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8.34 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, not only because of the quality of the speeches but because I have a specific interest in the future of the Office for National Statistics. Its Titchfield office is based in my constituency and, as a consequence of the campaign that I fought with union leaders, it remains there and was not closed as part of the Lyons review when jobs were relocated to Newport and the constituency of the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who was in his place earlier. I therefore have a concern about the future of the ONS that perhaps goes beyond a shadow Minister’s normal responsibilities.

Let me begin by highlighting some of the contributions. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) focused on part 2, the existence of which reflects his tenacity in pursuing the objectives of the organisation of which he is a patron and ensuring that the interests of civil registrars are heard.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) highlighted the agreement between Front Benchers on many provisions and some of the broader issues on which there is consensus throughout the House.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), in a powerful and thoughtful speech, spoke about the accuracy of data and its importance for her and her constituents. She also made an important point about the ability of the ONS to respond flexibly when errors in data collection are identified. She spoke, especially from her constituency experience, about collecting data on the migration of people. The Bank of England has made a similar wider point about its policy-making decisions. How can it form a proper basis for the decisions that it makes if one cannot catch data on matters such as migration more accurately?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who chairs the Treasury Sub-Committee, made a powerful speech that set out the case for reform. He is right that the key test for National Statistics is whether it will be perceived as fully independent of the Treasury. In the main body of my remarks, I shall identify the progress that I believe that the Government have made in the Bill and emphasise how much more progress could be made if we were to make the body fully independent.

The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was one of several Members who made a case for better parliamentary scrutiny. He considered the
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National Audit Office model of scrutiny, and other hon. Members proposed different models.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) made an important contribution that reflected the conflict between delivering statistics and who has oversight of the system. He spoke about that in the context of individual statisticians working in Departments and of the board that the Bill establishes.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) spoke about the complexity of data and considered whether that was one of the factors that led to people mistrusting Government statistics. She was right to make the point that, as data become more complex, people lose faith in them. However, I take issue with one of her points. Ministers can get early access to data and use the complexity as a means of picking out key information for them and their purposes. It is therefore not simply a matter of publishing a full set of data—she referred to the crime survey—but of the way in which Ministers use early access to shape their presentation and publication.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) spoke of the need for greater devolution of statistics to the devolved Administrations. However, from listening to professional bodies during the consultation on the Bill and in the Treasury Committee, the need for greater coherence and consistency of statistics throughout the United Kingdom, as well as the problems that emerge when statistics are collected by different Administrations, became clear.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) spoke about the means of increasing parliamentary scrutiny of the statistical service, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission as a model for greater parliamentary scrutiny, and the way in which that Committee gives my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) the opportunity to answer questions from hon. Members in the House every four weeks.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) also took up the challenge of increasing parliamentary scrutiny of the board. He focused on increasing scrutiny of appointments to the board and the role that Parliament can play in making such appointments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) talked about problems with the definition of national income and spending, about the ways in which the presentation of data can be used or misused through changes to statistical series when data are discontinued, and about how data are publicised to a wider audience.

The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) was based on his experience as a Minister. He offered plenty of guidance to Ministers on the constructive use of statistics and some suggestions on how they might want to bury bad statistical news as well by publicising it even more widely—a novel approach to publication.

Rob Marris: Tell us more.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) should have been in his place
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to hear it, but I am sure that he will be able to read what was said in Hansard tomorrow.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made clear in her opening remarks, we see independent national statistics as a key plank of the triple lock on economic stability. It is vital that people can trust our Government statistics and that economic and social data are produced in a robust fashion, free from political interference. It is no reflection on the staff of the Office for National Statistics, including the more than 1,000 people who work for it in my constituency, the national statistician or her predecessor that confidence in Government statistics is so low.

We know of examples—we have heard more tonight—where the Government can present information in a misleading fashion to suit their own ends. Although the Government may achieve a short-term political goal, in the longer term it erodes public confidence and trust. In one respect, the Bill is a response to that erosion of trust and confidence in national statistics.

Rob Marris: Looking back a paragraph or so, one of the reasons for lessening confidence in public statistics is that, under Len Cook, the ONS kept revising the statistics—on national growth, for example—so I think that there is some responsibility within the ONS. There are other factors, but that was a factor in the lessening confidence.

Mr. Hoban: That reflects the complexity of data collection and the changing economy. The hon. Member for Slough talked about issues surrounding migration data and I recollect that one issue affecting data in around 2000 was the ability to capture transactions on the internet. That represented a move away from traditional sources of data collection, but I do not believe that we can blame the ONS for a change in the way the economy operates. As the economy changes and as population flows change, we need to reflect on it and adjust data collection methods in order to ensure that the data are complete. The ONS has a difficult job keeping up with those changes in the underlying economy and ensuring that it captures all the data. It may be as a consequence of changes to the economy that restatements have to be made in respect of the initial data released.

A key point is that the Bill presents an opportunity for radical reform. I think that the Minister said that it was about 60 years since the last major statistics Bill was debated in the House, so we are talking about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am afraid, however, that although the Treasury has made some progress towards greater independence, it has not gone far enough. The Bill could have been used to introduce more radical reforms to reassure users that statistics will be produced on an independent basis, free from potential political interference and in a way that will rebuild public confidence and trust.

For statistics to be seen to be free from political interference, we need to satisfy four criteria. The governance and funding of the ONS have seen to be free from political inference and there has to be proper scrutiny of those who produce Government statistics. It is vital to have a clear structure that imposes the same rigour on the production of statistics across the whole of government and not just in the ONS. Finally,
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rules around access to statistics should be robust and limit the Government’s ability to put pre-emptive spin on them in advance of publication.

How does the Bill measure up to those criteria? In the draft Bill that was produced before the last general election, we said that we should look to the NAO model of funding and scrutiny, and try to apply it to the ONS. The Government have gone part of the way down that route, but there is still progress to be made. The many comments that have been made by Members on both sides of the House about the increased role of parliamentary scrutiny of the statistics system show that the Government need to do more work in that area; perhaps we will return to the matter in Committee.

One of the provisions that we put forward in the draft Bill was to change the funding arrangements of the ONS to take it outside the normal spending round so that there could be no sense of the ONS or its senior management being influenced by the fact that the Treasury held the purse strings. Earlier in today’s debate, the Financial Secretary outlined the funding proposals that he would like to implement for the ONS, involving a quinquennial review of funding. I hope that we will find a mechanism in Committee to discuss how that will work in practice and to see whether it will create the independence for the ONS that we want to see.

Another welcome change that the Government have introduced is the statutory duty on the board to assess the quality of national statistics. A concern that was raised time and again today is that the same board that will have responsibility for oversight will also have executive responsibility for the preparation of statistics by the ONS. That unhelpfully muddles oversight with delivery. Surely the Treasury Committee report was right to state that

We do not believe that the Government’s proposals for a national statistician and a head of assessment go far enough in separating the responsibility for production and for oversight. We need a clear divide at board level between those responsible for the production of statistics and those scrutinising their production if we are to restore public confidence and trust in statistics.

The Bill also makes progress in that it seeks to ensure that the code of practice is applied to all national statistics prepared by Government Departments and not just to those prepared by the ONS, but that leaves a raft of other statistical data not covered by this standard. It seems odd, given this opportunity for radical reform, to perpetuate a two-tier system. The Select Committee report identified 250 different statistical series produced by Government Departments that will not need to be produced in line with the new code. Surely we should put all official statistics on the same footing, so that users can have the confidence that all statistics produced by the Government are produced to the same standard. It ought to be the intention of the Government that all official statistics attain the same high standard.

On the dissemination of statistics, and particularly on pre-release access, the Bill represents a move forward, in that it talks about the need for a code and for a statutory instrument to set out a framework for pre-release
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access. It is unfortunate, however, that that framework will be determined not by, say, the board in consultation with the Treasury, but by the Treasury itself. Clause 11 sets out some fairly detailed parameters to define what should be in the statutory instrument, but the Government will still be able to exercise discretion, and to allow the rules to be flexible to accommodate their own needs. It would have been far better if the Treasury had gone a step further and given responsibility for the production of the code to the board. That would have given a clear sign to users that the pre-release was being done in a proper, transparent way and without being influenced by political considerations from the Treasury or any other Department.

My final point is about the use of administrative data collected for another purpose, perhaps by another Department, to produce national statistics. That matter has caused a great deal of debate, and was covered extensively in the Treasury Committee inquiry and the Minister’s response to it.

Although we welcome in principle the cost savings that come from not having to collect the same data twice from different sources, we need to ensure that the Bill includes sufficient safeguards to protect the confidentiality of data. We do not want a system in which data come from a Department to the ONS and are then taken out again by another Department for a wholly different purpose. We should make sure that that gateway is not two-way, allowing data to come in and out when that is inappropriate. We need to consider in Committee the detail underpinning the confidentiality provisions in the Bill to ensure that they are sufficiently robust to give people confidence that the data will not be misused once they are in the hands of the ONS.

This is not a dry Bill about statistics, but an acutely political one that tells us a great deal about how this Government have reacted in the past, the Prime Minister and his use of statistics, and the attitude of his likely successor. It recognises the loss of public trust in statistics in recent years and proposes modest reforms that hint at a break with the past—perhaps at a new style of government. Yet the reforms and their authors are betrayed by their modesty. By introducing the Bill, the Government implicitly recognise that they have eroded public confidence in the integrity and independence of national statistics, but there is a lack of will in the Treasury to embrace radical reform that would demonstrate a new approach.

The Treasury will use the cover of these modest reforms to show that it has changed, but their modesty indicates that it cannot and will not wean itself off its old tricks. The spin and misuse of data that we have seen in the past nine years is, I believe, set to continue if the Chancellor becomes Prime Minister.

8.52 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ed Balls): I join the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) in paying tribute to speakers from both sides of the House in what has been a wide-ranging and informed debate. I shall do my best to do justice to the contributions from hon. Members from across the House. I thank them for the time that they have taken to prepare and contribute; I am sure that they will
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continue to show an active interest in the stages to come. I am sure that the Committee stage will be long and detailed and that much will be discussed. Given the standard of this debate, I am sure that in Committee there will be many interventions from both sides of the House.

It is notable that a number of former Ministers made interesting contributions, including my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley), for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and the hon. Members for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who, once he got beyond the party politics of debates about PFI and pension liabilities and on to the serious substance of his speech, made an important contribution.

I make particular reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). As the hon. Member for Fareham said, he has campaigned for a decade to see the measures introduced in the Bill come to fruition, to ensure that registrars enjoy the employment rights that other people take for granted. People ask what the point of a parliamentary career or a ten-minute Bill is—all those hours of work and effort. In the coming years, the result of all his campaigning work, and the reality of this Bill, will be seen all around the country. We commend him for all his work over the years.

I want to address a number of the detailed points, but first let me make a few comments to give some context. As my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said, the Bill is historic. It is the next stage in what has been a radical programme of reform of the institutions of British economic policy since 1997: the independence of the Bank of England, the new, statutory Financial Services Authority, the Debt Management Office, the code of fiscal stability and the independence of the competition authorities.

For each of those reforms, we put in legislation a requirement for clear and unambiguous objectives and a proper division of responsibilities, with case-by-case decisions being taken at arm’s length from Ministers, but having proper ministerial and parliamentary accountability and maximum transparency and scrutiny. The reforms of the statistical system that we put forward today are firmly in that tradition. In 2000 we introduced the framework for national statistics, the most far-reaching reform of the statistical system in over 30 years. The Bill builds on those reforms and on the strengths of the United Kingdom statistical system by retaining our decentralising approach to the collection and provision of statistics, while at the same time enshrining independence in statute. The quality and coherence of statistics throughout the United Kingdom will be further secured with the full participation of all devolved Administrations, which is a very welcome aspect of the Bill.

I shall say more about the role of Parliament later. Some have argued, as I believe the hon. Member for Fareham did a moment ago, that rather than adopting our evolutionary approach to independence we should have used the model of the National Audit Office. As my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary made clear, we consider the production of statistics to be an executive
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function most appropriately located in Government, rather than in Parliament. As we have also made clear, with the exception of Mongolia no country has created a precedent by placing the control of statistics in the hands of Parliament rather than those of the Executive. However, we make it plain in the Bill that—through scrutiny of legislation and secondary legislation, but also through the way in which both the Executive and the independent statistical service are held to account—the role of Parliament will be not just important, but substantially enhanced. I shall return to that issue shortly.

We will have ample time in which to debate the details of the Bill, but I think we are introducing a system that will meet our ideals and objectives. The Government believe that these reforms will accord with our principles in delivering high-quality, high-integrity statistics involving clearly defined roles and responsibilities, transparency, flexibility and value for money, as well as independence for the decision makers.

I am glad to say that the broad objectives of the Bill and the principle of independence for statistics have been strongly welcomed by the House today. I can also say that the Government’s decision to legislate for independence has been widely welcomed outside the House. We have consulted in depth on our detailed proposals, and we have received a very thorough report from the Treasury Committee.

I think it fair to say, on the basis of the consultation and today’s debate, that there is no single framework for independent statistics, and no clear consensus on the details of the model that we should adopt. Today we have observed some differences over how we should make a reality of independence, particularly in the context of the separation of the board’s executive and scrutiny roles—an issue raised by the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), for Sevenoaks, for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) and for Worthing, West. Another issue was the scope of the board’s responsibility for official statistics and ministerial nomination of statistics for assessment, which was raised by the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet, for Sevenoaks and for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke). A third was the role of Ministers in pre-release access to data, raised by the hon. Members for Sevenoaks, for Chipping Barnet, for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for South-West Hertfordshire. I shall deal with all three issues very briefly.

First let me deal with governance. Some have called for the establishment of two separate boards, one responsible for delivery and the other for scrutiny. That would have meant putting the Statistics Commission on a statutory footing, separate from statistical production. We considered the option carefully, but in our view a single institutional structure provides the most effective way of delivering greater independence for the ONS, independent scrutiny, and oversight of the statistical system as a whole, while avoiding the creation of competing centres of expertise.


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