Clause 18

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 23rd January 2007.

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Production of statistics

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

I beg to move amendment No. 124, in clause 18, page 8, line 15, leave out “itself”.

This might be a purely semantic grappling point that need not detain us for long. However, I was struck by the fact that, throughout, the Bill makes reference to, “the board may”, or “the board must”, or “the board shall”, or “the board is”, but suddenly the parliamentary draftsman got excited and wrote, the “board may itself produce”. It may just be purely a coincidence and a case of the parliamentary draftsman getting a bit bored and feeling the need for a little variety, but it seems rather pointless. If there should be any point of emphasis, this is probably not the place to put it. The thrust of the Bill is that the board will be responsible not just for oversight but for production of statistics. As has been explained, that will operate through Chinese walls and it will be the National Statistician who carries out the production. So this is a very odd place to emphasise the board’s role.

On that probably extremely pedantic little point of redrafting, perhaps we might achieve some results with the Government on this issue, and I ask the Minister whether he will ask the parliamentary draftsman to think again.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 5:15 pm, 23rd January 2007

All the scrutiny to which the Committee is subjecting the Bill is important, and I would not brand it as pedantic in any respect.

I am not sure that the amendment would make a significant difference to the clause, although I would say that it would make it a little less clear, rather than clearer. The intention behind the drafting of this particular point in the clause is to make it clear that, unlike the preceding clauses, it is about statistics that the board produces rather than the statistics produced by other organisations, such as Departments, which the board monitors. I think that the wording in the Bill probably helps to preserve that clarity, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel it necessary to press the matter to a vote.

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

I am not at all surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West wishes to intervene on that point, but I shall give way first to the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

One explanation is that perhaps the parliamentary draftsman shared the surprise of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and other observers that the board itself has a role both in scrutinising and in producing statistics.

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

I am not sure whether Mrs. Gauke has been studying the detailed provisions of the Bill, but that is an interesting thesis.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I know that we do not wish to be detained too much on this, but can my hon. Friend perhaps say why the word “itself” does not appear in subsection (2), making it read, “The Board may itself at any time publish”? If he is right that the inclusion of “itself” in subsection (1) leads to greater emphasis and greater clarity, surely that greater emphasis and greater clarity—which I must say to him that I doubt—would also be needed in subsection (2).

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

I am slightly surprised by my hon. Friend. As I have explained, in subsection (1), clearly the emphasis on “itself” is to try to make clear the distinction between statistics produced elsewhere and statistics produced under the aegis of the board, in other words by the current Office for National Statistics. Clearly the publication of information or advice given regarding statistics produced under subsection (1) does not require that construction in order to give the board the freedom and the remit to do so.

Dr. Cable rose—

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. Before I call Dr. Cable, I would like to remind hon. Members that it is unusual for amendments that have been grouped to be selected for a separate Division, as happened in the last grouping.  Members should indicate during their remarks if they wish to have a separate Division on a grouped amendment, which may then be moved formally. The Member moving the lead amendment should also be clear in winding up as to whether they wish to withdraw or press the amendment.

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

Thank you for that advice, Mr. Olner. I think that my English grammar is a bit better than my knowledge of parliamentary procedure, so I will persist with the point that I am trying to make.

I would have thought that the Government might have rolled over easily on this issue, but I can see that one should never assume anything. If it is the Government’s intention to do what the Minister wants, surely the sentence should read, “The Board may produce and publish its own statistics”. Is that not the point that he is trying to make? Surely, if we are in the business of trying to improve the language, that would be the way to do it.

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

Would the words that the hon. Gentleman has just used imply that the board could then publish only statistics that it owned?

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

Indeed, that might create problems of its own. I should not indulge in improvised drafting, but the drafting as it stands certainly does not achieve the objective that the Minister said it was designed to achieve. I have no intention of pushing the amendment to a vote, as the issue is not a major point of substance and policy, but the Government should perhaps be a little flexible and think again.

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

If the hon. Gentleman reads the whole clause again, he may find the Financial Secretary a little more forthcoming. The clause says:

“The Board may itself produce and publish statistics relating to any matter”,

and so on. It then says that the board cannot do that for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland without consent, but no consent is required by the Treasury for the board to produce statistics on any other matter, including economic matters. With that pointed out, the Financial Secretary might look a little more kindly on redrafting the clause.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part ofthe Bill.

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

The clause provides a welcome opportunity to address matters relating to devolution and the problems that have arisen from the fragmentation of statistics across the UK. The reason for that is the fact that subsections (3) to (5) place limits on the board’s activities in relation to so-called devolved statistics, to which the hon. Member for Dundee, East just referred.

The Opposition made it plain earlier that we believe that the functions set out in the clause should be those of the National Statistician and not the board. We have  debated that at length already and we do not need to go back over the groundwork. However, just to reprise that, it would be useful if the Minister could clarify whether “board” in the clause is taken to include what is now the ONS. That is important in addressing the devolution issues, because under the clause it seems as if the ONS will be prevented from producing so-called devolved statistics without the permission of the relevant devolved Administration. No doubt the Minister will correct me if I have misinterpreted it, but that seems to be how the clause works.

That looks like an element of political control, which goes against the thrust of giving independence to statistical services and to the board. If a Minister in a devolved Administration felt, for example, that a statistic might expose policy failures on their part, the clause would presumably enable him or her to bar the ONS from collecting it. There seems to be no comparable restriction for English statistics. The clause seems to involve a reduced level of independence for statistics relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I would welcome the Minister’s clarification of whether I have understood the clause correctly, and if so, of what the justification for that is.

Another potential undesirable consequence of subsections (3) to (5) is the further fragmentation of statistics across the UK, which leads to the general issue that I should like to address. The proposed application of the new framework across the devolved Administrations is welcome—it is right that the areas where government is devolved should produce statistics that reflect their own local circumstances and meet the needs of local users—but as the Treasury Committee pointed out:

“Equally important...is that the basic data which is needed at UK level is capable of being compiled in a coherent form across the administrations, in order to ensure that there is a set of UK-wide numbers, that this allows users to compare and contrast the impact of policies in different parts of the UK”.

Many expressed concern during the consultation that it was becoming more and more difficult to obtain statistical data that covered the whole of the UK. That fragmentation of statistics makes it more difficult to assess the effects of devolution. Simon Briscoe, statistics editor of the Financial Times, put the problem as follows in his evidence to the Treasury Committee:

“Where there are policy areas that a devolved assembly has decided to take a different policy stance, say Scotland from England, I think it is a shame that we do not have harmonised data so that we can actually see what the impact of the different policies are. If we cannot see the results of that little bit of experimentation, then nobody is going to be any the wiser about which policies were best.”

An inability to compare figures across the country on issues as significant as health, housing and poverty makes it more difficult to develop coherent evidence-based policies and programmes to tackle them. As the Treasury Committee pointed out, difficulties in producing consistent UK-wide statistics could also jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet its international obligations on statistics. The Royal Statistical Society described the problem as “serious and worsening”.

The evidence seems to suggest that the problem did not start with devolution but may have been intensified or brought into sharper focus by that process. Particular  concern has been expressed by the Statistics User Forum, which described the lack of coherent UK-wide statistics as

“a long-standing problem that is not improving. It is a major source of frustration for professional users and confusion for non-professional users.”

The forum’s chairman, Mr. Keith Dugmore, pointed out to the Treasury Committee that locations about which it is difficult to obtain data might lose out on inward investment as companies opt for areas where they can easily get hold of the information that they want. He expressed the user community’s frustration when he said:

“There are people out there who are the actual customers and users of statistics saying, ‘Why on earth can I not grab the same thing for Northern Ireland as I can for Devon and Cornwall or wherever?’”

He pointed out that the compilation of different indices of deprivation in different areas of the country meant that one could not, for example, determine whether poverty was more serious in Glasgow or in the east end of London.

Those anxieties were echoed recently by Dr. Kadhem Jallab, head of Tyne and Wear Research and Information. In consultation during the run-up to the Bill, he said:

“Devolution obviously risks further disintegration of comparability...The index of deprivation in England is not directly comparable with that in Scotland. These effects make the comparison of Tyne and Wear with Glasgow and Edinburgh impossible.”

Dr. Jallab went on to note that work on housing market areas in the north-east based on migration patterns from the census had been compromised by the different approaches taken on census statistics in Scotland and England.

Particular problems arose in relation to the 2001 census. I refer again to Simon Briscoe’s evidence to the Treasury Committee. He felt that the ONS had been so enfeebled by the 2001 process that it had managed to produce only a limited set of UK-wide figures. For other census data, users had to

“fumble around on three different websites to try and cobble together a figure for the UK”.

Alison Macfarlane, professor of perinatal health at City university, told the Committee how she tried to produce figures for what she described as a very basic set of maternity indicators. She said:

“I had gone round the houses liaising with people in four countries and sent in data derived from 18 separate data sets. Even then, there were a number of holes.”

Professor Macfarlane called for the ONS to have a much stronger co-ordinating role.

It seems that at present there is a political imbalance. The pull from devolved Administrations to localise the census is stronger than the counterweight of a few statisticians in London who want a consistent approach across the country. The chairman of the RSS’s national statistics working party, John Pullinger, who was heavily involved in the 2001 census, described how such problems arose:

“A census is clearly a very sensitive topic. The Scottish Parliament decided to make some changes. That was not in itself a problem, but when the Welsh Assembly saw that the Scottish Parliament had made some changes, they wanted some changes, and the thing began to fragment because the forces pulling it  apart were stronger than Pullinger sitting in a room in Whitehall with his counterparts. They were stronger and we were unable to pull it together, so in fact we had three different censuses.”

Mr. Pullinger identified a key problem for this Committee to consider. We clearly need to produce a common core of statistics across the UK. The question is how to provide the counterweight to the natural pull away from the centre. How can we give the board or the National Statistician the authority to provide it?

I remind the Minister that he still has a chance to change his mind and vote in favour of amendment No. 98 to give the National Statistician a formal duty to promote consistency of statistics across the UK. We have debated it but are yet to vote on it, and I hope we will have a chance to do so. That would have provided an important boost to the authority of the National Statistician.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth 5:30 pm, 23rd January 2007

I am trying to follow the hon. Lady’s logic, but she is rattling through the briefing in front of her. She seems to be talking about a tension between consistency of national statistics and issues that are of interest in a devolved system. I would point out that in some circumstances there may be devolved interest in the regions of England, as well as in Wales or Scotland. However, does the hon. Lady not realise that information about use of the Welsh language and such matters gained through the census is extremely important, not only for the National Assembly for Wales, but for local authorities in Wales? Does she not accept that there needs to be, not a tension or conflict between central consistency and devolved Administrations, but a complementarity of information that respects the differences within the United Kingdom? That is part of the way in which we maintain its unity.

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

I agree that the ideal is to have complementary statistics. Nothing that I have said should be taken to indicate that the devolved Administrations or organisations within areas that have devolved government should not be producing their own statistics on certain matters. However, it is important to have a core of statistics that are compiled in the same way across the United Kingdom. Otherwise, it will be difficult to compare different local areas, which will lose out as a result.

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

The hon. Lady suggests that they should produce their own statistics, but it would be a complete nonsense when the census is going on for the sort of information that, for example, the Welsh Assembly and local government in Wales require not to be collected as part of that process. It would be a ridiculous waste of money not to deal with it in the way that Members of this House have argued: by a simple complementarity of information that is collected.

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

I agree that it is important not to have centralisation across the board. There is no reason that collection cannot take place in parallel where local statistics are collected alongside national statistics. However, that does not detract from the importance of securing at least a series of core indicators with which  one can compare policies and situations in different parts of the United Kingdom according to the same criteria.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Given the content of clause 18(1), is the hon. Lady speaking in favour of the clause standing part of the Bill?

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

I am using the opportunity to explore concerns in relation to devolution. I do not anticipate that the Opposition will choose to vote against clause 18 standing part, but it was important to air the arguments, because they are of concern.

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

Perhaps the hon. Lady can help us by putting her brief on one side and giving us just the Janet and John version. What is she asking for?

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

I am asking for recognition of the importance of having a core set of statistics that are consistent across the United Kingdom.

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

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I have some sympathy. Does she want us to be able to measure accurately, for example, public spending per head between the various regions of England and parts of Scotland? Is that the sort of thing that she wants?

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

I can see that there would be advantages in having consistent statistics to give an indication of levels of spending in different parts of the country.

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

That is interesting, and the hon. Lady is asking for a uniform set of statistics to measure it. Water in Scotland is in the public sector, while water in England is in the private sector; although water supply is fully funded by the taxpayer through the bills, it is deemed to be public expenditure in England but not in Scotland. There is a massive disparity in public sector accounts of spending per head on that basis alone. How does one collect uniform statistics that give a meaningful comparison given those different systems?

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

It will not be possible to collect uniform statistics on everything throughout the United Kingdom, and it is not necessary to do so. However, there should be a core of statistics that, I hope, is consistent across the United Kingdom.

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

I must tell the hon. Lady that if Janet and John were reading the book, they would still be confused about her request. I have heard nobody suggest that there should not be a core of statistics enabling comparisons from region to region, country to country and so on. However, does she suggest that in the interests of the centralised consistency that she seeks, we should collect statistics on the speaking of Welsh in north-east England? It might be interesting, but the resources would not be well devoted to that.

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

No, I am not saying that. As I have said on several occasions, statistics that are relevant to some areas of the United Kingdom will not be relevant  to others. I do not believe that the issue is controversial for the parties. The Minister recognises the importance of dealing with the problem of the fragmentation of statistics. That is why he has worked hard to bring the devolved Administrations into the new framework.

I hope that the Bill will help to remedy the problems to which I have adverted. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance that the Bill will tackle fragmentation to ensure that we can compare poverty levels in Glasgow, in Tyne and Wear and in the east end of London, for example. That is an important function of our statistical services, and that is why it is important that the Bill reduces fragmentation and ensures that there is consistency between key statistics throughout the United Kingdom.

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

I happen to agree with the hon. Lady about the fragmentation of what I call British statistics, at least in so far as ensuring their quality, accuracy and completeness, which is uniformly first class throughout all statistics produced by the nations, the provinces and the UK as a whole. It is also correct that there must be UK data, not least to fulfil international obligations. However, there must not and there cannot be uniformity for the sake of it. Should a devolved Administration require statistics in a form that they define, it would be a matter for them alone, so long as the statistics, official or national, fulfilled all other criteria set by the board, particularly on quality, completeness and on-time delivery.

The hon. Lady suggested that a devolved Administration may restrict or stop the calculation of a statistic that shows them in a poor light. However, given the absence of accurate data, particularly economic data, not only in the UK, England and parts of England, but in Scotland, it is far more likely that the Administration would seek to commission the information that they required. The information that they may not consent to is information or statistics that they presumably do not consider necessary to set policy priorities, to measure the success or failure of policies and so on.

We know from previous sittings that the Treasury controls the appointment to and size of the board, and that the Treasury can restrict the board’s direction in the case of failure, which we will come to. The Treasury can also restrict the disclosure of information to and from the board, particularly if the devolved Administrations request or demand it. The clause is a useful safeguard to ensure that Administrations cannot have foisted upon them information that they consider to be of no value. However, the provision relates only to fully devolved statistics. State-wide statistics, which the hon. Lady wants for the purposes of comparison, will of course be provided because they are UK statistics.

I am not sure what we heard from the hon. Lady, but the clause offers a degree of protection against Administrations becoming burdened with statistics for which they have little or no use. Other clauses allow them to direct the production of statistics that they need. The hon. Lady’s fears are unfounded. Given the Treasury’s command and control of other parts of the process, which we have discussed, I would have thought that she would have been delighted to see that at least one part of the process is fully in the control of the Assembly in Wales, the Parliament in Scotland and the Administration in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

With regard to the Scottish Parliament, if the board were to produce statistics that showed taxpayers south of the border that the Barnett formula was favourable to those north of the border, would the hon. Gentleman want to expose that to scrutiny?

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

I am not sure why any politician would not like scrutiny of the facts. I would be delighted for a statistic to show what we already know, which is that the Barnett squeeze is reducing the amount of money per head in Scotland, year on year.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. Stick to the Bill, please.

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

I am being admonished, but I was teased into it by the hon. Gentleman. [ Interruption.] Well, it was such an easy target.

The clause is to be welcomed, because it allows the devolved Administrations at least a little control, if only in stopping unnecessary demands for unnecessary statistics and freeing up more time for the statisticians, the board and others to provide new information that is needed.

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

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet used the opportunity given by the discussion of the clause to register a few concerns about the nature of devolved statistics and comparability across the United Kingdom, and she was right to do so. We share her concerns, which was clear from the consultation and the way in which we framed the Bill. The decision of the devolved Administrations to participate fully in the provisions of the Bill goes some way to addressing those concerns.

Under the devolution settlement, devolved Administrations have responsibility for devolved matters such as education, health and local economic development. That includes the production of statistics relating to those matters, such as statistics on pupil numbers, cancer operations and local planning applications. Devolved statistical production predates by some way the devolution settlement and Simon Briscoe’s comments in the Financial Times. Wales, Northern Ireland and particularly Scotland have different legal, political and education systems, which leads to the production of relevant statistics. That has meant that direct comparability in those areas has been difficult for some time.

Given the devolution settlement and our determination not to open it up wider with this Bill, it is right that the Board should obtain the consent of the relevant devolved Administrations to produce statistics on devolved matters. The clause allows the board to produce and publish statistics on any UK matter. It is important that the board should continue to do so, not least because we are concerned to aid the coherence of UK statistics, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet is. The Office for National Statistics compendium “Social Trends”covers both devolved and non-devolved statistics to give a definitive overview of the United Kingdom. Where it impinges on devolved statistics, it is right that consent is obtained from the Administrations.

The hon. Lady cited some of the technical and practical difficulties that analysts and researchers had in bringing together statistics from devolved sources. Those concerns were raised during the consultation, and we are as keen as she is to deal with that issue. She urged me to confirm, as I think I already have, that I believe that the Bill will be helpful because the devolved Administrations have decided to participate fully. That means that the board will have a responsibility in its remit to monitor and report on statistics in the devolved Administrations.

As I have said, the Government are committed to working with the devolved Administrations to review what is already in place as non-legislative agreements, including the formal concordat to try to improve the degree of consistency and coherence. I hope that this brief debate has been useful to the hon. Lady and that she will agree to the clause standing part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.