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I have said that our crucial distinction is between national and official statistics, but the board will identify clear criteria for a code that ought to obtain with certain other statistics which may not be official but nevertheless may be of significance to the public realm. The board will be looked to to set the standard by which everything else is judged.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 18 June 2007; Vol. 693, c. 45.]
That announcement caused consternation in the statistical community. It came totally out of the blue. After lengthy consultation and extensive debate, the Government had given no indication whatsoever that they intended the code or the board to have relevance outside the sphere of the Governments statistical work. Richard Alldritt of the Statistics Commission said that the Government had got themselves
in a tangle on this.
Lord Jenkin referred to a number of concerned statisticians in the debate on this matter in the other place, including the institute for economic and social research at Essex university. The institute warned of the danger that developing a code that would apply to
statistics outside the Government would risk diluting the necessary principles that should apply to all official statistics. The need to remedy that confusion is another of the reasons why the Opposition have tabled amendments to the Lords amendments.
There has also been a partial capitulation from the Government on the legal enforceability of the code. When the Bill was published, it was striking that it did not oblige anyone to obey the code of practice, despite the Governments promise to give that statutory backing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) memorably put it, the Bill gave the code
fewer teeth than the highway code.[ Official Report, 13 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 192.]
We were told that the board would have the power to promote the code as a standard for all official statistics, but the Government failed to say how they would enforce the code. We have argued that the board should be given regulatory and supervisory powers, which, as the Government admitted in Committee, the Bill did not give it. Under the Bill, as it was drafted, the board would have had, to use the then Financial Secretarys words, only a softer functiona power to audit and assess, not to supervise or regulate. As Dr. Ivan Fellegi, one of the worlds leading statisticians, has pointed out, that would be not very different to the Statistics Commissions power to name and shame. The power would effectively be only one of exhortation.
Obliging people to obey the code would give the board real authority to ensure that good practice was observed right across government. While we would have preferred the code to bind all in government who produce statistics, Lords amendment No. 17 is an important step forward because it at least imposes a duty to obey the code on those who produce national statistics. The Government finally seem to be getting the point that we have been making from the outset: the code should be applied to the people who produce statistics, rather than confined to a means of assessing particular sets of figures.
It was welcome that Lord Davies made it clear in another place that the duty to obey the code applied not just to those responsible for producing national statistics, but all those who handled them, such as people preparing briefings for Ministers, and press officers. That is vital because many of the problems in the system relate to such officialsthe policy and press officials in charge of interpreting and disseminating policy not the statistical boffins compiling the data.
The Governments journey has included important changes to the boards role in initiating the assessment process to decide whether a particular set of figures can qualify for the kitemark of a national statistic. We have made the point again and again that it was a fundamental flaw in the proposals that Ministers could keep their departmental figures out of the new framework for independent statistics merely by refusing to nominate them for assessment by the board. In such a situation, the boards only power was to name and shame the Minister in question. Its powers would have been no stronger than those of the Statistics Commission, which, valuable though its work has been, everyone agreed needed to be strengthened. We welcome the Governments about-turn on that vital issue. The process set out in Lords amendment No. 19 is rather cumbersome and does not go as far as we
would like because it does not give the board unfettered power to initiate an assessment of whether a statistic complies with the code, but by formalising the process and requiring a Minister to answer to Parliament if he or she refuses to nominate a statistic for assessment the board will have much greater say in whether an assessment can be initiated. The Lords amendment represents a significant change to the Bill because it addresses a critical question.
The then Financial Secretarys key argument for maintaining a two-tier system was that some statistics were more important than others. The decision on nomination effectively determined the borderline between the two types of statistics. As such, the decision was simply too important to be left only to Ministers. The then Financial Secretary acknowledged in Committee that that issue
cuts to the heart of the proposals in the Bill and the concerns that some have expressed. [Official Report, Statistics and Registration Service Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2007; c. 207.]
We agreed with his analysis, which was why we pressed the point throughout our proceedings on the Bill. He said he expected the new system to evolve over time and embrace a wider range of statistics. Under the Bill as originally drafted, the pace of that evolution would have been determined by Ministers, even though the reform was designed to reduce their power and influence. Lords amendment No. 19 will give the board more power to drive the evolutionary process to which the Minister referred. However, it also places a burden on Parliament to back the statistics board and to force Ministers to yield their statistics for proper scrutiny.
Leaving the board with inadequate powers on figures outside the scope of national statistics would leave a big hole in the legislation. As the House might recall from our earlier debates, a number of important Government figures are not national statistics. Indeed, Lord Davies admitted that the category of national statistics was very limited and that far more than 20 per cent. of official statistics fell outside the scope of the national statistics system. We believe and have argued throughout that there is no reason why important departmental figures should be subject to a less onerous regime than others, particularly where departmental figures have given rise to more problems than those produced by the Office for National Statistics. For example, according to the Library, since the 2000 reforms there has been a net increase of only 25 national statistics. We believe that there is no sensible reason why statistics on, for example, cervical cancer screening in Wales, small business survival rates, or armed forces medical discharges, which are not national statistics, deserve less scrutiny than the cider survey or the monthly statement on bricks, blocks and cement, which are.
We hope that the board will use the process set out in amendment No. 19 to fill the hole in the legislation and to extend the range of statistics that are subject to the full rigour of the reforms set out in the Bill. We hope that the board will receive the strong support and encouragement of the House; it will certainly have ours.
I simply wish to acknowledge that this is an important area of debate and that the basic differences
between the Government on the one hand and Opposition Members and the statistical community on the other have largely been reconciled. I accept that considerable progress has been made, and the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who was formerly the Minister with responsibility for the Bill, contributed substantially to that. There are essentially two overlapping issues. The first is whether it is useful to distinguish between official and national statistics. The purists view is that one should not distinguish between them as they are equally importantor rather, they are in a continuum of importanceand it is not helpful to make an arbitrary distinction.
In our exchanges in the House, we accepted that there is a rough hierarchy and that some statistics are important and merit being described as national while others are less importantindeed we are talking about hundreds if not thousands of statistics. I certainly accepted the distinction itself as conceptually sensible. The key issue was whether Ministers should have a responsibility for deciding what statistics fall into what category. Concern was expressed in the House and by the Opposition in the other place that if there were not proper safeguards in place through the code, official statistics would be misused by Ministers. My understanding is that that difficulty has been overcome and that, through the board, all statistics will be subject to the proper discipline of the code. That has largely met our concerns.
A subsidiary issueit may just be a misunderstanding, and it may just have arisen from bad draftingwas briefly alluded to by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers): inadvertently, the Bill now covers large areas of statistical information that are not the product of Government at all. One of the examples mentioned in the other place is particularly close to my heart because I used to work in the oil industry. One of the main tasks of my opposite number, the chief economist of BP, was to produce the set of oil statistics that are the gold plate for the industry, and that are accepted as the best source of oil and gas information in the world. The question has been asked whether those statistics will be subject to the legislation. After all, they are produced voluntarily to enhance the reputation of that company, and are not in any sense a requirement so it would be odd if they were subject to the legislation. However, since the question has been asked, it would be helpful if the Minister clarified whether such privately generated statistics, which are immensely useful but neither official nor national, are in some sense covered by the Bill, whether inadvertently or intentionally.
I am pleased about the general welcome that has been given by both Opposition parties to the progress that has been made. I wish the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) had not described that progress as retreat, capitulation and an about-turn, and that she had not issued press releases that talk about U-turns. It does not encourage the Government to think about being more flexible during the parliamentary process when as soon as they
employ such an approach they are treated to such epithets. I prefer the interpretation of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and his welcome for the considerable progress that has been made. If the hon. Lady used that type of language, we might be able to make even more progress in coming to a consensus on the important matters that we are discussing. Being accused of retreat, capitulation and about-turns does not always encourage the Government to listen to debates in the way that they ought.
I ask the House to resist the hon. Ladys amendments to the Lords amendments for reasons that I will come to shortly. Instead, I ask the House to support the amendments from the other place, which clarify the Governments intention on the question of scope of the application of the boards code of practice and compliance with it. Those amendments will enhance the role of the board in the assessment processan issue to which the hon. Lady rightly referred.
The amendments from the other place are aimed at addressing a number of concerns about the coverage of the statistical system that will be established by the Bill and will clarify and further underscore the Governments intentions as regards a number of matters relating to the code of practice. They will also address the issue of official and national statistics, which I believe will add even more transparency to the new statistical system we are creating. Our approach reflects the desire that the definitions used in the Bill should serve the statistical system and all those who use its outputs well, both now and in future. As such, the Government are concerned to ensure that the Bill includes as broad and as flexible a definition of official statistics as possible. I ask the House to consider the fact that legislation on statistics was last enacted in 1947. Now, 60 years down the line, we have another scintillating Bill, which hon. Members have spent many hours considering, so it may well be prudent to try to future-proof it in case it takes another 60 years to get another legislative vehicle before the House that we can use to change or improve our statistical systems.
That is why, in their definition of national and official statistics, the Government have tried to future-proof the Bill, rather than to narrow it and make it inflexible. There may not be many other legislative vehicles around in which we can iron out any inflexibilities that we inadvertently leave in the Bill, hence the wider definitions that feature in it.
Until the Bill, there had never been a legal definition of official statistics, and there is no agreed international definition, so at the start of the Bill-drafting process it was not immediately clear what the best way was of defining the term. Initially, it was thought that it could be defined as Government Statistical Service output, but the Government wanted to avoid a definition that would unnecessarily limit the role envisaged for the board, given developments in statistical production, activity in Government, and the need to anticipate what might happen in the next 60 years. Members of the Government Statistical Service are no longer the sole producers of statistical information within Government, and many of the key statistics that the public use to judge the Governments performance come from administrative sources.
The Government therefore concluded that the definition of official statistics should be as wide as possible, and should include all statistics produced by the 200-plus Government Departments and agencies, the devolved Administrations and
any other person acting on behalf of the Crown.
Such a definition meets our goal of being both very wide and future-proof. As we opted for a very wide definition, it was necessary for us to focus and prioritise the application of the formal assessment against the code. That assessment is established in clauses 12 and 13. The Governments aim is to help to ensure that greater resources are devoted to those statistics that have relatively greater importance. That is where the idea, raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham, of a rough hierarchy comes in. When it comes to the question of what is a national statistic and what is an official statistic, many hon. Members have had good fun with the inconsistencies around the edges. At the weekend, I read about egg bulletins and all sorts of other things that I had not realised existed. But clearly, in general, there is a rough hierarchy and it is possible to identify the most important statistics to represent properly what is going on in the countrys economy and socially. It is fairly easy to see what they are, and I am glad the rough hierarchy has been recognised in the House.
It is important that we allow the new board to prioritise which areas it should consider for assessment first. If the board were legally bound to undertake formal assessments of the vast and ever expanding range of official statistics, that would not be a sensible way forward, in view of the likely resource implications both for the board and for those being assessed. I expect that added credibility will come from securing independent endorsement of the quality and integrity of a set of statistics.
The code of practice has a special role to play in relation to the assessment of national statistics, but the Government have always intendedI am glad to clarify this through the Lords amendmentsthat the code of practice should be used across all official statistics, at least as a guide to best practice, to allow an assessment to be made of statistics in the official pool, rather than the national statistic pool. Amendments Nos. 11, 16, 18, 31 and 39 will change the name of the code to the code of practice for statistics. The change is aimed at making that intention more explicit, clarifying that the code applies not only to national statistics, but to the broader range of official statistics.
The Government have decided that the legal name for the code should be the code of practice for statistics, which expresses succinctly and clearly exactly what the code is for. As we heard, Opposition Members tabled amendments in lieu of the amendments from the other place, which would alter the name again, to the code of practice for official statistics, which I must resist. As I have just said, the code will be applied across official statistics, but will have a particular role in relation to national statistics, as the code against which the board will assess statistics to determine their compliance, and whether or not to award national statistics status. Calling it the code for official statistics may be confusing and could imply that it refers only to those official statistics, and not to the subset that are national statistics.
Mrs. Villiers: The Government have consistently resisted the argument that we should get rid of the two-tier system altogether because it causes confusion between official and national statistics. If they are confident that the man on the street can draw that distinction with ease, why are they worried that the title of the code of practice might cause confusion?
Angela Eagle: Dancing on the head of a pin occurs in this debate. It is clear that there is an acceptance in general, even if the hon. Lady does not share it, that there is a rough hierarchy of statistics. That grew out of the 2000 reforms. The national statistics now contain most of the most important series of statistics that have descriptive and research power with respect to how the country is doing, although I accept that around the edges there might be a little blurring as to whether a statistic should be national or official.
The important thing is to indicate to the board that there should be a priority, and for accreditation purposes that should lie, naturally, with the most important series of statistics, which in almost all cases are encompassed in national statistics rather than official statistics. The changes and the Government amendments in the Lords, which I support, indicate that the board can search more widely if necessary, and Ministers can add to the tally of national statistics if they believe that that is reasonable.
I accept that there has been a great deal of discussion in both Houses. The changes that were made in the House of Lords clarify the scope of national statistics and allow the board to look more widely at official statistics. The introduction of amendments that place an active duty on those who produce statistics to comply with the code, which was previously implicit, have made that explicit.
The Government amendment places a duty on the board to comment on any official statistic that is problematic, and the Department must respond and lay before Parliament the reasons it will not change the way in which such statistics are compiled if the board has complained about their veracity or the technical way they are produced. That is a powerful new lever for the board, which the hon. Lady acknowledged in her opening remarks.
Mrs. Villiers: I do not propose to press my amendment to a Division. I hope that Minister, given the way in which she called on me to respond, will take that as a consensual and constructive move on my part. I am concerned that she was wounded by the strength of the language that I used. She made it plain that the amendments were motivated by a constructive spirit on the part of the new Government. I suspect that the compromise amendments tabled by the Government in the House of Lords might have had something to do with the fact that they had just lost on pre-release by 196 votes to 133 and were facing impending defeat on these matters as well. The Minister can hardly claim that it was a particularly generous move, in the light of the defeat that they faced. On that note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
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