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In this debate, we see two different ways of achieving a system that will tighten and standardise the requirements and methodology of pre-release. On the one hand, the Government have said that they will introduce the system in the form of an affirmative statutory instrument, which will be debated upstairs and which therefore will have the imprimatur of Parliament, rather than by a code of practice that the board can produce, which Opposition Members have suggested is a better way forward. Given the wide welcome that we have for the basic approaches in the Bill to making statistics more independent, this is really the only matter that has raised peoples blood pressure. Reading the controversies that have raged throughout the Bills passage, I am not sure that the Government have been given the proper credit for the improvements that they have suggested in their methodology for creating a system for pre-release.
First, we have the affirmative resolution procedure; secondly, my predecessor has already said that the matter will be reviewed after 12 months to see whether change is needed; and today, I have undertaken to issue the statutory instrument in draft form for consultation, which again allows the structure of the system to be debated.
Mrs. Villiers: The Minister seems to have put forward two arguments today: first that we should continue to operate pre-release in the same way because that is how it has been done for years, which I do not find very convincing, and secondly that what is being proposed is not ideal but is an improvement on what has gone before. Perhaps the Government should make a more significant improvement and give the board the power to decide this critically important question.
Angela Eagle: I do not accept the hon. Ladys interpretation of what I have said. I said earlier that the different approaches to pre-release that we see internationally tend to have grown out of custom and practice, which is why they are of slightly different lengths and why some countries agree in principle with pre-release while others do not have pre-release.
Mr. Gummer: It is true that the time scales are all different, but all have one thing in commonthey are very much shorter. What is it about Britain that makes us utterly different from any other country in the world, in the sense that what the Minister is suggesting is some 10 times as long as most people would have?
Angela Eagle: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also give us credit for reducing that time limit from five days in many instances to 40.5 hours. We can have debates about the length of time, as we are doing with the other place. I am here to oppose the amendments that were passed in the other place and to argue that we should stick with 40.5 hours. But I hope that he will also accept that improvements have been announced during the Bills passage with respect to the current situation on pre-release, and I hope that he will welcome them. He may not think that they go far enough, and that is a matter of opinion, but I hope that he will at least give us credit for the improvements that we have proposed.
Mrs. Villiers: The Exchequer Secretary has said repeatedly that the reduction in the time limit to 40.5 hours across the board is an improvement to the current rules. Why will she not improve them further by reducing the time period further?
I do not want to detain the House for too long on an argument that has raged throughout the passage of the Bill, but I do not accept the Oppositions view that organising the board under a code of practice is superior to an affirmative resolution for secondary legislation under a statutory instrument of the House. A draft will be put out for consultation, as I announced earlier today, so we will be able to consider it. There will not simply be a yes or no vote.
In addition, there is the promise of a review after 12 months when the board is up and running and when we will be able to see how the new, more consistent arrangements for pre-release have worked in practice. That is a robust and welcome improvement in the existing system. The code of practice might be another way of dealing with the situation, but it is not something the Government feel minded to support at present, which is why I oppose the amendment and I hope that colleagues will support our motion to disagree.
We very much welcome the Governments change of heart on the issues covered by this group of amendments. Although the amendments do not go as far as we would like, they represent a significant change to the scope of the Bill and the impact of the code of practice. In essence, our arguments on the code and the
distinction between national and official statisticsthose issues are at the heart of the amendmentshave been simple and threefold.
First, the two-tier distinction between the two types of Government statistics is unnecessary and confusing and could undermine confidence in official figures outside the scope of national statistics. Secondly, if it is worth producing a Government statistic on an issue, it is worth producing it according to the standards of integrity and impartiality set out in the code. There is no reason to believe that the board cannot be trusted to come up with a proportionate and workable approach to the enforcement of the code across the range of different Government statistical activities. Thirdly, to leave Ministers to determine whether the code and the scrutiny of the board apply to their departmental statistics undermines the credibility of the reforms and in effect allows Ministers to decide whether to opt into the new framework or stay out of it.
Throughout the debate, both Opposition parties pointed out that the structure proposed in the Bill gave Ministers too much power to keep the statistics board away from sensitive departmental statisticsto keep official figures in the shadows and prevent light from being shone on the darker corners of departmental statistical activity. In effect, it gave Ministers the right to say to the board, Thus far and no further.
Widespread disquiet was expressed during the consultation about the distinction between national and official statistics and the fact that the code would not be applied across all Government statistical activities. That disquiet came from organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society, the Statistics Commission, the Audit Commission, the Market Research Society, the Health and Social Care Information Centre, and the FDAto name but a few.
Let us return to the comments of Lord Moser, as we have done on a number of occasions. He described the distinction between the two types of statistics as meaningless and actually harmful in relation to public trust. Lord Turnbull hit the nail on the head on Second Reading in the other place when he said that the way in which the Government have approached this issue
can only give rise to suspicion, even if unwarranted, that the Government want either to tolerate a Ryman league of second-rate statistics not covered by the code or, worse, that Ministers want to keep certain statistics in the lower league so that they can get away with things that are outside the disciplines of the code.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 26 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1484.]
I am afraid that the protestations of the former Financial Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), that the prestige of having departmental figures awarded the status of national statistics would motivate Ministers to propose them for inclusion in the boards new independent system of scrutiny and regulation were risible. I cannot believe that even he could have taken that seriouslyno one else has, from the Treasury Sub-Committee onwards.
Thankfully, the Government have gone on a journey. Little by little, in the face of pressure in the House and the other place, they have retreated. At first, they said
that the idea of extending the scope of the code of practice was, to use the then Financial Secretarys words extraordinary, absurd and impractical. He confirmed that the Government expected the code
to be a model of good practice for official statistics, and we expect the board to promote it as such. [Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 18 January 2007; c. 153.]
We then had the formal cave-in when the Government tabled amendments in the other place to remove the formal restriction of the code to national statistics by removing the word national from its title and leaving it as a code for statistics instead. Finally, Lord Davies of Oldham, speaking on behalf of the Government, went still further and said that the code, of course, applied to official statistics
The Opposition warmly welcomed that statement. It was what we had been calling for since Second Reading and what the former Financial Secretary used to oppose. Our amendments are entirely consistent with the statement made by Lord Davies. They would rename the code so that it was a code of practice for official statistics. They would confirm the destination that the Government have reached by making good on the noble Lords undertaking that the code should apply to official statistics. I hope that the Government will accept our amendments, if they intend to fulfil the promise made by the noble Lord.
Our amendments also serve another important function by clarifying the confusion that has crept into the Governments position. The Governments journey was not quite over, even with the statement made by Lord Davies to which I have referred. Despite their starting point of restricting the application of the code only to national statistics, they ended up not only conceding the point on official statistics, but actually suggesting that the code should apply outside government. That would certainly be consistent with a common-sense interpretation of their amendments in the other place that removed the word national from the code and left it as purely a code of practice for statistics.
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