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7.15 pm

So far, the Government have defended their position on the rather fundamentalist grounds that pre-release is justified in principle, and therefore a whole raft of current practices are justified. Today, we will not dispute the principle of pre-release; there is good reason for it in certain instances where highly sensitive economic data are concerned, and for limited periods. When the statistical community has commented on the practice, it has usually conceded that point. For example, the Statistics Commission acknowledged in its submission that

but it went on to say:

The issue, therefore, is not the fundamental principle of pre-release, but the time and the circumstances surrounding it.

The hon. Member for Fareham quoted Liam Halligan’s eloquent piece on the subject, but to take another topical example, comment was recently passed on the British crime survey. The Government are in the habit of releasing crime data statistics and accompanying them with the comment that they are “the best source” of data. Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary college, University of London, one of the Government’s chief advisers on statistical matters, produced a scathing criticism of that interpretation of crime data. He notes that it

That same professor produced an excellent report for the Government on mathematics education, so he is clearly not at odds with the Government on
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fundamentals. He makes the point that there has been a simple misuse of economic statistics through the pre-release process.

The question is how best to define the boundaries of pre-release. In our exchanges in Committee, there was a to-ing and fro-ing of arguments about other countries’ practices. I cited what I thought was probably the best example of good practice: the United States. I quoted the Royal Statistical Society as saying that the President of the United States had half an hour’s warning of key economic data, and I said that that demonstrated how tough and restrictive its arrangements were. The Minister subsequently wrote to me—I am grateful for his letter—to correct the Royal Statistical Society and me, and rightly so. He pointed out that the President of the United States has overnight access to data. Clearly, even the best experts can get things wrong.

The Minister’s letter proves his point in a way, but in a wider sense it does not, because the letter makes it clear that in the American experience, pre-release is not only restricted to overnight access, rather than 40 hours, but it is restricted to a very limited range of statistical indicators, and very few people in the United States have any access to the data. He made his point, but he reinforced the perception of the promiscuous way in which the British pre-release system is used and abused, across the Government.

The other example of a fairly permissive system is Canada; most other countries have either no or very little pre-release, but the Canadians allow overnight access to data, which is reasonably generous. However, they also restrict considerably the uses to which pre-release can be put. They limit considerably the number of people who have access to the data, and they limit its use by non-statisticians. Therefore, the question is not the principle of pre-release—we concede that there is a case for it, for the purposes of this argument—but how to apply proper boundaries to it.

I suspect that when the debate gets to the House of Lords, a strong case will be made by people who have much more direct experience of the matter than we do. I should like to quote Lord Moser, who has been cited on several occasions, and who takes a hard line on the subject. He argues that

He goes on to say that he thinks pre-release should be

I suspect that when the Bill reaches the other place there will be amendments along the lines that he suggests.

We propose something less radical, so I hope that the Government would find it easier to live with. First, we propose amendment No. 36, which, by interposing a couple of words in clause 11, would effectively make pre-release subject to the professional judgments of the statistics board, rather than subject to the current opaque arrangements, the details of which we have not yet seen.

Secondly, we would provide for pre-release of up to two hours. By international standards, that is generous—it is twice as generous as the period recommended by
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Lord Moser. It provides a limitation or cap on pre-release data, so the Government should not find it too difficult to accept. It is in a spirit of compromise that we suggest acceptance of the principle of pre-release while imposing boundaries on the process itself and the time.

Rob Marris: We discussed this subject extensively on Second Reading and in Committee. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General to the Chamber. I was pleased that on Second Reading and in Committee the Financial Secretary said that he would review the operation of the Government’s framework, assuming that it is accepted tonight, in 12 months’ time. However, I must tell my right hon. Friend—I believe that she will reply to the debate—that I find the general sense of the Opposition’s proposals attractive. A pre-release period of 40.5 hours for non-market and market-sensitive information is far too long. I do not know whether it should be as short as two hours or 30 minutes, as suggested by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), but a 40.5-hour period for non-market-sensitive information—that is my understanding of the regime—is far too long. If the amendments are not accepted, I encourage my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to undertake a thorough review in 12 months’ time, because the present time limit is too long.

Mr. Gauke: The arguments against the Government’s approach on pre-release have been made throughout proceedings on the Bill by Members on both sides of the House. I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), and I look forward to seeing him in the Lobby. The Government’s arguments may be delivered by a different voice, but I suspect that they will be familiar.

I wish to return to the subject of the Treasury Committee’s visit to the Republic of Ireland, to which I referred earlier. We met members of the Central Statistics Office in Dublin who, unprompted, raised concerns about the Bill, specifically the proposals on pre-release. They pointed out that under the office’s code of practice, it decides the rules of pre-release—it is not left to the Government, and there is no carve-out. It is odd that the thing that causes the most concern—the perception of ministerial interference, which damages the credibility of statistics—is the very thing on which there is a carve-out in the Bill, which allows ministerial control. The Irish statisticians were concerned about that, and they reflected the view of the international statistical community. I did not know that there was such a community, but it is concerned about the Bill, especially the pre-release provisions. It is not surprising that strong concerns have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House, so I hope that the Government will reconsider their position.

John Healey: We have had a brief and succinct debate that, in many ways, retreads the detailed arguments that were made in Committee. May I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for his remarks about my letter? It is important, as I said in Committee, to make sure that everyone has precise, accurate information about international comparisons. I appreciate the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), particularly about the length of pre-release access. He clearly supports the principle of pre-release,
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and he accepted that we propose to tighten the system, but he urged us to go further. I welcome, too, the contribution of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), who brings his expertise as a member of the Treasury Committee to bear on our discussion. I acknowledge the contribution of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), although I would not necessarily choose to quote as an authority on the subject the editor of The Sunday Telegraph.

It is encouraging that there is consensus on the principle of pre-release access. Indeed, there was consensus on our proposals in the Treasury Committee report on the Bill. It is accepted that provision is required to codify access and make it clearer, and more enforceable and consistent. Beyond that, there are differences in two principal areas. First, what is the best way of making that provision and, secondly, what are the appropriate time limits to set on pre-release access? I hope that I can deal with the detailed points that have been made on both issues and, in doing so, explain the Government’s approach and the step forward that we have taken. We are setting up, in the Bill in general and in these provisions, a new system that can evolve in the light of experience and of the emerging and changing demands of the statistics system. I can reassure the House, as I did in Committee, that we will review the operation of pre-release arrangements 12 months after their introduction.

There is clear, international acceptance of the principle of pre-release access to statistics. Indeed, I explained in Committee:

That is at the heart of the case for pre-release arrangements. The public have a right to expect, and the British media have come to demand, that Ministers account for the impact and implications of policy when statistics are released—not hours afterwards or in the days that follow. The provision therefore provides an important safeguard, as it enables the Government to consider, particularly in the case of market-sensitive data, any contingency measures that may be needed alongside a statistical release to guard against a disproportionate or costly market or public reaction.

Rob Marris: May I point out, as I did in Committee, that it is not only a question of market-sensitive information? It might be a question of health-sensitive information. If statistics come to light that suggest that there is a rapidly developing health problem, such as avian flu, in one part of the country, Ministers and the Department—in this case, it would be the Department of Health—would have a chance to react and put measures in place so that when those statistics came into the public domain, there would not be as much panic, if I can put it that way, because Ministers could say that they were aware of a cluster of avian flu cases, and had taken steps to address the issue. It is not simply a question of market-sensitive information.

John Healey: As is often the case, my hon. Friend is right. In many respects, these are “in case” provisions.
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If he consults the record, he will see that I said that measures are needed so that, if necessary, we can take steps or release further information alongside a statistical release to guard against a disproportionate or costly public as well as market reaction.

I acknowledge that the hon. Members for Fareham and for Twickenham accept the principle of pre-release, but they both advocate the acceptance of amendments that aim to allow the board to determine pre-release arrangements. Let me make it clear, as I have done before, that I and the Government disagree with that approach. I shall explain.

7.30 pm

Mr. Newmark: I do not mean to throw the Financial Secretary’s words back at him, but he said in Committee that Parliament, not the board, should ultimately approve the rules and procedures relating to the pre-release of statistics in the final form prior to publication. If so, why not put pre-release on a statutory footing in the Bill now, instead of avoiding the issue and hoping that it will go away?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman served on the Committee. If he hears me out, he will hear me emphasise again that we do propose to put the pre-release arrangements on a statutory footing, because of their special importance. Unlike the proposals from the two Opposition Front Benches for those arrangements to be captured in the code of practice, we propose an approach that sets them out in statute, in regulation, not in a code that is backed by but not set out in statute, as advocated by the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Given the importance of pre-release for the rightful accountability of Ministers to Parliament and the public, as I described, and given the recognition that concerns about pre-release arrangements and pre-release practices have contributed to public scepticism about the way the Government handle data, a special provision that brings the detail of arrangements back before the House and captures them in regulation that will be subject to the affirmative procedure of the House—in other words, debated before they may be approved by the House—is the proper approach, rather than saying that this is a matter for the statistics board, its code of practice and its sole decision. A code that was backed by statute but not spelled out in statute would arguably have less force.

Given the importance of pre-release, the Bill has been drafted to ensure that the pre-release arrangements as they are currently set out and operated will be tightened, as well as being given special status in the new system. What I announced previously remains the Government’s firm intention—the Government will tighten the current pre-release arrangements. The length of time that pre-release is available will be aligned at 40.5 hours for all national statistics, not just market-sensitive statistics. The new, tighter arrangements will be set out, as I said, in secondary legislation. I also announced that the order will include principles to provide guidance for Departments and to ensure that pre-release access is limited to those individuals who require the data for operational reasons.

Consistent with the Government approach of designing a general statistical system that can be developed in light of experience, I have given the House
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an undertaking that we will review the operation of the system 12 months after its introduction.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continuing generosity in giving way, and I am grateful to him for the assurances on the review, which will prompt me not to vote for any of the amendments should a Division be called. However, will my hon. Friend address new clause 5(5), which is about the board publishing an annual list of statistics to which pre-release access has been granted, and an annual list of persons to whom pre-release access has been granted? From what we have been told, particularly by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), it seems to be difficult for members of the public or parliamentarians to gain information about who has that authorisation and which statistics fall into that category.

John Healey: The present arrangements involve the publication of the list of national statistics and of the arrangements that Departments have in place for pre-release. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The arrangements are somewhat patchy and variable between Departments. Part of the purpose of introducing a new, tighter system is to ensure that it is more consistent across Government. I have made it clear and will repeat in a moment that I expect the board to monitor carefully and to make its findings publicly available, in order that it and others can assess whether the terms of the new system for pre-release are being met.

I believe strongly and argue to Members participating in the debate that it is important—unlike the rest of the code, the content of which will be backed by but not prescribed in statute—that clause 11 provides for legislation to prescribe the principles and rules for access to official statistics in their final form ahead of publication. As has been acknowledged in the debate, I wrote to members of the Committee in advance of the Committee’s discussions about this, setting out my expectations as to the types of issues that those principles would seek to deal with. I have placed a copy of that letter, dated 19 January, in the Library of the House so that others may more easily consult it.

The issues are similar if not identical to some of those identified in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Fareham. Unlike the proposals from the Opposition Front Bench, the order developed under the Government’s proposals, by virtue of the current clause 62, will be subject to further scrutiny, discussion, and approval under the affirmative resolution procedure of the House. That will ensure strong parliamentary scrutiny of and input into the proposed arrangements, with Parliament’s consent being required before any order becomes binding. Given the importance that all Members attach to the pre-release arrangements, that seems an appropriate approach.

Importantly, and again unlike the proposals from the Opposition Front Benches, compliance with the new arrangements will be independently assessed and reported on, including to the House, by the board. Over time, this will help to ensure that the arrangements are consistently interpreted, consistently applied, better understood and more transparent, with a stronger role for Parliament in ensuring that Ministers and Departments are properly abiding by the terms of the arrangements that the House has authorised.

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I expect that over time, as they become well established, the new arrangements, together with the creation of a central publication hub to separate statistical releases from policy statements, will reinforce trust and confidence in official statistics and in the new and tighter pre-release arrangements.

On the substance of new clause 5, which the hon. Member for Fareham proposes would replace clause 11, I have already explained why the Government remain certain that Ministers, rather than the board, should be charged with preparing the new pre-release arrangements. Our proposals, unlike those in new clause 5, provide for independent assessment of compliance with the rules and for the parliamentary scrutiny of the arrangements before they come into effect.

Clause 11(4) lists a number of subjects that may be provided for in the new order. As I explained, it is the Government’s intention that the secondary legislation should include rules and principles covering those topics. As I have also explained in some detail, the Bill provides for the scrutiny of these arrangements. It is for Parliament to have the capacity to ensure that the new arrangements are suitably comprehensive. Setting out such a list in a prescriptive fashion on the face of the Bill would add nothing.

The requirement on the board to publish information on who receives pre-release access is contained in subsection (5)(b) of new clause 5. It is a good example of the over-prescription of the contents of pre-release arrangements tied up in statute in primary legislation. Under the current protocol on release practices, Departments are required to publish lists of who is entitled to privileged early access and for how long for each statistical release. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made. I expect that to continue in the new system and to be clearer and more consistent.

When one considers that the last significant primary legislation on statistics was in 1947, the risk of codifying in the Bill arrangements that may prove too inflexible or inappropriate at this stage, and in this detail, is obvious to all. We may not wish to, or be able to wait a further 60 years to alter any primary legislative steps that we take in this narrow and detailed area. I also expect the secondary legislation covering the rules and principles for deciding the number of officials in each Department who receive pre-release access to tighten these arrangements and to make them more consistent across Government.

Subsection (6) of the new clause would require statistical producers to comply with the new arrangements and to consult the board on matters of their interpretation. Compliance and consistent interpretation will be much more effectively achieved by assessment, monitoring and reporting by the independent board, according to the published and ratified pre-release arrangements and reporting back to this House where necessary.

Dr. Cable: The Minister is essentially asking us to wait and see and saying that all our anxieties will be put at rest once we have seen the secondary legislation. Can he tell us when will we see it, and what will be the Government’s line on pre-release periods, beyond the assurances that he has already given in Committee on the timing of pre-release for official, as opposed to national statistics?

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