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The assessment function, on the other hand, will be operationally independent of statistical production within the executive office. A statutory postholder—the head of assessment—reporting directly to the board will lead the assessment function and all staff working on assessment.
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Statistics produced by the executive office—in other words, the current ONS—will be assessed according to the same standards, processes and rigour as statistics produced anywhere else in the Government. Given the importance of the board’s establishing its credibility and reputation as an assessment body, I have no doubt that it will insist on applying the highest standards to statistics produced by the National Statistician’s executive office, despite suggestions from Opposition Members that that may not be the case. It certainly will be the case, because nothing less will do—as will be apparent, should there be any suggestion of dual standards in the application of assessment and approval functions conducted by the board.

Rob Marris: I understood my hon. Friend to say that the executive office would be roughly akin to the current ONS. I seek his assurance that he will look into whether there is adequate funding for the ONS now, and the executive office in due course, to carry out those tasks. My hon. Friend may be aware that the Public and Commercial Services Union—the trade union for many ONS staff—is worried about Gershon cutbacks, Lyons relocations and things such as the closure of the public search room at the Family Records Centre and race equality proofing in the distribution of posts outside London. Will my hon. Friend make sure that the new executive office is adequately resourced?

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right: the PCS is concerned about such issues in relation not only to the ONS but across Government. I understand the union’s concern, but on the other hand the Government have to set those important objectives across all Departments. He may remember from previous proceedings on the Bill that I gave a commitment that our approach will be to take the funding of the new independent statistics board out of the normal comprehensive spending review process. We shall put it on a five-year footing, with an annual formula approach. I assure him that I am considering very carefully indeed the resource requirements so that the new independent statistical system led by the statistical board can do the job we are asking it to do.

New clause 1 seeks to establish that the National Statistician will have direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving the integrity of, or a dispute with, a Department regarding official statistics. As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks informed the House, we had a long debate about the proposal in Committee but, as I said then, I do not accept that it is a necessary addition to the Bill. It is not always widely appreciated that the National Statistician holds a rather exceptional position and currently has right of access to the Prime Minister, through the head of the civil service, specified and formalised in the terms of the framework for national statistics. I have been unable to discover a comparable post in which such right of access is formalised in that way. It is not the case for the chief medical officer, the chief scientific adviser, the head of the Government’s legal service or the head of the Government’s economic service. There is no precedent for going further and codifying such right of access in legislation.

Let me make it clear that we intend the National Statistician to continue to have that right, but it is neither appropriate nor necessary to put it into
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legislation. Exposing, cross-examining or dealing with any Department or Minister who may be failing to follow the advice or requirements of the statistics board is the role of the board, and it is for the board to report the matter publicly to the House.

I hope that Members recognise that it will be the role of the House and of Parliament to play a more active part in holding Ministers and Departments to account, in a way that is consistent with what this House and the other place are set up to do. In the Bill, we reinforce the potential for Parliament to play that part in holding Ministers and Departments to account.

Mr. Fallon: I am still not quite clear about the right of direct access. The Financial Secretary says that it exists at the moment, or that he intends it to exist, but how can it exist as a right if it is not statutory?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman, better than anyone in the House at present, will understand the nature of the framework for national statistics, which we introduced in 2000. He will recognise—because we are legislating now—that that is not a statutory framework. Nevertheless, the access that the National Statistician has through the head of the civil service is set out under the terms of that framework. That is the simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

New clause 3 apparently seeks to clarify the roles, responsibilities and objectives of the National Statistician as compared with the board. Although I understand some of the thinking behind it, in my view the proposal is unnecessary. I hope that I will be able to demonstrate to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and others that it is likely to subvert, not strengthen, the governance model and to blur, not clarify, the lines of accountability.

I want to say clearly to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) that the National Statistician’s role under the Bill and the new system is not being downgraded. I hope to go on to explain that it is also not unclear. First, let me deal with the question of the National Statistician’s role and status. It is hard to argue that, taken as a whole, the Bill and the proposals for the new system downgrade the role, as opposed to strengthening it. For the first time, it will be a statutory post. The National Statistician will be the chief executive of what is currently the Office for National Statistics. She will continue to be the chief statistical adviser to the Government and to the board on all professional and statistical matters. She will be head of the Government statistical service. She will be a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with the other board members for the ultimate decision making, rather than, as now, advising me as the Minister ultimately responsible to Parliament. Finally, the post will be a higher status Crown appointment, rather than, as now, a post that is appointed simply by Ministers. I hope that that will settle once and for all the suggestion that the hon. Lady has recycled from others and that was often made at an earlier stage in our consultation.

On the question of clarity, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) is right: there is no intrinsic reason why the National Statistician cannot operate in the same organisation as a scrutiny or assessment function
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if we get the arrangements right. I hope that if I say a little more about how the board and the National Statistician’s duties will operate in practice it may allay some of the concerns that have prompted the remarks this afternoon and the amendments and new clauses. Once the board is established, I fully expect the chair of the board and the National Statistician to set out in more detail some of these points in published documents that outline their ways of working and their respective overall goals and objectives. These are not matters for statute or matters to pin down precisely at this point. The matters for statute relate to establishing legal responsibilities and clear lines of public accountability.

In its role and capacity as the top layer of governance for the statistics office, we expect that the board will primarily provide strategic oversight and set the direction. As I have said, it replaces the role that I currently undertake in relation to the Office for National Statistics. I am clearly not involved in the day-to-day operations. The majority non-executive board will similarly provide support for, and exercise a challenge function in relation to, the National Statistician and her executive team. That is a well established and usual role for non-executive members of boards.

I would expect the board, as I do now, to contribute to, comment on and sign off several of the long-term strategic documents and plans, such as high-level business plans for statistical production. I would also expect it to play a central role in making decisions about managing high-level risks. Examples of that might be plans for the census, plans for improving the statistics that are available to track migration and population in this country, or even several of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), such as questions of relocation and where the headquarters of the ONS should be located in future. We expect the board to sign off the code of practice and assessments. However, the work done to prepare the code and undertake the assessments would be carried out not by the board, but under the guidance of the National Statistician and the head of assessment respectively.

The chair of the board will clearly be a significant figure under the new system. I would thus expect that person to provide strategic leadership and a clear vision for the board. I would expect the chair to help to ensure that the board collectively holds the National Statistician and his or her staff and the head of assessment to account for delivery. I would also expect the chair to act as a public spokesperson and ambassador for the board with the Government and the wider statistics community and in the public area. Finally, and importantly, I would expect the chair of the board to be called before any parliamentary Committees to report on, and account for, the activities of the board.

I have outlined the five roles that we see for the National Statistician—or the five ways in which the position is being reinforced. The National Statistician will have a number of key complementary roles. Let me give a little more detail to put some meat on the bones of what I have said before. As the board’s chief professional adviser, we would expect the National Statistician to advise the board on statistical and professional issues, including the content of the code of practice. We would expect the National Statistician to support the board in the discharge of its scrutiny functions by advising on technical matters, such as the use of classifications, definitions and methodologies. Of course, as I have
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said, although the board might take a decision not to follow the professional or technical advice of the National Statistician, it will be required to report on that publicly, including to the House.

I would expect the National Statistician, as the board’s chief executive, to establish a management team and staff the executive office to undertake statistical production and many of the current activities of the ONS. I would also expect that person to provide leadership to that office, which might well be established as an executive agency of the board as the ONS is an executive agency of the Treasury. The National Statistician might thus provide managerial and operational leadership, including on such matters as pay and rations. Finally, as the head of the government statistical service, I would expect the National Statistician to be leading the professional development of staff across government and taking responsibility for the recruitment and development of a sufficient supply of good quality professionals to staff our government statistical service.

Adam Afriyie: In business and every other walk of life, the ultimate power that any individual—or perhaps Minister—has over any organisation is the ability to appoint and dismiss members of a board or an organisation. Who will have the ultimate power to appoint people to the board?

John Healey: As I said earlier, the appointment of the chair of the board will be made ultimately by the Crown, on the advice of the Prime Minister. All appointments will be subject to the established procedure of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

5.15 pm

In her role as the head of the government statistical service, the National Statistician would have responsibility for guiding the heads of profession in the Departments on the full range of professional matters. The Bill establishes a clear, single accountability structure, under which the board and all who work for it will strive to achieve the same high-level objective of ensuring the availability of good quality statistics that serve the public good. Accountability will be provided by the board. New clause 1 and the amendments are more likely to muddy the lines, and to put that confusion into statute, than to help.

Adam Afriyie: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again so generously. I asked who would appoint members of the board, and I think that I heard him say that it was the Crown, but clause 3(2)(b) says:

Will he confirm that the Treasury will make the majority of appointments to the board?

John Healey: The chair will be appointed in the way that I explained, but members of the board will be appointed through the established OCPA process. They will be appointed formally by the Treasury, because under the Bill the Treasury has residual functions that are required of the Government, relating to the independent statistical system and the independent statistics board.

Turning to amendments Nos. 8, 10 to 14, 46 and 47, we expect the National Statistician to undertake executive functions, including statistical production, through the
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executive office that the National Statistician is required to establish. Under clause 29(2), the National Statistician can exercise all the board’s functions, with some limited exceptions, so as to ensure a clear separation from the board’s assessment function.

There is another protective lock on the professional primacy of the National Statistician’s role. The National Statistician will advise the board on all statistical matters. If the board overrules the National Statistician’s advice on technical issues, it will be required to publish the reasons and report them to Parliament. That is the importance of the National Statistician’s role as the board’s chief professional adviser.

Ultimately, the National Statistician and the executive office exercise the functions of the board under the board’s direction. The board will be the legal entity statutorily responsible for the exercising of the functions established in the Bill. That provides the Government with a structure that allows corporate oversight of executive and assessment functions, while allowing us to maintain a single centre of expertise for statistics. As I said, the board replaces the role that Ministers currently play in overseeing and supporting the National Statistician, and it is therefore the board, not Ministers, who will be held to account for delivering the statutory functions of the Bill.

If the board is given statutory responsibility, and is accountable for delivering those functions, it must ultimately have responsibility for them, even though in most cases the board will have the functions discharged by the National Statistician and her executive office. I repeat that I believe that we have introduced the right system, overseen by the board. Ultimately, accountability will be shared by a group; it will not rest with one individual, albeit an individual as distinguished and well qualified as the National Statistician.

Amendment No. 39 would require the National Statistician to promote statistical planning and production across Departments. As we discussed in Committee, one of the Bill’s great strengths is the fact that the devolved Administrations have all decided to join in with the new arrangements. The Government recognise that consistent, UK-wide statistics are important, beneficial and desirable. The consistency will mean that statistics about the devolved countries can be combined to produce UK figures; it will mean that if there were different Administrations, we could compare their circumstances. As I made clear in Committee, some divergence is to be expected. That is a product of devolution—not just the recent devolution settlement but the different legal, political and administrative systems and policies that are in place in the four nations, many of which existed before devolution. It may therefore not be appropriate or desirable for statistics to be as consistent as possible.

Amendment No. 45 would require the legislation to state that the National Statistician should be the Government’s chief adviser on statistics and “provide professional leadership” to all persons working on statistics in government. I have dealt with the status of the National Statistician and her important range of roles. I have already said that we intend the National Statistician, as now, to be the head of the government statistical service, providing professional leadership to people working on statistics in government. In the decentralised system that we have chosen to retain, it is inevitable that statisticians will continue to work in
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Government Departments. It is not appropriate to legislate within the civil service structure for lines of accountability between staff working in a Department and the National Statistician working in another Department. We do not do that with the government economic service, government scientific services or the government legal service. The question is not about professional status or authority but simply whether it is right or appropriate to legislate for lines of professional accountability across Departments.

Julia Goldsworthy: In the next group of amendments, we will look at the code of practice, which makes it clear that standards should be adhered to in the production of national statistics. If there is a chain of accountability to the board and ultimately to the National Statistician, is it not logical to provide a professional chain of accountability for statisticians working on national statistics in ministerial Departments?

John Healey: There is a strong professional connection and a line of accountability on professional matters. The amendment poses the question of whether it is appropriate to legislate for those circumstances, and my argument is that it is not.

Finally, amendment No. 15 seeks to make the National Statistician chief executive of the executive office, rather than the chief executive of the board. I do not accept that that is necessary or helpful, as I made clear in Committee. The board, as a corporate body, needs a chief executive, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will accept. The chief executive need not be operationally involved in every aspect of the board’s activities to discharge that responsibility, and the Bill ensures that she is not. There are detailed provisions in the Bill on the role of the National Statistician specifying, for example, where her advice must be followed by the board, and activities in which she cannot be involved. She cannot, for example, approve the final form of a code or take part in the assessment of statistics produced by her office. Those provisions give the clearest possible guidance to the National Statistician and the board on their respective roles.

In Committee, I made the point—and it has been made again today—that it is relatively common for Parliament to authorise a body to undertake a dual role. A local authority, for instance, is empowered both to promote development within its boundary and to grant planning permission. When it does so, it must structure itself to perform both functions as best it can, bearing in mind its overriding responsibility to act fairly, impartially and without bias. The fact that the chief executive may have to distance themselves from the conduct of a planning application does not disqualify them from being responsible as chief executive of the planning department for ensuring effective governance and operations. There are similar examples in central Government. The Department for Transport, for instance, may wish to develop transport networks, and it may be required, too, to consider orders that permit developments under the Transport and Works Act 1992. Similarly, the fact that the National Statistician is expressly distanced from decisions relating to the board’s own statistics assessment does not bar her from ultimate responsibility
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as chief executive to the board. In many cases, public policy and individual decisions can present a certain amount of tension, but there is no reason why they cannot be accommodated in a single organisation, or why they should be less transparent because of that fact, especially where proper separations are established, as is the case in the Bill.

I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and others who tabled amendments and new clauses will reflect on the response that I have given to their concerns and will not press the amendments. I hope that they will support Government amendment No. 48.

Mrs. Villiers: I do not propose to press the new clauses and amendments in this group to a Division. We had a chance to divide on them in Committee and we have a fair idea what the decision of the House is likely to be. However, we remain concerned. I am grateful to the Minister for his lengthy response to our arguments. It is helpful to have a clearer picture of the various roles. His statement this afternoon will be useful to those in the statistical community who are worried about that, but he has not answered all our concerns.

The Minister dismissed the proposed separation of executive and scrutiny functions on the grounds that that would necessitate the creation of two competing centres of statistical expertise. The amendments seek a compromise which would not require that. Even if the functions were separated and there were two boards, the practical difficulties would not be insurmountable.

The Minister also said that he was confident that the board would be able to make impartial decisions on the activities of the ONS, regardless of whether the board was ultimately responsible for those decisions. In many respects I share the Minister’s confidence. I believe that the board will be able to do a good job, but we are talking about restoring trust. If the board is the entity responsible for making the decision that it reviews, that may undermine the credibility of its decision-making process.

It is the perception rather than the actuality that will be a problem. That is highlighted by the point that the Minister made very clearly—that the board is the legal entity that is responsible even for all the delegated functions, including production. So the awkward situation arises where, for example, if someone wanted to make a complaint about the ONS, various options would be open to them. One might be to make a complaint to the board. They might also consider judicial review. Which body would be the subject of review in the courts? The board itself would be the relevant legal entity. The board could find itself adjudicating on a complaint which was ultimately directed at itself in the High Court. There are continuing tensions, despite the attempt to separate internally the functions of scrutiny and production of statistics.


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