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The spin placed on the data when they are first announced can be critical to the news coverage that they receive. Political influence on the process of release is a significant factor in undermining public trust in official figures. The Opposition therefore believe that it is important that the rules governing release of statistics
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should provide for a separation of the two functions of announcing statistical work and commenting on it and justifying ministerial performance. The physical separation envisaged by the central hub—announced on Second Reading by the then Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth—is welcome. However, we have yet to hear much detail on how that hub will operate in practice and whether the board will have the final say over how it operates. We support amendment No. 14 as it would provide a welcome guarantee that the board could specify the people responsible for the release of data and ensure that they are distinct from the departmental officials providing comment on them.

I shall now turn to my second and more high profile point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said in Committee, the Government’s proposal to exclude pre-release rules from the code of practice and the remit of the new statistics board leaves a black hole in the middle of the proposed legislation. The Opposition believe that, if this reform is to succeed in rebuilding trust in official figures, the rules on pre-release access to statistics should be in the hands of the statistics board and the new independent framework established by the proposed legislation, and not left in the hands of Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has a distinguished record on statistical matters going back a number of years. He stated in Committee that the Government approach in the Bill

Lord Turnbull said in the other place:

According to the Government, the thrust of the reform is to put trust in the board to take important decisions on how our statistical system should operate. It is therefore striking that the Government have singled out this element of the rules on statistics as one where Ministers will retain their grip and the political advantages that that gives them.

6.15 pm

The onus is on the Government to show why a special exception needs to be made in the case of pre-release rules when the Bill allows so many other important decisions to be made by the board or the national statistician and not by Ministers. I ask the Exchequer Secretary a simple question: if we can trust the board to take so many important decisions—including on key aspects of how the retail prices index will operate—why cannot we trust it on pre-release as well?

The truth is that certain major Departments are determined to keep control over early access to their sensitive social statistics. They are aware of the value of the in-built advantage they receive from widespread early access to departmental data, sometimes days in advance of publication. That enables them to shape and influence the presentation of figures and engage in a softening-up process. The longer the period allowed for pre-release, the greater the opportunity for political
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mischief through spinning and interpreting the data. That gives Ministers an invaluable tool in the process that Professor Roger Jowell of City university described as “discounting bad news” in advance of publication to divert attention from what might be an inconvenient truth. As the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) memorably let slip in Committee, it enables Ministers to give official statistics the “treatment” that they deem appropriate. That “treatment” generally has more to do with spin than with any urgent policy measures needed to respond to the figures in question. Lax pre-release rules maximise the opportunities for Ministers to spin the figures and push the headline that they want to see in the next day’s papers. Even civil servants without party political motivation are not immune in this respect; they might wish to emphasise certain elements in statistics in order to place their Department in the best, or least unfavourable, light.

The Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society, the statistics users forum, the Treasury Committee, almost every respondent to the consultation and almost all the Back Benchers who spoke in the House of Lords on this issue want pre-release rules to be reformed and restricted and the board to be put in the driving seat on what the rules should be. Charles Bean from the Bank of England also noted the advantages of restricting ministerial pre-release in terms of the public’s perception of the integrity of the statistical processes. The Labour-dominated Treasury Committee—it includes six former Ministers and the Exchequer Secretary herself—concluded that an advance notice period of three hours was generally sufficient. Even the then Financial Secretary acknowledged when he gave evidence to the Treasury Committee that current pre-release arrangements

During the debates in the other place, Lord Moser—because of his unparalleled expertise, his opinion has rightly been prayed in aid repeatedly during the debate on the Bill—said of pre-release:

He said that he viewed pre-release rules as

and stated:

He also pointed out, as I did in Committee, that the rules on pre-release have been relaxed and broadened over recent years. That point has been strongly made by Professor Tim Holt, who is a former head of the Government Statistical Service. Like many others, Professor Holt and Lord Moser pointed out that in the UK we give access to data to more people for a longer period and in respect of more data than in almost every other developed country.

Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Lady accept that some of the changes introduced in the Bill—particularly those giving the board extra powers and directing Departments to establish a more coherent process—will lead to fewer officials having access, standardise privilege procedures across Government and lead to a generally improved situation? Even if she does not think that we are going
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about things in the best possible way, will she not concede that the Government’s plans will lead to a great improvement?

Mrs. Villiers: Unfortunately, only the Exchequer Secretary can answer her question, because the number of people who are given access to statistics will be determined by Ministers after the secondary legislation is presented to Parliament. I cannot answer her question. I hope that fewer people will gain access to statistics days in advance of publication, but I am unable to answer whether that will be the case. Her intervention highlights the very point that I am seeking to make.

The fact that there is an unfavourable international comparison has been mentioned, and it was echoed by Lord Moser’s fellow Cross Bencher, Lord Turnbull. I hope that the House will pay particular heed to Lord Turnbull’s views on this issue, as he clearly has no political axe to grind and his long experience in government gives him great insight into the workings of Government and what Ministers reasonably need in pre-release access. He expressed dismay about how far away we are from international best practice and pronounced the existing arrangements to be unacceptable. The Opposition have accepted the case for the retention of pre-release access, but we are convinced of the need to tighten the rules. Statistics should be allowed to speak for themselves, with the rules strengthened to minimise ministerial interference and pre-emptive spin.

The then Financial Secretary’s announcement on Second Reading that the five-day pre-release period for social data would be aligned with the 40.5-hour period for market-sensitive economic data is welcome—and we welcome the confirmation of that by the Exchequer Secretary this evening—but it simply does not go far enough and will be insufficient to restore trust in official figures. Lord Turnbull and others were right to say that a new norm of 40.5 hours is “completely ridiculous.” According to the evidence of the Royal Statistical Society to the Treasury Sub-Committee, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland allow no pre-release access at all. France allows one hour and Australia three hours, and in both cases access is restricted to a handful of key economic statistics.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks pointed out, it is remarkably difficult to track down the information on who is entitled to what data under the current pre-release rules. One has to find that by hunting through different departmental websites; no centralised site sets out all the data and there is no standardised format to present them.

Angela Eagle: Will the hon. Lady admit that the current confused pre-release system, which led to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) trawling websites—probably late one night—trying to find out what the situation was, will be much improved by the standardisation and transparency of the system that the Government propose? Surely she will admit that, even if they are not precisely what she wants, these are real, lasting and welcome improvements to the current confused and patchy pre-release system.

Mrs. Villiers: I am afraid that I can only respond exactly as I did to the Minister’s previous intervention.
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We simply do not know that, because the board is not to be allowed to set the pre-release rules. We will not know what those rules are until the Minister chooses to submit draft secondary legislation for this House to consider. I hope that we may see a clearer and more transparent way of ascertaining who is entitled to pre-release access, but I am afraid that at present there are no guarantees that that will happen.

This House should also note that allowing the board to decide the rules has the advantage of allowing them to evolve flexibly over time, without the need for new secondary legislation. As I said, it is a concern that the draft secondary legislation has yet to be published. I do hope that it will be forthcoming very soon, if only because it may well assist in resolving any difference of view between this House and the other place.

I turn to three arguments put by the Government in defence of their position during discussion of the Bill. First, they argue that Ministers need a lengthy period of advance notice in order to prepare a policy response. However, neither today nor in previous debates has it ever been satisfactorily explained why Ministers cannot cope with more significant restrictions on pre-release rules, given that their counterparts in many countries get only two or three hours’ notice or no early access at all. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) pointed out in Committee, our civil servants are supposed to be among the best in the world. Many are recruited from the highest echelons of our education system, and I cannot see why the Minister is not confident that they can respond quickly to statistical data, or why they need so much more time than civil servants in other countries. Whatever the case for extensive pre-release for sensitive economic data that might move markets and require advance planning, in order to prevent general release being greeted with instability and uncertainty, such arguments are much weaker for departmental “social” data, in respect of which many of the problems relating to release practices have arisen.

Secondly, the Government have argued that, because a case can be made for retention of pre-release in principle in order to facilitate the orderly running of the economy and of government, that justifies retention of political control over the rules that regulate pre-release. However, that argument simply does not stand up. I know that many in the statistical community would indeed have liked to see pre-release abolished altogether. However, if we give the board the power to set the rules, it would be highly likely, after consultation and reflection, to put forward proposals to retain pre-release—although with, I hope, a significant tightening of the current rules.

It should also be borne in mind that however tough the rules that the board eventually chose to adopt—were it given that option—it would be likely to retain the flexibility to grant exceptional early access to data in the event of emergencies or exceptional circumstances. That has always been the case in the past in this country, and it is the practice in other countries such as New Zealand. In any event, amendment No. 13 blows a hole in the Government’s argument by specifically removing from the board the option to abolish pre-release altogether.

The Government’s third argument is that this issue is so important that Parliament must take the decision.
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Frankly, that is a mere fig leaf. The Minister knows as well as any Member that it is highly unusual for the Government to encounter problems in getting their secondary legislation through the House. What Ministers want in terms of secondary legislation, Ministers generally get.

Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Lady welcome my earlier announcement that we will publish a draft form of the statutory arrangement for consultation with the House?

Mrs. Villiers: I certainly do welcome that, and I hope that publication takes place as soon as possible.

In any event, the underlying thrust of the legislation is to take key decisions on statistics out of the political arena. The Government have never told us what it is about pre-release that is qualitatively different from the rules governing official statistics, and which justifies these rules being treated in a different way. Indeed, their very importance is all the more reason for including them in the new reformed structures, rather than specifically exempting them.

The Opposition do not believe that any political capital should be made from the early release of statistics. We believe that there is a real problem with the Government’s deliberate exclusion of pre-release from these arrangements, which are intended to guarantee that official statistics are produced independently and free of political interference. Retaining ministerial control over pre-release is a shot in the arm for those who are suspicious of Government interference in official figures. If the Prime Minister really wants to make this Bill the next major step in reforming the economic governance of the UK, he should include pre-release rules within the overall reform. If he was serious about change—if he was serious about moving to a more open and honest form of government, and about a break with the Blair years—he would not be clinging to the power to determine pre-release rules. The truth is that he simply cannot let go. Just as the Treasury’s grip on this issue can be removed only on the new Prime Minister’s moving out of that Department, we cannot prise his fingernails off pre-release. He knows the political capital that excessively wide pre-release rules can give, and he simply is not prepared to give it up. That shows that his 10 years of spin and manipulation from No. 11 are likely to be followed by more of the same from No. 10.

Dr. Cable: I very much echo the comments of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). Indeed, we have had a common approach to this crucially important issue, about which we continue to feel strongly, and my colleagues in the other place, particularly Lord Newby, contributed to some of the Lords amendments. This is probably the most important part of the Bill, and the Government’s reluctance to give way on this central principle enormously detracts from what is otherwise very good and positive legislation.

The most crucial and substantive of this long string of amendments is No. 15. It deals with clause 11, which deletes any reference to the board’s having competence in the area of pre-release. Also crucial is amendment No. 12, which would apply the code of conduct specifically to the conditions and timing of pre-release.
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The arguments have been very well rehearsed and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has been through them again, so I need not do so. Rather, I shall simply highlight one or two key points.

The hon. Lady referred to Lord Moser, who is an enormously important and authoritative figure in this field, having established in the 1970s the professional basis for the statistics service in its modern form. He is completely politically impartial and an enormous source of authority on this subject. The hon. Lady touched on some of his comments, and I will quote in a slightly more expanded way his telling comments during the introduction to the debate on amendments tabled in the other place. He said:

That is a pretty devastating indictment from somebody who approaches this issue professionally and without any political axe to grind.

As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, there are many professionals and other people who approach this issue with the interests of the statistics service and the integrity of government in mind—such as the Statistics Commission, which had oversight of it until very recently—and who have argued for no pre-release at all. Indeed, she cited seven countries to which that applies.

The Minister said in her introduction that we should be pleased that there has been some improvement on the status quo, and it is certainly true that producing some sense of order and reducing at least some of the pre-release to 40 hours is an improvement. However, that should be set against a context in which the quality and standard of pre-release have deteriorated greatly over time. To quote Lord Moser again, he said:

That is a scathing indictment of how the system operates.

6.30 pm

In the debates in this place, it is now common ground that there are some arguments for pre-release. It is worth going back to the comments in the other place by Lord Turnbull, who approaches the issue not from an ideological point but from the pragmatic view of someone who operated the system of pre-release. He accepts the principle in limited instances. He said:

That is the Government’s case and the former chief civil servant accepted the Government’s fundamental principle. Indeed, most of us do not dispute that basic issue of theology. However, Lord Turnbull continued:

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