to the minimum necessary to meet the needs of Ministers.
The Minister places great stress on the fact that the statutory instrument will be subject to a full consultative process. I am sure that she means exactly what she says and I am sure that the consultation will be good, but she knows perfectly well that there is a fundamental defect with the statutory instrument process. If it comes before the House in a defective form and fails to reflect some of the key points of the consultation outside the House, it is unamendable. We simply will not have access at that stage to the iterative process that we have had on the main Bill. That is why we are resisting the idea of simply trusting in that process. I acknowledge that a great deal of progress has been made, even on that very vexed issue, but it is important to return the matter to the other place. If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is inclined to move against the Governments proposals, we will support the Conservatives in a Division.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con):
In common with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), I believe that we should
support the Lords amendment. There are two main issues. One is the time period and the other is who should in the end decide.
On the time period, it is quite obvious from the changes of the past few months that the Governments proposal is completely arbitrary. There was no basis to 40.5 hours and there is no basis for 24 hours. There is no better illustration of how arbitrary the whole issue is than the position of the Minister. Last summer, when she signed the Treasury Committees report, she was in favour of three hours. A couple of weeks ago, she told the House that she was in favour of 40 hours and spoke to proposals on that basis. Now she is put up to defend 24 hours. She is all over the place and the Government are all over the place. This is a completely arbitrary period being bandied around.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has already said, the proposed period is wholly out of line with international practice. Even 24 hours is much longer than the period allowed by statistical services of other developed economies. That is why, when the Treasury Committee came to look into this matter, we looked hard at it and settled on a figure of three hours. A case can be made for four hours, six hours or whatever, but even 24 hours is far too long. More important than that, the figure is completely arbitrary. It is simply a guessing game.
Then there is the issue of who should actually decide. I certainly welcome the Governments proposal to seek parliamentary approval for what is decided. I welcome the 12-month review of how the arrangements work. I welcome the fact that there will be a degree of consultation before those arrangements are set in stone, but what is the point of consulting everyone when it has already been announced that the period will be reduced from 40 hours to 24 hours? What is there then to consult on? The Prime Minister has said that the Government changed their mind and that the maximum period will now be 24 hours. What is the point of beginning a process of consultation on something when an announcement about it has already been made?
The Minister has said from the Dispatch Box this afternoon that she wants a meaningful role for the board. Let me remind the House that we are setting up an independent statutory body to deal with statistics, to take them out of the hands of politicians and to put them on an independent footing. Now she tells us that on the key issue of pre-releasethe privilege given to Ministers so that they can spin material in advance of the announcement of a particular statistical seriesthe board will not determine what happens and will not, in fact, be meaningfully involved.
I was never senior enough a Minister to be entrusted with figures even to try to spin. What is interesting is that the Treasury Committee report was signed by no fewer than six former Ministers who were all quite content for the advance period to be reduced from more than 40 hours to just three. The issue is not simply the spinning of statistics, but the notice involved when Ministers know that a bad series is just about to
be published. It is perfectly possiblesadly, we have seen it from this Governmentfor Ministers to arrange other statistics and other news to be announced to cover that particular negative line of statistics on that particular day. As we well know, the Government are fully capable of burying bad news when they feel like it.
We need to take all that out of the hands of Ministers and have it determined by a statutory board. What is the point of setting up a statutory board if the one key political issue of pre-release is the one issue that the board is unable to decide on in the end? We should support the Lords amendment.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I disagree on what is the central issue of the Bill. For me, the central issue is the independence of the statistics board. That is not a new issue. I recall raising the concerns of the statisticians working in my constituency with the then Prime Minister in 1989. They were concerned about moving control of statistics from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. They were right to be concerned about the independence of the figures and right to fear that they might be manipulated. Their argument then was that the Treasury had the greatest vested interest in manipulation of the figures. I received a letter from Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister at the time, stating that it was terribly unworthy to make such a suggestion and reassuring me that the director, Jack Hibbert, had assured her that if there were any ministerial interference in the figures, he would resign.
I am afraid that we have now clearly reached a positionbased partly on fact, but mostly on fableof great cynicism about the objectivity of Government statistics. There is a conception of spin, and the Government to their great credit have introduced the Bill, which has been hailed as one of the most important of the whole Parliament and on a par with the decision to grant independence to the Bank of England in deciding interest rates. That is absolutely right.
I regret that we are in a position of disagreement over the question of pre-release. It is unfortunate that the Bill may well be marred as a result of it. The Government have been extremely generous in accepting many of the proposed amendments. Furthermore, the 1,300 of my constituents who work in the statistics office hail this Bill as a measure that will give new authority and new value to their work. There is doubt about the notion of spin, but it is exaggerated, and I am sure that the Government fully intend to have a period in which no excessive use of spin is made. The days of spin are gone. No Government in their right mind would use spin, because it is so counter-productive, but the Government must have some advance notice so that they can prepare their case.
I will support my party and Government if this matter is pressed to a vote. However, I say to the Minister that it will be regrettable if the Bill goes from this House with this apparent, but not indelible, stain on it. Otherwise, it could have gone forward with the unanimous support of the other place, the Treasury Committee and other experts in the field, including my constituents who are professional statisticians.
During the passage of the Bill, the Government have moved to meet the views of all sides. As a result, we have made real changes. I welcome the generous acknowledgement of that by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) also acknowledged that we have made considerable changes to the Bill during its passage.
We have amended clause 25, on the boards duty to produce and publish reports, to clarify that all reports must be laid before the devolved Parliaments. In clause 7, we have changed the boards objective, to underscore its role in promoting and safeguarding statistics that serve the public good. In clause 10, we have changed the name of the code of practice, to emphasise its applicability to all statistics. We have granted the board a duty to comment on those statistics that it felt should be subject to the assessment process, which is an important aspect of this afternoons debate, and we have clarified that when such statistics are produced by a Minister of the Crown, the Minister must state publicly when the boards request will be complied with; and if not, why not.
We have imposed a duty to comply with the code of practice. We have passed amendments to clarify the separation of functions between assessment and production of statistics, and to clarify the role, responsibilities and functions of the national statistician and executive office. We have passed the residual responsibilities for the board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. We have made a commitment, which will be enshrined in the Bill if the motion is passed, to consult the board on the content of the pre-release secondary legislation prior to its being laid before the House, and we have committed ourselves to consult publicly. We have announced that pre-release access will be tightened to 24 hours. We have made a commitment in principle to create a central publication hub through which all national statistics will be released in the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary. We have committed ourselves to review the pre-release arrangements after 12 months, including to assess whether they hinder the broader objective of increasing trust in statistics.
That is a good structure to give the newly independent statistics board, as it provides a firm foundation and basis on which to begin and continue its work. It should be recognised that the Government have been very responsive. We will not put the figure of 24 hours in the Bill, because the system may evolve further. It has been 60 years since we last had a piece of primary legislation on statistics. I would not want to put such a provision on the face of the Bill when it might take another 60 years before another piece of primary legislation is introduced, as that might get in the way of further progress. It is therefore only sensible, and justified by experience of primary and secondary legislation, to put the 24-hour figure in a statutory instrument, rather than in the Bill.
What is being suggested is that the 24-hour maximum that the Prime Minister has proposed should be included in the Bill. The Minister is resisting
that on the ground that she needs flexibility for legislation to evolve. Is she seriously suggesting that it might evolve in the direction of the maximum pre-release time increasing?
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The hon. Lady should recognise that Prime Ministers come and go and, as she said, the legislation must last a long time. The promise made by the current Prime Minister does not necessarily bind the next Prime Minister. The House, however, can pass legislation that will put that promise into law. The flexibility is there, because the 24-hour figure would be only a maximum. If she is seriously suggesting that a longer period than 24 hours is necessary, and that is why she cannot put the figure in the Bill, she does not trust the Prime Ministers promise either.
Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what I say. I made no suggestion that the Government were somehow intending to have a pre-release time that was longer than 24 hours. It is clear that 24 hours is a maximum.
I have set out the long list of changes that the Government have made to the Bill during its passage. It is an impressive and substantial list, and the Government should be given credit for their willingness to listen and for the changes that they have made. The time is now right for the Government to get their Bill, and for the other place to realise that they should allow the Bill to complete its passage without further changes.
All sides agrees that this is a desirable Bill, which enshrines in statute for the first time the independence of the Office for National Statistics and the UK statistical system. It makes huge improvements in the system and structure in place for the delivery of a trusted statistical system in the UK. The Bill is much too important to be put in jeopardy by the unelected Chamber continuing to send it back with demands for more changes, when we all now agree with 99 per cent. of what it contains. Moreover, the Government will wish to proceed quickly to appoint the new chair of the statistics board, with a parliamentary hearing and vote before the recessthe Treasury Committee is interviewing the gentleman in question this afternoon. That cannot seriously proceed without the Bill making progress. Nor can the establishment of a shadow board and the necessary preparatory work to achieve the independence of the Office for National Statistics by next April proceed quickly if the Bills passage is further delayed.
I hope that the Opposition will not press for a Division on the motion. Given the amendments that the other place has achieved, I further hope that it will realise that the time is now right for the Bill to proceed. I commend the motion to the House.