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7.34 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): It is astonishing that we should have discussed today whether politicians try to put the best aspect on the information that they have to present to the public. Of course they do, and have always done so. Indeed, if they did not they would be the political equivalent of kamikaze pilots. That has been the case in all political systems since the beginning of time, with the possible exception of Plato’s republic and its philosopher kings—which of course existed in Plato’s head rather than in reality.

Kali Mountford: Is there not a difference between presenting information and interference? The implication is that there has been interference in the actual figures, rather than putting the best face on the facts.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I was about to say that the point about a political system is the extent to which other views may be expressed, in terms of the gloss put on figures and what emerges from the process overall. The issue is not so much a lack of trust in statistics, but the lack of trust in our public system generally. Indeed, we could make a statistical correlation between the reduction in trust in the veracity of statistics and the reduction of trust in public servants and in communities. We live in an age in which trust in a variety of institutions, and one of those is the statistics on which other institutions have to take decisions and reflect the veracity or otherwise of those decisions back to the public, has decreased.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we get what look like statistics, but are not, about the statistics of perception in response to the very trust issues we started with. We get statistics saying that x per cent. of the public think that statistics have no validity. Those statistics of perception tend to reflect how people stand in relation to the information that they receive about the veracity of statistics and opinions. A small example is that only 7 per cent. of people actually travel on railways, but in every survey about the perception of whether the railways are improving or getting worse, a far higher percentage give their opinion. They are reflecting back to the inquirer the generality of view about that issue, rather than their own grounded experience.

It is not true that the public’s support for statistics has suddenly fallen. It is a longer term process. The general distrust of many areas of public service, public statistics and public activity is one of the features of our age. As has been said, we are subject to headlines that reflect back to the public the low level of trust. The famous quote is that there are

Indeed, on a statistical count of the citations of that quotation in the Chamber today it is believed to be 100 per cent. true that the author was Benjamin
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Disraeli, but that exemplar of stealing other people’s clothes nicked it from Mark Twain and used it to good effect.

The opposite view was put, almost at the same time, by Florence Nightingale, who said:

When we consider the issue of trust more generally, we might aim more towards Florence Nightingale and away from Mark Twain.

Indeed, the aim of the Bill is to restore trust. People will continue to express concerns about statistics, but the Bill introduces a form of presenting statistics to the public that is likely not only to be trustable but will show over time that statistics are impartial, real, and reliable. I recall the corrosive effect on the ability to trust any information whatever about unemployment after the 23 changes in calculating the statistics made in the latter stages of the last Conservative Government. I am certainly not saying that such distrust is a sudden occurrence, or a change from the past, but it is important that there be reliability over time in an area of previous low trust in terms of the perception of statistics and their use in the presentation of public policy.

The Bill takes us considerably further down the road of changes made after 1997 to introduce on a non-statutory basis far greater independence of the statistical service. It makes the changes statutory, and provides for an independent commission to oversee them, and guarantees for the veracity of statistics.

I want to consider the question of how the commission will relate back to Parliament. The Bill contains a number of ways for Parliament to scrutinise the independent collection of statistics, which are welcome. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary invited us to consider the effect of the changes on parliamentary scrutiny, and how such scrutiny might best be advanced. He and other Members said that that was not something for the Bill, but that perhaps the Leader of the House might consider it. However, I draw the attention of the House to what could be a useful parallel from earlier legislation: the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. One of the centrepieces of that measure was the setting up of the Electoral Commission. The chief commissioner was a Crown appointment and the commission was an arm’s-length, non-ministerial body with a separate source of funding, charged to oversee a disputed part of public life that needed that degree of reliability and veracity to inform the process and enhance trust in it.

There are a number of parallels with what transpired at that time. As you will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, section 2 of the Act set up a Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. It continues to function, not as something that owns the commission, or as something that is in the pay of the Executive or the Opposition, but as a body in Parliament, holding to account and bringing accountability to an institution that is not in Parliament. The establishment of the Committee largely resolved the issue of how the process of questioning, debating and making reports through Parliament should take place. As Members know, each cycle of parliamentary questions includes a period—admittedly only a short one—when we can put
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questions to the Member who represents the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Furthermore, the House of Commons Commission, over the past few years, has developed the practice not only of placing a report before Parliament each year, but also of initiating a debate on the report on a guaranteed basis. Through the device of a Speaker’s Committee on the statistics commission, we could bring about an arm’s-length relationship that allowed the commission to be accountable to Parliament without being owned by Parliament, which could resolve a number of the questions that remain about a Bill that in most other aspects provides important ways forward to ensure the veracity of statistics and their role in public life.

I commend the Bill. I have not yet heard any voices seriously raised against its intentions, but we need to get it right so that the House can make sure not only that an account is given but that the process itself is held to account. That is important, and can be achieved by processes of which the House already has experience, and which it may be able to replicate to the benefit of the Bill.

7.47 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss the Bill. There is common ground throughout the House that there is a need to do more to improve confidence in Government statistics. I do not think that anyone particularly feels that statisticians are in any way corrupt, misleading, dishonest or incompetent, but we sense that there is widespread concern and scepticism among the public.

Several Members have cited the ONS study showing that only 17 per cent. of people believe that official statistics are produced without political interference. That has to be put in the context of broader concern about the use of statistics. The same survey showed that 59 per cent. of people perceive that the Government use statistics dishonestly.

I have been a member of the Treasury Committee for about a year and I have noticed that once the experts, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, get their hands on a Government announcement after a Budget or a pre-Budget report, the statistics that we have been given are not necessarily what they appear to be. There is evidence of double counting, reannouncements and so on. That is a broader and more significant cause of scepticism about statistics, rather than the fundamental structure of Government statistics.

That is not to say that the Bill cannot help. Its intention to restore confidence by giving greater independence to the statisticians is admirable. Sometimes, politicians too easily cry for independence; a theme of the next premiership may be the granting of greater independence to all sorts of institutions. However, we have to balance independence with accountability and sometimes that does not happen. Clearly, if ever there were an area in which independence was appropriate, statistics would be it, so we must apply a test to the Bill: does it give the independence that it should? In many cases, the answer is that it simply does not.

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I shall give an example that has not been particularly dwelt on during the debate. There are to be six non-executive members and three executive members of the statistics board. The Government will appoint all six non-executive members. One will be appointed by the Crown—we know that that effectively means the Government, although we do not know whether the appointment will be made on the advice of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor—and the five others will be appointed by the Treasury. As for the three executive members, one, the national statistician, will be appointed by the Crown. Nothing in the Bill addresses the role of Parliament. That theme has been touched on by many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead).

The Bill misses an opportunity. We do not have to follow the National Audit Office model as far as statistics are concerned, although it clearly has support on both sides of the House. Even if we opt for the Government’s preferred model, Parliament could have a role of greater involvement, especially on appointments.

There is a process whereby members of the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England attend hearings in front of the Treasury Committee. The Committee is examining that process again in the next few months, and without prejudging that review, I think that there is room for improvement and that the process could be beefed up. None the less, there is at least a process whereby members of the monetary policy committee appear before a cross-party group of parliamentarians and are reviewed. The Bill does not allow such a process to occur, which is regrettable.

More generally, Parliament should have greater involvement in determining, reviewing and consenting to Crown appointments. I hope that both parties will examine that to a much greater extent in future. This is a missed opportunity, because we want to give individual members of the board greater authority and for there to be not just independence, but the perception of independence. I do not think that the appointment process does anything to achieve that.

Greater independence might be granted to members of the board by considering the question whether they should serve one term. At present, such people will be eligible for unlimited reappointments. In such circumstances, there would always be a tendency for people to say, “Well, I don’t want to upset the Treasury, so I will keep my nose clean,” and that may impose a pressure. There might be merely a perception of a pressure, but there would be a pressure none the less.

I turn to the code and its application to official statistics as opposed to national statistics. Ministers will remain responsible for all statistics produced by the Departments other than those designated as national statistics. Who decides whether a statistic is a national one? The Ministers themselves will do so; they will decide whether to make an application to receive that kitemark. That is regrettable and I hope that that aspect of the Bill will be re-examined in Committee. The statistics board ought to have the right to say, “These statistics are so important and significant that they should fall within the scope of national statistics and the code should apply fully to them.” I do not understand how the code will apply, if it will do so at all, to those statistics that are merely official statistics
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and not national ones. That is a great failing of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made the point that as a result of that, the Bill’s impact will bear down most heavily on statistics produced at present by the Office for National Statistics, as opposed to departmental statistics.

The Financial Secretary, who is sadly not in the Chamber, said in response that if one considered the matter numerically, the majority of national statistics were produced by Departments. However, I checked the record of the evidence that he gave to the Treasury Committee back in June, when he argued that one of the reasons why the residual Department should be the Treasury was that the majority of national statistics were economic, especially those produced by the ONS, and said:

My point in response to the Financial Secretary is that it is the statistics produced by the ONS that will be affected most by the code, although, as Lord Moser has pointed out, they are probably the aspect of statistics that is least in need of reform and support.

I mentioned the Treasury’s residual authority. The Treasury Committee concluded that it was right that the Treasury should retain that position, but the decision was clearly finely balanced. The Financial Secretary’s argument to the Committee was that many statistics were economic matters—that is clearly right—and thus Treasury-related, but that clearly cuts both ways. Is it right that the Treasury, which is the Department that is most under scrutiny as a consequence of national statistics, is also the Department with residual powers? One could argue that those residual powers are pretty minimal, but they include appointing the board. We thus find ourselves in an unfortunate position.

It is the Treasury that is most prone to the tendentious presentation of statistics. At the time of the last pre-Budget report, claims were made of extra billions going into schools for capital and extra amounts per pupil, per year. When the claims were examined by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, they turned out not to be anything like those that the Treasury made. That is not an isolated example. If we were to consider the period during which the culture of spin most got hold of the Government, we could look at the time when public spending projections were triple counted and the Chancellor was able to make great claims about the billions of pounds that would be spent on public services by rolling up the figures for various years. The Chancellor stopped doing that to an extent during a time at which public spending was rising rapidly, but now that that is coming to an end, he seems to be using the same approach again. It is unfortunate that a Department that has acquired a reputation for spin in recent years will retain its control.

Many, including Lord Moser, have argued that the obvious Department to have control of this is the Cabinet Office, and I have a lot of sympathy with that view. However, there is a great deal of speculation about what will happen to the Treasury following the change of Prime Minister later in the year, with talk of it being split into two and the creation of a beefed-up Cabinet Office. Perhaps the fact that the Government are continuing to pursue the line that the Treasury should be the main Department for statistics suggests
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that no such thing will happen and that the Treasury will remain intact—maybe I am reading too much into this. However, I have no doubt that if the policy changes while the Bill is being considered in Committee, something could be read into such a change of approach.

On pre-release, I must say that I did not envy the Financial Secretary having to try to justify the policy, even given the announcements that he made today about restricting pre-release to 40 hours. I asked how many of the 79 respondents to the consultation process welcomed the Government’s proposals on pre-release, and I did not get an answer, other than, “Well, everyone seems to recognise that the proposals need to be tightened up.” However, they have not been tightened up nearly enough. If we list those who have considered the issue—the Treasury Committee, the Statistics Commission, the independent Phillis review of Government communications, the Royal Statistical Society, Lord Moser and, I am sure, others—we can see that all of them are concerned about the policy on pre-release, but none of them, as far as I can tell, is satisfied that the Government’s proposals go nearly far enough in dealing with the issue.

The Government give two arguments on why pre-release on the scale proposed is so important. The first is that it makes it easier to deal with the media. Of course it does, but that in itself does not justify the provision; in fact, it is perhaps an argument for why we should not allow pre-release on the scale proposed, as it is very easy to pick out the nuggets of good news and get them into the papers before anyone has the chance to digest the more complex statistics. The second argument is that Ministers need to be able to announce policy decisions immediately after the release of the data. During the Financial Secretary’s speech, I asked a question; I do not know whether the Economic Secretary can answer it. Can he give one example of a case in which the Government made a policy announcement as a consequence of having pre-release access to statistics?

Peter Bottomley: I hope that my hon. Friend is asking whether a Minister has made a policy change immediately after the pre-release. Obviously, if a Minister changed their policy two weeks after the statistics came out, that would be different.

Mr. Gauke: Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. On international comparisons, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) said that she was aware of only one European country that did not have some form of pre-release, but according to the information that I have seen, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland do not have pre-release at all. In those countries that do have it, it is very much curtailed, and is more like three hours. Ultimately, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet that the issue should be determined by the independent statistics board. The Government’s position cannot be justified.

The statistics board will be subject to a potential conflict of interest, and it could be dragged in two directions, a point that has been addressed by a number of hon. Members. The board will both supervise statistics as a whole and be involved in the production of statistics, and that is a difficult situation. The
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Statistics Commission has performed a useful role in scrutinising official statistics, and one of the reasons that it was useful is that it is not involved in producing statistics itself; it is an independent body. It is to be abolished, and I have concerns that that will leave us without a body that performs that role. I have my doubts about whether the statistics board, albeit that it will have internal Chinese walls and what-have-you, will deal with that problem. I recognise that there is scope for amendment, but I do not think that the provisions included in the Bill at the moment address those concerns.

In conclusion, the Bill, as it currently stands, is a missed opportunity. It establishes an independent statistics board, but the board’s membership is tightly controlled by the Treasury, and its responsibilities for producing statistics may conflict with its role of providing independent oversight. The Bill establishes a code, but allows Ministers to decide which statistics will have to comply with the code. As for the most obvious abuse in the system—the pre-release access arrangements—the Bill preserves the power of Ministers to determine the rules. For those reasons, I hope that, in Committee, there will be substantial amendments to a Bill that has the best of intentions, but that fails to live up to them.

8.4 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), who covered the Bill’s various clauses extremely well. I look forward to joining him in Committee next week, where we can pick up on some of the concerns that have been expressed. I welcome the Bill, which is a good example of the deepening consensus among all parties on certain pieces of non-contentious legislation, particularly as it shows that the Government have picked up on clauses in the Conservative party’s last election manifesto. The Government have obviously read it, as it called for an independent national statistics office. It is also clear that, more recently, they have picked up on the shadow Chancellor’s call for a triple lock to ensure proper stewardship of public accounts, as the proposal in the Bill is one of the three important elements of that triple lock.

The measure is necessary because we have had 10 years of spin on our national accounts and statistics. That spin was not confined to No. 10 Downing street, but emanated from No. 11, too, where it has been one of the Chancellor’s defining trademarks. A number of Labour Members, who are not present at the moment, sought to distance the Government and politicians from the lack of trust in our national statistics, but the evidence from the Treasury Committee report is pretty compelling on that point. On page 12, paragraph 14, it quotes the Statistics Commission, which undertook a review in 2005, in which it said:

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