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2.30 pm

It has been more than 60 years since the previous statistical measure appeared before the House. We are concerned to ensure that the Bill leaves the House as “future-proofed” as possible in case it takes another 60 years to introduce another statistics Act. We want to ensure that the statistical community of the future operates under a system that is sufficiently flexible to remain relevant as needs change. The Government are therefore providing for pre-release arrangements to be contained in secondary rather than primary legislation. That is sensible, prudent and appropriate.

The processes will provide a powerful role for the board in determining the new arrangements. Under our proposals, the role will be confirmed in the Bill. It has never been the Government’s intention, in including
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pre-release arrangements in secondary legislation rather than in the Bill or the code of practice, to give Ministers a free rein. The proposed arrangement would not lead to such an outcome. It ensures that pre-release arrangements are subject to public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny and open debate.

As I announced on 2 July, there will be a public consultation on the proposed content of the statutory instrument. Such consultation will be key to creating rules and principles for pre-release access that are credible, practical and appropriate in the context of the wider code.

As hon. Members know from previous debates, under clause 25, the board may at any time produce a report about any matter that relates to the exercise of its functions. If it does that, it must lay it before one or more Houses of Parliament and the devolved legislatures.

Since the board has functions under clause 8 to monitor pre-release access and will be consulted on the draft regulations, it may, if it wishes, prepare its response—or any concerns that it may have once the system is operational—as a formal report under clause 25. Even after a full consultation, the Bill provides that should it not be content with the outcome, or should it, in the fullness of time, wish further changes to the regime to be established in secondary legislation, it could not only call publicly for further changes, but do so in a formal report laid before the House. Clearly, were such a report prepared and laid before Parliament, we would expect Parliament—and the media—to question the Government on whether they would take up the independent board’s recommendations, and to ask, “If not, why not?”

As I have stated previously, the Government are committed to reviewing the operation of the pre-release arrangements after 12 months. That is precisely the sort of event in which we expect the board to be closely involved—and precisely the sort of event that might trigger its members to write such a report under clause 25(3), if they wished to do that.

The Bill, together with the new legislative duty to consult the board in determining the content of the pre-release regime, will ensure a strong and meaningful role for the board in influencing the content of the pre-release regime and in enforcing the new arrangements.

When the content of the secondary legislation has been agreed, it will be laid before the House for approval by affirmative resolution. Once commenced, clause 11(3) provides that the board must treat the content of the secondary legislation as though it were part of the code of practice.

The Government intend that the board should play a full and meaningful role in determining the new pre-release arrangements and ensuring that they are complied with. There is substantial consensus on the importance and value of the Bill, which will govern the statistical system in this country. We have reached consensus on most of the key structures and processes that the Bill will establish. I hope that the hon. Members will support our proposals.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): The purpose of the Bill, which the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) spelled out on Second
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Reading, is to restore confidence in the statistical base on which so many of our political decisions are made. That is much needed. When I was an Opposition health spokesman in the late 1990s, I remember patients being reclassified from one list to another, beds being reclassified as chairs, and, more recently, the former Chancellor’s “revisions” of the start and finish dates of the economic cycle. Those and many other examples have contributed to undermining public confidence in the statistical data that are provided to us. The Bill is a welcome attempt to address that.

Conservative Members have long argued that an independent statistics service is a key part of the triple lock that will ensure fiscal and economic stability, along with the independent setting of interest rates and independent assessment of the fiscal rules. We have supported the principles of the Bill—after all, it enshrines much of our policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) made it clear from the outset that we would engage constructively in trying to improve the measure. There have been some successes so far. We welcome Government concessions that have strengthened the Bill and made it more likely to achieve its objective. Much has therefore been achieved.

However, we need one last heave to make the Bill a substantial break with the past in relation to pre-release. The former national statistician identified that as the key matter for gaining public confidence. It is the last contentious issue, as the Exchequer Secretary said, and the subject of the Lords amendments that we are considering today.

As the Bill left this place on 2 July, it uniquely preserved to Ministers the power, through secondary legislation, to set the rules for pre-release—who gets what and when—but no other aspects of control of statistics. In other words, Ministers will control the parameters for the operation of the spin machine about any given release of data. That was justified on the curious ground that

I bet they are. However, on that principle, Ministers may as well count the by-election votes tomorrow on the basis that they know best how many votes they require.

The earlier the access to statistics, the greater the scope of controlling the agenda. There is no other reason for wanting to retain such long pre-release periods and total control of the rules for pre-release.

Angela Eagle: Is the hon. Gentleman trying to persuade the House that all the arrangements that I have set out—board involvement, transparency, public consultation and an affirmative statutory instrument—amount to total control for Ministers?

Mr. Hammond: I am trying to persuade the House that it amounts to much less than independent control of the rules by the board, for which hon. Members in this place and the other place have argued. We perceive it as the objective for which we should hold out.

Ministers have acknowledged, in proposing to reduce the five-day maximum for non-market sensitive data to
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40.5 hours, that we remain way out of line with other countries. In France, the time is one hour; in Australia, the time is three hours, and Canada allows data to be released to Ministers the evening before general release. We must tackle those remaining, glaring anomalies.

We are considering a proposal for an independent statistics system that allows Ministers to decide how much advance notice they get, how widely advance data are disseminated, and under what conditions. That is wildly out of line with international norms and very much out of line with what ordinary, thinking people would expect from a Prime Minister who promised to abandon spin.

Angela Eagle: Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge, so that we can have a debate in which we are in contact with the arguments, that we are not considering unconstrained ministerial decision making? The maximum time is 24 hours and there is a range of provisions about, for example, the number of people who can see pre-release statistics. We have made several changes, and we are now considering constrained ministerial decision making. The process is systematically set out, is transparent and will be contained in secondary legislation. Surely the hon. Gentleman will admit that.

Mr. Hammond: The Exchequer Secretary talks about 24 hours, but I do not see 24 hours in her proposal, which we shall come to in a moment. She must understand that there is a clear distinction between a decision by an independent board and a decision by Ministers after consultation with that board. If she does not understand that, why is the architecture of the rest of the Bill set out as it is, with the board having that degree of control?

If the Government do not get pre-release right, they will not restore public confidence in the system, regardless of whether the impartiality and the quality of the statistics will be improved by other initiatives in the Bill, and they will certainly not persuade the public that they have abandoned the spin culture. The issue has become the yardstick by which the success or failure of this attempt to clean up public data will be judged.

I freely admit to being something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Bill—

Angela Eagle: You are not the only one.

Mr. Hammond: Indeed, although the Exchequer Secretary did not come quite as late to the Bill as I did. I have had the pleasure of reading myself in, by looking at the debates in this place and the other place over the past six months or so. I have been struck by the irony that in a Bill that is designed to tackle the public perception of a culture of spin, it is the clauses most closely identified with that spin culture on which the Government have proved most resistant. It is doubly ironic that the debate itself has been mired in spin, first, when the Exchequer Secretary tried to convince the House that her voting for a report that argues for a three-hour maximum for pre-release is entirely consistent with standing at that Dispatch Box arguing for 40 hours for pre-release. Then there have been Ministers here and in the other place affecting not to understand the expectation that a clear statement by
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the Prime Minister that there will be a 24-hour maximum on pre-release should mean just that, and not that the Government want to retain flexibility.

The intervention by the Prime Minister is an important element in this debate, but because it came on 3 July, it has not been debated in this House before. Was his constitutional statement on 3 July substantive or was it just spin? Was it a pre-emptive strike designed to head off demands for genuine independent control over pre-release? If his statement was substantive, why not write the 24-hour limit that he pledged into the Bill? He did not mention flexibility in his statement to the House and he did not say that the measure was subject to the small print. The commitment was simple—24 hours maximum. If we cannot take that at face value and incorporate it into the Bill, what credibility does the rest of that statement have?

Not 18 hours before the Prime Minister made that statement, the Exchequer Secretary was rather half-heartedly defending the 40.5-hour limit, saying:

That was hardly a ringing personal endorsement, one might think. Some 18 hours later, the Prime Minister said:

That was straightforward, except that on 9 July Lord Davies of Oldham further clarified the situation in the other place, saying:

Either there has been a serious communication problem at the heart of the Government or old-fashioned spin is alive and well.

The Exchequer Secretary cannot have known on 2 July what the Prime Minister was going to say on 3 July, because if she had, she would have been misleading the House with her statement, and she certainly would not have done any such thing. She then wrote to Committee members, also on 3 July, claiming that the Prime Minister’s statement reflected the concerns expressed in the House the previous evening. So she would apparently have us believe that after the debate on 2 July she nipped round to No. 10 after the House rose, and that she and the Prime Minister decided on a 24-hour maximum over a cup of cocoa. I am not sure what worries me the most: the idea that there is no communication at the heart of the Government, the idea that they have retained their attachment to the culture of spin, or policy making on the hoof on such an epic scale.

2.45 pm

The Government of course claim that they have made a concession by requiring Ministers to consult the board before exercising the power to set the rules. However, the Exchequer Secretary must accept that the point of principle is that Ministers must not be judge and jury in their own cases, in relation to pre-release. The proper way to proceed now is for her to accept the
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Lords amendment—not scrapping pre-release, because that is not what is proposed, but allowing the board independently to determine the rules for pre-release, after consulting Ministers and taking into account their legitimate needs. The alternative way is for her to commit the Government to bringing in their own amendments to deliver a substantive role for the board in the pre-release process—I mean a substantive role, not merely a consultative role—if and when the Bill returns to the House of Lords after this debate.

While the Exchequer Secretary is at it, perhaps she will also commit herself to including the 24-hour absolute maximum limit on pre-release in the Bill—not because I suggest that, but because her own Prime Minister has said that. The principle behind the Bill must be that statistics should be allowed to speak for themselves, without the intermediation of politicians.

Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once more. He just used a phrase that is quite interesting. He talked about the legitimate interests of Ministers with respect to pre-release. Could he share with the House what he thinks they are?

Mr. Hammond: We recognise, and we have recognised throughout the debate, that Ministers have a legitimate interest in having access to data before they are made generally available.

Angela Eagle: Ah!

Mr. Hammond: We have never disputed that. The issue is who should be the arbiter of the period of advance notice, who should determine the rules under which data are pre-released and how extensive the dissemination of those data should be. The Exchequer Secretary can um and ah as much as she likes from the Government Front Bench, but she will know that what we do in this country is wildly out of line with what is done in other developed economies.

If that is not because the Government want to be able to manage the release of information in a way that would have been called spin in the old days, she needs to come forward with a substantive explanation of why the Government think that pre-release is qualitatively different from all the other aspects of control of statistics. The truth, as she very well knows, is that certain Departments—ironically, more so those concerned with social statistics than economic statistics—are determined to keep control over the release of what is all too often bad news, even when it is dressed up as good news, and to have access to at least one full news cycle ahead of release, in order to soften up the media and the public for the formal release and set the pristine objective data in a subjective context.

In conclusion, I can do no better than quote Lord Moser from the debate in the other place. He said:

I concur with Lord Moser, as he continued:

I hope indeed that it is not too late.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Unlike the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), and the Exchequer Secretary, I am not a new boy to the Bill. I have been with it at every stage and must have spoken at least half a dozen times on the issue of pre-release, so I do not need to rehearse all the arguments. Indeed, in any event, the hon. Gentleman made the points that I would have made about our continued reservations concerning how the Government have approached the issue.

The Minister asked for some acknowledgement of progress, and I am happy to acknowledge it in respect of the big picture of the Bill. It has been a good and useful Bill, which has been substantially improved in respect of official and national statistics, the locus of decision making in Departments and the role of the statistics board and chief statistician. Those are all big advances, helped by the fact that the other place has been engaged in improving the Bill.

The Minister also wanted acknowledgement of progress on the issue of pre-release. Again, progress has been made and she has played an important part in it, as did her predecessor. I acknowledge that 24 hours is less than 40 hours, so it amounts to an improvement, but it is still much more than in almost every other developed country. I acknowledge the Minister’s recent innovation of allowing consultation with the board. Once again, that is a step forward, but I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that consultation can mean anything or nothing. If approached in a constructive spirit, it provides the essence of how good governance should work, but if a bloody-minded Minister wishes to defy the Bill’s principles, he will still be able to do so.

Accepting that the amendment will suffice therefore requires a great deal of trust. It is important to stress that the amendment from the other place acknowledges the important role of Ministers. Indeed, amendment No. 13 states that access should be kept

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