Clause 18

Part of Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 23rd January 2007.

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Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 5:15 pm, 23rd January 2007

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 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.