Previous Section Index Home Page

Finally, I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). The Minister said that it was recycled, but the fact that a point has been made before does not mean that it is not valid. As the Minister confirmed, the National Statistician has access to the Prime Minister. She has a remit to co-ordinate and she is the Government’s chief adviser on statistics. She performs those functions at present.
13 Mar 2007 : Column 187
The Bill is designed to put the statistical services and their structure on a statutory footing, yet the key functions that the National Statistician currently performs are left out. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne makes a good point, in that the omission of those important functions is effectively a downgrading of the status of the National Statistician. I am sorry that the Minister does not support our amendments and new clauses. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4

Legal obligation to obey the code of practice

‘The Board, the National Statistician, government departments, the Scottish Administration, Welsh Ministerial authorities, Northern Ireland departments and any other person acting on behalf of the Crown in the production or publication of official statistics shall—

(a) comply with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics; and

(b) consult the Board on matters of interpretation of the Code where appropriate.’.— [Mrs. Villiers.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Villiers: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 16, in clause 10, page 5, line 11, leave out ‘National’ and insert ‘Official’.

No. 17, page 5, line 19, at end insert—

‘(4) In drafting the Code and supervising compliance thereto, the Board shall have regard to the duties set out in section 26 of this Act.’.

No. 44, line 19, at end insert—

‘(4) All those who produce National Statistics must conform to the Code of Practice unless the Board accepts and publishes any case for deviation, consulting the Board on matters of interpretation as necessary, and reporting any breach of the Code to the Board.’.

No. 18, in clause 12, page 6, line 15, leave out

‘At the request of the appropriate authority’.

No. 19, page 6, line 16, leave out ‘National’ and insert ‘Official’.

No. 20, line 17, leave out ‘in relation to any’ and insert

‘by the authorities responsible for producing’.

No. 21, leave out lines 19 to 22.

No. 22, leave out lines 29 to 44.

No. 34, line 44, at end insert—

‘(9) The Board shall have the authority to initiate an assessment process to designate any set of official statistics as National Statistics with the provision that the board must inform the appropriate authority before initiating the process.’.

5.30 pm

Mrs. Villiers: New clause 4 and amendments Nos. 16 to 22 would extend the full rigour of the reforms to all official statistics. We agree with the Royal Statistical Society, which stated in a letter to the Chancellor last year:

13 Mar 2007 : Column 188

Our amendments would abolish the confusing two-tier system between national and other official statistics. They would give the board the authority to regulate the statistical activities of all Government Departments by applying the code of practice across all Departments. They would address one of the most significant weaknesses in the Government’s proposals. It is startling that the Bill does not oblige anyone to comply with the code of practice, despite the Government’s promise to put the code on a statutory footing. New clause 4 would remedy that by imposing a legal obligation on Departments to obey the code of practice. I am pleased to see that the Liberal Democrats’ amendment No. 44 would go in the same direction.

As the Minister stated in Committee, the Bill as drafted does not give the board a supervisory or regulatory role at all, but gives it a function that is “much softer in nature”—one of assessment and audit, not supervision. As drafted, all the Bill does is require the board to produce a code and to empower it to carry out assessments of particular statistics against the terms of that code. As Professor Tim Holt has pointed out, the Bill leaves it to Ministers to decide whether the code of practice is to apply to them, because clause 12 leaves it in their hands to nominate statistics for assessment by the board as national statistics. It is up to them whether the board can carry out even the limited assessment function permitted it by the Bill. That specific point—the starting of the assessment process—is addressed by the Liberal Democrats’ amendment No. 34, which would enable the board to initiate an assessment. That would provide a welcome limit on ministerial power in this area and would be an improvement on the Bill, but it does not go far enough.

Only the imposition of a legal obligation on Departments to obey the code would give the board the authority to ensure that good practice is observed right across Government. At present, clause 7 gives the board the objective of promoting and safeguarding good practice, but not the authority with which to do that effectively. In Committee, the Minister stated repeatedly that he expected the board to promote the code as a model of good practice, but only if the amendments were accepted would the board have the supervisory and regulatory tools to ensure that the code is applied and obeyed across Government. As drafted, the Bill leaves the board only with the power of exhortation—the power to name and shame Departments that transgress. In the Treasury Committee, Dr. Fellegi pointed out that that is little different from the current powers of the Statistics Commission and status of the existing code of practice.

The Government have admitted that the current structures are inadequate to restore trust in official statistics. Leaving Ministers to determine which of their Department’s statistical activities are subjected to the code and to the scrutiny of the board will leave the coverage of the reforms patchy and inconsistent. The British Society for Population Studies has described the national statistics system as having been

13 Mar 2007 : Column 189

If it is left to Ministers to decide which statistics are brought into the national statistics system and subjected to the code of practice, many important indicators could be left out of the scope of the reforms. I am informed by the Library that in the seven years since the 2000 reforms, there has been a net addition of only 25 new national statistics. Distinguished statisticians such as Lord Moser have described that aspect of the Government’s proposals as a significant flaw.

If this reform is to succeed, it must, as the Statistics Commission has stated and the Minister has acknowledged, address the whole Government statistical system. There is no good reason why any lesser regime should apply to Departments than to the ONS. That makes no logical sense when it is acknowledged that the more significant problems have occurred outside the work of the ONS. As the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association has pointed out, the social statistics produced by Departments on crime, education and health are part of the very currency of political debate in this country. If the reform subjects those to a lesser degree of rigour and scrutiny than other official statistics, it will fail in the goal set by the Government. As the Statistics Commission has sagely pointed out, that will risk public confidence in such statistics being undermined rather than strengthened by the Bill.

We are not talking about trifling, insignificant exclusions: a number of important and politically sensitive figures are currently outside the scope of national statistics. I do not propose to trouble the House with the long list that I read out in Committee, but I shall pick 12 or so examples. Excluded statistics that would not be covered by the code of practice under the Bill as drafted include: figures on the end-of-month prison population count; quarterly figures for cancelled operations and time spent in accident and emergency; annual figures on NHS bed availability; business survival rates for firms still registered for VAT after three years; annual progress reports on the UK fuel poverty strategy; and armed forces medical discharges. Many important statistics from the devolved areas fall outside the national statistics framework: in Scotland, alcohol-related, health and mortality statistics on various topics and cancer audits and waiting times; in Wales, figures on detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983, and data on cervical screening and exclusions from schools. Those are significant figures that deserve impartial treatment.

In Committee, the Financial Secretary based his counter-arguments on a claim that some statistics were more important than others. In essence, he asserted that not all statistics were important enough to be subject to the code of conduct. That argument has several flaws. First, if it is worth collecting and relying on a statistic, surely it is worth doing it according to standards of impartiality, objectivity and accuracy, as set out in the code of practice.

Secondly, it is difficult to know in advance which statistics will be significant, and which will not. For example, on Second Reading, the Financial Secretary referred to the egg bulletin as not significant enough to warrant application of the code of practice. As various salmonella scares have shown, however, statistics relating to the safety of food, including eggs, can be of critical importance.

13 Mar 2007 : Column 190

Thirdly, the decision as to which statistics are significant enough to merit the application of the code of practice is simply too important to be left to Ministers. In Committee, the Financial Secretary rightly placed great emphasis on the boundary between important statistics and those that he dismissed as insufficiently significant to merit compliance with the code. He said that that

He is right: it does. Under the Bill as drafted, the boundary between national and other official statistics marks the boundary of the scope of the reforms. The Financial Secretary wishes that boundary to be determined by Ministers, so that they can say, in effect, to the board, “thus far and no further”.

The Financial Secretary said in Committee that he hoped and expected that the system put in place by the Bill would evolve. Given the approach that he takes, we know who will decide the nature and pace of that evolution: the very Ministers whose intervention this whole reform is designed to reduce. That aspect of the Bill significantly undermines the good intentions of the reform and retains significant ministerial power over official statistics. In Committee, the Financial Secretary said that he felt there would be a

If he really believes that, he lives in a happier and less cynical universe than the rest of us. As Dr. Fellegi pointed out to the Treasury Committee, the possibility of enhanced and exacting scrutiny can hardly be much of an incentive to opt into any system. Anyway, if Ministers were so keen to take on that kind of scrutiny, why are the Government so resistant to calls for the expansion of the scope of the code of practice to cover all statistics?

The second assertion that the Minister advanced in Committee was that the Opposition’s approach was

That is predicated on a misunderstanding of how the new clause and amendments would work in practice. They would not require the board to carry out an individual assessment process in relation to each and every number produced by a Department. Instead, they would give the board the power to monitor and supervise the activities of Departments when they produce and disseminate statistics. We want the code to apply to people, not numbers. The new clause and amendments would transform the code from a box-ticking exercise to be carried out in relation to a particular set of statistics into a code of behaviour to guide the people who produce statistics—the statisticians and officials who produce and handle statistics at the ONS and in Departments.

Assessments can be part of that supervisory process, but there is nothing in the amendments that would place an obligation to carry out an assessment on any one particular statistic unless the board considers it to
13 Mar 2007 : Column 191
be proportionate and sensible so to do. After all, the Financial Services Authority has a 10,000 page, 6 ft wide rule book that it applies to the entities that it regulates, but it does not oblige the authority to check every transaction to regulate compliance effectively.

The Minister’s third assertion was that imposing the code on all Government statistical activities would lead to a disproportionate burden, but why can we not trust the board to produce a code that does not impose disproportionate burdens? It has an explicit duty to minimise compliance cost under clause 26. To make that duty even plainer in this context, amendment No. 17 would require the board to have specific regard to that duty in drafting the code and supervising compliance with it. The underlying thrust of the reforms is that we can trust the board to take crucial decisions relating to the production and release of statistics. In that case, why is the Minister so reluctant to trust it to take a common-sense, proportionate approach to drafting the code and to its impact on statistics of differing degrees of importance.

In Committee, the Minister described the approach taken in this group of amendments as “extraordinary and absurd”. Although he may disagree with the principle, he is wrong to dismiss as absurd and impractical a position that has the support of such a long list of experts in statistics. As well as Lord Moser, the RSS, the Treasury Committee, the Statistics Commission and others to whom I have referred, virtually all those who expressed a view during the consultation wanted the scope of the Bill widened significantly. That includes organisations such as the Audit Commission, the Market Research Society, Professor Denise Lievesley of the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the First Division Association, the British Urban and Regional Information Systems Association and the Greater London authority data management group. Even the Government’s own chief social researcher, Sue Duncan, has expressed a degree of sympathy on this point.

The House should have some sympathy for the Financial Secretary. He is in a difficult position. His hands are clearly tied by his colleagues who want to limit the scrutiny that the board can exert over its departmental activities. His hands are tied by Ministers who are determined to keep the board away from certain sensitive statistics. If he is sincere in his wish to give genuine independence to statistical services, I urge him to stand up to his colleagues and take his reform to its logical conclusion; to allow the board to throw light on the statistical activities that Ministers would rather were kept in the shadows; and give the board real teeth to supervise the production and release of all official statistics, not just those that Ministers permit them to assess.

Julia Goldsworthy: I shall speak mainly to amendment No. 34. The heart of the debate is whether there should be a two-tier system of official and national statistics. The Liberal Democrats have a bit more of a relaxed view on that than the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). Obviously it is important to ensure that the best standards are adhered to; on the other hand, are national standards really necessary for statistics collected from a survey of grey squirrels or the like?

5.45 pm

We accept that there are different levels of statistics. However, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for
13 Mar 2007 : Column 192
Chipping Barnet, the devolved statistics are often the most controversial and often involve the greatest problems. The public are often particularly suspicious about the quality and authority of such data. Crime statistics have been especially controversial, as have statistics on health and education. The question is, how can we avoid such controversy?

Amendment No. 34 is fairly simple. Its aim is to confer some symmetry to the way in which national statistics are considered, and to decisions on whether statistics should be designated as national statistics. In Committee, the Financial Secretary said:

—more important—

Amendment No. 34 proposes to take that a step forward. It makes the point that if it is possible for Ministers to submit statistics to be designated as national statistics, the board, for the purpose of symmetry, should be empowered to initiate the process. That is fairly straightforward, and I think that it can be justified on the grounds that it is symmetrical and does not allow Ministers the veto power that the Bill currently gives them.

While I am minded to support the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet if she presses her new clause to a vote, the key issue for us is not whether there should be two tiers of statistics, but that there should be symmetry, and that at the very least Ministers’ powers under clause 12 should be matched by the board’s powers to initiate the process. That would prevent the perpetuation of the problems of the past, when statistics have been deemed to be lacking in credibility and have not won public support because of apparent ministerial interference.

I think that our amendment is reasonable. Our intention is to help the Minister, because I suspect that when the Bill goes to the other place, a view similar to that of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will be outlined. I hope that he will consider the amendment in a spirit of compromise.

Mr. Fallon: New clause 4 is extraordinary, in the sense that we should not have to insert it into the Bill. It was always a weakness in the original framework for national statistics that the code was voluntary: no one had to comply with it. It is true that the Statistics Commission was able to pick out the worst reported, apparent or real breaches of the code in each year, and to name and shame particular Departments. It always seemed to be the same Departments, those dealing with health and housing, and the Scottish Executive was cited as well. They are all there in the annual reports of the Statistics Commission.

The naming and shaming of Departments is not in itself an insignificant process, but it is extraordinary that just when we are putting all this on to a statutory basis, the code of practice should remain voluntary. In other words, no one need comply with it. I consider that a serious weakness in the Bill: it means that the code of practice for statistics across Whitehall will have fewer teeth than the highway code that we must all observe when we drive our cars.

Next Section Index Home Page