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Monitoring and reporting of official statistics

Lords amendment: No. 10.

Angela Eagle: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 14 and the Government motions to disagree thereto; Lords amendment No. 15 and the Government motion to disagree thereto and amendments (a) and (b) to the words so restored to the Bill; and Lords amendments Nos. 20, 67 to 70 and 72 and the Government motions to disagree thereto.

Angela Eagle: I suspect that, with this grouping of amendments, we have come to the nub of the remaining points at issue. The amendments all relate to the important issue of who under the new system should determine the rules relating to how and when statistics are released and early access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication—the so-called pre-release access points.

There was much discussion of those matters when the Bill was last before the House. I also know from reading the proceedings that a full and robust debate
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took place in the other place. It is worth noting that, in both Houses and across all parties, there has been an acceptance of the principal case for pre-release access to continue under the new system. Both Houses have recognised that the principal case for pre-release is widely accepted internationally, although I accept that international practice actually varies considerably. All have accepted that Ministers need to account for the implications of policy areas for which they are democratically responsible at the time of release. That is simply the way and it has become expected that Ministers deal with such issues.

We have achieved consensus on the view that Ministers need to be fully informed in order to make accurate judgments as to the need for and form of any mitigating action that might be required in the light of statistical release—for example, to prevent or manage market disturbances and disruption.

That however is as far as our common understanding on the issues appears to go. The Opposition accept that pre-release access must continue, but believe that the board should determine the rules and the circumstances in which it is provided. I do not agree with their reasoning on that. We all accept that Ministers require pre-release access and we all understand why they require it. Surely Ministers themselves are the best placed to judge how much pre-release access they require, and under what conditions they require it in order to be fully informed and in a position to act if required in response to a statistical release.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): If the Government are prepared to entrust many other important decisions about statistics and our statistical system to the board, why will they not trust the board to get the answer right on pre-release rules as well?

Angela Eagle: We shall talk about these matters in detail as we consider the difference between the Lords amendments and the Government’s wish to overturn them in order to maintain a situation in which pre-release access may be decided by Ministers rather than the board. The fail-safes in the Bill will lead us to a pre-release system that is transparent, consistent and widely understood by those who are interested in using statistics in the political world, the economic world and the world of policy and lobbying. Before the Lords amendments, the Bill provided an extremely robust and clear version for pre-release, which I believe that we should maintain.

The Government’s proposals will ensure that Ministers determine by way of order the rules and principles relating to pre-release under the new system. That will not give Ministers a free hand in the matter. In fact, it will put in place for the first time a system aimed at allowing a greater role for Parliament in scrutinising the content of and compliance with the new pre-release arrangements set out in the Bill. Those arrangements will be distinguished from those issues contained in the board’s code of practice, which will be backed by statute.

Unlike the content of the broader code of practice, the new pre-release arrangements that we are suggesting will require the consent of Parliament, or the legislatures in the devolved Administrations, before the secondary
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legislation comes into force. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), suggested on Second Reading that we should have an affirmative resolution statutory instrument to put this system into place in secondary legislation.

Mrs. Villiers: The Exchequer Secretary is generous in giving way again. Would it not be easier to resolve the differences between this House and the other place if the Government were prepared to publish the draft secondary legislation on pre-release? I have been asking for that since Second Reading, but it still has not appeared. Why not?

Angela Eagle: I will deal with this point a little later. I have seen the correspondence that passed between my predecessor and members of the Standing Committee which set out in general the approach that he expected the statutory instrument to take. There is not a draft of it available at the moment, but he has tried to be open about how the system will work. I shall come back to this point shortly, because I want to deal with it logically, but I hope that the hon. Lady will be pleased by what she hears when I get to that point.

Putting new, tighter pre-release arrangements in secondary legislation, rather than in the non-statutory code, would result in a more enforceable, transparent system than the one that operates at present. The board will have a statutory duty to assess compliance with the pre-release arrangements and will be able to remove National Statistics accreditation from any product that it considers not to be in compliance with those arrangements. This amounts to a powerful and public naming and shaming mechanism that has not existed in the past. It will bring more transparency and enforceability to the pre-release arrangements than ever before.

It is not only the board that will be in a position to judge whether the arrangements are being complied with. The arrangements will ensure an important role for Parliament in scrutinising and holding to account all participants in the statistical system. This includes determining whether and how the new pre-release arrangements have been complied with, and how effectively the board has exercised its assessment function. Parliament will also have an important role to play in determining whether the new pre-release rules contained in the secondary legislation will damage, or have damaged, the credibility of the broader statistical system. For that reason, I am announcing today that the Government will consult publicly on the draft secondary legislation before putting it to the House. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s question, and that we will be able to have a positive consultation process ahead of the statutory instrument being laid.

Following the undertaking by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth on Second Reading that we would review the operation of the new pre-release arrangements after 12 months, including assessing whether they were hindering our broader objective of building trust in the statistical system, I believe that this is a welcome arrangement that should reassure those who doubt whether the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring the objectivity and independence of statistics. This reflects the fact that we recognise that the terms of pre-release access have been criticised in the past. Indeed, Opposition Members here and in the other place have been quick to remind us of that in our debates.

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Mrs. Villiers: It seems that the Minister herself has been critical of the rules on pre-release arrangements, as she signed up to the report of the Sub-Committee of the Treasury Select Committee that called for a very significant restriction on pre-release rules. In the case of certain data, Ministers would be given only three hours’ notice under such restrictions. Does she stand by that report?

Angela Eagle: The hon. Lady has done her homework, but not quite well enough. If she had spoken to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), he would have told her that I rarely managed to make the Sub-Committee meetings, which was a great cause of regret to me. This was because, unfortunately, they clashed with the Labour party’s parliamentary committee meetings and, as vice-chair of the party, I had to go and see the Prime Minister every week. I could therefore not attend the meetings of the hon. Gentleman’s esteemed Sub-Committee. Because I never went up to hear the evidence on this area of work, I was more than happy to sign up to the report, but unhappy to table amendments when I had not heard any of the evidence. Yes, it is technically true that I signed up to the report, but I did so simply because I did not want to be disruptive to the work of the Select Committee and the Sub-Committee, which I hold in high esteem. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that, owing to other commitments, I was never able to—

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Angela Eagle: Let me finish my explanation—

Mr. Newmark: It is very long winded.

Angela Eagle: Well, I think that it is important to stress that, when one is on the Treasury Committee, if one cannot get to the Sub-Committee meetings, it is disruptive simply not to agree with things, even if one might have disagreements, when one has not heard the evidence— [ Interruption. ] I am explaining to the hon. Lady that, while I was happy to sign up to the Sub-Committee’s report as a member of the main Committee, I reserved my position on my view of these things.

Mr. Newmark: On a point of clarification, will the hon. Lady at least admit to the Chamber that she was present at the final meeting, in which we reviewed the report in detail, and that, having reviewed the report in detail, she signed her name to the report?

Angela Eagle: That is absolutely true, but I believe in evidence-based policy making, and as I had, unfortunately, been unable to listen to any of the evidence, I did not feel, even as a full member of the Select Committee, that I wanted to disrupt the important work of the Sub-Committee that had been looking into this matter in great detail. If I am being condemned for being a constructive member of the Treasury Committee, rather than a disruptive member, I fear that I must plead guilty.

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Mrs. Villiers: I do not think that there is any attempt to condemn the Minister for trying to be constructive, but we are rather concerned about the fact that she signed up to a document without having read the evidence. That does not instil a great deal of confidence that she is going to run the economy of this country very well.

Angela Eagle: It was not in my job description this morning when I arrived at the Department that I was going to be running the economy of the country, but perhaps that was over the page, in the other bit of my list of responsibilities. I am more than happy to say that I did sign up to the report, simply because reports are better when they are unanimous. The Treasury Committees, like all Select Committees of the House, are more effective if they do not work on party political lines. Given that colleagues on the Treasury Committee from both sides of the House had done a lot of the work, I was more than happy to sign up to the report, rather than do a blocking job and table a load of amendments when I had not personally been there and been able to challenge and question the witnesses. That would have been churlish, wrecking behaviour, and I was not prepared to do that, but if the hon. Lady wishes to point out such inconsistencies, she is entitled to do so—and, indeed, she has done so.

6 pm

Stewart Hosie: The hon. Lady said a few moments ago that she believed in evidence-based policy making, and that is very sensible. I also believe in evidence-based law making, so why can we not have the draft secondary legislation if we are all to share in this new evidence-based approach to policy and law making?

Angela Eagle: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have heard me announce that we will publish the draft statutory instrument for consultation with the House before laying it before Parliament. That is not a usual procedure, but it certainly concedes his point on this issue. We are trying to reach a workable and reasonable consensus on what has been a point at issue; indeed, this has probably been the only point that has caused any trouble between the two sides of the House as the Bill, which has been widely welcomed, completed the political process in this House and the other place.

Past problems in the area of pre-release turn on the mistaken perception that the provision of pre-release access provides an opportunity for Ministers to interfere with and manipulate statistics before their release. That is not in fact the case, but we clearly need to do more to convince the world of that lack of interference if we are to build trust in statistics. That is why the Government have announced that, under the new system, the pre-release arrangements will be tighter, more enforceable and more transparent than they have ever been.

The length of pre-release access for Ministers and officials will be aligned, as right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House know, at 40.5 hours for both market and non-market-sensitive statistics. That will be provided for in secondary legislation, which will also contain rules and principles to guide Departments in restricting the number of
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people who receive pre-release access and the number of statistical series for which it is granted. Importantly, that is all that will be reserved for Ministers to determine—pre-release, and only as defined narrowly in the Bill.

Mrs. Villiers: I again thank the Exchequer Secretary for giving way; she has been very generous on this point. From what she is saying, it seems that the Government are not contemplating any significant restriction on the length of pre-release access. Will she explain, then, why Ministers in this country need so much longer to react to statistics than Ministers in more or less every country in the developed world?

Angela Eagle: I suspect that these issues have grown to be the way they are because of custom and practice. If the hon. Lady looks at the changes made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, in aligning market and non-market statistics and bringing the time for pre-release for all statistics down from as much as five days to 40.5 hours, she will see that we have made significant progress. I understand that some people wish there to be no pre-release whatever, while others wish it to be only an hour or a couple of hours. That is an issue of the length of time, and the Government have decided that 40.5 hours is an appropriate length of time in this instance. That is a significant improvement on the current situation, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome that.

All other aspects of release practices, including those identified in some of the amendments before us, will be for the board alone to determine, rather than for Ministers. For example, it will be for the board to lay down rules and principles relating to the timing and regularity of statistical releases, the way in which statistics must be released and the persons responsible for issuing that release. The importance of that should not be underestimated. Clearly, the perception of ministerial interference in statistics flows partly from the mistaken belief that Ministers intervene in the timing of releases. Under the new system, the board will be responsible for determining rules in relation to release, timing and practices; those will not be determined by Ministers.

Under the new system, the board will have a statutory duty to assess whether those rules have been complied with. We expect the board, in undertaking that assessment, to examine the conduct and practices of every single person involved in the production and release of any given statistic, and that includes Ministers, press officers, briefing officials and everyone in between. If, in that assessment process, it is found that a Minister or an official had tried to move a scheduled release time, for example, for a political reason, the board would have a duty under the Bill to remove that product’s National Statistics accreditation and to report its findings publicly. If that transpired, I expect that the House would also be moved to scrutinise the actions of the Minister or the Department in question. That is transparency, and it would make it almost unimaginable that a Minister would interfere for political reasons, given the consequences that would be likely to follow such interference.

Despite all that added transparency and the enforceability points that go to the board, and despite the fact the
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board alone is responsible for determining rules relating to the important issue of release practices, the Government will go further. That is why we have announced that we are committed to the creation of a central publication hub, through which all national statistics will be released under the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary. The hub will be an integral part of the overall package of release practice reform, and as with other release practices, the board will be responsible for the development and oversight of the hub and how it works.

To summarise, the Government remain firmly persuaded that our package of reforms in this crucial area is the right way forward. We have provided for pre-release, and only pre-release, to be reserved for Ministers to determine. That reflects the fact that only they can judge the amount of access and the conditions under which it is granted, such that people are fully informed and in a position to act if required following a statistical release. We will reduce the amount of access from up to five days, as now, to 40.5 hours for all statistics. We will provide in secondary legislation for rules to guide Departments in restricting the number of people who receive access and the number of statistics series to which there is access. We will call on the independent board to establish a central publication hub. Those reforms will result in a tighter, more transparent and more enforceable system. I cannot accept the amendments made in the other place, and I urge the House to disagree with the noble Lords on this matter.

Mrs. Villiers: I start by congratulating the Exchequer Secretary on her appointment and by welcoming her to the Front Bench again. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), the shadow Economic Secretary, I pay tribute to the work done by her predecessor, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), in minding the Bill. Although in some respects he and I disagreed fundamentally about it, he worked hard on it and tried to improve it as it went through its parliamentary process.

The Opposition are pleased to support the Lords amendments in this group on release and pre-release. I would like to look first at Lords amendment No. 14, which relates to the board’s power to set the rules determining the release of Government statistics. Although it is often overlooked in the heated debate on pre-release, ensuring that the principles of objectivity and integrity govern the release of statistics is probably as important as pre-release, if not more so.

Lords amendment No. 14 specifies that the code should cover the location from which the release is made, the time at which it should be made, and the persons responsible for it. It addresses what Professor Tim Holt of the Royal Statistical Society described as

whereby the responsibility for explaining the figures and defending departmental performance is vested in the same people.

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