Clause 12

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 23rd January 2007.

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Assessment

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

I beg to move amendment No. 142, in clause 12, page 6, line 11, leave out ‘At the request of the appropriate authority’.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 143, in clause 12, page 6, line 12, leave out ‘National’ and insert ‘official’.

No. 144, in clause 12, page 6, line 13, leave out ‘in relation to’ and insert ‘by the authorities responsible for producing’.

No. 184, in clause 12, page 6, line 14, at end insert—

‘(1A) In the absence of a request from the appropriate authority under subsection (1), the Board shall be permitted to assess and determine whether the Code of Practice has been complied with in relation to any official statistic, provided that it consults the authority responsible for producing a relevant statistic before commencing the assessment.’.

No. 145, in clause 12, page 6, leave out lines 15 to 18.

No. 146, in clause 12, page 6, leave out lines 25 to 40.

No. 71, in clause 12, page 6, line 40, at end insert—

‘(9) The Board shall have the authority to initiate an assessment process to designate any set of official statistics as National Statistics.

(10) Before initiating a process under subsection (9), the Board shall inform the appropriate authority.’.

No. 148, in clause 14, page 7, line 17, leave out ‘and 13(1)’.

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

I propose to be brief on this set of amendments because it mainly raises the same issues about scope that were discussed extensively on Thursday under the first group of amendments to clause 10. Amendments Nos. 142 and 144 are linked to those that were discussed in the earlier groups and would transform the duty of the board to assess particular statistics against the requirements of the code of practice into a duty to assess whether Government Departments are complying with the code.

Amendments Nos. 145, 146 and 148 are consequential changes that are linked with those two amendments of substance. Their effect would broaden the scope of the reform from statistics nominated by Ministers to become national statistics to cover all official statistics. The Opposition strongly support the amendments for reasons that were given at length in the earlier debate. The Minister assured the Committee that he expected the board to promote the code as a code of good practice throughout all Departments. However, that still leaves in tact the two-tier structure for statistics about which many have expressed concerns. It also still leaves Departments free to ignore the code should they so wish in relation to departmental statistics that are not national statistics.

The board would be without the authority to impose and enforce the code against Departments. In the Minister’s words, it would have only an audit function, not a regulatory one. As Dr. Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician of Canada, said to the Treasury Committee, it is a power to name and shame. In effect, there is little difference between that power and that which the  Statistics Commission already has, so for the reasons given in the earlier debate the Opposition strongly support the amendments.

Amendment No. 184 is slightly different. It provides an alternative and less radical way in which to tackle the same worry that we discussed on Thursday. Rather than completely demolish the two-tier structure and apply the code to all Departments, and hence to all official statistics, the amendment would merely remove a Minister’s right to veto the commencement of the assessment process for a statistic to go into the national statistic system and be governed by the full rigour of the reforms that we are debating today.

Although the change is not as comprehensive a change as that proposed under the other amendments, it is a compromise option that would mitigate several of the worries that have been expressed about the Bill. The board would still have only an audit rather than a regulatory function, but at least Ministers would no longer have the right to keep certain departmental statistics out of the national statistics system or be able to determine whether the legislation applied to their statistics in full or not, which would remedy an important flaw in the Bill.

As I said last Thursday, it is difficult to see that the prospect of independent audit and scrutiny will motivate Ministers to opt into the new system. AsDr. Fellegi said to the Treasury Committee, that is more likely to be a disincentive rather than an incentive to opt in.

The Minister told the Committee last week that he expected the proposed system to evolve, but unless the Bill is amended it will evolve only at the pace that Ministers wish. If the amendment is adopted, the board will have the power to drive that process of evolution and determine which numbers are important enough to be brought within the new framework and be subjected to the code of practice as part of the national statistics system.

The Minister’s main counter to my argument was that some statistics were important enough for the code to be applied to them and some were not. The Opposition believe that all official statistics are important enough to merit that treatment, and to merit good practice, integrity and honesty. However, if we cannot persuade the Minister on that point I hope he will consider the issue of who would take the decision about which statistics are important enough to be subjected to the code of practice.

The Minister stated that there was a significant difference between statistics on how many television licences the Department holds, for example, and those on UK jobless figures. The Financial Secretary referred to those two figures as being of a significantly different magnitude and he argued that they should be subjected to different treatment, but who is to say whether statistics on business survival rates or armed forces medical discharge, for example, which are not national statistics, are less important that the cider survey and the monthly statement on bricks, blocks and cement, which at present are national statistics?

The Minister focused strongly on the distinction between important, significant statistics that require the application of the code of practice and what he saw as less significant statistics that did not require the  application of the code of practice. At the very least, if that distinction is as important as the Financial Secretary suggested, it should be the board that takes that decision; it should not be left to Ministers as that would leave a significant loophole in the framework set up by the Bill. If the reform is to succeed, the board should make the call on which statistics are important enough to be subject to a code of integrity and impartiality. We hope that the Minister will seriously consider accepting the amendment.

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

We are dealing with a sub-set of issues around the bigger question of the two-tier system, and the Minister’s role in deciding which should belong to which category. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet helpfully suggested a compromise to enable the board to have a role in the process. My amendment, which in some respects is even more of a compromise, is another way of approaching the same problem, but it gives the board a status in the process.

We argue that the board should have the authority to initiate an assessment process to designate any set of official statistics as national statistics. At least that would give the board some access to the problem to challenge ministerial discretion. My amendment is a modest, compromise proposal and I would be surprised if the Minister could advance strong reasons why it is not acceptable. In the spirit of trying to find a middle way between the Government’s proposals and an outright abolition of the two-tier system, I hope that the Minister will accept one or other of the amendments.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 4:45 pm, 23rd January 2007

The Opposition seem to be proposing what is, to put it bluntly, an extraordinary arrangement in amendments Nos. 142 to 146 and 148. The proposal appears to be that the board will assess all official statistics against the same code and without specific requests for it to do so. To me and, I hope, to other members of the Committee, that is clearly absurd. It is a certain recipe for rendering the board ineffective. The approach proposed by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet risks drawing the new statistics board into a sea of statistical assessments and approvals.

The statistics produced by several hundred public bodies are already captured in the core definition of official statistics that we have debated and approved in clause 6. The range is vast and the volume is greater still, but often, I have to say, in inverse proportion to their importance. I have been doing a bit of work to try to gauge some of the statistics that, under clause 6, will constitute official statistics, including the sources of those data, which increasingly are new under freedom of information in relation to parliamentary questions.

Examples of what would now be classified as official statistics include, from parliamentary questions, the level and source of departmental income arising from unclaimed lost property in the royal parks, the number of calls made from call centres in the Department for Transport using predictive diallers, how much has been spent by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on dieting and vitamin supplements since 1997 and—this is my favourite—the total amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates in UK embassies.

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

My hon. Friend obviously takes a closer interest in the detail than I do. I am the Minister for statistics and, although I noticed that the question was asked, I did not investigate the answer. He might like to check Hansard for himself on that and do his own research.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I did not ask the question, but as Ferrero Rocher is based in my constituency in the UK, may I say that I think such consumption should be encouraged?

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

I suspect that there may be a multiple of hits on the Hansard search engine after our proceedings. I welcome the constituency connection that the hon. Gentleman has.

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

The Minister is very gracious in giving way again. I think that he has misunderstood the impact of amendments Nos. 142 to 144. They would not require the board to carry out an assessment process in relation to each and every statistic; they would require the board to monitor the statistical activities of the different Departments. That is a different thing.

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

With respect to the hon. Lady, I do not misunderstand her argument at all, because she has made it several times. Her fundamental objection is to what she calls two-tier statistics. The case that the range of official statistics that I have set out in my exposition can or should be treated in the same way for the board’s assessment and approval functions is clearly flawed. I hope that at least we can agree on that principle.

However, it is right and it is reasonable, as the hon. Lady has also argued, that we expect all official statistics to be produced with integrity. We have discussed that point in Committee and I confirm that I entirely accept it, for this reason. We have given the board an objective of monitoring the production and publication of all official statistics and commenting on concerns about the quality and good practice in relation to all official statistics. I have also made it clear that I expect that the board will do that in part through promoting the code of practice for national statistics as a code of practice across all official statistics, clearly laying out good practice and standards in the production of statistics for all to follow.

However, the active assessment programme will necessarily bring with it certain resource and operational implications for the board and the data producers. Rightly, we want to concentrate the programme on the core statistics that are the key indicators on which the Government, business and the public rely for an accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive and meaningful description of the United Kingdom in this day and age.

Surely what is important is not that all official statistics should be covered by the assessment and approval function and remit of the board, but that all the most important statistics are. That is why we have said that the established set of about 1,300 national  statistics will be subject from the outset to the new system of independent board assessment and approval against the code of practice that the board will draw up and use for such assessments.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Am I misreading, or does my hon. Friend agree that were amendments Nos. 142 to 144 to be accepted, clause 12(1) would read, “The Board must, in accordance with this Part, assess and determine whether the Code of Practice for Official Statistics under section 10 has been complied with by the authorities responsible for producing any official statistics.”?

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

My hon. Friend has a keen eye for detail, and in my view he is absolutely right. I started by saying that the practical effects of amendmentsNos. 142 to 146 and amendment No. 148 were precisely as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has tried to argue in principle. She does not accept the concept of two-tier statistics—that some statistics are more important than others and should be subject to greater scrutiny. Under our proposals, there will be a rigorous, independent system of assessment and approval. My hon. Friend is right. If the hon. Lady seeks to press the amendments, I shall ask my hon. Friends to resist them.

If we accept that it is right in principle to concentrate on what matters most, that raises the question of where to draw the boundary in practice. This debate is important, because it cuts to the heart of the proposals in the Bill and the concerns that some have expressed.

The nature and number of official statistics is ever-changing and rapidly increasing, and the boundaries are becoming blurred. As I showed with one or two perhaps extreme examples, they are very wide-ranging. We have drawn the scope of official statistics as defined in the Bill extremely wide and flexible on purpose. We did so to reflect our desire that the board should be able to promote and safeguard the quality of the wide and ever-evolving range of data produced and used by the Government.

In seeking to frame a practical and principled argument about where any boundary or definition may be drawn, it is important to understand the changing nature of Government statistics—particularly if one wants to argue that the current set of national statistics is not the right starting point, despite the fact that our system can evolve in future. The changing nature of statistics and the method of their collection means that we no longer use only the traditional collection methods of census and survey. Increasingly, important statistics are derived from administrative and management systems such as those used for the delivery of the benefit or education systems.

Undoubtedly, statistics derived in that way are often important—often more so than the examples that I gave earlier. However, they impose additional and different statistical challenges, given that the primary purpose of the system that produces the data is not itself statistical.

For example, concerns have been expressed, including during our consideration of this Bill, about Home Office statistics. However, as we have heard in recent weeks, apparent statistical problems are in fact a  manifestation of other problems that are not statistical. Of course we would want to deal with those statistical issues, but the solutions are primarily administrative or policy-related and not statistical. It would be unrealistic and misleading to suggest otherwise. With the best will in the world, there may be occasions when data derived from management or administrative systems would not and could not meet the standards set out in a code of statistical practice.

The current scope of national statistics in this country is wide and comparable with those of most of our international comparators. However, the additional benefit of the proposed system is that it does have the scope to evolve in the light of experience. Therefore, additional statistics can be put forward for assessment and approval as new national statistics, thus allowing both adaptation to changing statistical demands and an increase in the scope of national statistics.

I will not rehearse our arguments about where this responsibility should lie unless the Committee particularly presses me. I have explained why Ministers must ultimately decide, given their responsibility for their Departments. Equally, I have been clear that the board will be able to comment on which statistics should be national ones.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks suggested that if the board had the power to recommend that change, it would be

“a huge comfort to those of us worried about that point. Nobody is arguing that every conceivable line of official statistics should become a national statistic at the whim of the board”.—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 108.]

I hope that that is still his view now that we are in Committee because I have said not only that I would expect the board to comment on which statistics should be national ones but that this will encourage more statistics into the system. I have been very clear that one of the board’s objectives in discharging its responsibilities is to safeguard the comprehensiveness of the official statistics system, including national statistics. However, in the end, Parliament has the scope and the role under the provisions of this Bill to hold Ministers and the board to account for what they do and do not decide to do.

Therefore, I do expect the board to comment on such matters. I also expect Parliament to take a strong interest in those matters—and the board’s statements on them—and to call Ministers to account when departmental outputs or activities have been commented on, but not recommended, for inclusion as national statistics. I hope that this has been a useful debate and that, in the light of my further clarification and explanation, hon. Members will not press amendment No.142 or seek to move the others in the group.

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

The Minister has made some sensible points, but he has not answered the issue raised in amendment No.78. He quite correctly said that the decision as to whether something should be a national or an official statistic must be governed by considerations other than statistical ones, such as administrative factors. That is absolutely true and a perfectly valid point. That is why it is important and quite right to say that one does not need some overarching bureaucratic structure which necessarily involves the board.

However, he then conceded the central point that the board should have a role in making comments. How is that different from our suggestion that the board be given the authority to initiate an assessment process to designate any set of statistics official or national and a pro-active role in selecting cases that seem anomalous. The Minister’s essential point is that the definition will remain fluid and determined by many other factors which are not necessarily statistical so what is the problem with the proposed amendment?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 5:00 pm, 23rd January 2007

The Minister may consider that the Opposition’s proposals are not practical, but they are supported by a range of organisations which contributed to the consultation process. I drew the Committee’s attention to their comments at great length on Thursday afternoon. I do not propose to do that again, but the Committee should listen when organisations such as the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society and a host of other organisations that responded to the consultation express strong support for the abolition of the two-tier system and for expanding the scope of the code of conduct to official statistics. That is evidence that this is not some hare-brained, impractical scheme. There is no reason why we cannot trust the board to come up with a proportionate and common-sense code of practice that is capable of being applied across the board to the statistical activities of Departments.

Like the Minister, I will not rehearse the arguments that we pursued on Thursday and on Second Reading, but if a statistic is worth producing and relying on, it is worth producing in accordance with the principle of good practice that will be set out in the statutory code at the heart of this reform.

The Minister himself said that there was an issue as to where to draw the boundary between those statistics that are and those that are not sufficiently important to be subjected to the code of practice . We do not believe that that boundary should be drawn at all, for the reasons that I have given. However, the Minister acknowledged that the boundary was crucial and said a few minutes ago that it went to the heart of the matter. Yet it is Ministers who will decide the boundary under the scheme proposed by the Government. If this is really at the heart of the matter and the Bill—I agree with him that it is important—I appeal to the Minister to accept amendment No. 184. Even the amendment tabled by my Liberal colleague, the hon. Member for Twickenham, would do something to mitigate the problem; the boundary would be determined by the board and not by Ministers. That would mean that many of the concerns expressed by people such as Lord Moser, and by the Statistics Commission and the RSS would be answered. It is not ideal, but it is a sensible and defensible compromise.

If the Minister is so enthusiastic about the board’s power to comment on the scope of national statistics and its power to recommend the designation of a statistic as a national statistic, why can he not go that one bit further, give the board real teeth and allow it to require that the assessment process is started? If the Minister wants to claim the place in history that the  hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire said was there for the taking, I appeal to him to accept amendment No.184 or others in this group.

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

I feel that I should respond to the hon. Member for Twickenham. We had a principled and detailed debate about the points that he raised today in a sitting last week that he may not have attended. In essence, in a decentralised system the responsibility for submitting statistics for assessment must lie with the Departments. My argument is that Ministers are responsible for making policy and arguably, as such, are better placed to know which statistics are most critical for the development and delivery of that policy. Ministers are also responsible and accountable for allocating and managing resources in their Department, including those devoted to statistical production. Principally, I see those as policy and resource decisions and, therefore, as more appropriate matters for Ministers than for the statistics board. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and does not try the patience of the Committee too much.

I am still not persuaded by the arguments made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. No matter how many representations she has received in support of them, they are not necessarily right or practical. I urge my hon. Friends to resist them.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. Which amendments is the hon. Lady prepared to withdraw and which does she wish to press to a vote?

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

I would be grateful if theCommittee were able to vote on amendments Nos. 142 and 184.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 11.

Division number 12 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 12

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 184, in clause 12, page 6, line 14, at end insert—

‘(1A) In the absence of a request from the appropriate authority under subsection (1), the Board shall be permitted to assess and determine whether the Code of Practice hasbeen complied with in relation to any official statistic, provided that it consults the authority responsible for producing arelevant statistic before commencing the assessment.’.—[Mrs. Villiers.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 13 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 12

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 71, in clause 12, page 6, line 40, at end insert—

‘(9) The Board shall have the authority to initiate an assessment process to designate any set of official statistics as National Statistics.

(10) Before initiating a process under subsection (9), the Board shall inform the appropriate authority.’.—[Dr. Cable.]

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 14 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 12

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.