110. The Government's proposes that the new independent
statistics office should have "full and direct accountability
to Parliament in the same way as other independent institutions,
such as the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority
and the competition regulators".
The Government has identified three mechanisms by which Parliament
already performs a scrutiny function in relation to statistics:
the select committee system; the laying of reports; and Parliamentary
Questions. The Government's consultation paper invites Parliament
"to consider how it can use these mechanisms to reinforce
its role in scrutinising the performance of the reformed statistical
system and in holding the new board to account".
111. The Bank of England, the Financial Services
Authority (FSA) and the competition regulators are accountable
to Parliament in broadly similar ways. Both the Bank of England
and the FSA must present a report to HM Treasury on the achievement
of their statutory objectives each year; this report is subsequently
laid before Parliament by a minister. Parliamentary Questions
relating to the Bank of England or the FSA are directed towards,
and answered by, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This Committee
regularly calls members of both bodies to give evidence on their
performance.The various competition regulators (for example, Ofcom and
Ofgem) report to Parliament via the ministers and select committees
most closely associated with their fields.
113. Lord Moser told us that he was "quite concerned"
about how Parliament would deal with the new non-ministerial department.
He argued that the statistical system covered more than just economic
statistics and that therefore select committees other than the
"purely economic committees in the Commons and Lords"
would need to be involved.
He told us that he also hoped some way would be found "for
the Lords to be involved in this whole process".
114. The Director of Registration and Corporate Services
at the ONS suggested to us that a separate statistics select committee
could be established to hold the independent statistics office
I think there is another option that one might have
a separate statistics committee devoted entirely to this, but
I think this is a matter for Parliament and, as the proposals
develop, we would hope you would provide some guidance on that.
in many ways it is for Parliament itself, including
a leading view from this Committee, [to decide] how Parliament
wants to develop its own scrutiny and reporting requirements of
the new system.
117. In practice, all papers laid before the House
of Commons must be laid by a Member or, in a few agreed cases,
by the Clerk of the House.
The Government itself has previously recognised the constraints
on a body in reporting directly to Parliament. The then Minister
for Young People, Children and Families, Rt Hon Margaret Hodge
MP, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights in June 2004 that
"the way in which what is in effect a non-departmental public
body reports to Parliament is traditionally through the Secretary
of State who has a responsibility for the NDPB".
She said that her understanding of the conventions was that, if
a report were to be considered by Parliament, it had to be considered
"through the vehicle of Secretary of State".
118. The Clerk of the House told us that "relatively
few" categories of papers had been laid by him in the past:
They have included the reports of the Comptroller
and Auditor General (the National Audit Office) and of the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman), both of whom
are officers of the House; certain papers generated within the
House (such as the Sessional Returns), and Church Measures.
The Clerk told us that more recently he had agreed
to also "lay reports from certain health bodies where the
Act required that they be laid before being provided by the Secretary
He said that he had also recently agreed to lay reports from the
Information Commissioner "in the light of the independent
status of his office", and he told us that "in principle"
he would be willing to lay reports from the new independent statistics
office, "provided that it was established with an equivalent
independence from Government".
In this context, he noted that under the Government's proposals,
"a large proportion of statistics [would] continue to be
produced in government departments and agencies rather than in
[the] ONS itself" and that "the annual reports of other
Non-Ministerial Departments are laid by government Ministers".
The Clerk said that, before making a firm commitment, he would
"obviously" want to take account of our conclusions
on the independence of the statistics office as proposed by the
121. The Minister explained that this suggestion
was somewhat exploratory:
that is an idea we are floating in the consultation
document to see, in particular, whether there is a parliamentary
appetite for altering arrangements as they have always taken place.
He said that the idea behind the proposal was again
to "emphasise" that the Government was "looking
to take the practice and the perception of ministers being involved
in an accounting process out of the frame".
122. The Clerk of the House told us that the answering
of Parliamentary Questions by the Chairs of the committees responsible
for statistical matters would "raise some practical problems."
First, a judgement would have to be made as to whether the answer
to a Question would fall "partly or entirely within the responsibility
of the National Statistician":
If Questions continue to be addressed to ministers,
then ministers make that judgement, answering Questions to the
extent that they are responsible, and referring the remainder
to the National Statistician. If, on the other hand, Questions
were to be tabled to Chairmen of Committees, any part of the answer
which was thought to be outside the responsibilities of the National
Statistician could not be given in this way, but would have to
be sought by a further Question to the responsible minister.
Secondly, he considered that the role suggested in
the consultation paper would place select committee Chairmen in
an "equivocal position":
Although a fully independent ONS would not be a ministerial
creature, it would be very odd to have representatives of a Select
Committee system, whose purpose includes the scrutiny of such
bodies, taking responsibility in the House for information supplied
by the ONS. Some, perhaps most, Chairmen might be reluctant to
be put in such a position.
The Clerk suggested that it was "easy to imagine
a situation where the reference of a Question to the National
Statistician for reply might be politically contentious".
He referred to the example of a Member believing that the responsibility
for answering a Question lay with ministers and therefore feeling
that passing the responsibility to the National Statistician was
tantamount to avoiding an answer.
The Clerk concluded that overall, the alternative answering route
suggested in the consultation paper would "at the least be
cumbersome", but might also have "considerable practical
It would seem preferable to keep the present arrangements
in place. Using the convenience of a ministerial [Parliamentary
Question] to get information from the statistics office into the
public domain would not in itself call into question the independence
of the office; and a reply formula might be devised which made