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Mr. Fallon: No—I think that the Economic Secretary has had a fair crack at this. He, of all people, should be aware of the suspicions that have arisen concerning the various classifications, the accusations that have been bandied around on both sides, and the fundamental
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problem of perception. I will not give way to him again unless he can explain why the Chancellor said, less than two years ago, that the independence of the ONS was “clear and obvious”, but is now introducing legislation to make it more independent.

Ed Balls: We have made it perfectly clear that the ONS was made independent in the framework document and that we are legislating for that. I am confused as to whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that these decisions should be for the NAO or the ONS, and which he believes is making the right decisions. Having a completely independent national statistician would not prevent differences of view between different independent bodies. I am struggling to understand the point that he is making; so far, I am baffled.

Mr. Fallon: I do not want to test the patience of the House, but I will give it one more try. We have the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is an officer of this House, considering an issue and coming up with an answer. We then have the national statistician—funded by the Treasury but an independent office; let us accept that—coming up with a different answer. We then discover that a lot of the work has been done on the basis of a Treasury paper that is supplied to the ONS, or a working group that is convened on the basis of a Treasury paper. My point is fairly obvious—that the outside world is left confused as to where the real source of authority for those decisions lies. If the Economic Secretary will be patient, I am trying to say that the new system will be better—of course it will. He asks me who I think was wrong. The Chancellor was wrong, two years ago, to say that the ONS was already clearly and obviously independent; otherwise, he would not be introducing this Bill to make it more so.

On the surface, the Bill makes it look as though not much has changed. Instead of an office, we will have a non-ministerial department, but Treasury Ministers will still appoint the members of the board. It is welcome that funding is moving on to a quinquennial, rather than a triennial basis, but it will still be allocated by Treasury Ministers. In those two crucial respects, nothing will change.

There will continue to be a code of practice, as now, but the board will not have the power to enforce it—a key weakness of the Bill to which I am sure we will return in Committee.

Only Ministers will be able to propose statistics for inclusion as national statistics. Members on both sides of the House have dwelt on that, and it is right to draw attention to that essential weakness. Of course it is right that the board should ultimately decide what is a national statistic, but equally it, rather than Ministers, should have the power to initiate series for inclusion. Worst of all, it will be for Ministers to continue to control the much abused system of pre-release access.

The Treasury Committee made proposals to strengthen the Bill in each of those respects. First, it recommended that the board’s role be wholly supervisory—I do not understand why Ministers have not accepted that. There is a fatal confusion in the Bill between the board’s duty as a regulator and its role as a statistics producer.

We recommended—I stress that the Committee is an all-party body, with a Labour majority—a fully non-Executive board, to which the national statistician should
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report. That is all the more important because the Bill sweeps away the Statistics Commission—the one watchdog that we currently have. Somebody, not simply Parliament, needs to supervise directly the system as a whole. I urge Ministers to reconsider the matter.

Secondly, let us consider the appointment of the national statistician. The Financial Secretary generously took many interventions but he could not quite answer mine. The Bill states simply:

It is not clear whether the appointment will be on the recommendation of the Chancellor, given the Treasury’s residual powers over the non-ministerial Department, or that of the Prime Minister.

It is also unclear whether the new or the next national statistician will have the right of direct access to the Prime Minister, as Claus Moser enjoyed in the late 1960s and 1970s and as, for example, the service chiefs enjoy now. I hope that the Bill will provide for the national statistician to become a big public figure of the order of Chris Woodhead as head of Ofsted, or David, now Lord, Ramsbotham as chief inspector of prisons. I hope that the national statistician will become a widely respected figure in public policy making. I therefore believe that he or she should be appointed by the Prime Minister and have direct access to him on any matters of dispute with other ministerial Departments.

Thirdly, the issue of scope has already been well canvassed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. It is clear to everybody that it must ultimately be for the board to determine scope. The Financial Secretary conceded that, but did not go on to accept the natural consequence that the inclusion or exclusion of a specific statistical series must be a matter for the board. There should not be an option for Ministers to decide whether to list or delist a series of statistics that turns out to be politically inconvenient.

It is essential for the board to have teeth to tackle non-compliance with the code. Year after year, when the Treasury Committee examines the annual reports, we see what happens when a body has no teeth. The Statistics Commission did its best but, in the end, it could name and shame only when it established breaches of the code. The Financial Secretary described most of the breaches as minor or “inadvertent”. It is curious to note that, when one looks back through Statistics Commission annual reports, the breaches inadvertently occur in the same Departments year after year—the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department responsible for local government and so on. However, some statistics have been misused for political purposes and ministerial advisers have put a gloss on them.

Fourthly, let us consider pre-release, which has involved some of the more glaring abuses. Forewarned at such length of bad statistics, Ministers have been free—indeed, within their rights—to try to massage their release and cover the data with political topspin or bury the figures with other related announcements. Forewarned of good statistics, Ministers have not hesitated to commit breaches—inadvertently, of
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course, according to the Financial Secretary. The Prime Minister breached the code by leaking the forthcoming unemployment figures in his address to the annual TUC conference last September. If that was simply an inadvertent breach, perhaps the Financial Secretary will explain why the Cabinet Secretary was sent out to make an official apology for it. The extent of pre-release access is unacceptable. As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, no other country allows it and I believe that it should be cut altogether.

I welcome the Financial Secretary’s announcement of cutting the time allowed for pre-release from five days to 40 hours. However, I urge him to reconsider the 40 hours. In the modern era, when the Government rightly no longer set interest rates, manage the currency—or are no longer able to manage the currency—only a handful of people need to see specific key statistics in advance. They include the Governor of the Bank of England, but others can wait like the rest of us. Ministers should have taken the opportunity to dispense with the pre-release nonsense altogether and not compromised halfway, as they have done.

Indeed, Ministers have, in a way, made pre-release and spin statutory. They have placed it on an official footing and left it to Ministers, not the board, to set the new rules—granted, with parliamentary approval—for pre-release access. The independent board should set the new rules and I believe that it should cut the time for pre-release access.

I want to answer directly the fair question that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) posed about former Ministers’ views on pre-release access. He challenged two of us. Out of 14 members of the Treasury Committee, six were former Ministers. They had no difficulty in recommending a reduction from 40 hours to only three hours, as applies in Australia. The time is even shorter elsewhere. I therefore urge Ministers to reconsider.

Commentators outside the House have made a further point on pre-release. Given that we shall have an independent board, there is a strong case for National Statistics staff to prepare and issue the press release that accompanies the figures, completely free of ministerial or special advisers’ spin. If a Minister wants to add his topspin later, that is a matter for him.

The Queen’s Speech referred to the need

National statistics are not only the Government’s statistics. They are more than simply a ministerial crutch or a parliamentary resource. In a proper democracy, statistics are an essential public good. They belong to all of us. After the suspicions of the past few years, we want our statistics back and we want them to be clean. The Bill, strengthened as it needs to be, should be the start, not the end, of that process.

6.28 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): If I were to go into any pub in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, or mine, and start talking about statistics, people’s eyes would glaze over. However, if I talked about the crime rate or how long it takes to get treatment in a hospital, people might well perk up, listen and express views.

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This debate is important. Statistics are dry as dust but they are an important tool for helping politicians and others such as the media, pressure groups and business to find their way around our system of governance and make informed decisions. Statistics are therefore rather like a compass. I do not regard a compass as an especially interesting bit of kit—at least, I have not since I was a boy of 10 or 11—but it is a vital tool for enabling ships and aircraft to navigate.

Let me begin by responding to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who defended the Treasury Committee’s call for the Government to reduce dramatically the time for pre-releasing statistics. I agree with the Treasury Committee about that. As a former Minister, I knew that I would be required to stand in front of the media to answer questions about statistics released by my Department. It was important for me to have some time to reflect on the figures in advance. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding; he has had the same experience. No one who has been a Minister would want to get rid of the pre-release system altogether. I posed my question to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), because she was postulating the idea that the statistics board might get rid of pre-release altogether. I do not believe that anyone who has been in government would regard that as a sensible idea.

Before I was elected to the House, I made considerable use of Government statistics as a research fellow and lecturer at the university of York and, to some extent, in other jobs that I held as a full-time trade union negotiator. Anyone who uses or has used Government statistics knows that they need to be accurate, timely and free from political influence. Statistics are key indicators of the economic health of the nation and of the Government’s performance not just with respect to economic policy, but in almost any area of public policy.

I had not intended to make party political points in my speech, but the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has provoked me. She characterised as a timid step the founding of the independent Statistics Commission, which the present Labour Government brought in as a safeguard for the integrity of statistics, and she apparently regards the important reforms in the Bill as inadequate. She wants us to believe that the Conservative Government were straining at the leash in 1997 to bring in reforms and that if only things had not gone wrong for the Conservatives at the election all this would have happened a long time ago. I really do not believe that at all and I welcome the Government’s earlier reforms to increase the independence of the statistical service. I believe that they dealt appropriately with the important need for statistics to be independent.

In March last year the Government published a consultation document about further proposals. Four broad options were put forward. The first was no change and the second was a parliamentary model for a statistical parallel to the National Audit Office. The third was to strengthen the Statistics Commission, which was introduced some years ago, and the fourth was to create a statutory statistics board. The Government were right, in my view, to reject no change and to reject a strengthened non-statutory Statistics Commission. The Bill shows, of course, that they opted for a statutory board.

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I have to say, however, that I am not wholly convinced that the case against a statistical service located in and funded by Parliament was effectively made. The case was asserted rather than made. The Government rejected a parliamentary statistical service, in part because of the transitional costs of setting it up, but I do not personally believe that to be a good argument. One could criticise the National Audit Office on grounds of cost, but we would not argue against having the NAO on the grounds that it employs hundreds of accountants, economists and other professional analysts.

The Government state that statistics are a public good, serving a wide range of users—by implication, not just Parliament. Again, one could say the same about the audit of public expenditure and the public policy advice that flows from it. The Government argue that Britain has a long history of decentralised statistics and that those collecting the data on which those statistics are based are situated in many Government Departments. That is certainly the case, but it is right to have those people collecting the data on a departmental basis as departmental civil servants in the same way that it is right to have accountants in Government Departments to monitor the Government’s expenditure. We nevertheless think it right for Parliament to have its own team of accountants to audit the work of civil service in-house teams.

The Government’s final argument against having a parliamentary statistical office is that the loss of civil servant status by staff would put at risk the movement of qualified statisticians and professional staff between the various branches of a service—in other words, between those working within the civil service and those working for the parliamentary watchdog. That would be the case only if there were restrictive employment practices, so it is not necessarily the case. I am not convinced that a parliamentary statistical office or service would be wrong, but I accept that the Government and the Treasury Sub-Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, have decided that accountability to Parliament could be better provided in other ways. Let us look at those other ways.

In response to views expressed on its consultation document, the Treasury said:

In its fine report on independence for statistics, the Treasury Select Committee said:

We are now at an early stage of the legislative process, so now is the time for the House to discuss how we want our Select Committees to exercise their scrutiny. The Treasury Select Committee took the view that it should continue to take the lead role, provided that Treasury Ministers continue to have residual responsibility for the independent statistical service. Of course, the Treasury Select Committee should retain the right to inquire into any matter for which the Treasury is responsible. However, a new non-ministerial Government Department is being created, so I would like to argue that a new statistics Select Committee should be established.

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The Treasury Committee’s report on independence for statistics was an excellent piece of work, for which I commend the Chairman of the Sub-Committee and its members. The Sub-Committee regularly takes evidence from the national statistician and, as the hon. Member for Sevenoaks explained a few moments ago, it has produced other reports on national statistics and other Government statistics from time to time. However, I do not believe that the Treasury Committee, or even the Sub-Committee which is responsible for a wide range of delegated Treasury responsibilities, will provide the level of detailed scrutiny of Government statistics that is needed. If we really believe that Select Committees should be tools that enable us to hold the Government and public policy to account, a case can be made for creating a Select Committee that will produce not one fine report a year on the Government’s statistics service—or have only one annual session, grilling the national statistician—but perhaps six or eight reports a year on different aspects of the service, how it operates, the scope of the statistics, the timing of their release and so forth. That would be possible if we had a Select Committee dedicated to that purpose.

Claus Moser has been cited on many occasions in this debate, which is not surprising as he is the towering figure in British statistics in the post-war period. When I studied statistics at university, more years ago than I care to remember, his was the text book that I used. In his evidence to the Treasury Sub-Committee, he expressed concern about how Parliament would deal with a new non-ministerial Department. He argued that the statistics system covers more than just economic statistics—a point also made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), speaking for the Liberal Democrats—and concluded that Select Committees other than purely economic Committees in the Commons and the Lords would need to be involved. That suggests to me that he is arguing for a Commons Select Committee on statistics or possibly for a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, along the lines of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, for instance, as some other hon. Members have also suggested.

It is not for a Treasury Minister to determine how Parliament decides to scrutinise the Executive; that is a matter for the House. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to refer my remarks and those of other hon. Members on the scrutiny of a non-ministerial Government statistics Department to the Leader of the House, and to ask the Leader of the House to reply to me in writing.

6.41 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The intentions that underlie the Bill have been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House as well as by various groups representing producers and users of statistics. While the intentions are clear, however, the delivery is muddled and, as we are dealing with statistics, we should remember that if there is a 50:50 chance that something can go wrong, nine times out of 10 it will.

The weaknesses in the Bill are such that little will change and some of the uncertainty that it introduces
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will do more harm than good. Although the short title deals with the independence of statistics, the Bill must also guarantee sufficient scrutiny if the reality of that independence is to be realised. The two strands of independence and scrutiny give rise to a third: that of public confidence, which is the real purpose of the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) pointed out. Lord Moser told me when questioned about the structure and powers of the independent board during the Treasury Committee inquiry that

The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) also made that point.

We have all heard the results of the study recently conducted into falling levels of public confidence in statistics, but those not wishing to use statistics to prove the lack of public confidence in statisticians need look no further than the number of jokes made at their expense. Alternatively, they could ask the national statistician, who was quoted on Friday as saying:

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