Previous Section Index Home Page

Ministers generally receive market-sensitive figures at least 40 hours before publication. They can receive as much as five working days’ notice of other statistics; I am delighted to hear that the Government are contemplating reducing that excessively long period of notice. As Professor Tim Holt, the former head of the Government Statistical Service, pointed out, the UK’s rules in that area,

The UK rules are out of line with international best practice and International Monetary Fund standards on data dissemination. Many other countries allow no pre-release at all. In countries that permit it, the notice period is considerably shorter—in Australia and
8 Jan 2007 : Column 48
France it is three hours and one hour respectively. In the US, it is 30 minutes, with access restricted to the President.

As we have heard, the problems with pre-release were underlined when the Prime Minister blatantly broke the rules by leaking forthcoming employment figures in his speech to the TUC in September. Mike Haslam, of the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, summed up the problem well when he said:

Mr. Haslam’s call for an end to all pre-release is echoed by the Royal Statistical Society, the Greater London authority data management and analysis group, the Audit Commission, the British Society for Population Studies and just about everyone who responded to the Government’s consultation.

By specifically excluding pre-release rules from the remit of the new structures, the Government significantly undermine the credibility of the Bill. By seeking to legislate for pre-release access, they are seeking to entrench spin into law. The Opposition will oppose their attempt to do so.

John Healey: Does the hon. Lady agree with the principle of pre-release?

Mrs. Villiers: I believe that the independent board should be able to set the rules on pre-release. That may mean that pre-release goes altogether; the decision should be for the board. I certainly believe that there is a very good case for significant restrictions on pre-release. If the board wishes to abolish it altogether, that should be a matter for it to decide.

Hugh Bayley: Has the hon. Lady taken advice from the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) or the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who both held ministerial office for her party? Would they advise that it would be sensible to do away with pre-release altogether?

Mrs. Villiers: No—

Mr. Fallon rose—

Peter Bottomley rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The one thing that we cannot have is interventions on interventions. If the hon. Lady made at least a modest response to the first intervention, she could then turn to a perhaps more major intervention from the Opposition Benches.

Mrs. Villiers: My response was going to be that I was certain that my hon. Friends would be able to speak for themselves. On that note, I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley).

Peter Bottomley: I say clearly that the whole House—Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members—ought to support the policy put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). The board should make the recommendation.
8 Jan 2007 : Column 49
If the Government want to contradict it, they should do so in the open after the recommendation has been made.

Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am also grateful to the Financial Secretary for giving us a little more insight into his intended proposals for the new rules on pre-release. However, I appeal to him to publish in draft the delegated legislation that he intends to produce under the Bill, setting out the rules in their entirety so that they can be considered in Committee and we can know what the Government intend.

Rob Marris: I understand the hon. Lady’s point about the board’s having the power on pre-release. What would her reaction be if it recommended a longer period?

Mrs. Villiers: I think that the board should decide. If it chose to make that recommendation I could live with it, but I suspect it is extremely unlikely that an independent board would make such a recommendation.

It is enormously important to get the pre-release issue right if the Bill is genuinely to work and to achieve the Government’s aims, but the board should also be able to make rules on how statistics are released to the general public. I welcome the indication that the Financial Secretary gave about a central hub to release all statistics. It will be necessary to scrutinise the small print in detail to establish what is being contemplated, but it seems that a step is being taken in the right direction.

The issue is crucial. Professor Holt points out that

That, he says,

Bill McLennan, another former head of the Government Statistical Service and also of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, puts it more bluntly:

There are attractive arguments in favour of requiring all official statistics to be released through a central, independent press office, physically separate from the departments producing the figures.

John Healey rose—

Mrs. Villiers: If the Financial Secretary is about to give an assurance to that effect, I shall welcome it.

John Healey: I appreciate that the hon. Lady may have constructed her speech before the debate, and that she may have missed what I said in my speech, but I did say at some length that the Government were committed in principle to creating just such a central publication hub. She does not really need to go over the ground unless she disagrees with that. If she does not, and if she supports it, perhaps she will welcome it.

8 Jan 2007 : Column 50

Mrs. Villiers: The Financial Secretary may have missed the fact that I did welcome his announcement as a step in the right direction—but one that it would be necessary to examine closely in Committee to establish whether it would work effectively. I make no apology for raising the issue and discussing it in some detail, because it is pivotal to making the reform a success.

Although the House may not be packed today, we should not underestimate the critical importance of the task that faces us this afternoon. Professor Sir Denis Pereira Gray rightly describes statistics as

The professor tells us that we have

I appeal to the House to join the Opposition in seizing that precious opportunity with both hands as we seek to strengthen the Bill and inject some honesty, transparency and public trust into official statistics after a decade of spin, manipulation and dissembling from a discredited Government.

5.13 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): All right hon. and hon. Members have unfinished business. Part 2 is of special interest to me in that context, as I shall explain.

When I was elected to Parliament in 1997, I was appointed honorary patron of the Society of Registration Officers in England and Wales, otherwise known as SORO. I declare that interest before proceeding. I succeeded Joyce Quin, then Member of Parliament for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and now Baroness Quin, to that post when she was appointed Minister of State at the Home Department.

Since my appointment as SORO’s honorary patron, I have been campaigning for the employment rights of registration officers who are statutory officers. Approximately 1,700 registrars and superintendent registrars are affected by part 2 of the Bill. The remainder of the approximately 7,000 employees of the civil registration service are already local authority employees. Statutory officers have no legal employer and therefore do not have employment rights as employees, although they might have some rights as workers under some employment legislation; therefore, in that respect their current position is complex. Today, registration officers are appointed by local authorities, accommodated by local authorities and paid by local authorities, and their pensions are arranged and paid by them as well. Yet when they are unfairly or constructively dismissed, they have no right to apply for a hearing before an employment tribunal. In the past 10 years, at least 18 registrars or superintendent registrars have been dismissed from the civil registration service. The Registrar General alone can dismiss registrars or superintendent registrars, despite their close involvement with local authorities. The Registrar General can hear an appeal, but only if there is new material to consider.

In the previous Session of Parliament I introduced a ten-minute Bill: the Registration Service Bill. It would have changed the status of registration officers who are
8 Jan 2007 : Column 51
statutory officers to that of employees of local authorities. SORO, Unison and I have been campaigning for that for more than seven years. My Bill also had the support of the Employers Organisation for Local Government and Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services—LACORS. There is, however, a difficulty: because registration officers have no legal employer, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006—TUPE—do not apply to the change of status, so my ten-minute Bill would also have allowed the transfer of employment status while protecting the employment rights of those employees as though TUPE actually applied. I am pleased that the Bill under consideration covers all aspects of that ten-minute Bill, and I thank the Government for listening to SORO, Unison and me, and to others who have been leading the campaign.

My Bill received its First Reading on 23 November 2005, when the late Eric Forth, then Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, questioned its contents, although he did not call for a vote. On several Fridays at the end of 2005 and in the early months of 2006 when private Members’ Bills were before the House, he continued, as ever, to shout, “Object” when I tried to get a Second Reading for the Bill, despite the fact that the usual channels had agreed to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee. I thank the shadow Chancellors of the main Opposition parties and their deputies for agreeing to that. Unfortunately, shortly before Eric Forth’s tragic death, I gave the date for the Second Reading of my Bill as Friday 14 July 2006; it fell, of course.

It is important that the changes in part 2 of the Bill under discussion are adopted because the civil registration service is about to undergo the greatest reform in its history. Most of its statutory officers are afraid that their employment rights are not protected ahead of those changes and that some local authorities might use the reforms ahead to unload staff in the absence of that protection. An “efficiency scrutiny” that was published as long ago as 1985 recommended the change in employment status for registrars and superintendent registrars, and Green and White Papers, published in 1988 and 1990 respectively, contained that proposal, but, sadly, the Marriage Act 1994 did not address the question.

The Government began to consider reform of the civil registration service in 1998, when they published a consultation paper on supporting families. “Registration: Modernising a Vital Service” was published in late 1999 by the General Register Office as a serious consultation document, and it was followed in early 2002 by the White Paper “Civil Registration: Vital Change”. In a further consultation paper, “Civil Registration: Delivering Vital Change” which was published in July 2003, the Treasury decided to consult further on bringing about reform of the civil registration service in England and Wales by using the regulatory reform order process that had been introduced in 2001. I felt that the proposed changes were so major that they should have been discussed on the Floor of the House, and I called for that at business questions and in other ways, but it was not to be. Not surprisingly in my opinion, the Regulatory Reform (Registration of Births and Deaths) (England and
8 Jan 2007 : Column 52
Wales) Order 2004, published in December of that year, was rejected in 2005 by the Regulatory Reform Committees of both Houses on the ground that the overall package of proposals was an inappropriate use of the powers of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The Regulatory Reform Committee of this House expressed concern

It concluded:

That RRO was the largest to be brought before the Committee to date, with 68 articles and 15 schedules, amending 20 Acts of Parliament. A second RRO was planned, on marriage, but was later dropped. Following two written statements by successive Financial Secretaries to the Treasury—on 1 March and 16 November 2005—and the failure of my Bill in the previous Session of Parliament, we are where we are today. Members will therefore appreciate that this group of employees has been extremely patient and looks forward to the success of the Bill before the House today. Indeed, SORO has evidence that the proposal to change the employment status of registrars and superintendent registrars goes back 60 years.

It is ironic that, because of press criticism of the way in which statistics have been presented—by successive Governments—we are where we are today: delivering, we hope, the employment rights for registration officers for which we have campaigned for so long. In view of the events that I have just described, there should be no objections to part 2 of the Bill becoming law. Registrars and superintendent registrars have duties imposed on them by the Marriage Act 1949, the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and the Registration Service Act 1953, and this Bill allows them to retain those duties. Clause 65 establishes the registrar general for England and Wales as—I like this expression—“a corporation sole”, which separates the rights and liabilities of the post from the office holder.

SORO and I have also proceeded with a parallel route to deal with the employment issues before us today. An opportunity was provided when the White Paper “Fairness at Work” was published in June 1998, which led to the Employment Relations Act 1999. Partly as a result of our lobbying the Department of Trade and Industry at the time, section 23 was inserted into that Act, which allows the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make an order, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to extend certain employment rights to persons who do not enjoy them. Section 23 was brought into force on 25 October 1999, and the Government issued a consultation document in July 2002. Section 23 was amended by the Employment Relations Act 2004. Office holders—otherwise known as statutory officers—include the clergy, registration officers, police officers, prison officers, trade union officers, club secretaries, company directors and trustees.

The Government’s consultation document on section 23 admits that the position of registration officers in particular is extremely complex. House of Commons Library research paper 06/66, which I
8 Jan 2007 : Column 53
recommend to Members, attempts to explain those complexities on pages 90 to 91. The Government have decided that part 2 of the Bill goes further than would be possible if we applied section 23 of the 1999 Act to this problem.

The Office for National Statistics also incorporates the General Register Office for England and Wales, whose functions are to be transferred elsewhere in Government, as we have heard. Although the Treasury is responsible for the GRO, there are several other possibilities, of which I suggest just one: that its functions be transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am not sure whether the Government are going to allow us to discuss this issue in Committee, but I hope so.

The collection of official statistics in Britain has a long history, dating back to 1066 and the Domesday Book. In the middle ages, the churches began to record church baptisms, marriages and burials. Such record-keeping became compulsory in 1538, but it was not until 1837 that official statistics on births, marriages and deaths were collected centrally, as they still are. Today, the civil registration service has become responsible for the recording of stillbirths, adoptions and civil partnerships registered under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which came into force in December 2005. It also advises the Home Office on the question of sham marriages.

With the demographic changes that we have seen in recent times, with more mobility of families, not only across the UK but also across the world, and particularly with the advent of modern IT services, it is right and proper that the civil registration service should undergo its first major reform since 1837, and this Bill paves the way for that. The Bill will touch the lives of all our constituents, and I am pleased that we have been able to debate the collection of national statistics and the civil registration service today, ahead of the reforms of those services that are about to occur. I strongly welcome the Bill.

5.25 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I wish to make three basic points, the first of which is recognition of the importance of this subject. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Secondly, I welcome the move to independence. My main concern is that it has taken a long time. I remember being invited to the Treasury by the present High Commissioner for Australia when she held the most junior post at the Treasury, so it was eight or nine years ago. We discussed issues such as the merits of the Mongolian model, and it has taken a long time for the subject to reach the legislative stage.

The argument about the independence of statisticians goes back a long way beyond the present generation of politicians. It was Disraeli who coined the much repeated phrase about

Next Section Index Home Page