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13 Mar 2007 : Column 174

The National Statistician must be not only head of profession, but the champion of statistics—and also of the public good, which I will address. That means that she must have an interest in the way in which statistical functions are carried out not only in her own office but in the statistical divisions of each of the Government Departments. She must be interested in whether they have the necessary funding, for example, or whether they are devoting the resources that are required, or whether the right priorities are being set inside those Departments to deliver the statistics that are needed. I support new clause 3.

Rob Marris: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, in the light of the aims that he has just referred to, new clause 3(1)(c) is somewhat infelicitously worded? It does not mention the production of official statistics—the issue that he directly referred to—so if it were passed, the National Statistician could have the very strange role of promoting the production of consistent statistics from private companies, charities and so on.

Mr. Fallon: I certainly prefer the term “statistics” to “official statistics” because, as we debated endlessly in Committee, it covers a wider range of data. It had not occurred to me that new clause 3(1)(c) as drafted might refer to the production by companies of private or commercial statistics. However, it makes pretty clear exactly what is required—that statistics, if they are to be produced by the different territories, must be as consistent as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is right to want to give that duty to the National Statistician.

I turn, if I may, to my amendment No. 1 and Government amendment No. 48. Let me say straight away to the Minister that he has kept his word. In Committee, we introduced the concept of “public good”, and he has offered up a definition of it and acted to put it on the statute book for the first time. I thank him for that. It is important, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said, to get that wider objective on the statute book. Any criticisms that I now make of the Minister’s drafting should not detract from the general welcome that I give to getting those words in.

In amendment No. 48, the Minister refers to

That is all very well, but on looking at that phrase more carefully, we note that he is referring to

rather than to statistics whose purpose is to serve the public good. That is not simply a nit-picking point. It implies, of course, that some official statistics will not be serving the public good—that another set of statistics is not involved with the public good. That is a little unfortunate, and perhaps the drafting can be improved in that regard.

Alun Michael: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that some statistics might be needed because of the requirements of international institutions, for instance? Such statistics would be for the purposes of international comparison, and would not therefore have to meet the test of “public good” in a local or national context.

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Mr. Fallon: Yes, I do, but given the way the amendment is drafted, a whole series of other statistics that we do not know about might not be included in the definition.

Secondly, subsection (2) of amendment No. 48, which defines “public good”, includes this wonderful paternalist wording that could have been written by a civil servant in the late 1940s. The public good is defined in the context of

and of

In other words, the Minister is defining public good as the good of Whitehall. My amendment is a little simpler and a little more forthright. It makes it clear that the whole exercise should simply be for the public good, and that we should not try to confine it to what is in the best interests of Whitehall.

However, I want to be charitable today to the Minister. He has included in amendment No. 48 the one phrase that perhaps saves him—“includes in particular”. So the amendment does not exclude other issues; it could go wider, and I believe that it should.

Alun Michael: I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman’s objection to the wording. Serving the public good surely depends on a wider test of the public good than what Whitehall considers it to be. The second element specifically mentions

Again, those must be wider and more objective than what civil servants and Whitehall consider to be of interest.

Mr. Fallon: That may be, but the point that I am trying to make is that this particular drafting is Whitehall-centric. It is about how Whitehall will be

That is not a reference to the right hon. Gentleman’s local community, to Cardiff city council, but to those who are in charge of public policy. My point is that there is a much wider public interest—that of all of us who are citizens in an informed democracy. We have the right to accurate information and independent, rigorous and truthful statistics. If the public are to measure the performance of those who govern them, it is essential that statistics—and the public good—be defined more widely. Statistics belong to all of us, not simply to Whitehall or Ministers.

Alun Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon: No, I am not going to give way again.

I support new clauses 1 and 3 and I welcome, with the criticisms that I have made of it, amendment No. 48. Even at this late hour, the Minister should have another look at the simpler and more forthright version that I have set out in amendment No. 1.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I wish to make two brief observations on this group of amendments. The first relates to the comments made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) about amendments Nos. 46 and 47. Similar amendments were
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discussed in Committee and I shall repeat an observation that I made then, because it still holds true. Both those amendments are very helpful, but flawed.

They are helpful because they expose one of the difficulties in the Bill. Essentially, the Bill provides details of the role of the statistics board, but does not especially say what the role of the National Statistician will be. Clause 29(2) states that the National Statistician may exercise certain functions of the board. However, clause 29(4) allows the board to reserve powers for itself instead of allowing the National Statistician to assume all the powers of the board, which I think would be the result of amendments Nos. 46 and 47. That would not be desirable, but the amendments are helpful because they identify the flaw in the Bill, which is that we do not know what the role of the National Statistician will be. We will have a board, and that will do certain things, and some of its powers will be delegated to the National Statistician, but the Bill does not give much guidance on that point. New clause 3 is also helpful as it attempts to define the role and objectives of the National Statistician.

My second observation relates to the fact that since the Committee stage the Treasury Committee has visited the Republic of Ireland. Those of us who went, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), met the Irish statisticians, who made several observations to which I am sure we will return during the course of the afternoon. The Irish statisticians identified an example of some of the pressures on them. The question arose as to whether cigarettes should be included in determining inflation and the equivalent of the retail prices index. Health campaigners argued that cigarettes should be excluded on health grounds. The view of the statisticians—rightly, in my opinion—was to resist that argument, because the point of statistics, as we have discussed this afternoon, is to provide a true figure. Such questions of morality should not be part of the decision about what is included in a particular statistic. The Irish statisticians were able to resist that pressure. In looking at the Bill, it is a worthwhile test to assess that everything has been done to ensure that the statisticians are in a position to resist that type of extraneous non-statistical pressure to influence statistics.

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New clause 1, which deals with access to the Prime Minister, also relates to the status of the National Statistician—an issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. It is important that the National Statistician should be a respected major figure in public life.

New clause 3 relates to the role and objectives of the National Statistician. The fact that those are made clear and are now an integral part of the Bill will help the National Statistician to retain the necessary integrity and strength to resist any pressures. Amendment No. 48, which relates to the role of the board, also assists in that process. Once again, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks that that specification is helpful and welcome. The public good test is definitely worth applying to the Bill as a whole. As I say, both new clauses 1 and 3 would be beneficial to the Bill in achieving that objective.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): As at each stage of consideration of the Bill,
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we have had a very well informed, informative and useful discussion—in this case, of a group of two new clauses and a series of amendments. Before dealing specifically with the new clauses and amendments tabled by the Opposition, I would like to speak to Government amendment No. 48, which has been tabled for consideration in the light of the debates and strong case made in Committee in support of similar amendments—tabled then by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). The provisions are also a response to the points raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). I appreciated the three cheers that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth gave for the amendment. He is right that it is important and I hope that he is also right that it is non-controversial. I also welcome the support of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks and others who have spoken in the debate.

The new provisions in amendment No. 48 strengthen the board’s overarching objective, requiring it to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. Although I am not seeking to define exhaustively the many ways in which official statistics serve the public good—a point that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks was anxious to hear me make—clause 7 highlights some of the key ways in which official statistics do so. They help inform the public about the economy and society in which they live; they play a crucial role in the development and evaluation of public policy at all levels—national, regional or local— and they are official statistics, the statistics of the Government.

The amendment is designed to include clearly in the board’s statutory objectives an important point of principle, which was always the Government’s intention, though perhaps not explicitly stated—that the availability of comprehensive, high-quality official statistics produced according to good practice is not an end in itself, but that statistics exist to serve the public good in the widest sense.

Official statistical information is a rich and vital source of information in any modern democracy. It serves everyone from school children, local community groups and business to academics, the voluntary sector, researchers in a wide range of organisations and, of course, the Government themselves. The amendment is an explicit reflection of the Government’s belief that official statistics exist for the public’s benefit, and not solely to inform and assist the Government in their work.

By including the revised objective, the board will be required to give recognition and consideration to the ways in which statistics serve the public good in carrying out the functions for which it is responsible, such as monitoring and reporting on quality, comprehensiveness and good practice, as well as drawing up and assessing statistics against the code of practice. I hope that Members will agree that the amendment strengthens the Bill and that it represents a welcome step forward.

I shall now turn to the new clauses and amendments tabled by other hon. Members. In many ways, they illustrate an attempt to alter the core model of
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governance that we have adopted in the Bill. They cover matters that we discussed in detail in Committee, and touched on at some length on Second Reading as well. However, it is worth retreading some of that ground on Report, and trying to elaborate on the issues in a way that I hope will enable us to deal with some of the concerns behind the amendments and new clauses.

To summarise, our model for setting up the statistics board and its relationship with the National Statistician and the executive statistics office involves the creation of the new independent statistics board that is at the centre of the Bill. That reflects our commitment to two central principles. The first is to devolve, where appropriate, ministerial power in statute to credible institutions set up independently and given a remit by Parliament and the Government. The second principle involves leadership by a board, which means sharing accountability across a group of individuals with a range of skills and expertise who report directly to Parliament rather than to me as the Minister. It is our belief that that is a better approach than vesting all authority in one individual. It is consistent with best practice in corporate governance, be that in the private or the public sector. It also reflects the importance of statistics in terms of involving more than simply a matter of technical excellence in production. It is therefore important that a board of broader composition reflects the wider range of users and the purposes of statistics.

From the point at which we first started collecting import and export data more than 400 years ago, and from when we conducted the first population census about 200 years ago, the decentralised system of statistical collection and production has been viewed as a strength of the UK system. Given the unique features of our long-established and strongly supported decentralised system of statistical production, we wanted to establish a single oversight board to set standards, to scrutinise the statistical system, and to provide the top layer of governance for what is at present the Office for National Statistics but which, in the context of the Bill, will be the independent national statistical service.

A key reason for doing that was to avoid creating what might otherwise be competing independent centres of statistical expertise, which might ultimately confuse and undermine confidence in the system. Under our chosen model, the board will be able to draw on the professional advice of the independent statutory National Statistician, rather than requiring its own separate independent professional adviser, which clearly would be the case were we to set up two separate centres or institutions.

I would point out to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) that we are creating a model that is best suited to the purposes of the UK statistics system for the future, but we are not entering entirely uncharted territory. At the core of the new system lies a familiar model—the unitary corporation or board responsible for discharging the functions conferred specifically by the Bill.

Normally, a board delegates functions to its executive arm. In this case, however, the executive authority is conferred directly to the executive office. That is not unusual: officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can exercise the functions of HMRC commissioners. What is unusual is the requirement for the board to have regard to the National Statistician’s
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advice. That requirement recognises the National Statistician’s professional status. Moreover, the board must set out in a report to be laid before the House any instances of when it departs from the technical and professional expertise and advice offered by the National Statistician. In many ways, the model and approach being adopted in the Bill will be familiar to those who understand the role played in Government Departments by accounting officers.

Effectively, the Bill removes Ministers from the accountability structure for the ONS—in all the hours of debate on the proposals, I have not yet heard anyone argue that I should keep my current job in that regard—but the oversight role is absolutely fundamental. That is why the new statutory board will undertake the role currently performed by Ministers.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The Minister is talking about oversight, but clause 29(4) states:

Does he agree that the board’s role therefore goes beyond mere oversight? The Bill states that the board must “have regard” to the National Statistician’s professional advice, but does not clause 29(4) drive a coach and horses through that?

John Healey: I shall explain in a little while how the person who is legally accountable to Parliament for a particular decision must have ultimate responsibility for the function. I hope to make it clearer how that will be discharged, but I will certainly welcome a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman if he is not satisfied with my explanation.

We have ensured that, within the single structure that we propose, there is a clear separation between the production and scrutiny responsibilities. The Treasury Committee urged us to do that, and I believe that the Bill largely achieves it. The National Statistician is required to establish the board’s executive office, and appoint its other members and staff. We expect the office to undertake the statistical executive production activities on a day-today basis, just as the ONS does now.

Mrs. Villiers: The Minister says that the National Statistician will, in effect, run the executive office—in other words, that that office will effectively take on the function of the ONS. If so, why will he not accept amendment No. 15, which would make the National Statistician the chief executive of the executive office, rather than of the board as a whole?

John Healey: Because the amendment would restrict and diminish the important role of the National Statistician. The Bill reinforces her status in some important ways and makes her role clear. It also gives her role statutory backing in a way that has not been the case previously.

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