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national statistician: executive functions

Lords amendment: No. 32.

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

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 33 to 38.

Angela Eagle: I seek the support of the House for the amendments from another place which seek to clarify the roles of the executive office under the national statistician’s leadership and the head of assessment. Before I address the amendments, it may help Members if I remind them of the core governance model adopted in the Bill and why the amendments brought forward from another place help to deliver the clarity that we all seek. The Government are committed to the governance structure established in the Bill, in which the single legal entity charged with delivering on the functions contained in the Bill is the statistics board. We believe that a single structure is the most effective way to deliver greater independence for the ONS and independent scrutiny and oversight of the statistical system as a whole, while avoiding the creation of competing centres of statistical expertise.

The Bill provides that single institutional structure with a board that is legally responsible and accountable for all the body’s functions. In line with the principles of good corporate governance, the Bill establishes that the board will have a mix of executives and non-executives, although we are legislating to ensure that there will always be a clear non-executive majority.

In common with other Departments and public bodies, professionals acting under the board’s direction will, we expect, discharge the executive business. However, the legal authority to act on behalf of the statistics board flows through the board, and the board must therefore retain authority to act in relation to matters for which it is accountable. The question of clarity of roles has nevertheless been a concern in both this House and the other place during the passage of the Bill, and the Government have recognised that the Bill could benefit from the key executive roles being more clearly set out on the face of the Bill. The Bill as drafted, augmented by the amendments before us today, makes it clear that the key functions of the board will be carried out by executives under the leadership of the national statistician and the head of
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assessment, while the legal entity that is ultimately responsible for those functions is the board collectively.

The broad thrust of the amendments is to give even greater clarity to the operational role of the national statistician and the executive office with respect to both the board and the head of assessment. Amendment No. 32 removes the existing references in clause 29 to the executive office, and amendment No. 35 inserts a new clause in their place explicitly to set out those of the board’s functions that will be undertaken by the executive office under the leadership of the national statistician. Those include the development and maintenance of definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for official statistics under clause 9, the production of statistics, such as the retail prices index, under clauses 18 and 19, and the provision of statistical services under clause 20.

The other amendments are designed further to emphasise what has always been our intention—that within the single statistics board structure, there will be a clear separation in the production of statistics under clause 18 from the assessment function established in clauses 12 and 13. That reflects the need to avoid the clear conflict of interest that would arise if a person who was responsible for producing any given statistic also had a role in determining whether, in producing that statistic, the code of practice had been complied with. Clause 30 has been included to ensure that such a situation could not arise, following interventions on the matter in Committee in the other place, where the Government undertook to re-examine the drafting to see whether our intention could be made clearer. The result of that re-examination is this group of amendments, the aim of which is unequivocally to confirm and clarify on the face of the Bill the separation between staff working on the assessment of statistics and those working on statistical production.

Mrs. Villiers: At the outset, I want to put it on record that I welcome this group of amendments.

Throughout the debate, the Opposition have expressed concern about the complicated institutional structure established by the Bill. We have pointed out that the Bill blurs the function of the national statistician with that of the board, which gives rise to three concerns. First, it creates confusion as to who does what and who accounts to whom. Secondly, vesting production and scrutiny functions in the same institution, the board, gives rise to conflict of interest problems, which could undermine confidence in the new system. Thirdly, it gives insufficient weight to the importance of the role of the national statistician and fails to give sufficient detail on what that role should involve.

Again, we welcome the Government amendments, which are a step in the right direction. We appreciate that this is a difficult issue to get right, and there are various structures around the world covering how statistical offices operate. The amendments flesh out the Government’s underlying idea that the production functions attributed to the board will be carried out by an executive office headed by the national statistician. Essentially, the executive office will carry out the role now broadly performed by the ONS. The amendments give greater clarity to the separation of functions within a unitary board structure, providing for a clearer delineation between the production functions as the
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remit of the national statistician and the executive office and the scrutiny and executive functions, which will be carried out by the head of assessment.

As with the other Government amendments that we have considered today, a number of issues are still unresolved. We remain concerned about the blurred lines of accountability in relation to the new structures. The board will still act as judge and jury where a complaint is made about the production of ONS statistics or statistics that are currently produced by the ONS. Where a complaint is made about a decision made by the national statistician or her executive office, the complaint will be made to the board. In a very real sense, however, the board will have been responsible for the decision in the first place, which raises the danger of undermining confidence in the board’s ability to take an impartial decision on whether the complaint should be upheld, particularly where it decides to back the judgment of the national statistician.

If the chairman of the board were to rule against the national statistician and issue a rebuke, he would be in the embarrassing position of issuing a rebuke to himself as the chairman of the body responsible for the decision in the first place. We also worry that the loss of the independent watchdog, with the merger of the Statistics Commission with the ONS, will remove one of the existing safeguards in our statistical system and could be seen as a step backwards in the quest that the Opposition and the Government share to secure independent statistics in which people can safely place their trust and confidence. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the incredibly valuable work of the Statistics Commission since its establishment in 2000, and I also pay tribute to the work done at the ONS.

The Government have never satisfactorily explained how the national statistician can be chief executive of the board, when a major function of the board is scrutiny and assessment, in which we all accept that it would be inappropriate for her to be involved. We continue to regret the Government’s rejection of our amendments, which would have made it plain that the national statistician is chief executive of the executive office and not chief executive of the board as a whole.

The Government have not adduced an example of a structure genuinely comparable to the one that they are establishing. As the then Financial Secretary more or less admitted in Committee, we are in uncharted waters as far as the model chosen by the Government is concerned. We can only hope that the quality and abilities of the board and the national statistician can develop what Baroness Noakes described as “successful workarounds” in making the new framework operate successfully.

Lastly, I want to repeat on record that I wish that the Government had taken this opportunity to articulate and strengthen the role of the national statistician. After all, as the Exchequer Secretary has said, statistics Bills do not come around very often. I do not know whether it will be another 60 years before this House again has the chance to discuss official statistics, but it could be some time before there is a major reform of the statistical system.

It is unfortunate that the Government have missed this significant opportunity to encode in statute some
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important functions for the national statistician. These include providing co-ordination and planning of our decentralised statistical system, which it so desperately needs, and the vital task of providing the professional leadership that government statisticians need. When Ministers or policy officials try to push them around or misuse or spin their statistics, the statisticians need a heavyweight figure to back them. The success or failure of this reform in restoring trust in official statistics is inextricably linked with the status and authority not only of the board but of the national statistician.

Although it does not have the highest profile, few issues are more important than the health and integrity of our statistical system. Without accurate data on the state of our economy and our country, we can neither hold the Government to account nor take well informed policy decisions. Without accurate statistics, the policymaker is in effect like a doctor left unable to take his patient’s temperature or blood pressure. Partial or misleading statistics leave Government and citizens alike groping in the dark and can lead to serious mismanagement of critically important decisions for our nation’s future. That is why independent statistics are a key part of modern economic governance, and that is why they form a key part of our triple lock to entrench macro-economic stability in this country. I hope that the reforms will help to remedy an increasingly serious lack of trust in official statistics which has intensified during the 10 years this Government have been in office.

8 pm

Angela Eagle: I do not accept for one moment the final assertion that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made about trust, but I thank her for being broadly supportive of the changes that we are discussing; that is welcome.

The hon. Lady said that she wanted to get rid of the national statistician as chief executive of the statistics board, as well as enhancing the position of the national statistician in a more general way. That is a rather contradictory approach. I assure her about the independence of the statistics board in its assessment functions. She asked how it could really be independent as the board responsible for assessment and production of statistics. With the strengthening changes that we set out in the Lords, and in the general structure of the Bill, the Government have included mechanisms that clearly separate production and assessment.

There will be a head of assessment who will be appointed by the non-executive board members. Under clauses 5 and 29, he or she will be the board’s principal adviser on assessment issues. The head of assessment will lead the staff working on assessment issues, who cannot work on statistical production and, under clause 30, will report separately via the head of assessment directly to the board. Decisions on whether to approve something as a national statistic cannot be delegated from the board; it must take those decisions itself. Under clause 30, the national statistician cannot therefore take part in decisions about the award of a national statistics designation for any statistics produced by his or her office. It will be in the board’s interests to ensure that the quality of all statistics is high; that is part of its objective. It will clearly apply the same standards in conducting the assessment of
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ONS statistics as it will for any other body. I hope that the hon. Lady will rest assured that the separations of powers within the structure are robust and are highlighted throughout the Bill.

As for whether the national statistician is somehow having her role downgraded, as the hon. Lady knows the new post of national statistician will be a Crown appointment, as set out in clause 5. Clause 28 gives the national statistician the power and prestige that they will need to do the job. The board has to take account of the advice of the national statistician on all statistical matters. If, under clause 27, it overrules the national statistician on a professional technical decision, it must publish a statement, including the reasons why, and lay it before Parliament. The national statistician is a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with other board members for ultimate decision making, rather than advising Ministers, who are currently the ultimate decision makers. That considerably enhances, rather than diminishes, the role of the national statistician. I hope that the hon. Lady will rest assured that, far from the national statistician having a reduced role under the Bill, it gives her a considerably enhanced role. I hope that the House will accept the Lords amendments.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 33 to 39 agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 40 to 64 disagreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 65.

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 71 and 73.

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This group of amendments responds positively once more to a recommendation from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place. This is a technical issue that I hope need not detain us for too long. The recommendation relates to the delegation of a function of a Minister of the Crown, a Welsh Minister or a Northern Ireland Department under clause 22. The recommendation made by the Committee was that where a Minister of the Crown, a Welsh Minister or Northern Ireland Department delegates a function to the board by order, that order should be subject to the negative resolution procedure if it amends primary legislation. This group of amendments carries out that recommendation, which is tidier in terms of House procedure. I should note that the amendments do not apply to Scottish Ministers because, as agreed with the Scottish Executive, Scottish Ministers are not able to delegate functions to the board. I commend the amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 66 agreed to.

Lords amendments (a) to (qqq) agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 67 to 70 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 71 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 72 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 73 agreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Dr. Vincent Cable, Angela Eagle, Mr. Michael Foster, Siobhain McDonagh and Mrs. Theresa Villiers; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.— [Mr. Alan Campbell.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.

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8.9 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,

Hon. Members will recall that, during the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, the Government made a commitment that, in view of the importance of the issue, the commencement order would be given full consideration by both Houses at the appropriate time.

The context for tonight’s debate is, of course, very different from that at the time of the original legislation. Following the historic commitment to policing and the rule of law that Sinn Fein made earlier this year, there is now a firm foundation for stable devolved government, and a new era for politics in Northern Ireland.

I am confident that the Assembly will sustain the commitment that it has already shown and continue to move Northern Ireland forward towards a shared future. Of course, there are many challenges ahead—not least the need to reach a decision on the devolution of policing and justice. I am pleased that the Assembly has already established a Committee to consider that and that it is due to produce a report by 27 March 2008. Work is now under way in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that the policing and justice functions can be devolved by May 2008, should the Assembly request it.

The progress on support for policing has been remarkable. With Sinn Fein members having taken their place on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the prospect of inclusive policing—supported by the entire community—is at last a reality. A key element in the structure of accountability built around policing is the network of district policing partnerships, which are now in place throughout Northern Ireland. Since they were established, DPPs have played a unique role in helping to build a safer Northern Ireland by empowering local communities to play their part in shaping local policing.

District policing partnerships have faced many challenges and I am sure that the House will join me this evening in paying tribute to the work of DPP members—and the courage that many of them have shown in the face of threats and intimidation. District policing partnerships have made a positive impact and will continue to do so, and the policing oversight commissioner shares that view. However, we now need to build on that success—that is why we have decided to introduce the commencement order.

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