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I hope Members will agree that, even though we may not have reached a meeting of minds on some of the detail, there is much more on which we agree in principle. I welcome the support that has been given for a number of particular proposals in the Bill. Whatever our remaining differences, I hope all Members will agree that there is no doubt that the Bill leaves the House in better shape than when it started. That is the
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proper role of Parliament, and Members have played a full part in its scrutiny and improvement. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.8 pm

Mrs. Villiers: We have finally reached Third Reading. There was a point when we wondered when Report stage would ever appear on the agenda, but eventually it did, after several weeks. From the lack of attendance for part of the debate today, it seems that much of the House thought that it had not yet arrived.

The scrutiny process has indeed been useful. We would like to have seen many further changes to the Bill, and we hope that the debate will continue in a lively fashion in the other place.

We will not vote against the Bill tonight because we agree with significant aspects of it. We welcome the reduction in ministerial influence over the statistical services; the establishment of an independent board to oversee Government statistics; the new code of practice; the fact that the reforms will apply across the whole of the UK, including the devolved Administrations; and the extension of employment rights to registrars.

We have long called for politics and spin to be taken out of official statistics, which is vital important if people are to trust them. It is also vital to secure this goal if we are to entrench economic stability in our economy. Like a doctor taking the temperature of her patient, any Chancellor desperately needs to know the unvarnished facts about the state of the economy. No Chancellor should ever make the mistake of believing his own propaganda. However, although the Bill goes in the right direction, towards the calls made by Conservative Members for independent statistics, it is too timid to achieve the crucial goal of ensuring that official statistics are, from now on, free from political interference.

The Bill should be all about letting go. It lets go of certain functions and passes them to independent institutions. However, if the Government want real economic reform, they should prise away from Ministers the powers over statistics to which the Bill allows them to cling—the power to keep statistics out of the scope of the code of conduct, the power to determine the budget for statistical services, and the power to determine pre-release rules.

Let me take a canter through some of the issues of interest and controversy that we have discussed over the past few weeks of scrutiny. We have acknowledged the importance of using administrative data for statistical purposes. I am delighted that that is confirmed in the Bill. There is consensus that such data can be a rich source of information for statisticians and can cut costs for Government and for business because of the reduced number of surveys that will be needed if administrative data can be relied on. Throughout the scrutiny process, however, we have sought assurances from Government on the confidentiality of administrative information. As we have made plain, we would strongly resist any attempts to divert census or other administrative data into the forthcoming national identity database, and we urge Parliament to continue to monitor the use of personal data for statistical purposes with great care to see how the arrangements operate in practice. As well as the self-evident privacy concerns that we have discussed,
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and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) referred, we must also recognise that any failure to safeguard confidentiality would threaten statistical projects if it deterred people from disclosing sensitive information.

We have debated extensively the institutional structures proposed in the Bill. The Opposition remain concerned that the proposal to merge the functions carried out by the ONS and the Statistics Commission represents a step backwards in our progress towards a better and more impartial statistical system. We are concerned about the loss of the independent watchdog. Moreover, granting to the successor to the commission responsibility for the production of statistics will damage its credibility in providing impartial scrutiny of the statistical system.

It is also a matter of regret that the Minister has resisted calls for the Bill to enhance and strengthen the status of the National Statistician, which is a key part of a successful and independent statistical system. Only if she is viewed as the leader of the Government statistical service, with real clout to promote excellence and best practice right across the system, including within Departments, will this reform achieve the goals that the Government have set for it. Only then will she be able to provide the professional backing to enable statisticians to resist pressure from Departments to slip below the highest standards of integrity and impartiality. Only if she has the power to push for co-ordination and consistency will this reform address and mitigate some of the inherent drawbacks of our decentralised system and help to deal with the fragmentation problems that, as the Minister acknowledged, have existed in relation to data following the devolution process.

Perhaps the most significant weakness in the Bill is the fact that it effectively gives Ministers the right to decide whether the new code of practice and the full rigour of the reforms will apply to their departmental statistics. If they choose, they can keep the board away from important indicators and figures on public services. It is not sufficient for the Minister merely to say that he expects the board to promote the code as a model of good practice for all Departments, since he is giving it inadequate tools to ensure that those Departments are brought into line if they fall below the standards required by the code.

The Bill would have been greatly strengthened had Ministers’ power over funding the board also been removed or constrained. Every Member of the House knows that the person who sets the budget or writes the cheque has significant power in any organisation. Under the present Chancellor, more than any other, the Treasury has cast an ever-lengthening shadow over a vast range of Government activities. Any Minister will be familiar with bruising battles over funding. Yet, under the Bill, the statistics board will have no Minister outside the Treasury to fight its corner for a share of resources. Earlier, we were told that, being internal to the Treasury, the board was likely to get a better deal. I am not sure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs would agree with that, given the settlements that it has received recently. The Gershon process also seems to indicate that those departments directly linked to the Treasury do not get a special deal or more favourable or generous treatment.

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The Minister has promised us that the new independent framework would cover financial arrangements but has failed to tell us how that process will work. He has promised us a transparent formula for funding but so far has failed to be at all transparent about it. The longer he spoke on that in Committee, the more concerned the Opposition became. The Bill gives Parliament no role in relation to funding beyond ordinary methods of scrutiny. The Opposition believe that Parliament should call the shots on funding. Putting the budget in the hands of a Joint Committee of both Houses would provide the expertise, gravitas and impartiality to ensure that the funding process could never be politicised by Ministers. In that way, we could have imported some admirable qualities from the structure that governs the National Audit Office.

The Minister spoke repeatedly, with warmth and enthusiasm, about the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, and yet Parliament’s role in relation to the statistical service under the Bill seems no stronger than it is in relation to any ordinary department. It is a matter of regret that the Government have rejected a structure that would have put Parliament in the driving seat in relation to the statistical system and its funding arrangements.

Pre-release is emblematic of so many of the defects in our current system. Our current rules give pre-release access to more statistics, to more people and for longer periods than any other country in the developed world. They give Ministers far too much scope to use early access to statistical information to manage the news agenda and discount bad news in advance. That kind of activity can do so much to undermine trust in official statistics. In that area, the Government’s reforms in 2000 probably made the situation worse by reinforcing ministerial control over pre-release rules and reducing the constraint that the head of the government statistical service had previously been able to place on pre-release access.

We have acknowledged the case for limited pre-release access to data. If the reform is to succeed, however, we believe that pre-release rules should be tightened. Even more importantly, we believe that the board should have the final say over what those rules should be. Sadly, sympathetic as he might be, the Minister no doubt has his hands tied by Ministers in other Departments who are anxious to maintain the political advantages that the current system gives them. Rather than entrenching ministerial control on pre-release rules into statute as the Bill proposes, we should trust the board to get the decision right on that. Neither I nor the Minister should make that decision; neither of us is truly disinterested. If the Government really want to let go of statistics, painful as that is, they should let go of pre-release as well—not to see it abandoned, but to let the board decide what the rules on pre-release should be.

Today, we are making progress towards the independence for statistical services that the Opposition would like, but not enough. Today could have been an historic day for economic governance in the UK—but it will not be. It could have been the day when we set the statisticians free of political interference and took the spin out of statistics for good—but it will not be. The Minister has steadfastly resisted our calls to make that final jump, that final break with a discreditable past and the
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manipulation and dissembling that has become such a notorious hallmark of this Government. It would take an act of political courage—not to say political irony—for the Government who have elevated news management to the level of a political creed to be responsible for entrenching impartiality, objectivity and honesty into all official statistics. Sadly, the Minister will not, or cannot, take that step. The Government cannot quite let go. If the Government will not listen to us and will not listen to the hundreds of concerned experts and stakeholder groups, I hope that they will be forced to listen to a message loud and clear from the other place—that their reforms are welcome and go in the right direction, but that they are not sufficient and must be significantly strengthened before the British public can again place their trust and confidence in official statistics.

9.20 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary mentioned the registration service. I thank hon. Members for not tabling amendments against that aspect of the Bill—not one amendment was tabled against that part of its contents.

I shall be delighted on 9 May when I visit Leicester for the annual conference of the Society of Registration Officers, of which I am the patron for England and Wales. I have addressed nine previous conferences in all parts of the country. On occasion, I have had to hang my head down because I have been so full of excuses for why my Government have not delivered employment rights to the more than 1,700 registrars and superintendent registrars who work so ably across England and Wales in every register office, which all of us need to use—sometimes in tragic circumstances, but mainly in happy circumstances when we have births or marriages in the family.

This year will be my 10th address. I will be delighted to say that my Government have at last delivered what registration service officers have been asking for—the chance to go to an employment tribunal if they are unfairly dismissed or sacked. It does happen. I have seen some sad cases where people have had to leave the service under a cloud and they have not had the rights that nearly all other workers have throughout the land.

As my hon. Friend said, registration officers are employed, appointed and housed in local authority offices. Those offices are sometimes not very good. The office in Bolton is now delightful, although it did not used to be. The pensions are also provided by local authorities. It is therefore proper that the responsibility for discipline should move to the control of local authorities. The Society of Registration Officers has been asking for that for a long time, and recently it has been supported by Unison. Those people who have been campaigning with me for that, and those who have been campaigning include the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services as well, will be delighted by this evening’s events.

On a lighter side, it was a privilege to listen to hon. Members who know far more than I do about statistics. I learned a lot during the course of the Bill’s passage
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through Committee. It occasionally got difficult to listen, though, so I started to count the number of times that people tripped over the word “statistics”, and particularly over the word “statistical”. I commend the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers)—she tripped over the word “statistical” only once this evening. I am concerned, however, about the Bill’s passage in the other place because there are more dentures there. I imagine that when Members in the House of Lords start to pronounce those words, false teeth might flow all over the Chamber.

I have lobbied a lot of Ministers and I have been travelling on two parallel tracks. One is with the Department of Trade and Industry—I will not deal with that now—which is where the responsibility for employment legislation lies. The other relates to my lobbying of successive Economic and Financial Secretaries who have been responsible for the part of the Office for National Statistics that concerns me. I commend my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who has listened not only to me but to Unison and the Society of Registration Officers, and has allowed us to deliver something extremely important to more than 1,700 people who have awaited this legislation for some time. My own detailed history of this campaign dates back to 1985. I shall not bore Members with it this evening, but it has been a long battle. SORO’s campaign dates back even further—it has waited a very long time for this moment.

The Bill does something more important than delivering what I have described; it also paves the way for the first major reform of the civil registration service since the service was set up as long ago as 1837. I think that all Members would agree that it is time the service was brought into the 21st century, as I am sure it will be. What worried registration officers was the possibility that as we reformed the service, local authorities might realise that they needed fewer of them. Some battles, in my view unnecessary, might have arisen as a result of that. However, as we have now given registration officers the right to go to an industrial tribunal, if local authorities try to remove them from their posts they will feel far more confident about the major reforms of the civil registration service that are just around the corner.

The Treasury tried to initiate some of those reforms through a regulatory reform order, the largest ever committed to the new Committee that came into being in 2001 under the Regulatory Reform Act of that year. Sadly, under the chairmanship of Peter Pike, the former Member of Parliament for Burnley, the Committee rejected the move. I know that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary now intends to use secondary legislation as a way of reforming the service. I thank my hon. Friend, and I look forward with confidence—as, I am sure, do SORO and Unison—to reform of a service that has long been in need of reform.

9.27 pm

Dr. Cable: I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on the success of his single-minded and single-handed campaign to change the legislation. I am one of the many people whom he lobbied. It is gratifying when legislation is changed by a Back Bencher in such a progressive way.

The Bill is crucial—although the House has dealt with it in a fairly low-key way—because of the corrosion
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of public confidence in Government statistics. Various figures were given on Second Reading, but perhaps we should remind ourselves of the nature of the task. A survey by the Office for National Statistics showed that some 17 per cent. of the population believed that Government figures were produced without political interference, and only 14 per cent. thought that Government statistics were honest. It is an appalling indictment, not of this Government in particular but of Governments in general, that confidence in Government figures is at such a low ebb. That is why we need radical reform to produce a genuinely independent system, and in many respects the Government have provided that. We welcome the legislation in principle and welcome many aspects of it, although we have suggested many amendments—as have the Conservatives, with whom I think we broadly agree on the Bill.

The Minister has handled the Bill in a very courteous and reasonable way and has defused many of the arguments, but I continue to be troubled. Whenever we consult those in the wider statistical community—members of the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society and other bodies, and former chief statisticians of Commonwealth statistical offices—they continue to express grave disquiet about how the legislation is framed. We are often lobbied by outside organisations, many of which have axes to grind, but it is not clear that those people do have axes to grind. They are fellow professionals who are worried—they continue to be worried—on a professional basis by the nature of the legislation. The Minister acknowledged that in Committee, and I think that he is puzzled as to why there is such strong reservation and anxiety among fellow statisticians. That remains to be cleared up as the Bill progresses.

Mr. Gauke: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is strong feeling within the statistical community not only in this country, but internationally?

Dr. Cable: Yes; some of the strongest comments have come from Australia and Canada, for example. That might merely reflect the personalities concerned, but those countries have similar systems that appear to work well, and the people who have had experience of running them continue to express worries about how the British legislation is couched. That issue has yet to be satisfactorily addressed.

For my party, there are four remaining areas of concern about the Bill. The following comments on them will largely parallel what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) has said. All of those concerns have been discussed this evening, so I do not need to rehearse the arguments in detail, but I shall briefly address each one. The most important relates to the pre-release procedures. The Minister’s response is to say that secondary legislation is on its way and that that is reassuring because it will have greater force than a code of conduct operated by the statistics board. Unfortunately, we have no idea what will be in that secondary legislation. We do not know whether it will be an improvement. It might well be an improvement, in which case all the anxieties that people have expressed will be ill-founded and we can all sleep safely and soundly. However, as we have no idea what will be in the secondary legislation, we are not yet reassured.

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When we ended our discussion of the matter, the Minister’s parting comments worried me slightly. In response to points made by Liberal Democrat Members and others about British comparative performance, it was noted that other countries also release data on previous days. So far as I can establish, only two other countries do that, and that is restricted to overnight release and hedged around with great restrictions on the number of people to whom access is given and the number of items for which that provision is granted. Therefore, the Government will have to move a long way in their secondary legislation to provide the sort of reassurance that Members and people outside this House seek.

The second area of anxiety remains in the field of governance, and particularly in the separation of functions—and especially the National Statistician, non-executive members of the board and the scrutiny function. Earlier, we had a frustrating discussion in which the Minister agreed with what we were saying and we agreed with what he was saying, but he said, “At the end of the day, we can’t include what you want in the Bill.” That might be the case for legislative reasons, but I think that the Government might be able to deal with this issue in a satisfactory way and remove it from the list of problematic issues. Let me offer my suggestion. One of the organisations that has expressed concern about the lack of clarity in the governance procedures is the Bank of England. It said that the role of the National Statistician was not clear. If it is possible to do so, it would be desirable to get a letter from the Governor of the Bank of England stating that he has read the Minister’s comments in this House and that he is duly reassured and is now satisfied that the procedures and the demarcation of roles are clear and that there is no further doubt over the issue. If such a letter could be obtained, I do not think that any Member would quibble any further and we would accept that the matter has been dealt with in an entirely satisfactory way and that there is no need to change the legislation any further.

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