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We...hope that 2007 will be the year in which the Government finally corrects the serious under-funding of Slough...Our population is not falling rapidly, as the Government has maintained.
He is right to say that our population is not falling rapidly, but he is not right to say that the Government maintain that it is falling rapidly. The way in which the mid-year estimates between censuses work for Slough is just plain wrong.
We are making a mistake in the way in which we conduct the debate if we imply that it is politicians behaviour that undermines public confidence. That may happen sometimes, which is why it is right for the Bill to put safeguards in place. Public confidence in statistics is also undermined when parts of the statistics are wrong. For example, the way in which census figures got it wrong for Westminster was raised by that council powerfully in 2001, when there was a massive mismatch between the final count in the census and the councils mid-year estimates. I was privileged to go with my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) to make representations to the Treasury Minister then responsible, because I could see that her point that Westminster had been wrongly treated had some aspects in common with Sloughs case.
Slough at that time had the ninth largest increase in population, according to the 2001 censusunlike Westminster, which was estimated to have had a massive fall in population. Nevertheless, I could see that the diversity of our populations, the churn and so on, meant that the kind of flaws to which Westminster had been subject could also affect the constituency that I represent. I am glad that I did that. The mid-year population estimates for Slough suddenly produced an incomprehensible fall in our population. We had had the ninth largest increase in the country in our population between 1999 and 2001yet we are told that in the years since 2001, we have had the second biggest fall in population. That is utterly counter-intuitive.
The mid-year estimate formula uses birth rate, which is an accurate national data set. Sloughs percentage growth is greater than the national figure. We have more births, and so more people. The formula also uses death rates, another accurate national data set. Sloughs decline is less than the national figure. We have fewer deaths, and so more people. Furthermore, the formula uses migration, which is where the errors largely arise.
Migration has two components. One is internal migrationwithin the countrywhich is based on GP registrations. If one looks at the scatter graph for GP registrations, it is striking that the outliers for accuracy are all places with extremely diverse ethnic populations, such as Luton, Slough, Hackney and Brent. In our town, 17 GPs have closed their books, and we have a walk-in centre, which many members of our population use instead of a GP. We have three times the national proportion of young men, who we know do not tend to register with GPs, and first-time
registrations do not count. All these factors mean that in effect, the internal migration figures discriminate against Slough.
It is disappointing to see that in 2003 the population survey note from the ONS suggests that there is no urgent need to change the internal population assessment, but the ONS has recognised that the international migration assessment based on the international passenger survey does need changing. I am glad that that work is under way, and I hope that it might make a difference in the area that I represent, but the changes that it proposes are unlikely to impact quickly. The recent report, published in December last year, suggests that there will not be swift results in any individual locality.
Problems arise when statistical series are wrong, when they conflict with other statistical series and when there is not a sufficiently effective way of remedying errors. I hope that the duties created in clauses 7 and 8 in relation to national statistics will produce a mechanism for a more effective remedy to such problems. I have spoken at length to Ministers about the flaws in the calculation and the impact that that is having on the town that I represent. It will not do. Another thing that will not do is the fact that remedying a statistical series takes so long, while the consequences continue.
It is right that executive action should be separate. The Department for Communities and Local Government says that the funding of local authorities must be based on the best estimate of local population. Everyone in the House would agree. But the speed at which the ONS recognises and remedies the flaws in its system, and the consequences for a town like ours, are problematic. By bringing to the fore the integrity, accuracy and impartiality of national statistics, I hope that the Bill will give us a better way of remedying some of the problems.
Not every local authority can drum up the resources that Westminster council had at its disposal to produce evidence that the statistics on its population were flawed. Sloughs evidence is compelling. The council has even counted the amount of shit that goes through our local sewers, which is considerably greater than it was 10 years ago. [Interruption.] I am sure that was not a parliamentary word. I am sorry.
We must try to ensure that errors in statistics are dealt with. Unless the independence that the Bill rightly provides is combined with transparent and robust ways of remedying errors and a dynamic relationship with people who are affected, we will not get the trust in statistics that the Bill seeks to achieve.
Paul Flynn: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Following your lack of ruling on the word that the hon. Lady used, I would be interested to know whether it is appropriate to use that word as a noun, but not as an adjective.
Fiona Mactaggart: I was making a serious point. When evidence from other sets of data suggests that a statistical series is wrong, there must be a way of remedying the situation. The board will have a duty to ensure the coherence of National Statistics, so when different statistical series conflict with each other, it will have a duty to try to sort out the source of the conflict and ensure that the statistics are accurate. I hope that that will play an important role in improving public confidence in statistics.
Another thing that reduces public confidence in politicians and statistics is when we do not have a solution to an issue that faces the country, which is one reason why I think it right for Governments to have prior sight of certain statistical series. People expect solutions from their Government to some of the problems illustrated by National Statistics. There is a discussion about how long a Government would need, but the issue is important.
I do not want to finish my contribution without saying something about the registration service, which is covered by an important part of the Bill. On 21 December 2006, I had the privilege of attending an event organised by the registrar at Westminster councilI keep talking about Westminster council, although I do not represent the area. On 21 December 2005 I was a witness at the civil partnership of two friends of mine, and Westminster registrar service organised a celebration for all the people who had been able to register their civil partnerships in the first year of the implementation of the provision. The event was moving, and it reminded me that registrars register not only joyous events in peoples lives, but sad events at the end of peoples lives. When I saw the registrar and her associates standing there in black clothing, which they usually wear, I was reminded of what a sensitive, effective and warm service they provide to the people for whom they work. I want to take this opportunity to praise them and to recognise that they are due the important rights that the Bill will offer them.
Hon. Members have been very kind about the Treasury Committee report, for which I am grateful. That report is not our first report: it is part of the scrutiny work that the Treasury Sub-Committee has exercised over the years, including annual hearings into the reports of the ONS and of the Statistics Commission and occasional hearings into one-off issues, such as the classification of Network Rail or the preparations for the census. I recognise that that work is limited, because, as the hon.
Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) has said, the Treasury Committee has other obligations and probably needs strengthening. It is for the House to decide, as the Financial Secretary has invited it to do, how we can put that scrutiny work on to a more systematic basis. I certainly welcome the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) on how we can deepen and widen the parliamentary scrutiny of statistics.
I welcome todays Bill, because it is obviously important to put official statistics on to a statutory basis. It has been a long time comingit has taken nearly 10 years to fulfil the manifesto commitmentbut it is welcome for that reason and others. Over that period, statistics have become much more central to the political process. The trend probably started some time before that period, and the situation was intensified when the previous Conservative Government introduced measures such as league tables. However, the situation has been accentuated under this Government, because, as the Government are perfectly entitled to do, they have developed to a fine art the process of targetary. They started with some 600 targets, although there are many fewer now. If the Government determine a target, the public must be able to assess whether that target has been met in a way that is robustly, critically and independently measurable.
Many of the targets have turned out to be rather nebulous, which is probably why some of them have been dropped. In some cases, Ministers have been able to define the extent to which they have met a target in rather nebulous ways. For example, they say, We are on track to meet the target, which leaves the public confused whether the Government claim to have met it, to be meeting it or something else.
As has been said, many of the statistics that we bandy aroundfor example, some hospital waiting times and some crime statisticsare not national statistics. There are also statistics which were official statistics and which have been discontinued. When I was an Opposition Treasury Front Bencher, there was a statistical series that measured the impact of indirect taxation on household income, but it has been discontinued.
As almost all of my hon. Friends have said, the Government have been accused over the years of interfering in statistics, or at least there is the perception that they have interfered in key statistics. That has been especially true in some of the most important areas, such as the operation of the Governments fiscal rules. It is bad enough that the Chancellor is able to change at will the start and end dates of the economic cycle, which could easily be independently determined by the Bank or the ONS rather than being validated afterwards by the NAO.
Other statistical issues are critical to the way in which those fiscal rules operate. The first issue is the classification of PFI liabilities, which is a familiar subject to those on the Conservative Benches, and it concerns how such liabilities are properly accounted for and measured on the public balance sheets. The Chancellor has stated consistently in the past few years that such liabilities are measured in exactly the same
way as they were by the previous Government. However, they are not measured in exactly the same way, and, far more importantly, they are much larger now than they were 15 years ago. We need to know in far more than simply accounting terms whether they are statistical public liabilities that should be treated properly on the balance sheet.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ed Balls): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the proportion of PFI liabilities now classified on balance sheet is higher or lower today than it was in 1997, when this Government came into power?
Mr. Fallon: The problem is that some PFI liabilities are classified on balance sheet and some are not. Indeed, some do not seem to be classified altogetherspecial purpose vehicles are not properly classified in private accounts, let alone in public accounts. The public need to know how it is properly decided which liabilities are classified on public balance sheet and which are not, because the totality of PFI liabilities is, of course, very much greater than it was.
The treatment of Network Rail was so tortuous that we had a special inquiry into it. We discovered that the Auditor General was defining the classification of Network Rail in a different way from the national statisticianone of them said that it was public, while the other said that it was privateand we worked hard on an all-party basis to try to resolve the difference. It is clearly nonsense to argue that an organisation such as Network Rail, which the Government stand behind, somehow has nothing to do with the Secretary of State. That is the kind of issue that the new independent statistics board should be able to settle once and for all, rather than leaving it on the current shifting basis, which involves questions about who appoints the non-executive directors and waiting to see the degree of management control exercised by the Secretary of State. I welcome the new boards responsibility for making decisions on such issues, which will no longer be left to be disputed between two public officialsthe Comptroller and Auditor General and the national statisticianor by a parliamentary Committee.
The crux of the Bill concerns the classification of expenditure as between capital and current. I want to take the House back to the curious events that took place in February 2005, when just six weeks before the end of the financial year some £3.4 billion-worth of roads maintenance was suddenly reclassified as investment rather than current expenditure, thus making a significant difference to the outcome of the Chancellors rules. It turned out that that had not been dreamed up by the ONS but came out of work involving the Statistics Commission, which said in a report on one of its investigations:
issues regarding Highways Agency accounting for roads discussed...at a public service data group meeting on the basis of an HMT paper.
This is entirely a matter for the statistics authorities. They are totally independent in the matter.
the independence of the Office for National Statistics is clear and obvious.
legislation...to create an independent board to enhance confidence in Government statistics.
Something has clearly changed in the past couple of years, whereby Ministers have accepted that there is a serious problem with the perception of official and Government statisticsand, to their credit, they are going to do something about it. The key test that I apply to the Bill is whether it will help official statistics to be perceived as fully independent of Ministers.
Ed Balls: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that decisions that have been made in recent years on the classification of PFI liabilities, on Network Rail or on roads maintenance were decisions in which the national statistician was politically influenced?
Mr. Fallon: No, I am not. I am saying that because such decisions have been so muddled and blurred, with the Comptroller and Auditor General saying one thing and the national statistician saying another, with arguments about which PFI liabilities are contingent and which are not, and which should be classified on the balance sheet, and with the process of serendipity whereby revisions are made very late in the financial year while being perceived as being influential on the operation of the fiscal rules, it is all the more important that we tackle head on the question of the perception of Government statistics. Those are not just my allegationsthe outside world made them at the time. I could draw the Economic Secretarys attention to a leader in The GuardianI do not know if that was a paper he used to write forthat harped on precisely that point as we went into the March 2005 Budget.
Ed Balls: I am struggling to see whose judgment the hon. Gentleman is criticising. Is he saying that the national statistician has been making the wrong judgments, or that the National Audit Office has been doing so? As I understand it, he acknowledges that these were not Treasury or Government decisionsthat no influence was appliedand is saying that one or other of those two independent individuals and bodies got it wrong. Which one was it?
Mr. Fallon: The Economic Secretary is getting confused. I am not saying that anybody has got anything wrong. The problem for the public and the wider world is that we have three different sources of authority, with the Comptroller and Auditor General saying one thing, the national statistician saying another, and Her Majestys Treasury supplying papers to those various bodies and putting its interpretation on the matter. The end result is a fog, and I hope that the new board will clear it up.
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