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Question agreed to.

2 July 2007 : Column 703

Orders of the Day

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 3


Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 3, leave out “Treasury” and insert “Cabinet Office”.

5.20 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 9, 21 to 30, 40 to 64, 66 and the Government motions to disagree thereto, and Government amendments (a) to (qqq) in lieu thereof.

Angela Eagle: The amendments all deal with where residual responsibility for the statistics board should lie. As was said on Report in this House, the Government believe that if the provisions to ensure the independence of the board are effective, the question of who has residual responsibility will become much less significant. As a result, the Government still believe that the board would benefit from having the Treasury as a link with the Government. The Treasury has a strong interest in ensuring that there is a good evidence base, has long experience of working with and understanding statistics, and has a role in co-ordinating performance reporting and monitoring across Government.

We hoped that retaining the link with the Treasury might build further value into the reforms. There has been considerable debate on the issue in both Houses. The Government recognise the strength of feeling on the issue, particularly in the other place. We are therefore prepared to agree to the shift of responsibility in principle. However, for largely technical reasons, we cannot accept the amendments in their current form, so we have tabled some in lieu, which I hope will be accepted in both Houses. The amendments that we tabled are not all strictly consequential on the Lords amendments, so we have tabled a motion to disagree with the Lords amendments. However, I hope that it is clear that we accept the premise of the Lords amendments.

The key difference between the Government amendments offered in lieu and the Lords amendments is that our amendments would confer the responsibility for the board on the Minister for the Cabinet Office throughout the Bill, instead of on the Cabinet Office itself, which is a building, or on the Prime Minister. It is not usual to confer functions on a Department in legislation; the convention is to confer functions on Ministers, rather than Departments. The practice for the Treasury is no different in that respect, because when an Act of Parliament confers functions on the Treasury, it confers them not on the departmental Treasury but on the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury by virtue of the definition in schedule 1 to the Interpretation Act 1978. There is no similar definition
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of the Cabinet Office, so the functions that are to be discharged in the Cabinet Office must be conferred on the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Accordingly, the Government amendments follow convention in conferring the residual responsibilities for the board on the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

For the sake of administrative efficiency, we are also providing that the Chancellor’s current ministerial responsibilities under the Census Act 1920 and section 19 of the Registration Service Act 1953 will transfer from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. That ensures that the board will have to report to just one Minister in respect of its census and related statistical functions, and avoids any possibility of confusion or overlapping ministerial responsibilities. I commend the motion, and the Government amendments, to the House.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): First, may I congratulate the Exchequer Secretary on her re-appointment to the Front Bench? I had the honour and privilege of serving with the hon. Lady for a number of months on the Treasury Committee and I know that she is a forthright and formidable defender of the Government. Her promotion is well earned and well deserved.

May I also congratulate, not just because he is here, the new Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who until Friday guided the Bill from its earlier stages with much skill, expertise and courtesy, which those of us who are interested in Treasury matters have come to expect? I wish him well in his new role.

If the Exchequer Secretary will forgive me, I had hoped last week that the hon. Gentleman would continue as Financial Secretary. On the previous two occasions when we debated the Bill, he agreed to amendments, albeit retabled ones, that I proposed. No sooner had I started preparing for this afternoon’s debate than I learned that he had again agreed, more or less, to the amendments that I would argue for—the new politics, as the hon. Gentleman suggests from a sedentary position. I do know whether that trend was likely to continue. If it was, that might explain why he has moved. Perhaps we can hope that the Exchequer Secretary will continue in similar vein.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, the amendments relate to the residual authority that exists within the statistics arrangements created by the Bill relating to matters such as the appointment of the statistics board, directions, the power to authorise disclosure of information, use of information, and orders and regulations relating to the Bill. The Opposition welcome the move and will not oppose the Government’s amendments.

At every stage the Government’s position has been that the Treasury is the right place for those residual powers to rest, and at every stage Opposition Members from all parties have argued that that was inappropriate and that it would be right for the Treasury to surrender the powers. Finally, last week—the amendments were tabled on Thursday—the Treasury surrendered the residual rights to the Cabinet Office.

Hon. Members may speculate about what has changed in the past week and why a Department that has jealously guarded its own powers from other Departments and expanded its own powers into other
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Departments has changed course. What events in the past seven days could have meant that powers that previously were ultimately in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer are now in the hands, ultimately, of the Prime Minister? We can speculate whether this is part of a general weakening of the powers of the Treasury, or whether the Prime Minister recognised that the enormous powers that have accrued to the Treasury over the past 10 years are not only unhealthy for other Departments, but perhaps not in the best interests of any Prime Minister.

Perhaps the answer lies in the arguments that were made during the progress of the Bill by many hon. Members. I look back at previous debates and see the contributions in Committee from my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), myself, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), all of whom argued that residual power should rest with the Cabinet Office.

Most persuasive of all were the speeches by a number of Members of the other place, especially Lord Moser, who speaks with great authority as a former director of the Central Statistical Office, and Lord Turnbull, a former Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet and Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, who is an astute observer of the way in which the Government work. Essentially, the same argument has been made by all parties: the Treasury, as a major consumer of statistics, has a conflict of interest in performing the role. There is concern about not only an actual conflict of interest, but the perception of a conflict of interest. In the debate in the House of Lords, Lord Moser said:

He also pointed out that the Cabinet Office provides a good base for co-ordinating Departments—a judgment that he based on his experience.

5.30 pm

The argument that we have heard throughout—indeed, we heard it again today from the Exchequer Secretary—is that the Treasury has a crucial role in co-ordinating the reporting of Government performance and monitoring across Government, as well as being involved in statistics. The hon. Member for Wentworth referred to that point in the Public Bill Committee, where he highlighted the role of the Treasury

I do not know whether the Treasury will take less of a co-ordinating role in future, but none the less that argument does not outweigh the argument about conflicts of interest.

The Exchequer Secretary has referred to the strength of feeling in the House of Lords. Whether or not she accepts the argument that the Treasury has a conflict of
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interest in performing those residual functions, is there any suggestion that as the Treasury has surrendered those residual powers it will play less of a role in co-ordinating other Departments?

Finally, the key residual power in the Bill relates to the appointment of members of the board. We have heard a great deal in recent days about an increased role for Parliament in major public appointments. The hon. Member for Wentworth will remember that I asked him in the Public Bill Committee whether at this late stage there might still be a greater place for Parliament in the appointment process for members of the statistics board. I am grateful to the Exchequer Secretary for explaining that the Government and the Treasury accept the purpose behind the Lords amendment. Their lordships’ strength of feeling is clear—this is not the only example where their strength of feeling is clear, and I hope that further concessions will be made—but Conservative Members welcome the Government amendments.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I extend my congratulations to the Exchequer Secretary. A few weeks ago, I found myself debating with her on television and radio, and perhaps I should have taken that as an early warning of what was to come, but she is welcome in her new role. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) on guiding the Bill through Committee and on debating it in a way that we all appreciated. Through his intercession, another key difficulty has been removed, and we have only one remaining difficulty with the Government about the Bill as a whole.

In the same spirit of bonhomie, may I make a correction? The last time I spoke in the House, I mistook the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) for Guy Hands, the equity fund entrepreneur. Although the hon. Gentleman was not offended—I think he was amused—he has asked me to read that correction into the record, not least because if he were thought to be a trillionaire, his party fundraisers would be after him.

There is little to say about the Bill. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) acknowledged that the Government accept the profession’s criticism that the role of the superintending Department should properly go to the Cabinet Office. From the outset, the key point has always been—it was made in the Select Committee report—that the Treasury potentially had a conflict of interest in relation to economic statistics and, at the same time, no particular interest or expertise in the hundreds if not thousands of other national statistics produced by Government, and that it was altogether more appropriate to have a Department that on the one hand was less powerful, and on the other hand had a broader remit. The Cabinet Office meets that description. It is a co-ordinating Department, and were there a serious challenge to the authority of the statistics board, the Cabinet Office Minister could invoke the authority of the Prime Minister. This is a good decision. I appreciate the fact that the Government have listened on this key point and I am sure that we can proceed quickly as a result.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): On behalf of my constituent, Guy Hands, I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for putting the record
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straight. I am not sure that Guy Hands thought that he was in any serious danger of being confused with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), but, if he was, at least the position is now clear.

I congratulate the Exchequer Secretary and the former Financial Secretary on their appointments. Like every other Member who has spoken, I welcome the Government’s change of heart on the issue. I do not think that it was ever a huge issue or that there was any great difference; the Treasury Sub-Committee wrestled with this and in the end came down on the side of the Treasury.

The change that has been made, though, will assist public perception in two ways. First, the Cabinet Office is clearly closer to the heart of Government and to the Prime Minister. It is where the Office for National Statistics was and where the new statistics board should be—right at the centre of Government. Secondly, the overriding argument for me, although it was a close decision, is that it is not the Treasury. Changing the ONS from being an office appointed and funded by the Treasury to a statistics board that was also appointed and funded by the Treasury would not have been a change at all. By moving it to the Cabinet Office, the Government are, late in the day, demonstrating that it really will be a newly independent body, so it is a very welcome change.

Like other hon. Members, I am grateful for the support that we have had from their lordships, particularly from Lords Turnbull and Moser—Turnbull and Moser sound rather like outfitters to the Government—in putting the Government straight on this aspect of the Bill. Above all, we should be grateful to the former Financial Secretary. He said at one point in Committee that he did not have a completely closed mind and that he would think about the issue again. If the change is due to his having done so, I hope that he will continue in future weeks to sit on the Treasury Bench when Treasury matters are discussed.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I, too, welcome the Exchequer Secretary to her new role. She may be aware—I am sure that she has been well briefed by the former Financial Secretary—of the debates that we have had previously.

The Government amendments touch on a number of issues, not least the appointment of members to the board. We had deep concerns about the fact that the member from Scotland was to be appointed by the Treasury, that the power of direction in clause 27 was to be given only with the consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that the powers to disclose to, and from, the board in Scotland also required Treasury consent under clauses 45 and 49. The Government amendments are better than the Lords amendments in one sense. In the other place, there were no amendments on clause 45 as regards disclosure to the board in Scotland; there were amendments only in relation to clause 49 on disclosure by the board in Scotland. At least these proposals are wholly consistent.

Our objection in the first instance was that no power of consent or veto should be given to the Treasury or the Chancellor of the Exchequer in these matters. That was based on the idea that the Treasury, as a key user of
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economic statistics, was the wrong body to hold those powers in the first place. Although giving the responsibility to a Minister from the Cabinet Office does not remove all our concerns from previous stages, it makes the Bill much cleaner. Most important, it sends a clear message to the general public and other interest groups and organisations that use statistics that they are wholly impartial and no longer in the hands—by veto or powers of consent—of the Treasury, which is the major user, especially of economic statistics. I therefore welcome the Government’s amendments.

Angela Eagle: First, I thank all those hon. Members who generously welcomed me to the Front Bench. It is always nice to be appointed to the Front Bench, and a little thrill runs down the spine when realising that one is first up on Monday afternoon. It gave me an interesting weekend of reading all the debates that hon. Members held in Committee and in the other place on the important provisions that we are discussing.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) said that he would not oppose the Government amendments and that he welcomed the agreement in principle, which, again, is generous. He asked about the implications of the transfer. I agree with the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that we are considering a reasonably finely balanced issue, which the Treasury Sub-Committee examined and about which it came down originally on the side of the Treasury. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) referred to the moment in the late 1980s when the Conservative Government switched the then Central Statistical Office to the Treasury in the first place. The House has therefore considered many such issues in the past. The hon. Lady also said that determining which Department—the Treasury or the Cabinet Office—should be responsible was a fine judgment. Clearly, the Government share that view.

In reply to the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, I do not believe that accepting the amendments means conceding the existence of a powerful conflict of interest in the residual ministerial responsibilities for the statistics board resting with the Treasury rather than the Cabinet Office. The most important aspect is that the Bill, the main objectives of which have been widely welcomed, creates an independent statistics board, which can then distance statistics from any perception of interference for political reasons.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that, because the Government have made the concession, they are somehow admitting that Treasury officials are venal and want conflicts of interest, or that the Treasury cannot be entrusted with statistics. That cannot be said of any Department or any Ministers, from whatever party they happen to be. My experience of ministerial office is that statistics are the last thing that we think about because we are too buried in other matters to interfere directly in the way in which a series of statistics are chosen, or when they are compiled and released. Clearly, under the new arrangements, regardless of where residual ministerial responsibilities lie, the new statistics board will perform those duties.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Treasury would have less of a role in co-ordinating Departments. Removing residual ministerial responsibilities for statistics,
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which is quite narrow, will not have a bearing on the relative powers of a finance Ministry in any Government. I suspect that that will stay the same and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will be doing his best to ensure, particularly as the spending review proceeds, that that remains the case.

5.45 pm

On the third issue, the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire asked about board appointments and whether there might be a role for Parliament. Clearly, Parliament will not have an added role and not in respect of the initial board appointments. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the national statistician is a Crown appointment and board appointments will be made by appropriate Ministers—ahead, I believe, of the setting up and going live of the new board in April 2008. A proper appointments process has to be in place for that. It may then be for Parliament to decide—after the non-ministerial department has been established and is up and running—how it wishes to ensure adequate scrutiny of the new department’s activities. I know from looking at Hansard that there were some interesting debates in both Houses and in Committee about how Parliament might most usefully discharge that duty. That, of course, is a matter for this House rather than for the Government to decide.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) was generous in his welcome, for which I thank him. He was supportive in principle, as were the spokesmen for the other two parties. With that, I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 9 disagreed to.

Clause 8

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