Clause 42

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 25th January 2007.

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Information held by HMRC

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to move amendment No. 170, in clause 42, page 18, line 36, leave out from ‘other’ to end of line 38.

This is another probing amendment on the ability of data to be released and shared, in this case between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the board. I understand why the clause states:

“Subsection (1) does not authorise the disclosure of personal information”.

It then gives the exemption:

“other than personal information relating to the import or export of goods to or from the United Kingdom.”

I should be grateful to the Financial Secretary if he could explain why we need the exemption and why he seeks to qualify the general position on authorisation by reference to the subset of information that is collected by Revenue and Customs.

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

In essence, the hon. Gentleman asks why we need this wording and this specific focus on import and export data, particularly if we are already sharing them. The answer lies in the implementation of section 18 of the Commissioners for Revenues and Customs Act 2005. That limited HMRC’s ability to share information, by laying down the general rule that HMRC may not disclose any information held or received by it in the course of its functions.

Since the 2005 Act came into force, officials have been examining the HMRC’s disclosures of data to ensure they are consistent with the rules laid down in the CRC Act. Those investigations have brought to light two occasions when information has been disclosed to the ONS and then fed into the compilation of national accounts, so it has that important function.

The 2005 Act permits HMRC to disclose data in certain specified circumstances, one of which is where another provision authorises disclosure. That is similar to subsection (4)(a) in the previous clause. The clause will form such a provision to ensure that HMRC can lawfully share data with the new board in the same way as the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise shared data with the ONS. So it is intended to put beyond any doubt the basis for the necessary and current sharing of information that relates to import and export data.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Is the Financial Secretary suggesting that there was some doubt about the legality of the data sharing between HMRC and the ONS that the clause is needed to correct?

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

As I have explained, there are two occasions specifically, when looking at the disclosures of data from HMRC, when it will be helpful to have greater clarity and certainty than we believe at present the 2005 Act offers. That is the basis for the provision that we have included in clause 42.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I think that clarification is helpful, as we are obviously clarifying the drafting of a previous Act. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I want to pursue more generally the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham. The clause is very wide, and I fully understand what the Financial Secretary has just said. He is trying to replicate a power in the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005, to ensure that the information that is sent to the ONS under that Act continues to be sent to the board. However, that is not quite what clause 42(1) would do. It refers to information in connection with

“any function of the Revenue and Customs.”

I have two concerns about that.

First, the restriction of that information is not contained in the clause itself but set out in the explanatory notes. Paragraph 165 states:

“It is intended that two categories of data will be disclosed under this provision”.

That does not reassurance us much. Presumably, the Financial Secretary could add to those categories, or a future Minister with new intentions could specify further categories of information to be disclosed. Can the Minister reassure me that the explanatory notes contain the existing categories that are disclosed and that it will not be possible to widen them further than is suggested by the intentions that are set out?

My second question is on a point recently raised by the hon. Member for Slough, who is sadly not in her place. I quite understand why personal information will not be disclosable under the clause—I welcome that—but the Financial Secretary has referred to one of the central problems that besets the ONS: the lack of comprehensive data on migration.

One of the key matters is the number of people entitled to national insurance cards and those who are registered and deregistered for them. At the moment, that seems a hazy area. Even though personal information cannot be disclosed, under the clause, can the board produce more accurate migration statistics by examining the data on the number of national insurance cards, or can it only examine data on the collection of national insurance contributions—in other words, the amount paid, rather than the number of cards issued?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest in the clause and his attempt to help the Committee understand the Government’s thinking.

The clause does indeed permit the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs or an officer of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to pass information held by HMRC to the board for use in connection with one or more of its statistical functions. It only permits the sharing of personal information—defined in clause 36, as data that can identify individuals or businesses—that relates to the import or export of goods. That is considered personal information because it can identify businesses and, in some cases, individuals who are sole traders.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks tempts me to stiffen the clarity and commitment in the explanatory notes. It is intended that two categories of data will be shared under the clause, both of which are currently shared. Any future Minister or Government could make amendments, as is the case with any legislation in any policy area.

The first category of data to which the provision will apply is

“summary data, including information on income tax and National Insurance contributions, which is currently provided by Revenue and Customs to ONS, to allow ONS to produce statistics, including estimates of the UK national income, as a part of their production of the UK National Accounts”.

Those data are not personally identifiable. They are less relevant to the future improvement of migration and population statistics than some of the proposals that the National Statistician is putting in place through her recent working group. If hon. Members want to pursue their concern about the quality of migration statistics, I refer them to the group’s report.

The second category of data is

“information relating to the import or export of goods to and from the UK, which is currently passed from Revenue and Customs to ONS to allow ONS to produce statistics. ONS use the data to identify businesses to survey about import and export prices, and in the analysis of the results of such surveys. Results from ONS’s surveys feed into indices of the prices charged to producers (part of the measurement of the value added by UK manufacturers), and into analyses of the UK balance of payments in the National Accounts.”

That information is considered personal, as defined under the Bill, because individuals can be identified from it. If the ONS did not receive that information from HMRC, it would need to survey many more businesses to find out which of them import and export goods. All hon. Members will appreciate that that would significantly increase the survey burden on businesses. Furthermore, the quality of the statistics that ultimately come into the national accounts would be impaired. On that basis, I hope that hon. Members will accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.