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approved researcher means an individual to whom the Board has granted access to personal information held by it for the purposes of the statistical research.
As he pointed out in Committee, it is unclear whether the phrase for the purposes of statistical research grammatically qualifies the noun access or the verb held. I hope that the amendment clarifies that.
I will turn to what might be regarded as the more substantive amendments that were tabled by the hon. Member for Fareham and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). The hon. Lady is right in many ways. The provisions and safeguards for the disclosure of data are not currently consistent and that is part of the purpose of these parts of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman based his remarks on a concern that, if
data were shared generally within Government, respondents to surveys might be increasingly reluctant to provide the data that we all require. Clause 36(1) is important because it contains a strong general prohibition on the sharing and disclosure of personal information. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) called it a blanket block.
There was concern about the interplay with clause 36(4)(a), in the context of sharing information with other Departments. Essentially, subsection 4(a) is an exception to subsection (1). It allows the sharing of data in circumstances in which the House has already considered and enacted provision for such data sharing to take place. In many respects, it would not be appropriateand perhaps not possiblefor the Bill to override the will and settled determination of the House in a variety of other legislation.
The particular concern, however, was clearly for the future and related to the sharing of data within Departments. The desire of the hon. Member for Fareham in relation to amendment No. 24 is to restrict the provision to apply to disclosures for the purposes of the board, or in other words the purposes of data handling. He may remember the discussions that we had in relation to clause 44. It provides for arrangements to see increased data sharingto the board from Departments and to Departments from the boardin circumstances in which those personal data-sharing arrangements are clear, agreed and specific, the data sharing takes place only for statistical purposes, and supplementary regulations subject to the affirmative procedure are brought before the House, so that the House will have the chance to scrutinise and approve any such arrangements in the future. In that way, we will be able to strike what I started by saying was the balance between the desire to see data sharing for specified and justified purposes, and a concern to see personal data protected with proper confidentiality safeguards.
it is required or permitted by any enactment.
The amendment would mean that that would apply only when the information was being made available for statistical purposes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we do not want to limit the provision to allow disclosure only for statistical purposes because that may prevent existing data-sharing practices that occur in the specific cases where Parliament has previously debated and decided that data sharing is in the public interest. For that reason, I hope that he will not press his amendment.
Amendment No. 40 would allow personal information that was held by the board, its employees, or any other person who had received such information from the board to be used only to pursue the boards functions. I must say to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that the provision would limit the board too much because if there were other legitimate interests at stake, the board would not be able to disclose. For example, it would not be able to disclose for the purposes of criminal investigation or in response to a court order. Both those exceptions are identified in clause 36(4). She will appreciate
that although those purposes are outside the functions of the board, they are necessary, important and in the public interest.
The purpose of amendment No. 41 is not quite clear to me. It seems to have been designed to allow the National Statistician to disclose personal data in specific circumstances, but if that is the case, the amendment is redundant, because the same exceptions regarding the confidentiality prohibition that cover the National Statistician, as a member of the board, are in place under subsection (4). I am not certain whether it is the hon. Ladys intention that the amendment should remove three of the exceptions in subsection (4): that in paragraph (d), which will allow the board to disclose personal information that has lawfully been made public; that in paragraph (e), which will allow data to be shared if the disclosure occurs in pursuit of a court orderclearly, if the board was subject to a court order and there was no exception to allow the confidentiality restriction to be lifted, board employees would be subject to conflicting legal demandsand that in paragraph (f), which will allow for disclosure of personal information for the purposes of criminal investigations or criminal proceedings.
Rob Marris: My hon. Friend referred to regulations that will be made under clause 44 and said that they would be subject to the affirmative procedure. Will he remind me where in the Bill it says that regulations made under clause 44the power is quite widewill be subject to the affirmative procedure?
John Healey: If my hon. Friend has failed to find the information, I can assure him, as I assured the Committee, that it is our intention to use such a procedure. I will ensure that he is directed precisely to the relevant reference, if he and I cannot immediately find it at this point in our proceedings.
Julia Goldsworthy: I thank the Minister for his contribution. The intention behind amendments Nos. 40 and 41 was to try to clear up any ambiguity that might exist about the extent to which clause 36 will apply. I hope that our debate on the Floor of the House has helped to clarify the matter and to address several concerns that have been drawn to my attention.
When we tabled the amendments, our motivation was to attempt to reinforce the spirit of what the Bill tries to achieve. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the integrity of statistical data is not compromised so that we can encourage the production of data of the highest possible quality. Some of the evidence that Finnish representatives gave to the Treasury Committee showed that public confidence in data would allow broader data sharing across government. Indeed, that could make the collection of statistical data cheaper, in
addition to bringing about other benefits. I think that the Ministers speech will have done a lot to reassure people who brought concerns to my attention.
John Healey: I welcome the way in which the hon. Lady is responding to the reassurances and information that I was able to give her. I agree that the debate has been useful in clarifying the situation. Will she help me by accepting that the regulation-making powers in the Bill are usefully set out for my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West in clause 62?
, for the purposes of statistical research, to personal information held by it.. [John Healey.]
(6) 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
up to a maximum of two hours before general release.
The Government have set out in the Bill a series of measures to improve peoples confidence in national statistics because they are aware of peoples concerns about the existing system. One of the principal areas of concern is the use to which pre-release access is put. There is worry that, because of pre-release access, Ministers and civil servants have the power to shape the presentation of data, or, to use the words in Committee of the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow), who is sadly not in the Chamber, to give the statistics ... serious treatment.
We spent some time in Committee discussing pre-release access, so I do not need to repeat in detail the arguments and examples that were cited to illustrate the problems surrounding such access to statistics. However, let me cite one quote that we heard in Committee, which characterises peoples concerns about pre-release. Liam Halligan, the economic editor of The Sunday Telegraph has said:
I can tell you from personal experience that pre-release is constantly used by the government to divert the media away from numbers which make for uncomfortable reading. It allows pre-emptive spin, with government departments sometimes putting out data designed to contradict evidence about to be revealed by the industrious, independent boffins from the ONS.
It is fair to summarise our debate in Committee by saying that there was broadly a consensus that pre-release access to market-sensitive statistics was appropriate for Ministers. However, there was a sharp distinction between those who thought that the mechanics of pre-release access should be determined by the board, and those who felt that that was a matter for the Government. There was a distinction between Committee members who opted for a permissive approach to pre-release in the amount of time given to Ministers and civil servants to consider the treatment of statistics, and those who preferred a shorter period of access for a much tighter group of people.
New clause 5 represents a more robust approach to pre-release than the Government seek, because it would
give the board, not the Government, the power to draw up the code on pre-release, albeit after consultation, rather than leaving it to Ministers to draw up regulations that would subsequently be approved by Parliament.
(a) the circumstances in which, or descriptions of statistics in relation to which, pre-release access may or may not be granted;
(b) the persons, or descriptions of persons, to whom pre-release access may be granted;
(c) the period, or maximum period, during which pre-release access may be so granted;
(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.
Clause 11 requires the issue to be addressed in a code, but our new clause 5 goes further: it would require the board to publish a list of statistics that are subject to pre-release, and the people to whom pre-release access is given. Those two measures will add to the transparency surrounding the release of statistical data. They pick up on the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) in Committee. He spoke of the difficulty of finding out who had access to statistics prior to their release. He cited an example in which, although 40 people had prior access to unemployment data, he was able to find that out only by trawling websites.
The new clause would put into primary legislation a commitment that the Financial Secretary made before Committee about the as yet unseen secondary legislation. He said that the secondary legislation would cover the two issues that I have addressed, but it is unfortunate that, although the Bill has reached Report, we have yet to have sight of that draft secondary legislation. Pre-release arrangements are lax, and they provide a framework that enables people to use the time before the public release of data to put a gloss on those data for the media. They soften the media up before data are published.
By asking the board to define the code, we are giving it the power to produce guidelines that will enhance the integrity of the publication of statistics. That will enhance the credibility of the process for users, and it will give the statistics a chance to speak for themselves, rather than being obscured by spin and presentation. When giving evidence to the Treasury Committee, the Financial Secretary himself said:
I would certainly accept that the pre-release arrangements contribute to the perception of interference in statistics.
Our proposals would ensure that the arrangements for pre-release were determined independently of Government but in consultation with them and the devolved Administrations, and they would tackle the perception of interference with statistics.
Pre-release is one of the crucial issues to do with the Bill, and it determines the way in which people perceive the process to work. Although the Government have made some progress by seeking to formalise the arrangements through secondary legislation, subject to the affirmative procedure, it is important that the power to determine the mechanics for pre-release should be in the hands of the board. The board has been given many powers in the Bill, but it should be
given one further power: the power to ensure that it can set in place the mechanics for pre-release.
It is only by tackling such issues that we will start to mitigate some of the cynicism about the Governments production of statistics. If the board is given the powers that we propose, it will put the release process at arms length from the Government. It will ensure that more people have confidence in the statistics that are published, and that we move away from the current position, in which it seems that whenever sensitive statistics are produced, a process of softening-up takes place. To reflect on the comments made by Liam Halligan, peoples attention is diverted from figures that might prove inconvenient to the Government, and directed towards more favourable figures. It is important to let statistics speak for themselves; they should not be subject to pre-emptive spin.
Dr. Cable: I shall simply say a few words in support of the amendments in this group that are in my name and the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). Essentially, they support and complement the comments of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). The subject of pre-release is, certainly at this stage of our proceedings, the cause of one of the biggest differences between the Government and the Opposition, and there is a degree of frustration about our inability to make progress in clarifying the safeguards surrounding pre-release.
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