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2 July 2007 : Column 722

He is trying to find a way to reconcile the principle of pre-release with the need to avoid abuse.

The core issue is that of timing. Most of us have recognised that there is a distinction between different kinds of Government statistics, and there is a particular problem with market-sensitive data. Let us try to be as helpful as possible to the Government and look at other countries that are close to the British system and could be used as a model: the Canadians are often cited as using pre-release. The Canadians allow pre-release of market-sensitive data to officials at 2 pm the previous day, but Ministers are allowed it only at 5 pm the previous day, after markets have closed. There is a recognition that pre-release of market-sensitive data to Ministers must be done under tight conditions. In France, the pre-release time is one hour, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned.

The key case is the US, because market-sensitive data there have so much more impact on the world economy than anywhere else. There has been a continuing debate about what happens in the US, because the National Statistical Society told us that the US President has only 30 minutes with the data, but the Treasury researched it with the embassy in the US and found that in certain narrow circumstances the President has access the evening before. That is far more restrictive than anything the Government are contemplating in this country. In terms of the amount of time allowed, the Government are being implausibly and unrealistically indulgent.

In the case of other data, we accept the basic principle of ministerial accountability. Ministers have to be able to explain what has happened on their watch, but that is different from giving them an opportunity to spin and dissimulate. The issue is the length of time, and we tabled amendments suggesting four-hour limits and the Select Committee suggested three hours. We could play with numbers, but what is needed is a professional judgment from the statistics board, and the purpose of the Lords amendments was to ensure that that is where the locus of the decision resides.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a single example that the Government have been able to cite which shows that Britain is different from any other European country, or the US or Canada or any other democratic society?

Dr. Cable: No, there is no such example and no attempt has been made to justify the Government’s approach in that kind of rational, evidence-based way. It has simply been stated as a matter of principle that Britain should have pre-release, because we have traditions and they should be continued. That strikes me as a weak basis for an argument.

Why are the Government so stubborn on this point, given that they have been so reasonable on so many of the other key issues? It is difficult to fathom and the perfectly reasonable question that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) just asked has not been answered. We know that there are intelligent Ministers and officials dealing with this issue in the Treasury, so why cannot they get their heads around this problem?

An interesting theory was advanced in the other place by the Conservative spokesman, who claimed to
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have been told that there was a serious division of opinion between the Treasury and the rest of Whitehall, with an unholy coalition of Ministers in other Departments determined to cling on to the existing pre-release arrangements. Apparently, the Treasury is willing to compromise because it can see the logic of the argument, but the other Departments are not. I do not expect the Exchequer Secretary to confirm that, but it provides a possible explanation for what has been going on. We feel that the Lords amendments are reasonable and we shall oppose any attempt by the Government to reject them.

Mr. Fallon: I, too, support the Lords in their amendments, especially Nos. 12 and 15. Like the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I do not understand why the Government, who have been so flexible and reasonable—they have listened to some of the arguments put forward on other issues, especially moving the oversight of the statistics board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office—find it impossible to move at all on the issue of pre-release. They are completely out of line with any other international practice, not simply on timing—40 hours advance notice as against three or four hours elsewhere—but on control. What is the point of bringing legislation to the House and making the statistics board properly independent if the one issue that is vital to the public perception of independence is then taken out of the board’s control and left in the hands of Ministers, albeit approved by Parliament? Of course, it should be a matter for the board, not simply to supervise, but to regulate, via the code.

If the Minister is wedded to the idea of parliamentary approval, why not give the code some proper parliamentary backing? The present position is nonsense. There are far too many officials involved. If one checks the website, one sees that it has lists of 30 or 40 officials. Many of the lists are out of date, and I would welcome it if they were tidied up. But far more officials, Ministers, private offices and special advisers are given access to such material than in any other country in the world.

The number of hours is also way out of line with international practice. The Government cling to a position that is opposed by everybody else, including the Treasury Committee. We supported tightening up the system, as did former Ministers on the Committee, including the Exchequer Secretary herself. The other place wants it tidied, as do the outfitters to the Government, Lords Turnbull and Moser, who have dealt with such issues before. I cannot see how the Government’s position is tenable. It is for the Exchequer Secretary to worry about whether her own position is tenable, having signed up to a report that recommended the reverse of what the Government now propose.

Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that I resign as soon as I have arrived?

Mr. Fallon: I do not think that the tenability of the Exchequer Secretary’s position is quite as important as the overall issue, which is one of privilege. To have access to the information before the public see it is a matter of privilege, and to leave it to Ministers
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themselves to decide the extent of that privilege is wholly wrong. I hope that we will support the Lords in their amendments.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I wish to speak on this group as it seems the only opportunity to raise an issue that I have consistently raised during the passage of the Bill, which is: on what basis does public confidence in our statistical service rest?

Many Opposition Members who have spoken have suggested that public confidence in our statistical service depends on the way in which statistics are handled by politicians, the pre-release arrangements and so on. That issue is dealt with by this group of amendments. However, I urge the Minister—whom I am glad to see on the Front Bench—to recognise that public confidence is based most strongly on the accuracy of our statistics. I am profoundly concerned that none of the debates on the Bill has focused sufficiently on creating a legal framework that guarantees accuracy.

The sets of estimates, which may or may not be pre-released—on which this group of amendments is mostly closely focused—and which the Office for National Statistics issues between censuses, are in many cases profoundly unreliable. The best way to shake public confidence in our statistical service is by producing wrong statistics. The higher education participation rate is not calculated using ONS statistics because of its flawed estimates of the shape of the class structure of our society.

The grants to local authorities, however, are issued on the basis of those flawed statistics. Members will have heard me describe how my constituency of Slough has been damaged, for example, by the fact that in the 2001 census many migrants to the town did not identify their former address, although it was overseas, and by the smoothing arrangements in the estimation that give towns such as Windsor and Wokingham the same kind of balance of migrants as Slough.

I am at risk of straying from the issue with which this group of amendments is concerned. However, I urge the Minister, in her new responsibilities, to ensure that the legal framework for delivery of our statistical services guarantees not only their independence but their accuracy at every stage. If we do not make sure that they are accurate, we will not have public confidence in our statistics.

Mr. Newmark: I, too, welcome the Minister to her new position. I also invite her, however, to take a new position on ministerial pre-release access.

The Minister will be well aware that when the Treasury Sub-Committee, on which she and I sat, considered the independence of statistics last year, our guiding principle and second recommendation was:

For the record at least, I note that she put her name to that recommendation, and to the whole report, notwithstanding her long, rambling excuse as to why she signed up to it but did not attend half the meetings.
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I remind the Minister, however, that the then Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) told the Committee during evidence that he

He also said:

Actual independence and perceived independence are intimately connected, and the Government’s rejection of the Lords amendments on pre-release strikes a blow against both.

There are concrete examples of abuse from the Statistics Commission. Whether we consider the leak of unemployment figures to the “Today” programme, or the former Prime Minister letting them slip while at a TUC conference, pre-release has certainly had problems. The perception of abuse, however, is more important, as has been acknowledged by the Phillis review and many other commentators since. Lord Moser, about whom we have heard much today and whose name was on the amendments, said that the Government’s approach to the issue was “astonishing”. He said:

Mr. Gummer: The Government’s only argument in defence of their position is that things have always been like this. Is not it odd to find a Labour Government saying that they are doing something because tradition demands it? Why do not they apply that argument to rather more worthy causes?

6.45 pm

Mr. Newmark: It would indeed be good if the Government applied that argument to traditional causes; as my right hon. Friend and I both represent rural areas, one in particular comes to mind. The only tradition to which the new Prime Minister seems to be clinging is that of being a control freak and spin doctor. The longer that he can control and have that information, the more he can spin it to the public as he wishes. That is the tradition that we want to destroy. It would be bad enough if the omission of pre-release were accidental, but it is quite explicit. As I have said previously, it is the black hole at the centre of the Bill.

I am delighted that the Government have given in to Opposition pressure over the transfer of residual ministerial responsibility to the Cabinet Office, although, again, I am rather cynical, because at the head of the Cabinet Office is the First Lord of the Treasury, the ex-Chancellor—I will go no further into that. The Government’s refusal to move on the issue creates the increasing suspicion that Ministers have something to hide by not ensuring that pre-release is subject to the code. The double standards that have been set up between the board’s code of practice and the ministerial code on pre-release threaten to undermine the perception of independence. We are in danger of ending up with legislation to entrench independence that does not address a significant perceived failing of that independence.

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Lord Desai pursued a fascinating line of argument in another place when he suggested that

Will the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to rely on their own incompetence and the cleverness of the Opposition in seeing through spin to justify continued ministerial control of pre-release arrangements?

The truth is that allowing ministerial pre-release access to be controlled by ministerial fiat could not give a more effective shot in the arm to anyone with suspicions about Government interference in statistics. The Minister is merely the latest in a long line of ministerial beneficiaries of pre-release of statistics, but I hope that she will consent to be among the last crop of Ministers to control the rules governing pre-release directly.

Stewart Hosie: On 13 March, at column 217, the then Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), said about pre-release arrangements:

I happen to agree entirely. But the simple fact that a Minister or Department is obliged to comment quickly after the release of a statistical series does not and should never entitle them to access to it for some hours—or almost two days—in advance.

I shall speak briefly, but I hope that I can get to the nub of the issue. To paraphrase the new Minister, she said early in her contribution that because Ministers have to deal with the consequences of the publication of data, or perhaps provide mitigation if something happens, that makes them the people best placed to set the time scales. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may suit them to set the time scales, because, as the previous Financial Secretary said, they will have to respond quickly, so they need a lot of time to work out what they will say, but that is completely back to front. It might suit them if they are going to spin a narrow part of the statistics that look beneficial and can cover a multitude of sins elsewhere in the small print of a document. It might suit them if they want to discount the bad news early, knowing that another announcement is to come the following day or the day after that to cover it up. But if the Minister is serious about transparency and if she and the Department are serious about removing perceptions of spin and cover-up, I have yet to hear an argument today as to why the Government will not hand over the responsibility for the code and the creation of time scales to the national statistician or the independent board.

The Minister in her opening remarks said that there was broad agreement on both sides of the House that, in the case of market sensitive data, there was general agreement that there should be proper pre-release. That is right and proper. But for the normal publication of
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normal social statistics on non-market sensitive economic data, if the Government are serious about transparency, there is no longer any justification for the Government to keep even 40.5 hours of pre-release access to themselves. Therefore, I ask them to look at the matter.

I know that the Minister is new, and I am sure that she has been studying the previous debates in Hansard and reading through briefings by the ton, but this is, as she said earlier, the main point of contention in the Bill. Why do we not go collectively, in the big tent consensual politics, with a new progressive consensus, forward together—and other catch phrases that I cannot quite remember—to deliver the transparency that the House wants, including, I am sure, many Labour Back Benchers, and that the people expect and the users of statistics demand to remove the perception of fiddling, unnecessary spin and discounting of bad news when statistics are published?

Angela Eagle: I know from some of my reading over the weekend that we have had a debate similar to those during the Bill’s earlier stages. No one should deny the good intent of those on either side of the argument to have greater transparency and consistency across Departments in the way in which pre-release is dealt with. The system that the Government seek to put in place, with the alignment of pre-release times to 40.5 hours across market and non-market statistics, and down from five days in some cases, is an advance in consistency and a tightening up of the rules. Hon. Members on both sides of the argument should not deny that the Government’s intention in some of the changes that have been outlined during the Bill’s passage by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey) was to standardise, tighten and reassure the House on these matters.

There is a broad acceptance of the principle—accepted in a variety of instances, some narrower for Opposition Members than perhaps for others—that in some circumstances at least pre-release should happen, which obviously I welcome. There is also an acceptance that a reasonable number of hours should be allowed, but no agreement on the number of hours. The Government have reduced that to 40.5 hours, but there are various opinions ranging from that of the Treasury Committee at three hours, to that of members of the other House at one hour or 30 minutes, and a range in between—from 40.5 all the way down to zero.

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