not simply been forgotten, but has been deliberately removed from the arrangements that are intended to guarantee independence. We have ended up with a Bill to entrench independence that does not entrench a significant perceived failing of independence. The Bill may actually make the problem worse because it could reasonably be thought that the Government have something to hide by dodging the bullet on pre-release. Delegating pre-release to the Treasury and the devolved Administrations puts it firmly out of sight and out of mind.
The Financial Secretary himself drew the Select Committee’s attention to the fact that pre-release is a widely accepted principle internationally, but when it comes to international practice there is little common ground, and the Government have admitted as much. What has happened to his commitment to the Committee to look at the details of current practice? The Government’s response to the Select Committee’s recommendations was uncommunicative, to say the least, with four promises of ongoing consideration and precious little else.
I want to probe further why this specific matter is reserved to the Treasury and the devolved Administrations when such a decision seems entirely contrary to the avowed principle of the Bill. Allowing Ministers’ pre-release access to be controlled by ministerial fiat could not give a more effective shot in the arm to suspicions that there is Government interference in statistics. The situation is hardly helped by the requirement of an affirmative resolution procedure.
The perception of independence will not be boosted by reassuring the public that if Parliament does not approve of what the Treasury and the devolved Administrations are up to, we can just throw it out. Parliament has not managed to do that since 1969, when I was 11 years old. There is not much chance of the House getting fired up enough about statistics to choose that issue to break with that past habit.
I want the Government to clarify their position. On Second Reading, the Economic Secretary wound up the debate with a promise that the debate on pre-release
“will be held in the House when details of the regulations are published. They will then be debated in Committee under the affirmative resolution procedure.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 109.]
We may well be able to debate the regulations made under clause 62 in Committee, but we can only hope to accept them or reject them. If parliamentary scrutiny is required, the proper time for a debate on the precise scope of pre-release would be now, in this Committee, not in a hypothetical future Committee. It would be preferable if the whole issue were turned over to the independent board as part of the new code of practice.
Assuming for the moment that the House will not reject the Treasury’s proposed code outright, there is still no scope for it to be improved. It is therefore cold comfort for the Financial Secretary to argue that the pre-release code has “special status”. Does he believe that the rest of the code will be weaker than the previous codes concerning pre-release because they are merely backed but not prescribed by statute?
I am curious about how the Government intend to square the circle. Why did they go to the trouble of exempting pre-release from the code of practice? The Financial Secretary was clear on Second Reading that the pre-release arrangements would be vetted and reported on to the House by the board. He also reassured the House that the board’s general duties towards coverage, good practice and standards will extend to the oversight of ministerial compliance with the pre-release code. But if the board’s oversight of the ministerial pre-release code is so strong, why not go the whole hog and turn over control of pre-release arrangements to the board?
Conversely, if the argument is that the board cannot both propose and police a code of practice, there are implications not just for clause 11 or the previous clause but for the whole Bill. The double standards that have been set up between the board’s code of practice and the ministerial code on pre-release threaten to undermine the perception of independence. The amendments as proposed will therefore restore a crucial balance to the code of practice and to the Bill.
I have some short points to make onthe amendments proposed by the hon. Members for Sevenoaks and for Twickenham. The thrust of the amendments, as I understand it from the hon. Member of Sevenoaks, is to do with the time limit on pre-release access and with the number of people to whom information is pre-released, yet as far as I can see none of his amendments directly addresses either of those issues. They simply say, to put a gloss on them, that the board will decide. At least the hon. Member for Twickenham sets a two-hour limit—which may be a little tight—in his amendment No. 84.
I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I have some sympathy with the proposition that there should be a short time limit for pre-release access—much shorter than the 40.5 hours, which is now apparently to apply to market-sensitive and non-market-sensitive information. There seems to have been a convergence in that respect. The Government have shortened what they inherited in 1997 from the previous Government, but the limit is too long. Where I disagree with the official Opposition and favour the position advertised in amendment No. 84, proposed by the hon. Member for Twickenham, is on the proposals that the limit should be decided by the board. I think that that is a matter for Parliament. Certainly the time limit and possibly the number of people who have access—although that would be more difficult—should be framed in primary legislation, not decided by the board or approved by an affirmative resolution. The time limit should be a much shorter period than40.5 hours.
I ask my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to look again at pre-release. Both he and, on Second Reading, the Economic Secretary said that it would be reviewed in 12 months’ time. I hope that following that review the time limits will be shortened considerably and included in primary legislation, not left to secondary legislation or, certainly, to the board, as the amendments would have.
As previous speakers have said, we have here one of the most important and controversial elements of the Bill, although also, in some respects, the least complex. Broadly, the distinction between the Opposition and the Government is that we believe that the board should decide the rules on pre-release, but the Government believe that that should remain in the hands of Ministers. Given that within pretty much all other statistical areas and all other areas of the Bill such matters are left to the statistics board—which is the purpose of the Bill—the onus is very much on the Government to make the case that Ministers should retain control in what is, after all, an exception to the general rule. The case is not unique—we will be debating the retail prices index, when the Government can again make their case, although we have a specific argument to make in that respect. The onus is on the Government to explain why they should retain control in relation to pre-release.
Hon. Members should bear in mind public opinion within the statistical community. On Second Reading, when the Financial Secretary referred to the number of respondents in the consultation, I asked how many supported the Government approach. I did not get a specific answer, but I think that the Financial Secretary acknowledged that there was widespread concern about pre-release. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks and for Braintree referred to the evidence given to the Treasury Sub-Committee on 14 June by the Financial Secretary acknowledging the perception of difficulties.
On Second Reading on 8 January 2007, the Financial Secretary said of the consultation that
“many respondents strongly considered the arrangements for pre-release needed to be tightened and that arrangements for pre-release as they currently stand contributed to a lack of public trust in our statistics.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007;Vol. 455, c. 30.]
I entirely agree with those remarks. Given the opinions that my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet quoted, and the views expressed by many in the statistical community on the arrangements for pre-release as they will stand following the passing of the Bill—if it is passed in its current form—it would seem that the Government’s proposals will continue to contribute to a lack of public trust in our statistics.
Given that the onus is on the Government to make their case, I hope we will hear a number of examples from the Financial Secretary. He implied on Second Reading that he would provide examples of cases in which the Government have been able to make use of their pre-release access to statistics in order, not to spin a story, but to develop policy announcements—in other words, to be able to respond in a way that the hon. Member for Hove was referring to earlier and in a way that will allow the Government to react to events.
The hon. Member for Hove painted a picture that rather suggested a Government micro-managing the economy and responding to every single statistic, as perhaps was the case in former times. I think even the Government would argue that a successful economy requires a framework rather than a number of discretionary decisions made from time to time. My argument, and the argument made by many Members, is that pre-release access is used not for the purposes of developing policy and being able to produce policy in time for economic statistics so that the Government are able to adapt very quickly but instead for presenting the figures in as favourable a light as possible for the Government.
On Second Reading, when pressed to illustrate the way in which the Government are able to change policy or make a policy announcement along with an announcement of statistics, the Economic Secretary gave an example. As is his wont, he referred to the workings of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England and specifically to the way in which it would be useful for the Government to have access to the consumer prices index some time in advance of publication so that, in the event of the Governor of the Bank of England being required to write an open letter explaining why the inflation target had been missed, the Government would be in a position to make a policy announcement very quickly. Such a letter has not had to be written to date, but I am not sure whether the Economic Secretary was quite aware of how topical his example was. None the less, it was a useful example and highlights one or two issues about pre-release that are directly relevant to some of the amendments in front of us today.
While preparing for this Bill, I looked at this issue and was aware of the 40.5 hours limit on the pre-release of market-sensitive information. I was interested in some of the news stories relating to the last meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England as it was very obvious that the Bank of England and the Monetary Policy Committee had access to the CPI figures not 40.5 hours ahead of their release at 9.30 am on 16 January, when we learned of the increase in inflation, but some time before that. For a moment, I got a little excited about this, which is not something I thought I would ever do. It appeared that the Bank of England had access prior to what would be required under the usual rules. My interest was further developed when I noticed the evidence given by the Governor of the Bank of England to the Treasury Committee in June of last year when he stated that his committee had 36 hours pre-release access. At that point I thought, “There is something quite wrong here,” because the Bank of England clearly had access before that. However, I am grateful to the good offices of the House of Commons Library and, in particular, to Mr. Ross Young, who pursued the matter and made inquiries with the Office for National Statistics and the Treasury.
What emerged was that there is an exemption to the usual 40.5 hours rule when the Monetary Policy Committee meets the week before the inflation figure is due to be announced. That is entirely sensible: the committee clearly needs access to all the information, and if evidence is available, it should be provided with it. One can make a distinction between the Bank of England and the Treasury, notwithstanding the fact that a Treasury official is present at all Monetary Policy Committee meetings. However, there is an argument for pre-release access for the Bank of England in those circumstances. The case highlights the fact that we can trust the board. The Bank of England has access in those circumstances because of an agreement between the then National Statistician, Len Cook, and the Governor of the Bank England that there were good reasons for it.
That leads me to the broader point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. The Bill gives significant powers to the statistics board. We can argue about its composition and exactly which roles will be performed by whom, but there is agreement in the Committee that it is right for the statistics board to have substantial powers. We trust the board to drawup methodologies, definitions and so on. Why do Ministers not trust it to develop sensible, pragmatic rules on pre-release? It is a sensitive matter and one on which there is concern about ministerial involvement, and I am yet to be persuaded or hear a sensible case. I look forward to the Minister addressing those concerns and providing clear-cut examples of Ministers making use of pre-release statistics in a way that helps with not just the presentation of policy—that has been the problem—but its development.
On what the limit should be and whether it should be four hours or left to the board to decide, there is a body of opinion that the current period of time is far too long. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West acknowledged that. The inevitable result of letting the board have that power would be that, in most cases, there would be a substantial reduction in pre-release because the chances are that the board would be in tune with the consensus among statisticians that a shorter time is necessary. I do not know whether it would decide on three, four or five hours, but it would be likely to reduce it.
I am opposed to the board-centred approach, and I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the example that he gave on the arrangements between the Office for National Statistics and the Monetary Policy Committee. I understand his point, but given that the statistics in question are published regularly, a much simpler way of working would have been for the Monetary Policy Committee to change the date of its meeting. Instead Len Cook, who has been prayed in aid of by both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, suggested a longer period. Let us be honest: he did not exactly have a distinguished career at the ONS. It kept correcting major statistics when he was at the helm. So the one example that the hon. Gentleman gives is of a lengthening of the period.
I was about to make a point on that. On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman asked my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet whether she would support the right of the statistics board occasionally to lengthen the period for pre-release access. I was going to make that point because there might be circumstances in which it is right to do that. He makes a fair point: the MPC could meet on another day. However, I do not intend to explore that issue now.
None the less, I believe that a pragmatic approach could be to put powers in the hands of the board. For the most part, that would involve a reduction in pre-release access, but there might be exceptions, such as in matters involving the Bank of England, to which I referred. In such circumstances, we should trust the board, assuming that the right people are in place, to make the right decisions. I hope, therefore, to support a number of these amendments.
As several hon. Members have said, this is a considerable group of amendments dealing with some of the most substantial issues of concern in the Bill. Our debate has reminded us of the interest in pre-release, which extends beyond the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove mentioned that the Phillis review looked at those arrangements, as have a number of other external independent reviews. However, she rightly pointed out the importance of pre-release to the Government.
The hon. Member for Braintree queried the term “appropriate authority” and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West pointed him to clause 11(6). I thought that he might have referred him to the explanatory notes, which the hon. Gentleman might find helpful as well. However, in a moment, I shall deal with the reason for the term “appropriate authority”—the Treasury and devolved Administrations.
My hon. Friend said that he sympathised with shortening the time scale for pre-release access. Although we might differ on the detail, we agree that pre-release is important enough to be dealt with by Parliament. I am encouraged that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire is getting excited about statistics and that he admits it to the Committee. If he will forgive me, I shall deal with his points in the body of my comments.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet made a serious point when she said that no political capital should be made of statistics prior to release. She is absolutely right and the new arrangements will help with that: shorter periods of access for non-market sensitive data, tighter arrangements codified in secondary legislation and complemented by the release of national statistics through a central hub and the separation of statistical figures and commentary from policy or political commentary.
There is a clear case for pre-release access to statistics. That was recognised by the Treasury Committee in its July 2006 report and acknowledged on Second Reading and again today by the hon. Member for Twickenham. The principle is accepted and established internationally with many countries, including Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Japan and the USA providing pre-release access to some statistics to Ministers and policy officials at least a day before publication. The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the United States and my hon. Friend the Member for Hove asked how tight the systems are elsewhere in practice compared with the understanding of how they operate in theory.
In particular, it is worth dwelling on the question of the United States and the assertion that pre-release access by the US President is restricted to 30 minutes. That assertion seems to be based on evidence given to the Treasury Committee during its inquiry. I have to say that the Treasury Committee was misinformed. Witnesses asserted that the President gets pre-release access that is restricted to 30 minutes, but they misread the US official guidelines. Let me quote from the Office of Management and Budget’s statistical policy directive No. 3, published in 1985. It clearly states:
“The agency will provide prerelease information to the President, through the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, as soon as it is available.”
It then states:
“The agency may grant others prerelease access only under the following conditions” and it then lists four conditions, including
“Any prerelease of information under an embargo shall not precede the official release time by more than 30 minutes.”
That applies not to the President through the Council of Economic Advisors, but to “others”.
I thank the Minister for that correction, but as we are dealing here not with political debating points but with statements of fact, could the Treasury produce an explanatory note on this point, because what he has said directly contradicts what the Royal Statistical Society said in briefing us? I am referring to its very helpful little note on international practice on pre-release access to national statistics. That certainly gave us the impression that, as a matter of fact, the United States rules are much more restrictive than the Minister has stated. As it is important that we are all starting from the same correct basis of fact, could he produce a note explaining why the Royal Statistical Society is wrong?
I am happy to let the Committee have such a note. It is important that we deal with matters of fact, and that when we cite figures in our debates we get them right. I will include reference to the formal returns that the US makes to the International Monetary Fund on data dissemination and standards, because they confirm that, for data on national accounts, employment, unemployment, wages and earnings, consumer prices and producer prices, the President receives a copy of the actual data release the evening prior to release. I am sure that the mistake is an honest one and that the Royal Statistical Society would want to recheck its information sources and correct any error in the figures that it has been using and has released to the House, so I will certainly, if it is of benefit to the Committee, as the hon. Member for Twickenham suggests, prepare a factual note on the issue.
This is an interesting exchange, and the Minister is absolutely right to suggest that it is important for us to be sure of facts, but does that not make the point that not all scrutiny of figures before they are released is about spin? Much of it may be about checking the context and things like that, which are potentially very illuminating to the reader and the user of statistics.
My right hon. Friend is, as he has been consistently in our discussions, spot-on. He makes a point in support of the general principle of pre-release access, particularly for the Government, although other bodies—the Statistics Commission, for instance—have made submissions to the Treasury Committee arguing that pre-release access should be granted also to the media and to those on the Opposition Front Bench. In fact, the Treasury Committee recommended that, and although none of the amendments directly proposes it—to be clear, I am dealing with the general point because it is widely made—amendments Nos. 21 and 22 and amendment No. 92, which we discussed in the previous group, would allow it. If the concern about pre-release access is for well ordered—
I am making the point that if the hon. Lady placed the responsibility on the board, as under amendment No. 92 and the proposals in amendments Nos. 21 and 22, such an arrangement could be put in place. I am not saying that the board must put it in place; that is not the tenor of the amendments. However, pre-release statistics are an important issue that has been widely discussed and two of the amendments that we are considering in this group would allow that to take place if they were passed.
On pre-release, if the concern is for the well-ordered release of statistical information into the public realm, to distinguish more clearly between statistical information and policy comment, and to reduce the risk of disclosing new figures before the officially planned and appointed time, frankly there is no better way of achieving exactly the opposite than to allow the press and Opposition pre-release access—other than perhaps the requirement to pre-release by uploading to YouTube or MySpace.
The board may or may not be persuaded. There are, as I have said, a wide range of voices including the Treasury Select Committee and the Statistics Commission, which, if they are consistent, would urge the board to do just that. I am arguing why in principle and in practice pre-release is a sufficiently bad idea to warrant our ensuring that the framing of the legislation does not accommodate it. However, it is an interesting question and I would be interested to know whether the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet agrees with the Treasury Select Committee and the Statistics Commission that pre-release access to statistics should be available to the official Opposition and/or to the press.
I am open-minded and open to be persuaded on that if the board want to go down that route. The thrust of what this reform should eventually lead to is restricting pre-release access. That makes me sceptical of the idea of access being extended to Opposition spokesmen. I am not persuaded of the arguments for such an extension at the moment although I remain open-minded to persuasion on it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification. She has been very clear and is right to be sceptical. It is interesting that she takes a position that may not be consistent with the views of some of her colleagues on the Treasury Select Committee or on other wider bodies.
I pointed out some of the perverse practical effects that such a provision may lead to, but perhaps we should leave those aside and consider the principal case for such arrangements. Again, I struggle with that. The principle of restricted pre-release access to named officials and Ministers is well established in this country and others. That principle is widely accepted by us and by those on the Opposition Front Benches, which I welcome. The principal case for pre-release arrangements is surely based on the fact that it is the Government and not the Opposition or the media who are responsible for policy and Ministers who are accountable for it.
Pre-release access allows the Government to account for the impact and implications of policy when important new statistics are released—as the public have a right to expect and as the British media have come to demand. That also provides a fundamental safeguard and enables the Government to consider and plan contingency measures that may be needed alongside a statistical release to guard against a disproportionate or costly market or public reaction. That is an important point and is particularly true for market-sensitive statistics. Governments are ultimately responsible for maintaining economic and financial stability and pre-release access to data may be necessary to meet that responsibility.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire urged me to set out specific examples where a facility for pre-release statistics has been used. The importance is more as a safeguard against circumstances in which they may be needed, not because it is regularly required and used. On Second Reading, both the Economic Secretary and I gave the example of the open letter system, under which the Governor of the Bank of England is required to write to the Chancellor should the inflation target not be met. Pre-release access to inflation data enables the Bank to write the letter and the Government to respond at the point at which the inflation data are published. The publication of the Governor’s letter and the Government’s response would aim to reduce market uncertainty and any consequent market disruption, but that would not be possible were sufficient pre-release access removed.
Pre-release is also required to enable Ministers to respond immediately when non-market-sensitive statistics are sometimes released. For example, if a survey showed that drug use among young people had risen dramatically, my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health would rightly be expected to explain, accurately and promptly, to Parliament andto the public what steps the Government were taking to deal with the issue.
Although there is rightly some debate and differences of view among us over the precise pre-release practice that might be appropriate, I hope that we can achieve some clarity and consensus in the Committee on the principle of Ministers and officials having such access.
Does the Minister agree that although there is a wide consensus, across parties here and across countries, about pre-release for market-sensitive information, there is no such consensus anywhere outside the UK that that principle should also apply to non-market sensitive social data? Does he agree that, unless the Royal Statistical Society has again shown itself to be not infallible, every other country specifically precludes the release of social data in the way that he has described?
The hon. Gentleman has wide international experience in such matters and he is right: there is no consensus or consistency among the systems that different countries have for compiling or releasing data, or for putting in place pre-release arrangements for their statistics. The arrangements, including on pre-release, tend to be fashioned to reflect the individual country’s needs and circumstances. In Britain, the public expect, the media demand and Parliament requires Ministers to be able to account fully for their policies and their implementation. The statistics that are released in public show significant features that require explanation.
In moving the amendment, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks made a slight joke about the Health Protection Agency—I think it was two and half days before we had the statistics on that. The hon. Member for Twickenham has also talked about social statistics. However, if, for example, people involved in health protection found out that in the past week 15,000 people had died from avian flu, the Government would wish to move swiftly on that. That is a social statistic. If it were simply released and there had been no preparation whatever by the Government, there could be mass panic.
Not for the first time, my hon. Friend has grasped the essential point a little more rapidly than some Opposition Members. However, none of the amendments in the group would abolish pre-release entirely. I welcome that degree of consensus, which has also been apparent in this debate.
The amendments in the group seek to place the pre-release arrangements with the board, for it to determine as part of the code of practice. Under such a system, the board could do away with pre-release arrangements altogether. I disagree with that approach. Given the importance of pre-release, the Bill has been drafted to ensure that the pre-release arrangements will be tightened and given a special status within the new system. It is important that the Committee should be clear about the elements of the new arrangements, which I am happy to spell out.
I remain confused. It was in fact the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West who helped to guide me to this point on clause 6. Given the Financial Secretary’s earlier admission that there is a perception of interference in statistics, I still do not understand why our proposal in the amendment that the board should decide the parameters—the rules that guide—would not give greater public confidence than what the Government propose, which is that the Treasury will ultimately make the rules that guide pre-release. I do not understand why the Minister’s proposal is stronger than what our amendments propose.
My argument is, first, given the importance of pre-release, it is appropriate that Parliament, not the board, scrutinises and finally approves the rules and procedures that relate to pre-release access. Secondly, the process should have special status, which it is given by the Bill, requiring such scrutiny and approval of Parliament, and the devolved Administrations, where appropriate. Thirdly, the process should reflect the proper devolved settlement so that the devolved Administrations have responsibility for the fully devolved statistics. Fourthly and finally, there will also be an important role for the independent board. It will assess and monitor compliance with the rules set out in the secondary legislation, approved by Parliament, as part of its assessment of general compliance with the terms of the code. That is the approach that we believe to be correct, which is reflected in the Bill.
I have been clear that there is a case for tightening the system, and the hon. Member for Sevenoaks mentioned this when moving amendment No. 21. I said so in oral evidence to the Treasury Committee, in response to the consultation and on Second Reading. I also said on Second Reading that, after taking into account concerns about the extent of pre-release and the perceptions of potential abuse of the system, the Government had decided to tighten current pre-release arrangements by aligning the pre-release access for non-market-sensitive national statistics with that for market-sensitive statistics, so that pre-release for all national statistics will be set at 40.5 hours. In other words, a time of 5 pm would be set—after the markets have closed—two days before a 9.30 am release.
We also announced that the Government would provide in secondary legislation guidance to Departments that access should be limited to those individuals who really required the data. Following our debate on Second Reading, I have written to the Committee, as has been referred to, setting out my expectations of the types of issue that the principles in the guidance will deal with.
I hope that I have answered some of the questions that hon. Members asked about. I have ensured that the process will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and that Parliament will have a further scrutiny and approval role in the arrangements. Suffice it to say that I am confident that the new arrangements will provide greater clarity, certainty, transparency and enforceability than the current ones and they will help to reduce perceptions of ministerial interference in statistical release.
As I explained on Second Reading, the Bill establishes a general statistical system that can be developed in light of experience—a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West referred—and we shall review the operation of the new pre-release system 12 months after it starts.
Amendment No. 21 is similar to amendment No. 92, and was tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. It would require the code of practice to deal with any matter relating to pre-release access to official statistics. Clause 11(3) already ensures that the code will apply in relation to any official statistics as if it included the rules and principles established by order under subsection (2). That reflects the fact that, given the importance of pre-release, Parliament and not the board should ultimately approve the rules and procedures relating to pre-release access to statistics in the final form prior to publication. The code will be backed by statute but not set out in statute, so pre-release access has been given special status under the system. That means that Parliament will be required to scrutinise and approve it through an affirmative resolution under clause 62 with appropriate arrangements in the devolved Administrations.
Amendment No. 22, tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, would allow the board to determine rules and procedures for pre-release via such an order. Although there are some examples of non-ministerial offices or bodies with the powers to make secondary legislation—including the Registrar General, who is the subject of part 2 of the Bill—that is a relatively unusual provision, as the hon. Gentleman will concede. I must make it clear to the Committee that there is no legal or technical reason why an independent body could not be given the power to bring secondary legislation, but it is unusual for the simple reason that when such instruments are subject to a parliamentary procedure, as they would be under clause 62, no member of that body can participate in the discussion or any vote on the substance.
On the rare occasions that a non-ministerial body has powers to make subordinate legislation, a Minister is required to speak on behalf of that body in the House. Clearly, that would result in the slightly bizarre situation that a Minister who had no involvement in the making of the order or in the policy behind it would be expected to lead a parliamentary discussion of the order. I do not see that that is a sensible arrangement for the future.
Amendments Nos. 83 and 84 when read together are designed, as the hon. Member for Twickenham made clear, to limit the length of pre-release access that could be provided to the Government or the devolved Administrations to two hours before general release. I think that the hon. Gentleman might accept that two hours is simply not sufficient for consideration or to allow the sorts of measures that might be required.
Amendment No. 43, tabled by the hon. Member for Twickenham, also essentially supports the contention that it should be the board rather than Ministers who set the pre-release arrangements. I hope that I have already set out why Ministers in the devolved Administrations rather than the board should set the arrangements and why Parliament should be allowed to scrutinise those arrangements through the order-making process. I do not accept his argument. I cannot accept the amendments and, if they are pressed to a vote, I shall ask my hon. Friends to oppose them.
Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 were tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. The protocol on release practices establishes the requirement that Departments publish lists of who is entitled to have privileged early access and for how long for each statistical release. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman read from those lists earlier in the debate. I expect that requirement to continue into the new system. As my letter to the Committee last week made clear, I expect the secondary legislation to set out the rules and principles for deciding the number of officials in each Department who receive pre-release access with a view to tightening and making more consistent the arrangements across Government, including for the reporting and public confirmation of such arrangements.
I hope that on that basis hon. Members will be prepared to accept clause 11 and will not vote against its standing part of the Bill. I hope that they will reflect and not press their amendments to a vote, but if they do I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to resist.
I appreciate this opportunity to make a brief intervention, Sir John. There are one or two questions to which I have not received answers from the Minister, although I may have missed them. It would be useful to know when he will publish the draft secondary legislation. Will it be in time for us to consider it before the next stage in the parliamentary process?
The Minister confirmed that the rules should be tightened and he gave us one example in relation to the changes to the five-day rule. Are there any other ways in which the periods for pre-release access will be tightened in the draft secondary legislation? He said that he would expect a reduction in the number of people who have pre-release access to statistics. Is he prepared to give any further detail about how that restriction will operate?
The hon. Gentleman did not address the issue of whether there are at present statistics to which pre-release access is granted that should be knocked off the pre-release list altogether. Can the Committee conclude that the draft secondary legislation will continue pre-release access for all the statistics to which it currently applies? Are the Government mindful of the concerns expressed by the Opposition about the extent of the different statistical series that are covered?
The matter was referred to by Dr. Ivan Fellegi in his evidence to the Treasury Committee as something that concerned him. He said that in Canada, where he is the chief statistician, pre-release access applied only to those statistical series where there was a strong and powerful reason for pre-release. Are the Government still contemplating tightening the rules in that respect?
I appreciate the Minister’s lengthy clarification of the position, but I would welcome the opportunity to vote on amendment No. 21. I also want to vote against clause 11 stand part to reflect our concerns, fully expressed in the debate, that the board should determine the pre-release access rules. Clause 11 would significantly undermine the strength of the proposed reforms.
The Minister has earned the respect of the Committee by giving good answers to most of the questions on the clauses, even when we disagreed with him. However, on this clause he is clutching at straws. There are two basic issues. We are no longer debating the principle of pre-release in respect of market-sensitive data, but we are still debating the issue of principle in relation to the release of social data.
One example that was plucked out of the air by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West related to avian flu, which the Minister seized upon like a desert traveller grasping at a bottle of water. The more I thought about that example, the more bizarre it seemed that we would discover an epidemic of avian flu as a result of trawling through annual statistics on animal husbandry—
Well, whatever they are, the point is that even if such national emergencies came to light as result of that statistical work, they could easily be allowed for. Indeed, several OECD countries such as New Zealand allow for special cases when the Government can have pre-release access in order to deal with those problems. That is subject to the proviso that access is announced when the statistics are released and that the National Statistician gives a certificate of approval that it is the correct procedure. If that is the way the Government want to go, then we could table an amendment at a later stage to deal with that contingency.
Given the likelihood that thousands of deaths would be noticed, perhaps the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West was over-dramatic. However, agricultural statistics might show an impact, and I expect that the hon. Gentleman can think of several situations in which the rapid spread of disease has had serious consequences for business. Does he accept that there are issues in relation to a variety of statistics other than basic economic statistics which need to be handled?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. Market-sensitive data do not have to be core economic data. However, requests for the pre-release of data could be made in individual cases and it would be for the professionals to judge the reasonableness of such requests. We are talking about statistics in general, of which there are thousands. Only a handful of them could possibly satisfy those criteria.
Even if there is a good case for pre-release access not only of market-sensitive data but more generally, why do the Government believe that it is uniquely necessary to have such long periods in the UK? I do not understand what the arguments are. British officials are recruited from the top echelons of higher education, so we must assume that they are bright people who can think on their feet and react quickly, so it can have nothing to do with that. What is it then about British institutions that requires Britain to be particularly slow in that respect? No arguments for that have been given. What is it about the relationship between Ministers, officials and others that requires us to have an exceptionally long period in which to digest the statistics?
Another theory was put forward by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth—that it is because of the media. The argument is that the British media might conceivably be so mendacious and misleading that we have to have some special protection. I do not know who he was thinking of when he said that. Perhaps it was Rupert Murdoch, but he is active in Australia and other countries, and they seem to be able to cope with fairly robust and demanding time periods for the release of statistics. The Government are putting forward exceedingly weak arguments, in contrast with their position on other matters. I hope that they will pay us the compliment of advancing something a little more solid.
I shall be brief, as I sense that the Committee wants to decide on the amendments and the clause.
I shall deal first with amendments Nos. 26 and 27. I think that the Minister was trying to give me some reassurance that the lists will not be part of the new codification. All that I have to say to him on that issue is that the lists are not in good order—I gave the Committee some examples—but are mixed up. Some officials are named and some are listed by title. There is the issue of having the two separate lists for each set of statistics and the curious arrangement in which some officials are given access through the press office.
The lists are also frequently out of date. If the Minister visits the website and looks at certain statistics, he will see that some of his Treasury officials are listed who have since moved on to other Departments, as are other people who have retired. The lists are not kept in particularly good order. I shall certainly welcome the new codification if it will help us to improve that aspect.
We have had an important debate on amendment No. 21. I am encouraged by the support for it among Opposition Members, and even by some of the Labour Members’ speeches. One can always tell that the Government are on particularly flimsy ground when a Labour Member suddenly decides to break his or her silence and contribute to the debate for the first time with a supportive argument. That is what the hon. Member for Hove attempted to do, but unfortunately, her supportive argument almost gave the game away. She said that the purpose of pre-release—I wrote her words down—is to allow Ministers “to give statistics treatment”. It is precisely the purpose of amendment No. 21 to get away from Ministers giving statistics treatment. Although she said that the Phillis review had not found many examples of abuse, the specific abuse that happened in the summer, when the Prime Minister leaked unemployment figures, came after that review. If the hon. Lady thinks that that was not an abuse, she must explain why the Cabinet Secretary was sent out apologise for it.
The hon. Gentleman correctly quotes me, but neglects to continue with the rest of my argument. It was that the treatment was required to deal in a governmental way with the problems that arose. As I stated clearly later in my speech, the media are a minor issue to the Government and to the public compared to the disasters in which statistics are involved and correct guidance is not given by Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West mentioned in respect of Black Wednesday.
The hon. Lady makes her argument even more supportive—it almost falls into the category of a job application. She mentioned correct guidance and treatment; we will reflect on that. I shall read her speech.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made an interesting suggestion. He was in favour of tightening some of the pre-release arrangements, but he thought that it should be a matter entirely for Parliament rather than the board or Ministers. That is an interesting point. Under the Minister’s proposals, it would be a matter for Parliament, but I think the hon. Gentleman wanted to do it through primary legislation. I ask him to reflect on the inflexibility that might be introduced, as we might have continually to amend such legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire made the important point that if we accept what the Minister proposes, we will be trusting the new board to a lesser extent than the ONS in the arrangements that it has already set in place with the Governor of the Bank of England and so on. It is extraordinary that we should set up a new independent board, but say that it is not to be as trusted as the old ONS.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet suggested limiting access to four hours, but she was pressed as to why. I believe that everyone ought to be able to make their case. That is why I want the independent board to make the decision, and why the amendments specify that the board must consult. It should consult the devolved Administrations, and it must consult the Treasury. I would expect the Opposition parties to express their views on the appropriate time limits. I would expect the board to study practice in other developed economies, which seem able to operate such arrangements in a much more rational and scientific way. Indeed, evidence was taken from some of those countries. We might argue about whether it should be 30 minutes or whatever, but the plain fact is that those countries do not have the extent of pre-release that we do. It is for the Minister to try to justify that.
I think that the Minister understands that there is a problem. If he did not, he would not already be suggesting, as he has done this morning, even before he has anything specific to put to Parliament, that there should be shorter periods of access—I wrote that down—and that the arrangements should be tightened generally and codified. He has already proposed that some of the time limits should be changed. The problem, however, is that if he is saying that the arrangements can be determined only by Ministers, it is all the more important that the board and not Ministers should have the final say on what is proposed to Parliament.
I do not accept the Minister’s argument or, indeed, the logic of the position of hon. Member for Hove. If a set of statistics suddenly appears saying that drug use has increased among young people, I do not accept that Ministers should have to respond at that very instant. How can they be in the privileged position of being able immediately to say, “Yup, the problem has increased and here is what we are doing about it”? That does not happen elsewhere with social statistics, and there is no reason for it to happen here.
In a moment.
In effect, what the Minister is saying is that Ministers should be allowed to continue their practice of issuing statistics with simultaneous spin saying exactly how they are going to deal with a problem. I give way to the Minister. It appears that he is not now going to intervene.
If the problem is genuine, so is the solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree said, this is a black hole in the Bill, a fatal flaw. If we accept, as the Minister has repeatedly accepted, that there is a problem with the perception of the independence of statistics, and if he is setting out, as he said he was in the Queen’s Speech, to enhance confidence in official statistics, it is nonsense to suggest that the new, independent board cannot be trusted to make such arrangements in the public interest. We want—he wants—the board to be independent. It should be independent in this matter.
I sense that the Committee wants to move on, so I will be brief. We have had a full discussion on the relative merits and the principled basis on which Ministers should propose but Parliament should decide on and finally approve the pre-release arrangements, as opposed to leaving that entirely to the statistics board. Members of the Committee will make up their minds on that.
As to the second major point that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks raised, he is right that the current lists of statistics are not in good order. The new codification will make them clearer and more consistent, and I am glad that he welcomes that.
I say to the hon. Member for Twickenham that we are setting up in the legislation a framework for a new system that can evolve and that needs to evolve in the light of experience. The Government will specifically review the pre-release arrangements 12 months after they start.
I have set out in my 19 January letter to the Committee our approach on the questions raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. That letter is also clear on when I should be able to report further:
“These are important issues requiring careful consideration. I will report to the House as soon as further progress has been made.”