Clause 52

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:00 pm on 25th January 2007.

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Cessation of Office for National Statistics etc

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

I wish to speak briefly on the clause, which envisages the abolition of the Office for National Statistics and the Statistics Commission. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of both those organisations.

With regard to the ONS, the key problem that we have focused on is the treatment by Ministers of statistics. Of course it is important to consider the methodology and quality of the production of statistics, but there is consensus that they are of high quality. The problem that we are trying to address is political interference, or the perception of it, in the fruits of the labours of statisticians. I pay tribute to the high quality of the work of Government statisticians.

I also congratulate the Statistics Commission on its excellent work since it was founded in 2000, and I give credit to the Government for setting it up. It has been a fearless defender of statistical integrity and a fearless critic of ministerial activities in a number of instances. As we have stated, it is a weakness of the Bill that it merges the activities of the Office for National Statistics and the Statistics Commission. That was why we tabled a number of amendments to separate responsibility for the production of statistics from the responsibility to scrutinise their production and release. There would have been a much more effective structure if the Bill had kept those functions separate, as illustrated by the effective role played by the Statistics Commission in the past few years.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is absolutely right to single out the clause. It is contained in a part of the Bill entitled “Consequential” but it is not entirely  consequential. We are, of course, replacing the ONS with the statistics board, but we are abolishing the only watchdog that we have, the Statistics Commission. I, too, as the chairman of the Sub-Committee to which the commission was accountable, wish to pay tribute to its work under first Sir John Kingman and then Professor David Rhind. They had a small budget and a small staff, which has contributed in no small measure to the proposed improvements.

I ask the Financial Secretary for more detail on the timetable for the abolition of the two bodies. As I understand clause 71, it refers to different commencement orders being laid for different provisions. I am not sure whether the abolition will have to come into force as a whole or whether it will be possible to delay the commencement of clause 52(b)—the abolition of the commission—until we are sure that the appropriate replacement scrutiny functions are in place. I understand why the board will take on the existing functions and staff of the ONS—that is quite clear. It does not necessarily follow that within a week or so of the Bill being passed the Statistics Commission, our only watchdog, must be swept away. Given the pace with which change is implemented in the House, it is wholly possible that the House willnot have come to a conclusion on the scrutiny arrangements that it wishes to make to replace the Statistics Commission.

I understand that it is not for the Financial Secretary or the Government to prescribe the new scrutiny arrangements. Indeed he has emphasised, if I am right, that that will be a matter for the House as a whole or probably for both Houses of Parliament. However, it is in the gift of the Financial Secretary to decide when the existing watchdog will be abolished under the clause. Can he confirm that it will be possible for him to delay the commencement order in clause 52(b) if he wishesto do so?

Will the Minister give the Committee further illustration of the proposed timetable? Is it intended to abolish both bodies swiftly after the Bill is passed, or is there to be a longer implementation period? He will understand that a large number of staff not only of the ONS but of the commission will be affected. It would be helpful if he indicated the timetable for the replacement of the two bodies that are being abolished.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1:15 pm, 25th January 2007

I shall begin by replying to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, and then I shall turn to the questions that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks asked.

The clause provides for the Office of National Statistics and the Statistics Commission to cease to exist as administrative entities. “Abolition” of the Office of National Statistics, as the hon. Lady put it, is rather misleading and inappropriate, because its functions and service will be carried out under the legal remit of the board, which will become the legal entity.

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

I concede that the use of “abolition” was infelicitous.

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

I have trouble saying that word, let alone understanding its proper application. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s point.

The board will assume all functions that the Office of National Statistics undertakes, with the exception of the civil registration duties. I am not sure that “abolition” is entirely appropriate or that it pays due recognition to the role of the Statistics Commission. Its work has paved the way for the Bill, its responsibilities will be assumed by the board, and the commission has contributed a great deal to our understanding of how important it is for the statistics system to evolve.

I join in paying special tribute to the chairmen who have served the Statistics Commission and to their work. Over the seven years of its existence, they have consistently produced high-quality, wide-ranging research and reports, which have greatly added to our understanding of how the system has worked, and have given us ideas about how to fashion it in the future.

We have made it clear before that the property rights and liabilities of the ONS will transfer to the board. Any statutory references to the ONS will be amended after Royal Assent so that they refer to the board.

In response to the questions that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks asked, I have in earlier discussions about the Bill been clear that at an appropriate point during its passage, I shall consider the appointment of a chairman to the shadow statistics board, allowing him or her to start without delay preparations to put the board in place. I shall do so without offending any propriety of this House or of the other place. However, all hon. Members will agree that the current shape of the statistics system will not benefit from undue delay, and if we can move properly to ensure that the transition is as rapid and as smooth as possible, we should.

I have also been clear that if Parliament assents to the Bill, we want the board in place and in operation from April 2008. The Statistics Commission has already undertaken some useful work to prepare what it believes could form the basis of a code of practice. It will be one of the board’s responsibilities, and central to the operation of the new statistical system. The commission is undertaking important work with us to prepare to hand over its responsibilities to the statistics board.

The short answer to the second question askedby the hon. Member for Sevenoaks is that it is theoretically, legally and technically possible to delay the implementation of paragraph (b). However, it is probably most appropriate to ensure that the changes are implemented together, not least because the commission’s responsibilities will become the board’s and there is no obvious sense or gain in having two competing bodies with the same responsibilities. I hope that that is helpful to hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and I ask that the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I am grateful to the Financial Secretary first of all for what he said about the Statistics Commission and secondly for making it clear that different parts of this section could in fact be brought into effect on different dates.

I am not sure that he has gone as far as he can on the point about the watchdog. I am not sure that he fully appreciated what I was saying and perhaps I did not  put it as fully as I should have done. If the new board comes into operation in April 2008, Parliament cannot set up a fresh scrutiny process. It cannot scrutinise a board that does not exist. If the Statistics Commission is abolished, therefore, in its watchdog function—I appreciate that some of its functions are transferring to the board— once the board begins its legal existence, as he hopes, in April 2008 there is going to be a gap in the scrutiny arrangements before new arrangements are put into place. I urge him, if he to reflect on that point. Parliament can scrutinise the statistics board only once it gets going in April 2008 and I still suggest there may be some merit in continuing the life of the Statistics Commission at least for the rest of this year so that we are not left with a gap when no one is scrutinising what is being proposed.

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

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger, not uncharacteristically, on quite an important point, but I think he would accept that it really cannot be for me to propose or set the terms in which Parliament considers how it wants to play its proper role of scrutinising and holding the new system to account or indeed the pace at which Parliament considers that. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope, and I know from the interest that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House takes in these matters, that such discussionsand any decisions that may be appropriate will not be left until the statistics board is up and running inApril 2008.

It also seems to me, although the hon. Gentleman may have greater experience and be able to contradict me on this, that Parliament can set itself up in any way that it chooses to scrutinise whatever it chooses. If Parliament decides that certain arrangements are appropriate for the new system, I can see no immediate reason why it should not set such arrangements up whenever it wished. Perhaps I am tempting fate, but it may well be that, if Parliament does that, it will take an active interest in scrutinising and holding to account the preparation that Ministers and others are making for the full operation of the new system that will, I hope, come into force, in April 2008.

I do not see the problem that the hon. Gentleman points to. Although it is not within my authority or remit to solve this, I hope that he will play his part in Parliament in making sure that scrutiny and accountability arrangements are in place in good time. I do not see the strength of his argument for prolonging the existence of the Statistics Commission when we will have in place a statistics board taking over the responsibilities of the Statistics Commission, with a much wider and more powerful remit to boot.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.