Clause 44

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 25th January 2007.

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Power to authorise disclosure to the Board

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to move amendment No. 171, in clause 44, page 19, line 20, at end insert—

‘(4A) notwithstanding subsection (4), any personal information acquired under section 44 cannot be disclosed.’.

Clause 44 gives powers to the Treasury to make regulations to enable or require public authorities to disclose information to the board. I understand why such powers may be required: to reduce the costs of national statistics and improve their comprehensiveness and accuracy. There is certainly great support from the business community for measures that seek to reduce the cost of data collection when there are alternative routes. That underpins part of the argument forclause 42.

The amendment is designed to address concerns about creating information gateways. I am worried that we are creating the potential for data to flow from the public authority to the board and then, throughthe provisions of clauses 36 and 44, to another Government body. Is it appropriate for the board to be  used as a conduit in that way? Would it not be far better for the information gateway to be directed, when that is required and necessary, between the public authority and the Government Department that might use the data?

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

The way I read it, clause 44 contains quite wide powers for the Treasury to authorise the disclosure of information where disclosure would otherwise be illegal or ultra vires. Although that information can only be gathered for statistical purposes and cannot be used for any other reasons, I support amendment No. 171, which clarifies a point about which I was concerned before by seeking to ensure that any personal information obtained in that way cannot be disclosed. That is important, because at the moment, under subsection (6)(b), the Treasury can make regulations containing “consequential and supplementary” provisions, which could authorise further disclosure by the board, even where that would otherwise be illegal, as mentioned in subsection (7)(b).

In the absence of amendment No. 171, I am concerned that the Treasury could, effectively, make regulations and not be subject to any scrutiny, thereby empowering the board to collect personal information and then to disclose it, even where it would otherwise be illegal. That sweeping power should, at least, contain a ban on the disclosure of personal information, as amendment No. 171 provides.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Would not the hon. Gentleman’s remarks be better addressed to the debate on clause 48, titled “Power to authorise disclosure by the Board”? We are discussing clause 44—and amendments thereto—which is titled “Power to authorise disclosure to the Board: Scotland”

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I could have done it either way, but I decided to raise the point in relation to clause 44.

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

Before dealing with specific amendments and points raised by the hon. Members for Fareham and for Braintree about amendmentNo. 171, I should like to say that clause 44 is the central clause relating to the power to authorise disclosure of information to the board. It is worth emphasising that the aim of the clause and the Bill is to ensure that information can be shared to provide better services and better policies to support those public services for citizens and businesses and that it can be used in other instances where that is in the public interest. We are creating a framework that will ensure the continued sharing of data between the ONS and other parts of the Government for the purpose of statistical production and analysis. We are also creating a mechanism to allow for increased data sharing between the ONS and other parts of the Government, and vice versa, where that is for the sole purpose of statistical production—and only where that sharing is judged to be in the public interest.

The specific extensions of access will be agreed through secondary legislation that will be subjectto parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative procedure and will therefore require the approval of the  House. I believe that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and other Committee members have recognised, there is in principle a clear case for stronger sharing of administrative data. Such sharing can improve the quality of statistical data and analysis and improve our ability to make and judge the impact of policy. Re-use of data means that statisticians can produce richer statistics and better analyses, often without needing to survey the same topic again. It also has the potential to bring benefits in reducing the burden on those responsible for completing, or required to complete, the surveys on which many of our official statistics depend.

The 2005 report by the Better Regulation Task Force, “Regulation—Less is More. Reducing Burdens, Improving Outcomes”, recommended increased data sharing between Departments to reduce the intrusion on business and the complexity and the time required for businesses to complete surveys. The Confederation of British Industry echoed a recommendation that Philip Hampton made in his 2005 review:

“It would, in principle, be helpful if government departments and regulators could hare information to reduce duplication”.

As part of the Whitehall-wide plan to reduce administrative burdens, the ONS has committed, as part of its simplification plan, to making £10 million worth of reductions in the burden of business by 2015. Almost two thirds of those savings—approximately£6 million—are expected to come from the greater use of administrative data for statistical purposes in place of the survey returns from respondents that are currently required.

The other principal case for greater data sharing is to deal with declining survey response rates. The response rates in many of the ONS’s major surveys have declined in recent years. The general household survey had an 83 per cent. response rate when it was introduced in 1971, but that response had fallen to 72 per cent. by 2005. As survey response rates decline, the chances become higher that the results will be distorted and less reliable and will not truly represent the state of the British population.

Enhancing the sharing of administrative data will help us to deal with some of the problems with declining survey response rates, and will reduce the cost to the Government of conducting the surveys. That can help in three ways. First, it can help statisticians to compensate for lower response rates by allowing them to augment the information that is available for analysis. Secondly, it can help statistical services to target future surveys at those who are less likely to respond, because it will allow them to define more clearly and accurately the groups in which response rates are a concern and to concentrate attentionand activity on them. Thirdly, the greater use of administrative data might, in the long term, offer an alternative to survey activity.

Our approach provides for extensions to currentdata sharing under the powers in clauses 44 to 50. In broad terms, there could be increased data sharing between the board and other public authorities where regulations are made to permit such sharing. Of course, any such regulations would be subject to  further scrutiny and approval by Parliament. In practice, the discussion and preparation of potential regulations will be between the board and Departments, but, importantly, Ministers will be required to give formal agreement prior to the laying of any such order before the House or any devolved Administration.

We adopted that approach to allow the system to evolve. Data sets might be created that could bring significant benefits to statistical analysis if they are linked with those produced by other Departments. Clause 44 and the following clauses will permit further sharing under regulations. We are doing that through regulations rather than primary legislation to allow flexibility in the system for future evolution. The system must be able to adapt to future statistical resources and needs. It must also allow scope for new indicators to be developed that can provide a more accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive and meaningful description of the UK through the statistics and analyses that we produce.

Amendment No. 171 would prevent the board from sharing with others information received under the regulations, but, in general, the circumstances in which the board is able to share data that it has received from other public authorities under the enabling clause are limited. As we discussed, clause 36 includes the limited list of exceptions to the obligation of confidentiality. Clause 44 restricts the exceptions further, so unlessthe regulations make provision to permit further disclosure, the board will not be able to share such data in pursuit of its functions or with approved researchers as a matter of course. It is important that the public have confidence that their personal information will be held securely. Under subsection (4), the board will not therefore be able to share data that it has acquired through the enabling clause in pursuit of its function or with approved researchers.

The provisions leave the board able to disclosethe information only in the remaining, limited, circumstances covered in clause 36. To allow sharing in those circumstances is sensible and necessary, for reasons similar to those that we discussed during our consideration of clause 36. It is right that the board should be able lawfully to share information, for example in response to a court order, to comply witha community obligation, or to aid a criminal investigation, or to release information that has already been lawfully released. We do not want to make release of data in those circumstances a criminal offence.

There are occasions when the board needs to share data with others. The clause appropriately captures those circumstances. The hon. Member for Fareham indicated that his was a probing amendment; I hope that I have given him sufficient reassurance not to feel the need to take it further.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:15 am, 25th January 2007

I thank the Minister for his remarks.

I would like to complete the CBI quotation that the Minister used earlier. The CBI said:

“However, the information provided must only be used for the same type of purpose by all bodies and careful and detailed consideration must be given to concerns related to data protection and privacy.”

That strand has been running through the debate. I would argue that if information is held by another public body, that body could be served a court order to release it, rather than people going through the board or the Office for National Statistics. I understand the Minister’s point and the rationale behind data sharing, but we need to examine more carefully how we restrict data that are shared, to ensure that they are released predominantly for statistical use, with certain specified  exemptions. That may be a theme that we return toat a later date. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes pastTen o’clock, till this day at One o’clock.