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I agree that the Cabinet Office has an overview role. In our modern form of government, so, in a sense, does the Treasury, whoever is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but that in itself may be no reason for shifting statistics from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. At best it is a kind of equality of arms. As to the co-ordinating role of the Treasury and the wider implications of thatthough not the specificity in respect of what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) said; she did not use such words, but spoke in terms of the possibility of control freakery in the Treasurywe saw only last week the not very edifying spectacle of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) running around as shadow Chancellor trying to assert that very role within the
Conservative party, saying Nobody makes spending promises except me. That is the co-ordinating role of a Chancellor of the Exchequerin this case, a shadow Chancellorin our modern constitution.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred to the Cabinet Office as an honest broker. I have been a Member for only six years, but I have sat on five Finance Bill Committees, and I have to say that I find the implication behind that remarkthat the Treasury is not honestrather disturbing. I have not found the Treasury to be dishonest. Although the Cabinet Office might indeed be an honest broker in terms of the hon. Ladys amendments, I have not found the Treasury to be in any sense a dishonest broker. Perhaps the hon. Lady has some contrary evidence, but she seems to have a rather starry-eyed view of the Cabinet Office.
Certainly the Cabinet Office reports to the Prime Minister. The hon. Lady may or may not be aware that it has its own Cabinet Ministerthe former Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), a very senior Member of Parliament. Furthermore, the Prime Minister is also the First Lord of the Treasury, so, according to the hon. Ladys model, we are back in the Treasury. What is more, the Treasury reports to the Prime Minister, as do all Cabinet Ministers and their ministerial teams. That is the nature of our modern constitution.
The Financial Secretary said earlier in the debatehe certainly said it either on Second Reading or in Committeethat the new board and the associated machinery operating it will receive five years funding to be decided outside the comprehensive spending review. If I were a body whose dealings with the Government were to conducted in a manner similar to that proposed for the boardpartly at arms lengthI would be quite pleased to be within the Treasury because that is the Department with the cheque book. I would consider that I would get a better deal from the Treasury than from other Departments such as the Cabinet Office. That is not to say that the Cabinet Office could not do it, but the Treasury has the money and the Cabinet Office does not. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet acknowledged the five-year funding commitment, to be decided outside the comprehensive spending review, but it is worth repeating it because it rather undercuts her argument for moving the board from the remit of the Treasury to that of the Cabinet Office.
The hon. Ladys proposal for the boards funding to be decided by Parliament, not by the Treasury, is a novel approach to our democracy. It has always been my understanding ever since I was in this place that, yes, funding requests are decided by Parliament, but through estimates and other procedures. They are put down by different Departments, so which Department would propose the new boards request for resources to Parliament? Under the architecture of the Bill, as I understand it, the board itself would not make such a request for funding to Parliament. The idea of direct funding by Parliament being somehow different if the board and its machinery were in the Cabinet Office rather than in the Treasury therefore completely falls by the wayside.
The visible difference to which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred relates to another point that she made in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael)
about the perception of ministerial interference. Perhaps she will tell us what other countries operate in the manner that she proposes. Another of the proposals put forward by the official Opposition involved a system that operated only in Mongolia, so far as the Government could ascertain. What are they doing in Mongolia?
Mrs. Villiers: I cannot say what they are doing in Mongolia, but I did look into this issue and, to be fair, the arrangements are pretty diverse. The countries that I researched seemed relatively evenly divided between those that had a link with their Treasury and those that had a link with their Cabinet Office equivalent.
Rob Marris: That is helpful, and perhaps the hon. Lady will be able to help me further. My understanding of StatsCanas we Canadians like to call Statistics Canadais that it comes under the Treasury board. It might not, but the chief statistician of StatsCan has been prayed in aid repeatedly during the passage of the Bill, and I wonder what they do there.
In regard to ministerial interference, the real question is one of perception. I do not accept the proposition that there is ministerial interference in our statistics, if that is what the Opposition are suggesting. That seems to be the implication of what they are saying, although they have not said it directly. I will not accept that unless they can produce firm evidence of it. The architecture of the Bill is indeed about beefing up the new board, and rolling the ONS into it under the executive committeeor whatever it is calledin the new set-up. Having that board and its committee within the Cabinet Office would do nothing more, or less, to alter perceptions of ministerial interference, such as there might be.
At best, the proposals relating to the Cabinet Office represent a break-even propositionin which case, why change anything? At worst, they would be destabilising, in that they would take away something from the Treasury that it has dealt with for a long time. As I said earlier, if the board is inside the Treasury, it is more likely to get adequate funding than it would if it were in the Cabinet Office. That is not a slight on the Cabinet Office; it is the Treasury that has the cheque book. We want the board to be adequately funded, and when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary earlier, he assured me that it would be. I believe that there will be adequate funding, and it is just as likelyif not more likelyto come from the Treasury than would be the case if we were to shift the whole thing over to the Cabinet Office. I would vote against the amendments if they were pressed to a Division.
Stewart Hosie: I wish to speak to amendment No. 49, which is tabled in my name, and to amendments Nos. 50 to 59, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends. Before I do that, I should like to comment on the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who said that she was not minded to support the amendments. I was reminded of a story about a friend of mine, who is a member of the judiciary. He suggests that, when considering the outcome of a court case, it is always best to hear the evidence led first.
The arguments for the amendments were well rehearsed in Committee. However, because they involve important points of principle regarding the ability of
the devolved Administrations to act independently of the UK Government in relation to statistics relating to matters over which the devolved Administrations have sole competence, and because the amendments are also designed to temper the interference of the Treasury generally and the Chancellor specifically in matters that ought to be none of their business, I will reprise the arguments in a little more detail.
It is also worth saying that, while my amendments in Committee related only to Scotland, those in the group under discussion today relate also to Wales, and the issues generally relate also to Northern Ireland. I am grateful to colleagues from the nations and the Province for their interest in and support for the amendments.
Alun Michael: Has the hon. Gentleman noted that his colleagues from Wales are so interested in the topic that not one of them has joined him to debate it? Those of us in the Chamber who represent Welsh constituencies note with interest that interference in Welsh affairs has to depend on a Scottish voice.
Stewart Hosie: I note the right hon. Gentlemans comments. I tend not to make comments on such matters, although they have been related to me in the past. However, there is not one Scottish Labour Member in the Chamber, which is not unusual in debates such as these. I will relay the right hon. Gentlemans comments to my friends in Plaid Cymru.
The fundamental propositions in the legislation relating to the amendments are as follows. First, clause 3 gives the impression that an appointment to the new board will be made from each of the devolved Administrations, but the measure permits nothing of the kind. In fact, the Bill states that the appointments will be made by the Treasury.
to comply with its objective, or...to perform any of its functions relating to...devolved statistics.
In certain circumstances, the provision will allow the Administrations to take over those functions. However, that power, like the power to appoint, is not what it seems. The power to direct can be used only with the direct consent of the Chancellor himself, as set out in clause 27(2). Given that such direction could be carried out only after failures relating to statistics that are the direct responsibility of the devolved Administration, the requirement for the Chancellors consent represents an overbearing and unnecessary interference in the day-to-day operations of the devolved Administrations in the production of their statistics. That is the aspect of greatest concern to me, and I shall return to it. It is wholly wrong to allow the Chancellor the power of veto to stop a devolved Administration exercising, rightly, the power to direct if the new board fails to carry out its responsibilities for devolved statistics.
Thirdly, the Bill appears to offer the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland the power to instruct the disclosure of information to and from public bodies and the new board. However, those powers, too, are not all they seem. The powers for Scotland under clauses 45 and 49 can be used only with
the consent of the Treasury. Like the power to direct, the power of disclosure applies only to information required for statistics in areas under the direct authority of the devolved Administration. The legislation for Wales is different, not least because when the Treasury wants to make disclosures relating to Wales it must, as described in clause 44(8), first seek the consent of a Welsh Minister.
My amendments address those three issues. They would give Ministers in the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales both the respect that their mandate should allow and, more important, the full range of powers that they ought to have to carry out their work armed with the best, most accurate and relevant statistical information they need.
Amendments Nos. 49, 50, 57 and 58 are designed to take particular cognisance of the needs of the nations by ensuring that a member from each of the devolved Administrations is appointed to the new board. Amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 59 would confer the right to direct without the Chancellors veto. Finally, amendments Nos. 53 to 56 would ensure that the power of disclosure in Scotland could be exercised as required in relation to wholly devolved statistics. I want to remove the unnecessary Treasury veto.
Earlier, I said that my most serious concerns were about the need for the consent of the Chancellor in relation to the power to direct, so I look forward to the Ministers response to the amendments on that subject. However, the Treasury has shown some willingness to move. Amendment No. 26, which will be discussed in the next group even though it relates directly to the group under discussion, gives a welcome transparency about direction. My difficulty with amendment No. 26 is that that welcome transparency would apply only after consent had been granted, not in advance.
I hope that the Financial Secretary can go a little further tonight and show a little more movement. If he could tell the House that consent will routinely be granted in normal circumstances, that would be helpful. Better still, if he could tell the House the specific circumstances in which consent would normally not be granted and perhaps give an example, that would be welcome. If he could tell us that consent would not be granted only in circumstances in which the public disclosure of a direction against a particular set of statistics would be market-sensitive or the set of statistics against which a direction was made would be market-sensitiveif those were the sorts of conditions or criteria that would apply when consent to direct was not givenit would go a long way towards soothing my concerns over the requirement for consent from the Chancellor before a direction could be given by one of the devolved Administrations in the case of a failure by the new board.
The Treasury Committee said that public perceptions about the independence of the board will depend more on the actions of the board members than their method of appointment. The Government agree. The quality of the boards membership will be crucial in ensuring the boards independence, its credibility
and its ability, if necessary, to challenge Departments on the quality and integrity of their statistics. That places a premium on ensuring that the appointments process selects the right calibre of people from the right variety of backgrounds, who can bring the right range of expertise to the work of the board. To that end, we have given a range of commitments about how we will go about that appointments process, including the commitment that all board members will be appointed by open competition in line with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments guidance. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee has endorsed that approach.
Amendments Nos. 49, 50, 57 and 58 on appointments would allow a member of the board to be appointed by Scottish or Welsh Ministers, rather than being appointed by the Treasury in consultation with Scottish and Welsh Ministers. The board is to be a UK-wide body that represents a range of users. Members of the board will be appointed to represent a wide range of interests in statistics and to represent the public interest as a whole. They will collectively represent the interests of users across the UK. Members who are appointed after consultation with the devolved Administrations will not be on the board simply as delegates or simply as territorial representatives of those countries, although of course it is important that there are members on the board who understand the particular needs in relation to statistics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I hope that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) accepts that direct appointment by Scottish or Welsh Ministers could make it much more difficult to appoint a board that, as a UK body, appropriately represents the needs of all users. We want the board to be small and cohesive. Ultimately, that argues for a requirement for one authority to be responsible for all appointments. It is, however, rightit is in the Billthat Scottish and Welsh Ministers, and in due course I hope Ministers in Northern Ireland, should each be consulted on an appointment to ensure that the board has an understanding specifically of Welsh or Scottish devolved needs in relation to statistics. Scottish and Welsh Ministers have agreed their role in the appointments. They are content that it offers the appropriate safeguards in relation to their role in devolved statistics.
Alun Michael: I am one of the few people in the House who has experience in this respect. It was always my experience that Ministers in this Parliament and this Government respected entirely the role of devolved Ministers in making recommendations of the sort that has been indicated.
John Healey: I am grateful for my right hon. Friends contribution, because he is able to give the House that sort of insight and assurance with a particular authority that is not open to many of the rest of us.
Let me turn to the particular concern of the hon. Member for Dundee, East, which is addressed by amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 59. I am not sure that it is fully appreciated that the powers in clause 27 are designed to protect the public interest so that if, and only if, the board fundamentally fails to deliver for any reason, the Government can intervenealways publicly, in writing and as a last resortto ensure that the boards obligations are met. The hon. Gentleman cited some circumstances
in which there might somehow be a reluctance to intervene because a set of statistics were market-sensitive, but such circumstances would not be those with which the clause was designed to deal.
Stewart Hosie: There are powers for the devolved Administrations to direct. If the Financial Secretary is telling us that consent to direct would not be given for the reasons that I suggested, why is the requirement for the consent of the Chancellor in the Bill at all?
John Healey: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman, who seemed to be paraphrasing me, an absolute assurance that a direction would not be issued in a particular set of hypothetical circumstances. However, I will explain why the Chancellors consent is important.
Clause 27 is designed to address a serious failure in the responsibilities and duties of the board that would amount to a dereliction of its duties under the Bill. The clause rightly gives Scottish and Welsh Ministers the power of direction with respect to their areas of responsibilityScottish or Welsh devolved statisticswith the consent of the Chancellor. It is right that the Chancellors consent should be required for such directions to be made as a last resort, because any such failure relating to Scottish or Welsh statistics could affect the position of statistics throughout the UK. It would be important to ensure that the accountability for such last-resort action were shared and that the directions to the board were consistent with each other. The consent will ensure that directions are co-ordinated and that the Bill will not create powers of direction that might be conflicting. I hope that the hon. Gentleman sees the sense of, and the basis for, the provision.
The hon. Gentleman also tabled amendments Nos. 53 to 56, which would remove the requirement of the Treasury to give consent when Scottish Ministers made regulations to break down the barriers to data sharing between Scottish public authorities and the board for statistical purposes. The provisions on data sharing set out a mechanism through which data may be shared, for statistical purposes only, between the board and a public authority, and vice versa, via secondary legislation.
The key point regarding the amendments is that the mechanism in clauses 45 and 49 mirrors that in the other clauses on data sharing. The mechanism allows regulations to be made to allow data to be shared with the consent of both the Treasury, as the body with residual responsibility for the board, and the Minister responsible for the other body involved in the data sharing. That will ensure that the Ministers responsible for both the body disclosing the data and the body receiving the data are content for the regulations to be made, which will be an important safeguard in our data-sharing mechanism.
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