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The third area of concern is to do with the issue of the two tiersthe official statistics and the national statistics. We have gone a long way in trying to work with the Government model. They have made a strong case for a certain kind of model that distinguishes the two types of statistics. There is certainly a case for doing that, but we continue to be troubled by the fact that there is no ultimate veto over a ministerial veto. The Minister has the last resort, however much a set of official statistics is being abused at a departmental level. There appears to be absolutely no come-back to ensure that integrity can be restored.
There are various ways in which a mechanism could be introduced. We suggested one this evening, but the Government did not find it satisfactory. However, a mechanism has to be found from somewhere, so that within this decentralised system, abuses of official statistics at a ministerial level can be safeguarded against. As the Bill proceeds to another place, I hope that the Government will come up with a formula for dealing with that problem.
The final set of difficulties is the one that we discussed a few moments ago, and it relates to the role of the Treasury. Like the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, I am not anti-Treasury in any respect. It is has a very high
level of competence and integrity, and I have no particular quarrel with the way the current Chancellor has used his powers in making appointments, so there is no gripe or political point to be made here. The central issue is that the most sensitive Government statistics are those relating to economic data, such as employment and inflation statistics. It is therefore all the more important to ensure that the people who will exercise independent scrutiny and management of statistics are not appointed by the Minister with the most direct interest in influencing those statistics. It is not a question of the present incumbent abusing those powers; it is the potential for abuse that we must safeguard against. Channelling responsibility through the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office was one mechanism, and others have been suggested. However, it is very important that the Government acknowledge this potential conflict of interest.
Like the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, I look forward to seeing the Bill when it returns to us from the other place. I suspect, on the basis of certain comments made by Lords, that there will be some difficult amendments for the Government to circumvent. There are strong feelings about this Bill and I look forward to debating it again when it returns.
Alun Michael: I thought that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) rather undervalued the process that we have been through in Committee and since. We are taking part in an historic event, and I should tell colleagues who were in Committee that I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the debates. Our proceedings have been particularly good, the issues have been intelligently approached by Members in all parts of the House, and the Minister has responded to our concerns.
I particularly welcome Government amendment No. 48, which has been agreed today and makes it clear what statistics are for. There is always a danger of statistics being treated as though they are for statisticiansas though they are merely neutral, arid facts. They are not. The amendment made it clear that the wider public interest has to be served by the preparation, collection and publication of statistics. It made it clear that the purpose of statistics is to inform the public so that they can understand the issues that those statistics reflect, and to inform public service delivery. In other words, their purpose is to paint a picture of reality.
I have never believed it right to say that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. There are lies, damn lies and statistics misinterpreted, misapplied and misused. However, statistics used properly and engaged with can lead to an evidence-based approach to debate in this House and elsewhere, and to an evidence-based approach to public policy. In other words, statistics are not just for statisticiansthey are far more important than that. They are there for all of us who are concerned about public policy.
Of course, the independence and objectivity of statistics is vital and basic, which is why I applaud the Government for introducing this Bill; and of course it is right for Members to be concerned about improving the level of objectivity and independence in order to ensure the integrity of statistics.
I say to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that the level of public confidence in statistics is probably a reflection of the low level of public debate in the media, rather than of the level of trust that can rightly be placed in statistics. In my experienceI am not talking about statistics produced only by the Government, but by local government and many other agenciesthey are generally produced with integrity and are always subject to challenge. We should always ask whether they have been prepared on the right basis and whether the right questions have been asked. The general quality of the preparation of statistics in this country is very high indeed. To treat them with disdain or disrespect, as the media frequently do, or to suggest that they can be interfered with by Ministers, is actually flying in the face of reality.
My particular concern is to ensure that statistics are fit for purpose in terms of their effective usenot just at a national level, but at local and sub-regional level, as well as national and regional levels. That has been the subject of serious debate during the passage of the Bill. I underline again the fact that statistics are not ends in themselves, but the means to such ends as crime reduction, an improved quality of life or better service delivery in health and education, which are vital to our constituents.
I hope that the result of amendment No. 48building the purposes of statistics directly into the Billwill translate into action by the National Statistician and the statistics board. We want an effective focus on ensuring that the relevant national and official statistics provide evidence of local variations and service needs, for example. By local variations, I mean not just local authority areas, but ward and sub-ward level statistics. Those statistics should help us to ensure that, wherever people live, they get the service and response that they need, as reflected in the figures produced.
Very often, those of us who have been involved in public life at whatever level will say, Give me the factsand very often it is difficult to get hold of them because the wrong questions have been asked and the wrong statistics collected. Once the board is appointed, I hope that it will not just ask questions by looking backwardsperhaps to what were important issues of public policy last year or 10 years ago. Actually, the board should press policy makers to look at the statistics and ask questions about next year or the next five, 10 or 20 years. We should be collecting information now that will help to inform public policy for the very long term. That means encouraging the confidence and engagement of the public with facts.
It is a very sad fact that nowadays an opinion expressed in a blog can be repeated by a national journalist on the front page of one of the less responsible newspapers in a way that may appear to give it equal value to the important statistics produced by the National Statistician, the Office for National Statistics and, indeed, by other authorities. I think that undermines the quality of debate about important issues in this country. That is why I believe that this Bill is one of the most important that has come before the House this year.
To provide one example, it has always seemed to me that in dealing with the reduction of crime and disorder it is very important to deal with the facts. Most peoples view of crime and disorder in the local area is informed
by what they see in the local newspapers. Many people therefore think that crime has gone up in areas where it has, in fact, gone down. I recall a recent discussion at St. Mellons in my constituency in which a police representative referred to a slight growth in burglary over the past year or so. When we asked what exactly that meant, it turned out that it was a fairly small increase in burglary, and those who had engaged with the issue over many years knew full well that the level of burglary in the area was far below what it had been 10 years earlier. It is important to be able to make those comparisons. It is also important, when the police and the local authority carry out their obligations to reduce crime in the area, that they know what they are dealing with.
At national level, we have very good crime statistics, which are tested by the figures in the British crime survey, which reflects peoples experience of crime. That tests whether the police statistics actually reflect reality, which is good. However, if that is not carried down to local level, so that people know what is happening in the city and in the local ward, it is impossible for them to be completely sure of what they are trying to do in terms of reducing crime as well as of chasing after offenders.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I think that he is dilating beyond the terms of what is strictly a Third Reading debate. He should be concentrating on the actual contents of the Bill at this late stage.
Alun Michael: The point that I am making, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that the Bill, as amended today by amendment No. 48, makes clear the importance of dealing with the public interest and ensuring that the statistical information informs public policy, so that it can deal with the issues that concern our constituents on a day-to-day basis up and down the country. I believe that that makes the Bill fit for purpose, and that it makes the statistical purposes of the board and the National Statistician fit for purpose in addressing the needs of our constituents, rather than offering an arid and abstract ideal of statistics that is detached from the reality of human life.
Mr. Fallon: First, I want to thank the Minister, who has listened during the Committee stage, even though he did not listen to everything that we said. I am pleased that we have put a definition of public good into statute, and that the points about dismissal for misbehaviour and about the directions have been cleared up. He has certainly listened, and I want to thank him for that.
Of course, serious flaws remain in the Bill. I shall not repeat them at length, but I have identified four, as did the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). First, the board remains a muddle of non-executive and executive members, and that is a problem. Secondly, it remains appointed and funded by Treasury Ministers, just as the existing Office for National Statistics is. That, too, is a problem. Thirdly, there is no full supervisory duty for
the board right across Whitehall. Despite tabling a whole series of amendments, we have not been able to persuade the Minister to include that specific duty. Fourthly, as everyone has said, Ministers will still control one of the most generous and favourable systems of pre-release in the world.
Ministers appear to have started out with reasonable intentions for the Bill, but at some point between the consultation and the drafting, somebody somewhere changed their minds. We have had good debates in Committee and in the House today, but it is interesting that the Minister has been unable to adduce any evidence from systems elsewhere in the world to support the changes that he is making. On the contrary, the countries that have put their statistics on to a statutory basis have done so in a much more independent way than the Minister is proposing today.
The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the Commonwealth countries. I should like to bring to the Houses attention the example of Ireland, where legislation was passed in 1993. The statistics board in Ireland is completely non-executive; it has no role in management. It has an advisory and supervisory role. Its director generalthat is what the national statistician is called thereis appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister and works to the Prime Ministers office, completely independently of any other Government Department. Critically, it is the director general, not Ministers, who deals with the issue of pre-release access, which is limited to a matter of hours. So there are still flaws in the Bill that need attention in another place.
I want to say a quick word about the Office for National Statistics. There is a danger that, while we have admired the plumage, we are forgetting the dying bird. It is clear to meand it is certainly clear to the Statistics Commissionthat the ONS is under huge pressure at the moment as a result of the reorganisation required by the Bill, the imposition of efficiency targets, the relocation to Newport and the preparatory work for the 2011 census, including this years pilot schemes. I am concerned about the multiple effects of those various changes on a small department of state.
To get the new board up and running by April next year will require a huge amount of work and senior management time. Meanwhile the ONS is required to meet challenging efficiency targetsI understand that the three initial targets for 2006 were missed. The modernisation programme is creating enormous burdens for staff. The relocation was mentioned in Committee. About 260 staff have to leave for Newport before next year and the rest by 2010, only a year before the census. In three years time few senior staff will be left in London, so I am concerned about the need to maintain the integrity of the department while all those changes are taking place.
The new board will have primary responsibility for the census, which will be a huge exercise, not least in garnering public support behind such an essential undertaking. The Statistics Commission wrote to the Financial Secretary on 1 February, pointing out that there were
serious concerns requiring the closest attention of those who are responsible for setting the targets for ONS as well as those responsible for meeting them.
I hope the Financial Secretary will bear those concerns in mind as we wish the Bill well and speed its passage through to another House where more attention will obviously be required for some of the flaws we have identified.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I shall be extremely brief, as I cannot share in the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to those who have been involved in the scrutiny of the Bill, because I have not been involved in it, although I have watched it with interest from afar. The problem after the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the patron of the Society of Registration Officers, is that now we all find it much more difficult to say the word statistics.
My approach to the measure has been to watch from afar the commentary and arguments about it, believingas we all dothat we must give the statistical service far more independence than it has previously enjoyed. The underlying philosophy of the Bill is right, and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary was right to draw analogies with other parts of Government where we are trying to do the same thing. However, those of us who believe absolutely in the integrity and independence of the statistics service, who think the issues are more like those relating to electoral boundaries than to Government communications, want to insist on the importance of protecting that service. The test we have to apply is whether the new arrangements give enough independence to ensure that there can be no possible abuse in any foreseeable circumstances and create enough public trust, as we know that traditionally there has not been much trust on that front.
I supported the Government tonight, but I still have questions about aspects of the Bill. Some of them have been put in an extremely helpful, constructive and civilised waywhat a refreshing example that is to some Members who undertake such scrutinymatched on the Government Benches by the Financial Secretarys civilised and courteous behaviour. My questions relate to the test, which will take place not in the serene circumstances of 10 oclock on a Tuesday night, but at moments of political crisis, when huge arguments are raging about the nature of the statistics that are being issued. We need to develop a system that can withstand that test at the most critical times. I have often thought that we needed a statistical ombudsman, who would weigh in when party controversy is raging on statistical issues and who could simply tell us and the great British public what the facts of the matter are.
I am not yet persuaded that we have got everything in the Bill right. I have no doubt at all that the direction of travel is right, which is why I wanted to support the Bill, but I hope that the Financial Secretary will recognise that we may not yet have arrived at the eventual destination. There is still a process to be undergone and I hope that the civilised and bipartisan way in which the Bill has been discussed so far will be continued right through to its final stage.
Stewart Hosie: I welcomed the Bill initially. I wanted to support it enthusiastically, because it ought to have ensured confidence in the statistics that politicians, statisticians, planners, community groups and local authorities all use, and because it ought to have confirmed the validity of statistics that are removed from departmental interference, be that real or perceived. There are good things in the Bill. I am particularly taken with the creation of the new separate publicity hub for the dissemination of statistics once they are published. That is a good initiative and one to be welcomed. However, because there will not be forced adherence to the code of practice for all the key statistics, because all Departments can avoid making key statistics national statistics, and because the Bill will still allow the Treasury to appoint the board, the Chancellor to veto direction and the Treasury to veto the disclosure of data, I fear that the great hopes that many of us had for the new independent board may not be realised, or at least not as quickly as we would have hoped.
We will not oppose the Bill tonight, because the principle of independence supersedes the weaknesses in the detail. However, Members on both sides know of flawed statistics and I am certain that, although we all wish the new board well, we will keep in our sights all the statistics that we know to be flawed and monitor them ourselves to determine whether they improve. This is not something that needs to be included in the Bill, but, to help us to do that, it might be useful if, annually, a Treasury Minister were to come to the House and make a brief statement to comment on the list of designated national statistics that must be published annually anyway by the new board under clause 16. That would go a long way towards reassuring the House that there was not simply a monitoring of the process and of Departments by individual Members, but a clear, united monitoring of the whole process and how it is proceeding by the House. That could be achieved by means of the rather simple mechanism of a statement considering the published list of national statistics, which under statute must be produced every year anyway.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): May I try to expunge from the minds of Members the dreary picture created by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) of, for goodness sake, a dying bird? In Newport, we see the ONS as a phoenix with iridescent plumage that is about to soar to new heights of independence and success. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), we have reservations about the Bill. I think that many of us would be persuaded by the arguments made by our own side and by the Opposition parties and would like to see the Bill improved. But this is the nature of Government. They have decided to give up some power. It is a rare event in politics for any Government to decide not to hang on to power. It is difficult to prise their hands off the lever of power. It has to be done finger by finger, but it is happening.
Andrew Dilnot said that this is the most important Bill in this Parliament and he is probably right. It is on a par with the independence of the Bank of England. I hark back to many years ago when some statisticiansit is a strange word and it is better to say it in Welsh; it is
much easier to say ystadegau than statistics and I would commend everyone to talk about Y Bwrdd Ystadegau if they have trouble in that directioncame to see me as their constituency MP in the late 80s to complain because the then Conservative Government were transferring Government control of statistics from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. The statisticians said that they were worried about what would happen to the quality of their work, given that the transfer was being made to the Department that had the greatest vested interest in fiddling the figures. It is wonderful to see that 10 years in opposition has radicalised the Conservative party to such an extent that it is pleading for more independence. We look forward
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