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We have to bear it in mind that the Cabinet Office has a long-recognised remit to co-ordinate the activities of different Departments, which would also equip it appropriately for the functions that we are considering. The Treasury may try to exert considerable control over Departments to an unprecedented degree, but cross-departmental co-ordination is still the formal responsibility of the Cabinet Office, acting on behalf of the Prime Minister. The co-ordinating role features prominently
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in its departmental objectives. As has been emphasised throughout the debate, the work of the board can and should go beyond scrutinising the economic statistics traditionally associated with the ONS. The board’s work should encompass a wide range of social statistics on crime, education, health and social exclusion, which are produced by a range of Departments. It is therefore appropriate that the Department tasked with residual ministerial functions should have an eye for cross-departmental concerns. With the insight that one would expect from an organisation with a long and distinguished history, the Royal Statistical Society, which has contributed so helpfully to the debate, tells us that what we need is “an honest broker”. I think that we are more likely to find one in the Cabinet Office than in the Treasury.

Secondly, we must ask which Department will give the board and the National Statistician the most effective assistance in bringing other Departments into line when they fail to live up to the code of practice. That returns us to territory that we covered briefly when discussing the role of the National Statistician. The House would do well to listen to the advice given by Lord Moser, whose wisdom has been called upon a number of times this evening. Giving evidence to the Treasury Committee, he was adamant about the importance of a link with the Cabinet Office, in which he saw a re-emphasis on the direct link with the Prime Minister, to whom that Department reports. He said

Lord Moser has made clear his view that the decision of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to shift responsibilities relating to the ONS from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury was a mistake. One of Lord Moser’s more controversial successors, Len Cook, pointed out:

Today, we have an opportunity to rectify the error made by my right hon. and learned Friend. We may now have a Chancellor who is perhaps considerably more powerful than the Prime Minister, but there is no guarantee that that will continue to be the case. It would therefore be valuable for the board and the National Statistician to have the direct backing of both the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister.

Thirdly, we must ask which Department will be most effective in arguing the case for the board and statistical services in determining the appropriate level of funding. We believe that the Cabinet Office would be the most effective, for the simple reason that it is not the Treasury. It can provide a ministerial voice outside the Treasury to argue the case for statistical services. It is well known that each Department must argue its case for funding with the Treasury. Under the structure envisaged by the Bill, that would involve one Treasury Minister strolling down the corridor for a chat with another Treasury Minister. There would be no external pressure on the Treasury. Even institutions at arm’s length from the Government, such as the BBC, tend to rely on a Minister to speak up for them on funding matters, although of course they have the opportunity to make their own case directly as well.

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The Minister dismissed similar arguments in Committee, on the ground that there would be no debate on funding between Ministers of the kind that I have described because the Bill would take the board’s funding out of the normal spending round. We believe that funding decisions should be taken out of the hands of Ministers and transferred to Parliament. If that were done, my third question would become irrelevant. There would be no need for a Minister to speak up for the board in the spending round because Parliament, not the Treasury, would make the decision. Sadly, however, that is not how the Bill is drafted. All we are told about funding is that it will be determined on a five-yearly basis by a “transparent formula”. What the Minister has told us so far about the funding arrangements is insufficient to give me confidence that the board will not need a Minister to stand up for it in negotiating with the Treasury.

There is a fourth reason why we think the Cabinet Office would be a better home for the residual ministerial responsibilities in the Bill. Here I pray in aid the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that in transferring residual responsibilities to the Cabinet Office we would demonstrate that we were making a visible difference. Tom Griffin, the former director of statistics at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, said:

Severing that link would constitute a further break with the current arrangements, which all now agree have not worked satisfactorily. We believe that it would make a useful contribution to building trust in official statistics, and we commend the amendments to the House.

8.15 pm

Alun Michael: I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the speech of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). She gave three reasons for seeking to change accountability in Government. When any such change is made, it must be recognised that breaking one set of relationships in favour of another means that they must be reconnected in a different way. It is never quite as straightforward as it appears. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that the interest of the Cabinet Office and that of the Treasury—and, indeed, the interests of a variety of other Departments, as well as the interest of the Prime Minister of the time—are important in all this. The overall oversight of the Prime Minister in seeking integrity in the way in which statistics are prepared is certainly important, but I do not think it will ever percolate down into the detail. The lead of a specific Department and a specific Cabinet Minister is therefore very significant.

What I found most disappointing about the hon. Lady’s speech was the negative and defensive nature of her three questions. First, she asked which Department was least likely to try to interfere. I realise that after 10 years in opposition the Conservative party has become rather negative in its approach to all sorts of things, and has done some of the things for which it castigated the then Opposition until 1997.

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Mrs. Villiers: Is not the aim of the Bill to stop Ministers interfering in statistical production when they ought not to do so? Are we not right, therefore, to phrase the question as we did?

Alun Michael: I am more interested in the positive, and that is what I shall argue for. The defensiveness and the defeated tone of the Opposition’s contribution is a little sad. In fact, the use of objective statistics in the development of public policy ought to be welcomed by all parties as creating an opportunity for an objective, open debate about some of the important issues of our time. Everyone should welcome that positive aspect, which is really what the Bill is all about.

The hon. Lady’s second question was, I concede, more positive, in that she asked which Department was more likely to be effective. However, she brushed over that fairly lightly. Thirdly, she asked who would argue the case for funding most vigorously. Arguing for funding in Government is always challenging, and I would have thought that arguments within the Treasury were more likely to be successful than the arguments of those of us who have had the experience of arguing from outside that august institution. Certainly that is the perception of Ministers in every other Department.

Julia Goldsworthy: Is that the right hon. Gentleman’s only positive reason for keeping the residual ministerial powers in the Treasury?

Alun Michael: I think that that is a rather negative reason for keeping those powers within the Treasury, and I concede that the hon. Lady has a point.

However, I would rather answer a different question, which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet did not raise in her introduction, namely, which body would be the most keen to ensure that an evidence-based approach to public policy development is pursued within Government and within all institutions of government—agencies of Government, local government, local health boards and all the other institutions that provide service and spend the money that is voted to them by Parliament? That question addresses an issue that is at the heart of the Bill.

The whole point of statistics—this was my reason for welcoming Government amendment No. 48—is to make sure that there is an objective basis for policy development and for the way in which we tackle real problems and link different issues. That is why I am so keen that we should be able to do local overlays at ward and sub-ward level of the impact of health situations, educational attainment and criminal justice and youth justice activities. All such matters must be joined in order to create healthy communities. Communities exist fundamentally at the local level. National statistics are important, but the more that they inform the quality of life of individuals in the street, the borough or the village—or whatever kind of local community we are talking about across the country—the more we will be using statistics positively.

Therefore, the hon. Lady’s questions address subsidiary issues. I agree that it is important to make sure that there is not inappropriate interference by Ministers, but the idea that there is such interference is media and Opposition mythology. Over 10 years, during most of
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which time I was a Minister, I have never seen the slightest opportunity for interference with statistics or for meddling with them. If the hon. Lady knows about anything that I missed during that 10-year period, I would be very interested to learn about it. What I did find on a variety of occasions was that it was necessary to ask the people preparing the statistics—in the Home Office, for instance—“Why can’t you answer this particular question, which is important for the development of public policy?” Let me give the example that I mentioned in Committee. When the Labour party came to office in 1997, it had a commitment to halve the time it took to get young offenders before the courts. For my part, that commitment was well informed by my experience, when I chaired the juvenile bench, of having young offenders come before me who did not have a clue what accusation they were answering to on that particular occasion. They might have been accused over a period of time of having committed a long string of burglaries, and they would say, “Sorry, mister, but which one are we talking about?” The hearing that followed would be totally irrelevant to their lives, and certainly to the amendment of their future ways and career.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to restrict his remarks to the amendment before the House.

Alun Michael: Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker.

What should we do if we cannot answer questions such as that about the length of time that it takes to get young offenders before the courts, which we raised at the Home Office in the past? On that occasion, the officials had to answer the question about young offenders by saying, “Dunno”, and statistics did not provide material for the delivery of public policy. We had to spend the first six months identifying how long it took to get young offenders before court in order then to be able to say, “Right, we now know what it is we are going to halve.” We delivered that during our first period of Government. That was an enormously important use of intelligent information—of statistics—in order to make a real difference in reoffending and therefore in the quality of life of people, communities and potential victims.

I want statistics to be objectively prepared, independently verified and totally objective and dependable for everybody, regardless of whether the individuals using them are in Government, in Opposition, in agencies or local government, are ordinary members of the community, researchers or people involved in policy development—in the third sector, for instance. Therefore, accountability for the residual functions ought to lie with the Department that has the most comprehensive view about value for money in the public sector and the need for objective evidence to be driven by asking the right questions and ensuring that the management is right. If the new board fails, that will be a disaster for public policy, so it is important that the Ministers who are responsible for it do not interfere—I agree with the hon. Lady about that—but that if there is a need to intervene and say, “Things have gone wrong and need to be put right”, they are Ministers in the Department that is most enthusiastic to make sure that that happens.

Julia Goldsworthy: I know that in the past 10 years, under the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury has taken considerable interest in a wide
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range of issues affecting many Departments. However, things might change when the Chancellor of the Exchequer changes. Therefore, I am still not clear why the Treasury is a better Department to perform the role in question than the Cabinet Office, which will have that kind of overview role and which is less likely to change in that way.

Alun Michael: Actually, there has been less change at the Treasury than at many other Departments over the past few years. [ Interruption. ] As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) says, its leadership has been more dependable and continuous than the Liberal Democrat leadership.

The way in which the current comprehensive spending review is being prepared—I hope that the Opposition parties are taking that issue seriously—shows that there is a serious level of engagement. An example is the contribution being made by the third sector, the social enterprise sector and voluntary and community groups. I honestly think that the level of engagement is more serious than in previous spending reviews from 1997 onward, and infinitely more serious than in earlier reviews. The Treasury is therefore positively engaged in the policy development process, so it will be concerned to ensure that the statistics on which that policy is based are identified and objective and address the real interests of the public. The public interest test has to be about the long-term interests of the public in every constituency in the country that we Members of Parliament represent.

I suggest that there is nothing to be gained by pursuing the three questions that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet asked, but there is a great deal to be gained by trying to nail down—as I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will in responding to this debate—the Treasury to ensure that it is fully engaged in ensuring that the public will benefit in every respect as a result of it being the Department responsible for the residual functions, as the Bill sets out.

Julia Goldsworthy: I agree with a lot of what the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said about what the objectives should be, but despite what he said in answer to my intervention, I am still not clear why the Treasury is better able to perform this role than the Cabinet Office. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) are very similar to those that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and I tabled in Committee; however, I understand that they are a fall-back mechanism, and that her preferred configuration has not been pursued.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said in Committee, the point behind our amendments is not Treasury-bashing. We have always made it clear that the Treasury has taken some very important decisions that have signalled a willingness to give independence to important institutions such as the Bank of England. Indeed, perhaps that is what is disappointing about this provision. The Treasury was willing to send the clear signal that there would be full independence for the Bank, and a similar approach to national statistics—giving this residual power to the Cabinet Office, which is one step away from the Treasury—would be an
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effective way of underlining the fact that the Bill takes important steps toward creating a more independent statistics system.

Although there is a degree of ministerial control over appointments to the Monetary Policy Committee, we have not seen cronyism or the making of political appointments. We welcome that of course, but it does mean that the structure is such that that will continue to be so. For that reason, it would be better to include in the Bill a clear statement of independence, if possible, and to shut down any possibility of an organisation’s saying that the opportunity exists to erode such independence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham also previously pointed out that there is a potential conflict of interest. If the Treasury takes on its new role as the guardian of statistics, we should remember that it is also a massive consumer of statistics. The Cabinet Office already takes on many roles in the overview of government, and it has the potential to resolve conflicts of interest. Such conflicts of interest would be less obvious if the Cabinet Office were given this power. Reference has been made to the need for a positive attitude in the collecting of evidence-based information. I do not see why any other Department would be able to perform that function less ably than the Treasury.

What I am saying is that all these points have been made on Second Reading and in Committee. At this stage, there is no strong argument against having the board based in the Treasury, but, having said that, I am not convinced by the argument that it should stay just within the Treasury. The fact that the Department is a massive consumer of statistics does not necessarily qualify it as the guardian of them.

8.30 pm

On that basis, if, ultimately, the National Statistician is appointed by the Crown, it makes sense logically for accountability for that power to go back to the Prime Minister. That would be more rational and symmetrical. I thus have considerable sympathy for the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet.

Rob Marris: I have to say that I find the Opposition’s arguments singularly unconvincing and somewhat contradictory. There is talk of the Cabinet Office having some sort of cross-cutting overview role, but the Opposition then leap from that to suggest that somehow the Cabinet is more disinterested in statistics than the Treasury. That seems to be a contradictory position to adopt.

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