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John Healey: The national statistician will continue to be the Government’s principal statistical adviser and will continue, as she does at present, to speak out and comment publicly; but in future, under the Bill, the national statistician will be accountable and report not to Ministers—as she does at present to me—but to the
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independent statistics board. The board will be directly accountable not to Ministers but to Parliament. That reinforces the independence of the national statistician and, as I was about to make clear, it also reinforces the national statistician’s professional position. The national statistician will be the board’s chief executive and—this point may help the hon. Gentleman—the legislation will require that the board should publish its decision, and lay a report before Parliament, if it overrules the advice of the national statistician on professional matters. The national statistician will, of course, continue as the Government’s principal statistical adviser, and as the professional head of the Government statistical service.

In addition to spelling out the main provisions of the Bill, I can confirm to the House further details of our plans in three areas: transition arrangements; funding; and pre-release.

The House will appreciate that we are keen to ensure a smooth transition to the new system. Without prejudicing the views of this House in any way, may I say that we intend the system to begin in April 2008? I therefore aim to have appointed a shadow chair, with appropriate support for that chair, before the start of the new system, so that many of the crucial aspects of planning for the implementation can be steered and led by that shadow chair. I hope that the appointment will be made during the course of this year.

I have already made it clear that the funding arrangements for the board should reinforce statutory independence, and I have announced that the board’s funding will therefore be set outside the normal spending review process. The aim is to ensure that the board has a certainty of funding over several years, to aid long-term planning and to minimise the dealings that the board will need to have with the Treasury.

I can confirm that the Government will guarantee the board’s funding over five-year periods—considerably longer than the three-year settlements that apply to other Departments through the spending review process. The certainty will be guaranteed through the setting of a transparent formula for the annual resources to be given to the board in each of those five years. Following consultation responses and the recommendations of the Treasury Committee, I can confirm that we propose funding the census on a similar five-year period, integrated with the overall budget of the board.

Rob Marris: I was not sure at which point in the debate I might seek clarification on an aspect of the census. I speak as chair of the all-party group on UK Sikhs. There is a considerable movement in parts of the Sikh community in the United Kingdom for separate census enumeration for Sikhs, who, under the Mandla case of 1984, are a racial group as well as an ethnic one. Using that as an example, will my hon. Friend say how representations could be made when the new system comes into force so that a question relating to that matter could be included on the census? At the moment, we make what might be termed “broadly political” representations, but I understand that there will be a different scenario under the board. Will he explain how the process will work and, in terms of the
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time frame, whether the 2011 census and the questions thereon will have been finalised before or after the new board is set up?

John Healey: The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question is that technical queries about methodology and questions should appropriately be directed towards the national statistician. That is unlikely to change under the new arrangements.

Secondly, I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that something else will not change under those arrangements: after this year’s pilots of the 2011 census in five areas, the House will have the opportunity to consider the results of the pilots and the content of the census for 2011, which will be approved by this House, as has been the case in the past. My hon. Friend and the Sikh interests that he is concerned about will have the opportunity to make technical and professional representations. He will also be able to debate the decisions and proposals as part of the approval process for this House before the census is conducted.

I wanted to make a final point about funding. It will be for Parliament to hold the board to account for the way in which it allocates and controls its resources, in the same way as Parliament ultimately does for the rest of Government and for the Office for National Statistics.

The Bill provides for the reform of statistical pre-release access arrangements. In principle, there is a clear case for pre-release access to statistics for Ministers and policy officials, and the Treasury Committee supported that view in its report. The reason for allowing such access is that, when the statistics are released, Ministers need to be able to give an account of the implications on the policy areas for which they have democratic responsibility. That is what the British public have come to expect, and what the British media have come to demand. Additionally, in the case of market-sensitive statistics, Ministers may be required to announce policy changes to coincide with the publication and release of data; for example, mitigating action might need to be taken in respect of currency management in light of certain balance of payments or trade statistics, and the Government and the Bank of England might need to make announcements about the open letter system in light of inflation data.

Dr. Cable : The Minister makes a cogent case for pre-release, but is there any reason why Britain should have a more generous pre-release system than any other western country?

John Healey: I will come to the specifics of pre-release periods later. I think that that is the subject in which the hon. Gentleman is principally interested, but of course pre-release arrangements also cover the nature of the data that are to be pre-released, and the range of officials or Ministers that may have access.

Mrs. Villiers: The Minister referred to market-sensitive figures that are pre-released to Ministers. Was he concerned when the Prime Minister leaked unemployment figures to the Trades Union Congress before they were due for publication, resulting in a movement of the market?

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John Healey: All the established procedures were followed after that inadvertent indication of the unemployment statistics. If the hon. Lady looks at the reports of the Statistics Commission, which currently has the responsibility of investigating any apparent breaches of pre-release codes, she will see that although the perception is that pre-release arrangements undermine the integrity of statistics, such occurrences are in fact relatively rare. The commission investigated six breaches last year, and two breaches in the year before that, which was 2005. If she studies the reports, she will find that such breaches are inadvertent and generally involve not Ministers, but officials, and are the consequences of slip-ups in the system.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for giving way; he is being most generous with his time. In his justification of a continuation of the relatively lengthy pre-release period in the UK, compared to in other countries—a point referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—he mentioned the issue of currency policy. The foreign exchange control regulations were abolished by the previous Conservative Government, but are there any examples of the current Government implementing any policy on the back of statistics?

John Healey: For any Minister accountable directly to the public and the House for policy areas that impinge on market-sensitive statistics, it is important that the principle of pre-release access is in place, so that if the circumstances demand policy decisions, they can be made. That is our view, which is supported by the Treasury Committee.

Mr. Tyrie rose—

John Healey: I will give way to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), before returning to the point raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) about international comparability.

Mr. Tyrie: It is on that very point that I would like the Minister to respond. He said that there had been an “inadvertent indication of the unemployment statistics”, but the truth is that what we witnessed was a blatant abuse of Government statistics. Surely we must include in the pre-release arrangements something that can prevent such blatant abuses from taking place again, and that must mean ensuring a much shorter pre-release period—one more in line with those in other countries—than the one provided for in the current arrangements, or under the Bill.

John Healey: I accept the general argument for tightening the pre-release arrangements, and the Bill and the secondary powers introduced under it will do just that. However, it is not simply a question of setting out the detail of pre-release arrangements, as they must be consistent, clearly understood and transparent. They must be independently assessed and reported on, including directly to the House, by the new statistics board. Over time, that will help to reinforce and increase trust and confidence in official statistics and pre-release arrangements.

Mr. Gauke: I, too, am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his generosity in accepting interventions. However, he was unable to give my hon. Friend the
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Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) an example of a Government policy that was announced as a result of access to statistics prior to their release. He prayed in aid the Treasury Committee report, which recommends that

We are therefore discussing limited pre-release access, and not the 40 hours allowed under the Bill.

John Healey: On Second Reading, we deal largely with the Bill’s principles. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has shown a consistent interest in Treasury matters, will serve on the Public Bill Committee, which will probably deal with detailed examples of what is, or is not, covered by pre-release arrangements. Ministerial access to pre-release data is a widely accepted and established international principle, with many countries, including Australia, France, New Zealand, Ireland and the USA operating a pre-release regime. As I suggested earlier, however, a number of respondents to the consultation argued that the concept of pre-release contributes to the perception of ministerial interference in statistics, particularly the terms and nature of the voluntary pre-release code. I can confirm to the House that we will tighten the system so that pre-release arrangements will have a special status. Unlike the rest of the code, the contents of which will be backed, but not prescribed, by statute, the new pre-release rules will be set out in secondary legislation under clause 11.

I have ensured, first, that they will be subject to affirmative resolution so that Parliament has a further opportunity to debate and approve arrangements in future. Secondly, we will place a statutory duty on the new statistics board to assess and report on compliance by Ministers and officials with the new rules. Thirdly, we will cut pre-release access to non-market-sensitive data from five days to 40.5 hours to align it with access to market-sensitive data. Fourthly, we will set out principles in secondary legislation to provide guidance for Departments and ensure that access is limited only to those individuals who require data for operational reasons. I am confident that the new arrangements will provide greater clarity and transparency and, crucially, will be more enforceable. They will help further to reduce perceptions of ministerial interference in statistics. Finally, as I have explained, the Bill establishes in general a statistical system that can be developed in the light of experience. We will review the operation of the new pre-release system 12 months after it starts.

Rob Marris: Some of the safeguards that my hon. Friend announced, particularly the second one, are foreshadowed by clause 8, which usefully states that the statistics board may

If the board believes that pre-release statistics have been misused by Ministers, it can make a public statement, as it is accountable to Parliament rather than to Ministers. Is that not another safeguard in the Bill?

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John Healey: My hon. Friend, with his customary close attention to detail, is right. The general duty that the statistics board will have in relation to coverage, good practice and the standard of all official statistics will allow it, as I indicated earlier, to report strongly where it perceives flaws or failures. In addition to that, as I made clear to the House, we will put a specific statutory duty on the new statistics board to report publicly to the House on the compliance of officials and Ministers with the new code on pre-release.

Furthermore, I can announce to the House today that the Government are committed to the principle of creating a central publication hub, which many commentators called for, through which all national statistics would be published under the new system, thereby separating statistical release from policy comment.

Let me mention briefly three other aspects of the Bill that have generally been widely welcomed. The first is data sharing and confidentiality. Clauses 35 to 43 provide for the flows of information that currently exist between the Office for National Statistics and other bodies to continue under the new regime. However, we are using the opportunity of the Bill to put in place a framework to allow data sharing for statistical purposes only, and we are also putting in place tougher sanctions and safeguards to protect confidentiality.

As was pointed out to us forcefully in the consultation, data sharing has the potential to bring real benefits in improved statistical analysis, and therefore to the evidence base for policy making and better resource allocation. It also, as I noted earlier, reduces the burden on businesses and individuals of completing surveys, particularly on information already held by Government. Following the strong support that we received for these plans in the consultation, the Bill includes in clauses 44 to 50 provisions to allow Treasury Ministers, a Northern Ireland Department or Scottish Ministers with consent from the Treasury to make regulations for increased data sharing between public authorities and the board.

All proposals to allow greater or new administrative data sharing will be subject to further debate and approval by the House. They will also be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Clause 36 contains comprehensive safeguards enforced by criminal penalties for the unlawful disclosure of information which identifies individuals or businesses.

A second aspect that has generally been welcomed concerns the registration function which is currently carried out by the national statistician and the Office for National Statistics as the Registrar General. The historically close relationship between the statistics and registration services inevitably means that there will be consequential changes to the registration service, which at present is administratively part of the Office for National Statistics. As part of our reforms, we must deal with that situation.

We have been considering in particular the position of the General Register Office and of the NHS Central Register within the machinery of government. I can confirm to the House that there was general support in the consultation for the proposals to separate the GRO and the NHSCR from the ONS, and to retain these functions under ministerial responsibility. The details are being worked out. The transfer is therefore not provided for in the Bill, but will be carried out by a
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subsequent transfer of functions order. During the period of transition, the statistics board will be able to provide services and continue providing services, should those be required, to the GRO or the NHSCR.

I do not want the Second Reading debate to pass without mention of one final aspect of the Bill. It is one on which I have worked closely over a number of years, but not as closely and not as long as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). We are using the Bill as an opportunity to establish proper employment status and rights for registrars in England and Wales. I know that my hon. Friend attaches great importance to that objective, which he has worked on for a long time—he has served with distinction as the president of the Society of Registration Officers.

Registrars provide a vital service, which benefits the whole community. However, while they are statutory officers appointed and paid by the local authority, they are not employed by the local authority. They can only be dismissed by the Registrar General, and consequently they do not enjoy the rights and protections that are taken for granted by other groups of workers, such as access to an employment tribunal. The Bill will make the 1,700 registration officers into local government employees and give them access for the first time to the rights and protections that are already available to others. It will also ensure that registration officers retain their current terms and conditions on transfer to local authority employment.

In summary, the Bill is a step forward in what will be a major and evolving programme of reform to our statistical system. It holds out the possibility of substantially improving the quality of and confidence in official statistics. We are introducing a framework that can lead to a world-class statistics system capable of meeting the changing demands of a modern economy and of a modern society for reliable statistics. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.41 pm

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): In scrutinising this Bill, the Opposition’s goal is to restore public trust in official figures by taking politicians out of the process of the production and release of Government statistics and removing their power to manipulate and spin the figures for their own short-term political ends, which is a vital task in securing more honesty, integrity and trust in politics today.

The Financial Secretary and I are at one on the importance of the task that faces the House this afternoon and on the importance of statistics. The 19th-century Belgian statistician Quetelet once stated that

More recently, John Hollis of the British Society for Population Studies has pointed out that

Public trust in statistics must surely be at an all-time low—hence the hollow laughter that greeted Her Majesty’s announcement of this Bill in the Gracious Speech. According to an ONS survey, 17 per cent. of
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people—fewer than one in five—believe that official statistics are produced without political interference. I must say that I have not met many of the 17 per cent. who believe in the probity and objectivity of this Government’s treatment of official statistics.

Let us take just a few examples. Manipulation of NHS figures has become notorious under Labour, with trolleys having their wheels removed or being reclassified as “beds on wheels” to massage A and E waiting time figures. The Governor of the Bank of England no less recently criticised the Government for their failure to produce reliable migration figures and their inability to answer the basic question of how many people actually live in this country.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The hon. Lady has implied that this is a new phenomenon. The Royal Statistical Society has pointed out that

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