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Mr. Gauke: It has often been asked during the Bills passage why the code of practice will not apply to all official statistics, and I still do not feel that we have had a satisfactory answer. We should also ask what impact the Bill will have on official statistics that are not national statistics. We received an answer of sorts in Committee from the Financial Secretary. He said that
we also expect the code to be one of the boards main vehicles to promulgate the standards and definitions that it is required under clause 9 to produce and promote across all official statistics. I stress the importance of that point, which has perhaps not been clear before.
It is important to note that, although the codes formal status is as a statement of practice against which national statistics or candidate national statistics will be assessed, we expect the board to promote it as a code of good practice across all official statistics.[ Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 18 January 2007; c. 151.]
That raises a particular difficulty because there is, of course, no sanction. The board is able to threaten nothing against the producers of statistics if they are in breach of the code, because the sole sanction in the Bill is that a statistic will either be assessed as a national statistic or it will not. That is a weakness. There is no sanction against official statistics and the producers of official statistics if they fail to meet the required standard, which is regrettable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made an important point about the argument that we cannot have a large number of official statistics being treated as national statistics and the code applying to them, because that would impose too much work on the statistics board. That is a strange position to adopt because we do not usually produce laws or regulations and then simply say, Well, if too many people could breach it, we wont bother to enforce it. The board should apply the code as it sees fit in those areas where it considers that to be proportionate and appropriate, but everybody should try to comply with it. The other position is rather like saying that one should obey the speed limit only where there is a speed camera, and that as it is not practical to have speed cameras everywhere we will not have speed limits in places where we do not have them. That is a flawed approach, and that is why new clause 4 is eminently sensible and necessary.
When the Bill was published, many people wanted to support it not because it would necessarily bring every statistic into the realm of national statistics, but because it would at least increase the efficacy of every statistic by bringing it into the code. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) is right that there was little incentive for Ministers to bring certain statisticsperhaps some of the more dodgy oneswithin the remit of the code on national statistics. I have used the example of Government Expenditure and Revenue in ScotlandGERSthroughout our series of debates about this matter. GERS was invented as a
political construct at the outset, and there was a disincentive to have a code for it. It was inaccurate because it was designed to be inaccurate.
I am very taken with new clause 4 as it does not force every statistic into the remit of national statistics, but it does force all statistics to adhere to a proper code, which is an eminently sensible thing to do when we want to have information that has efficacy, that we can all trust and that can be guaranteed.
I shall refer to the example of GERS yet again, but I will not repeat the many criticisms that I have previously made of it. Instead, I shall address a recent event. A Scottish Parliament Committee inquiry discovered that Dr. Andrew Goudie, the Scottish Executive statistician, considered not publishing the report this year because of the inaccuracies contained in it, particularly the near £500 million inaccuracy in the allocation to Scotland of UK non-identifiable expenditure. If such statistics are at least forced into the code, we would end up with a situation in which never again does a senior statistician consider withholding the publication of a document because it is flawed. Instead, we would have statistics that we can all trust and rely upon. We might not have absolute unanimity on the way that statistics are measured, but at least in Scotland, England and the regions of England we would have figures that we could trust.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): As I recall, Dr. Goudie gave, in his submission to the Scottish Parliament, a clear indication that one of the difficulties that his team was operating under was that the Treasury had failed to release some of the information that he required in order to examine the accuracy of the particular set of non-identifiable spending statistics. Could it possibly be that the Treasury failed to give information to the Scottish Executive statisticians?
Stewart Hosie: Perhaps it is for the Treasury to answer that. What I do know from the publication of the most recent GERSthat of 2004-05is that the 2003-04 income tax survey results had to be used, thereby making the already invalidated document even more wrong than it had been in previous years. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and say to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) that we like new clause 4, we like the idea of statistics being accurate and being forced into adhering to a code, and if she wishes to press the new clause to a Division we will certainly support her.
Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con):
I, too, shall speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). I am a great believer in Schumachers saying that small is beautiful, but I am also I am a great believer that simplicity is beautiful. However, it is in the Treasurys DNA to make things more complex when they only need to be made simpler. I do not understand the false dichotomy that the Treasury insists on setting up between what it calls official statistics and national statistics. The Bill appears to entrench a two-tier system, which cannot but undermine public trust. As my hon. Friend has said, it cannot be a coincidence that the statistics that the Government choose to be official rather than national statistics are those that relate to matters such as crime, health and education. The Government have decided that all the
important matters that our constituents care most about should be stuck in a bucket called official statistics and not national statistics. New clause 4 would remove that false dichotomy between national statistics, which must adhere to a code of practice, and official statistics, which do not.
Opposition MembersI include SNP Membersagree that the code of practice should apply regardless of the origin of the statistics. Furthermore, the statistics board must have sufficient powers to coerce Government Departments, or else Ministers will simply ignore it, or at the very least the board must have the right to assess which statistics should count as national statistics.
John Healey: The debate on this subject has been shorter than debates on it in previous proceedings, but it has nevertheless been useful. I hope that Members will accept that statistics produced and published by governmentby more than 200 Crown bodiesdiffer in levels of importance and that the Bill has a wide definition of official statistics. The definition of official statistics that we have used is wide in order to allow the board to monitor and report on the ever-increasing range of official statistics and official statistical information that is being produced across government. For that reason, it is important that we give the board a starting point for its process of assessment and approval. That starting point is those statistics that are designated as national statisticsa concept that has been established since the reforms of 2000. We are also giving the board, and the system, a way to evolve in the future, as the board will report on its views about the comprehensiveness and coverage of the system and official statistics can be nominated to the board for assessment.
I should point out to the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) that there is no false dichotomy: there are already two-tieredindeed, multi-tieredofficial statistics. He surely would not argue that figures such as population data, the gross domestic product and unemployment figures are of equal status and importance to other official statistics produced by the Government and covered by the definition in the Bill, such as the income derived from unclaimed lost property or the number of TV licences held by particular Departments. Surely the crucial feature is not that all official Government statistics be assessed and approved, as the hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing, but that all the most important ones, designated as national statistics, are. It is for that reason that I do not accept amendment No. 18.
Mr. Newmark: The point that I was trying to make is that the Treasury is obsessed with making matters more complex, not simpler. All that I am asking it to do is to try to simplify the system. Creating a two-tier system makes matters more complex.
On the contrary, there will be clearly identified and published national statistics and the board will be charged with drawing up a code of practice, with assessing the production and handling of those statistics against its standards, and with approving them as national statistics. That will make the system clear and efficient rather than adding confusion and complexity, and it will allow the board to concentrate on what is most
important, namely, giving the Government, the public and a wide variety of other data and statistics users greater confidence that the most important statistics are given the most scrutiny by the board, and giving them the confidence to rely on those statistics.
Mrs. Villiers: The Minister still seems to misunderstand my new clause and amendments. They do not require the board to carry out a detailed assessment of every statistic produced by the Government, and we acknowledge that there are different levels of importance within statistics. What we are saying is that everyone in government who is responsible for producing and disseminating statistics should comply with a code of ethics and good practice.
John Healey: I think that we are making some progress. The hon. Lady will recognise that clause 8 sets out the boards objective and allows it to monitor the whole sweep of official statistics and to comment in specific or general terms on any concerns that it has. She will remember that I made it clear in Committeeindeed, she quoted from those proceedingsthat we expect the code of practice established by the board, particularly for the purpose of assessing and approving national statistics, to be the general standard and to become the wider expectation of the way other official statistics are handled. However, the crucial issues are the recognition that some statistics are more important than others, that the board devotes the proper and fullest attention to those that are most important, and that we are establishing a flexible framework at the outset that can evolve in the light of experience and of the changing needs of our society and economy regarding statistics.
We are starting with a list of almost 1,300 statistics already designated as national statistics, which will change over time. Additional statistics can be put to the board for assessment and if it judges them to be up to scratchif they satisfy the standards that the board sets in its independently drawn up and approved codethey can be independently approved as national statistics.
In a decentralised system, responsibility for submitting statistics for assessment must ultimately lie with Ministers. We are responsible for making policy and, as such, we are arguably best placed to know which statistics are most critical to the development, delivery and evaluation of the policies for which we are responsible and accountable. We are also accountable, ultimately, for allocating and managing resources within the Department, including resources devoted to statistical production. I see this as essentially and primarily a policy and resource decision. It is more appropriate for Ministers to take such decisions, rather than the board, which is why I do not accept amendment No. 34.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con):
Has the Minister consulted the Statistics Commission on how the Government could respond to this idea? If it said that the wording of the new clause merely needs to be tidied up, and that it is perfectly all right to accept the sense of it, will he go back to the commission before he abolishes it and find a way forward to which all parties in this House can agree, instead of Ministers simply saying that what they want is what is going to happen?
John Healey: I have not had any formal submissions from the commission on this proposal, although I do not know whether the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has. It played an active part in the consultation and many of the proposals in the Bill reflect the concerns and points that it raised. It is also working in great detail on proposals for the new code of practice. That work will be extremely valuable to the board and its chair once it is set up and it has to finalise the code of practice for which it will be statutorily responsible.
As I have said, the process set out in the Bill will provide a strong incentive for Ministers to look actively at submitting additional departmental statistics for approval as national statistics. That independent stamp of approval will be importantindeed, centralin giving credibility and confidence to the policy functions and delivery for which Ministers are responsible. If I seem a little too optimistic in my view of how Ministers might react, I should point out that the board, through the Bill, has a responsibility to judge and report its view of the comprehensiveness and coverage of the statistical system. In discharging that responsibility, I fully expect it to take a view on whether statistics not currently designated and approved as national statistics should be so designated. I also fully expect Parliament to play a much stronger role in choosing to call to account Ministers or Departments that do not follow that advice. That seems to me a very public, very important and proper parliamentary form of accountability and scrutiny that reinforces the system, going much further than what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) characterised as the current name and shame system.
otherwise it must decline so to designate them.
Am I right in thinking that if a statistic is declined for designation as a national statistic, it is downgraded to an official statistic, and that it is then up to Ministers to decide whether it is put forward again for consideration as a national statistic? Will the Minister confirm that the ministerial veto still exists in these cases, and that the board will not have the power to compel Ministers to put such a statistic forward for such consideration, even though it might previously have been a national statistic?
John Healey: The hon. Ladys understanding is partially correct. Any statistic that the board has subjected to an assessment process that fails to meet the standards or to abide by the terms of the code of practice will not be eligible for approval and will not get the boards approval as a national statistic. In those circumstances, it will no longer be a national statistic.
It has been suggested that the House should have a greater role in holding Ministers to
account when, for example, the board determines that some statistics should be national, but they have not been put forward. Given that there have been detailed criticisms of Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland in this House since 1995for 12 yearsand that the Treasury is looking into some of the detailed problems only this year, what confidence can we have that, after a 12-year wait to get one accurate statistic, any number of others of equal importance in other parts of the country will be considered any quicker?
John Healey: The short answer is that we are setting up an entirely new system, based in statute, with a powerful independent board to drive the system, so there is a greater potential role for this Houseand Parliaments in the devolved nationsin holding Ministers and Departments to account in respect of these matters.
I shall deal now with new clause 4. Under clause 8, the board has a statutory duty to monitor the production and publication of official statistics and the power to comment on concerns about the quality and good practice in relation to those statistics. I must tell the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, however, that I remain of the view that it is simply not appropriate to impose in a blanket way the full provisions of the code on those working in literally hundredscertainly above 200Crown bodies that may produce statistics that fall under the definition of official statistics.
As I said in Committee, the range of statistical information produced by the Government falls into the definition of official statistics in the Bill. It is extensive, increasing and constantly changing, particularly with more statistics now increasingly derived from management and administrative systems such as the delivery of benefits or education and not just from the traditional statistical methods of surveys and censuses. Those statistics genuinely pose additional challenges as the primary purpose of the system that produces the data is not in itself statistical.
It would be disingenuous and unrealistic for us to argue that all such statistics would be able to meet at all times and in full the standards set out in the code of practice, including any and all of the quality standards that the board may choose to impose. Surely the key is having an active programme of assessment that concentrates on the most important statistics for all users so that we will all know that the board has independently adjudged and assessed those statistics against its standards and that those standards have been met. Surely that is a more effective, more transparent and, ultimately, more accountable and stronger system of ensuring the quality and integrity of statistical outputs.
Peter Bottomley: I believe that the Minister will want to review the debate. If he loses the vote, I hope that he will accept it. If he does not, will he please go to the Statistics Commission and explicitly ask for its view. Do not wait, but ask for it.
I am very disappointed that the Minister persists in restricting the remit of the board merely to promoting the code of practice as a model of good behaviour, effectively leaving the only
enforcement power as naming and shaming of Departments that do not comply with it. For that reason, I shall press new clause 4 to a Division and urge the House to support it.
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