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I welcome what he has said, although I shudder to think that the convention is bedding in by there being more wars and therefore more parliamentary approval. Is it not extraordinary that in the United States, which
is a democracy with an Executive President, war-making powers must be approved by the legislature, but in this country, where the Prime Minister and his colleagues derive their authority from this House, there is no formal arrangement for our agreement?
Mr. Straw: First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that it was this Government and this Prime Minister who ensured for the first time, back in September 2002when the possibility of military action was there, but by no means a probability or a certaintythat in the event of a Cabinet decision to take military action, that would have to be endorsed by this House before it came into force. This Prime Minister did that; previous practice had been very varied.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should not look at the practice in the United States through rose-tinted spectacles. The truth is that it has been the subject of enormous controversy there. It is not the case that what anybody else regards as war has to be, and has been, the subject of prior decision by the United States Congress. As it happens, our practice is consistent with that of, for example, Australia and Canada. When we are moving in this direction, we need to take account of the fact that in Europe, where there is, as we accept, tighter parliamentary control, that has in some cases acted unnecessarily and irresponsibly to restrict the proper discretion of the military. We can move forward on this, but it requires a sensible approach on both sides of the House.
Nick Harvey (North Devon):
As on a previous occasion when the hon. Gentleman asked a similar question, it is not possible to give a single overall figure within its terms. As he knows, the Fairtrade Foundation lists only a rather limited range of products available through catering distribution and supply in London. However, I am pleased to say that the House has spent about £45,000 on fair trade products since April and a further £40,000 on souvenir products from various ethical initiatives. The
Refreshment Department is re-tendering for the supply of coffee to the House and has specified that all coffee must be approved by the Fairtrade Foundation.
Mr. Bone: More than 5 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America have benefited from the sale of fair trade products, some 1,500 of which are available in the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be setting an example in the Palace of Westminster, that we should have more products available, and that we should have a minimum target for such sales?
Nick Harvey: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the benefits of the Fairtrade Foundation. As I said, only a limited range of products is available through the catering supply industry. Retail sale is a different issue in which the House is not involved. We are buying, where available, in all product categories bar one, and doing all we can to increase the volume of fair trade produce as time goes on.
Nick Harvey: A campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues has been running for more than a year to encourage people to switch off unnecessary equipment and lighting. The campaign has included regular presentations, guest speakers, two exhibitions and articles in the staff magazine, inHouse. It is reckoned that the most cost-effective way to control unnecessary lighting is for people to switch off lights when they leave rooms rather than to have automatic light systems that allow a time delay before switching lights off automatically.
Mr. Hollobone: I do not know who is responsible for keeping the lights on in Star Chamber Court throughout the day under the very expensive £450,000 glass canopy, but could they be instructed to turn them off during the day? For a Parliament that is meant to be interested in climate change, a remarkably large number of lights are left on throughout the daylight hours.
Nick Harvey: I will take note of the hon. Gentlemans specific point about the covered walkway and ask for officers to investigate that. I repeat that the most effective way to save electricity is simply for everybody on the estate to be more diligent about turning lights off.
[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Treasury Committee, Independence for Statistics, Session 2005-06, HC 1111; and the Governments response thereto, Seventh Special Report from the Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 1604; and Independence for Statistics: the Government response to public consultation, November 2006.]
I am pleased to open the debate on Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which, for the first time in Britain, legislates for the independence of statistics. I am encouraged by the broad welcome for the measure and the amount of interest in our plans from both major Opposition parties and the Treasury Committee.
The House has a central role in and responsibility for the new statistics system, not only in scrutinisingand, I hope, passingthe necessary legislation but in holding the new statistics board and the operation of the new system to account. In future, the new independent statistics board will have statutory responsibility for ensuring the quality, good practice and comprehensiveness of all official statistics. Unlike the Office for National Statistics at present, the board will be outside Ministers control and accountable directly to Parliament. I therefore hope that, alongside debate on the Bill, hon. Members will consider how Parliament can best discharge its new scrutiny functions for the independent statistics system.
It is 60 years since the last major statistical measure, which was the Statistics of Trade Act 1947. It is therefore a historic day in the development of the UKs statistics system. The Bill sets out plans for many of the proposals that professional statistical interests have pressed on us. They include: the demand that we introduce new legislation to safeguard and reinforce trust in statistics; the demand that we introduce a statutory code of practice; the suggestion that we introduce new arrangements for greater sharing of administrative data; the request for tighter arrangements for pre-release access to Ministers and officials, and the suggestion that we develop the system so that it can be UK-wide rather than applying simply to England.
John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the Government for introducing the Bill, which, as my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said, has been 60 years in the making. I also commend the work of the Treasury Sub-Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). I know that the Government have taken great heed of the Treasury Committees recommendations on statistics.
However, does my hon. Friend agree that the kernel of the matter is public trust and that perception of political interference must therefore be swept away?
Will he give due consideration to the statistics from the Office for National Statistics and from the Department so that we not only have but are seen to have an independent Statistics Commission?
John Healey: I said a moment ago that I welcomed and was glad of the Treasury Committees active interest. I pay tribute to the work of the Sub-Committee, which the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) chairs and the long-standing interest that the Committee has shown in the credibility and integrity of official statistics. Several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whom I am glad to see in his place, have pursued and followed the subject for a long time.
I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), who chairs the Treasury Committee, that we have taken the Committees report seriously. We have responded to several of the major recommendations, which I shall outline this afternoon. He is right that we need to reinforce not only the quality but the integrity of and trust in official statistics.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is well aware of the importance of nationally collected statistics to the provision of local services. Many in local government give a broad and warm welcome to the measure, but they express some concerns about whether the Bill as drafted will facilitate effective co-operation between responsible public bodies working for the public good. Will my hon. Friend say a word or two about that? Of course it is important to maintain the protection of sensitive data, but he spoke about sharing administrative data. Will he clarify what he means by that, and specify the exclusions?
John Healey: I shall come on to the Bills proposals for data sharing. I hope that the essential feature will reassure my hon. Friend: any arrangements proposed in future for greater sharing of administrative data will need to be agreed between the Department responsible and the new statistics boardand not only that, as the provisions will be set out in secondary legislation, which I have ensured will be subject to the affirmative resolution process, giving the House a further opportunity to scrutinise and then approve such arrangements in future.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab):
I am grateful and add my congratulations to the Government on introducing the Bill. However, going back to the need to gain public confidence in published data, I propose a comparison with the establishment of the Monetary Policy Committee. Under the previous Conservative Government, that committee was established without total independence, but the present Government, to their great credit, gave it complete independence in deciding its business. Would not the move to re-establish public confidence in statistics be advanced if the commission itselfrather than the House or the
Governmentcould decide which series of data it published? In other words, I make a plea that todays Bill be a Brown rather than a Clarke reform.
John Healey: If my right hon. Friend examines the detailed proposals, he will see that the principal part of the system is not about the publication of data, which he is talking about, but the assessment and standards relating to that publication. He is right to point out that this is indeed the next step in the Chancellors reforms of the machinery of economic governance [Interruption.] If I can finish my sentence, I shall add that the new system is based on the approach adopted by the Government towards the independence of the Bank of England, the setting up of the Competition Commission and the Financial Services Authorityall moves in which formal devolution of ministerial power was accorded to credible, independent institutions with a clear remit set by Parliament and the Government. That is very much the approach that we are adopting in the Bill.
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): On the question of data sharing, does the Minister accept that it is essential that information does not reside in silos and that relevant information can be compared and measured so that reality can be tested? It is important that that is made as clear as possible, and that the legislation is made as enabling as possible. The Leader of the House will be familiar with the example of local authorities and the police being frequently reluctant to share information, even for the purposes of crime reduction. Specific measures needed to be put into the legislation in order to underline the public interest in the proper sharing of data. Surely that also applies to sharing the details of much statistical information.
John Healey: My right hon. Friend is right that there is indeed a strong public interest in greater sharing of administrative data, but I have to tell him that there is also a public interest in ensuring that the confidentiality of such data is properly protected. I hope that he will recognise that the clauses strike an appropriate balance between those two objectives. What is clear is that stronger sharing of administrative data can improve the quality of statistical data and analysis, and therefore improve our ability to make and judge the impact of policy while reducing the burden on those responsible for or required to complete the surveys on which many of our official statistics depend.
In the name of the 1,300 people who work in the statistics office in my constituency, I welcome the Bill. They have been distressed in the past by the collapse, due to the perception of ministerial interference, of much of the credibility of Government figures. Will the Minister guarantee that the Bill will enshrine the independence of the national statistician
and the statistics boardor Y Bwrdd Ystadegau, as it will be called in Walesso that they will be immune and untouched by any future ministerial or governmental interference of any colour?
John Healey: The Office for National Statistics, particularly its programme to relocate much of its personnel and expertise to Newport, has found a very warm welcome in my hon. Friends constituency and city, and I pay tribute to Newport for that. I can tell my hon. Friend that the Bill achieves precisely what he is looking for: it enshrines in legislation an independence for the national statistician and the statistics board, which should contribute in the longer run to the rebuilding of greater confidence and trust in official statistics. Our job in this Houseand our job as a Government who are prepared to relinquish many of our present powersis to set up a framework in which to develop greater quality and integrity for our official statistics.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Statistics are collected on only seven of the eight indices of social exclusion listed by the social exclusion unit. No statistics are collected on family breakdown. Does the Financial Secretary agree that it would be tremendously empowering for local practitioners who are trying to deal with that issue if such data could be collected by local neighbourhood area? Will he undertake to look into that omission?
John Healey: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to elaborate on that point in the debate on social exclusion that will take place on Thursday. In the context of the Bill, however, the duty that will be placed on the independent statistics board will be to assess, comment on and publicly report to the House on the comprehensiveness and quality of the statistics. The board will take a view on the adequacy not only of national statistics but of all official statistics. I am sure that the point that the hon. Gentleman has madeand which he might develop in Thursdays debatewill be taken into account by the statistics board when it comes to discharge its functions.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being typically generous in doing so this afternoon. I should like to take him back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who suggested that the statistics board should be given the power to decide which statistics should be national statistics. Why is that power to remain in large measure in the hands of Ministers? How can we hope to restore public trust and confidence in the system while it remains in their hands?
John Healey: This is an issue that hon. Members will wish to consider carefully, both in this debate and in Committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that our national statistics now cover some 1,300 statistics, including all the most important economic statistics and many of the most important employment and public service data sets. These help to inform us about the state of the economy and society, and they are covered by national statistics. I hope that he would also recognise that the coverage of our national statistics system in this country is as broad as, and comparable with, that of any other developed economy.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The Financial Secretary has stated explicitly that the statistics board will be independent of the Government and accountable instead to Parliament. That sounds like a good idea, but we need to be sure that that represents something more than just an abstract constitutional doctrine and that it will have meaningful effect. Will the Financial Secretary therefore tell the House what, in practice, will be connoted by the term scrutiny? What will we get that we do not already have, in terms of the opportunity to ask oral questions in one form or another, or an opportunity analogous to the debate on the reports of the Public Accounts Committee for Parliament independently to consider the independent output of the statistics board?
John Healey: I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is here, because the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will appreciate that his question relates precisely to matters that the House should consider for itself. It is not for me, or for the Government, to specify those arrangements. I have already said, however, that I hope that, alongside the passage of the Bill, there will be an active debate in the House about the nature of the scrutiny and the accountability that the House will require for the new independent statistics system and of the new board. The hon. Gentleman has a forensic mind for some of these matters, and I hope that he will help to lead that debate in the House.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The Financial Secretary asserted that the coverage of national statistics was very wide, and that the concerns about the narrow scope of the Bill being expressed on both sides of the House were therefore unjustified. Is he concerned about the Home Offices statement to the House of Commons Treasury Committee that only 12 per cent. of its statistical outputs were accredited as national statistics? That shows that the scope of national statistics is limited, and unless the scope of the Bill covers all official statistics it will not restore peoples trust and confidence in official figures.
John Healey: I should like to make two points. First, as I have said to the hon. Lady, the scope of the Bill is not narrow but includes all official statistics. The statistics board will have a duty in statute to assess, comment on and report to this House on quality, good practice and coverage in respect of all official statistics.
Secondly, the hon. Lady may like to know that this afternoon I placed in the House of Commons Library the updated list of national statistics, which totals nearly 1,300 statistics. Surely what is most important and practical is not that the boards audit function, about which I think that the hon. Lady was talking, should cover all Government-produced statistics, but that it should cover the most important Government statistics. That is precisely what the national statistics system is designed to achieve.
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