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25 July 2007 : Column 908
4.18 pm

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Although I have not had the privilege of serving on the Treasury Select Committee, I am not here to break the consensus on endorsing Sir Michael Scholar and confirming him as Government nominee to the post of chair of the Statistics Board. The right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall) was right to highlight Sir Michael’s experience and to question him strongly about his work load and his independence. The Committee was right to do that forcefully, and its members have shown themselves to be independent in reaching their conclusions.

The process has been worth while and I would like to dwell on that. It is new and welcome. It is excellent to have the opportunity not only to hold a pre-appointment hearing but to debate and potentially vote on the nomination on the Floor of the House. My question to the Exchequer Secretary focuses on the role of the Select Committee and the interaction with the process until now, with the passage of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill through Parliament. We know now that departmental responsibility for the issue will fall not to the Treasury, but to the Cabinet Office. Although I appreciate that that was not the basis on which the Bill was planned and went through, and the appointment process started, that was known when the Treasury contacted the right hon. Gentleman and asked for a pre-appointment hearing for Sir Michael.

Given the compressed timetable and the fact that it was known then that it was more than likely that responsibility would be transferred to the Cabinet Office, I wonder whether it would have been appropriate to involve a Select Committee with the relevant experience and expertise in the Cabinet Office rather than in the Treasury. That would have reflected how things were going to be, rather than the process thus far. My question for the Exchequer Secretary is: did the Treasury consider such a move? Perhaps the Select Committee on Public Administration could have undertaken a role similar to that undertaken by the Treasury Committee.

I conclude by echoing the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, in welcoming the opportunity that we have had and in asking the Exchequer Secretary how she and other Ministers will consider extending the process to other high-profile appointments. This case might be the only instance in which we have such an opportunity. We have heard concerns expressed about how compressed the process was, but there is cross-party support for the principle, so I very much hope that the Government will consider extending it to other posts of such importance and high profile.

4.21 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I, too, join the chorus of congratulation of the Government on initiating the process. It is the kind of thing for which I have argued for years and it is a pleasure to be part of a Parliament that is implementing it. I also congratulate the Treasury Committee on doing a pretty okay job at almost no notice. It came across clearly from the questions that the Committee asked Sir Michael Scholar, from his experience and his commitment to independence, and from the interview process as a whole, that the appointment was appropriate.

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I want to focus on one aspect of the questioning that could have been fuller. I do not say that in a critical tone, because the Committee did a good job at short notice, as well as giving an exposition of how the process should go forward, which is also helpful. I want to focus on Sir Michael’s post-appointment actions. There was a focus on the appointment of other board members, which was quite appropriate, but in my judgment we are making a mistake—hon. Members will have heard me say this before—about what the source of the lack of public confidence in statistics is.

It is true that one source of the lack of public confidence in statistics is a sense that politicians get hold of them first and might manipulate them. However, there is a much more important source, which is when those statistics are just plain wrong. We have to address that issue seriously—indeed, there is an Adjournment debate on the subject today. I am profoundly concerned that we are not confronting certain weaknesses sufficiently strongly. We all know that they are not deliberate weaknesses—the Office for National Statistics is not trying to get the census and inter-census estimates of population wrong—but we are also confronted with overwhelming evidence that things are not right.

One of the risks of that public discourse is that the Committee goes with the flow when people say, “Oh well, the source of the lack of public confidence in statistics is spin.” I believe that there is another very important source of the lack of public confidence in statistics—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. This is a very narrow motion, and if the hon. Lady is going to engage in a discussion about one of the specific functions of the office in question, she must keep that point brief and relate it back to the specific matter of the appointment of the name on the Order Paper.

Fiona Mactaggart: Thank you very much for your kindness, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point that I was about to make was that I was rather surprised that the Committee, in questioning Sir Michael, did not probe his plans for tackling failures in the quality of our statistics as powerfully as I would have expected. It probed very strongly his plans for the appointment of the panel, and for pre-release information, but I did not feel that it dealt with that first issue strongly enough.

I am raising this matter because one of the functions of this kind of process is to have a parliamentary debate about these appointments, and I am confident that the new chairman of the Statistics Board will read the Committee’s very useful report and the report of this debate closely. It is right for Members to use this debate to set the board on track to improving our national statistics, because I am certain that an excellent chair of the Statistics Board would want that to happen.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Has the hon. Lady corresponded with Sir Michael and posed to him the questions that she thinks the Committee should have asked him, but did not? If so, did he reply? If not, might she consider doing so?

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Fiona Mactaggart: As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes a helpful suggestion. I have not yet corresponded with Sir Michael. I felt that the first place to raise this issue was in this debate. I have made these points to the Exchequer Secretary before. I am sure that she is getting quite bored by them, but persistence does change things in politics.

Angela Eagle: I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that I never get bored listening to the extremely important points that she raises in debate.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my hon. Friend for that kind remark.

Following this debate, I will take the opportunity to write to Sir Michael to make the point about the way in which failures in the census process and the inter-census estimates are undermining public confidence in our statistics. I will also ask him how he plans to ensure that we rebuild that confidence by making those statistics more accurate.

4.27 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I shall not follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) too deeply into the issue of the census. She described our report as “pretty okay”, so I shall simply congratulate her on a pretty okay speech. She might like to know, however, that the Treasury Select Committee will address the preparations for the new census, as it did for the previous census, at some point in the next year.

I want to speak briefly in support of the motion. I welcome the new procedure, which allows the House to express its view. Should the motion be passed, it will also enable the new chairman of the board to begin the task of rebuilding public confidence in statistics knowing that he has the full support of Members on both sides of the House. The Treasury Committee, which looked in detail at Sir Michael Scholar’s appointment, supports him and has confidence in him. We questioned him at length, and then discussed his candidacy at length, before making the recommendation that is now before the House.

The fact that the new procedure has been introduced for this appointment underlines the importance of the chairmanship of the new, independent Statistics Board. It is an important post. I believe that the chairman of the Statistics Board should become a big public figure, who is able not only to lead one of the major public agencies but to give the public back their confidence in the statistics that it provides. That matters because the new board is now, finally, at the end of the legislation, independent of Ministers in all respects bar one. The chairman of the board will therefore be closer to Parliament than any of his predecessors.

That also matters because he takes over the chairmanship of the board at a time when the Office for National Statistics is in transition. It is becoming the Statistics Board; it is relocating to Newport; it is facing formidable challenges; and, as the hon. Member for Slough reminds us from time to time, it is preparing for the census in 2011. As the Treasury Committee mentioned in a separate report earlier this week, it also faces a series of challenges and is under enormous
25 July 2007 : Column 911
pressure from the Government in terms of efficiency savings—costs and headcount reductions—which could put at risk services on which key users such as the Treasury itself, the banks, the City and business so desperately rely.

It was the permanent secretary who, in giving evidence to our Committee, defended the efficiency targets. When he was asked why he was piling them on top of the relocation, on top of the preparation for the census, on top of legislative preparations to transfer the ONS to the Statistics Board, he replied that the target-setting process was

I have to say that this is not an academic exercise. We need a strong Office for National Statistics producing accurate and timely statistics, which are a vital public service and a cornerstone of our democracy. The new chairman therefore needs quickly to get a grip of the challenges faced by the ONS and ensure that management is fully supported and that priorities are properly set before the ONS is overwhelmed. He must ensure that it is ready for the challenges that lie ahead—not least the preparation for the 2011 census.

My final point is to ask whether Sir Michael Scholar is the right man. He is a former Treasury mandarin and I note that former Treasury mandarins never quite retire—not when new quangos are being set up! I am not convinced, however, that when it comes to applying for those particular jobs, Treasury mandarins should necessarily be discriminated against just because they are Treasury mandarins. In any event, there is not much evidence that they are being discriminated against. Given their success in securing the glittering prizes, I would make one suggestion. It might be an idea for the current permanent secretary not necessarily to sit on each of these selection panels, when he is so likely to appear on the other side of the table in future.

Two main considerations apply to Sir Michael’s candidacy, the first of which is independence. Will he be sufficiently independent? The Treasury Committee was fully satisfied on that point. It is already clear, one day after the Government asked the House to send an amendment back to the Lords, that Sir Michael Scholar disagrees with the Government. He believes that pre-release should be a matter for the board and not for Ministers to determine. Within 48 hours of the Prime Minister’s recommendation that the maximum time for pre-release should be 24 hours, he also disagreed with that. He said that he would much prefer less time. The all-party Treasury Committee, which includes six former Ministers, recommended only three hours. I hope that Sir Michael follows that independence through and makes vigorous comments on the arrangements for pre-release access when the Government publish them in draft. When it comes to the 12-month review of those arrangements, I hope that the Statistics Board under his chairmanship will make it very clear what it would prefer.

The only remaining issue was the time commitment involved in the job. As the Chairman of our Committee has already said, the post is three days a week. Sir Michael is already committed as president of a busy Oxford college and he has a non-executive directorship, all of which seem to add up to six days a week. I simply
25 July 2007 : Column 912
draw the House’s attention to our recommendation that the chairmanship must be his primary commitment. He must be here in London or out in Newport at the office rather than in the garden or at the organ or in the cellars of St. John’s college, Oxford. Indeed, we expect him not only to fulfil his commitment at the London and Newport offices but to be here as well, answering questions in Parliament. He should make himself fully accountable for the work of the Statistics Board to whatever new Committee takes on the scrutiny function that my Sub-Committee has exercised for so long.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend offers his usual dispassionate assessment of the state of things. Would he understand if I suggested that many right hon. and hon. Members might think that anyone who had to prepare to appear before a Committee of which my hon. Friend was a member could consider that a full-time job in itself?

Mr. Fallon: What is important is that from now on that person makes himself fully accountable to Parliament and appears before whatever new Committee takes on the function that my Sub-Committee has exercised for so long.

I hope that the House will support the motion, and in so doing wish Sir Michael Scholar well.

4.35 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The motion proves that if a Member is in the House long enough, all decisions are ultimately reversed. I recall vividly in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher transferred the then Central Statistical Office, which was under the control of the Cabinet Office, to the Treasury, to the great chagrin of many of the statisticians in my constituency who were concerned that it had gone to the Department with the greatest vested interest in fiddling the figures. They were worried about their positions and that the value of their work would be undermined by ministerial interference. I was told in a letter from Margaret Thatcher that that was an unworthy thought. Unworthy though it may have been, we are now moving the organisation back. There is great merit in that.

I welcome the procedure. It is innovative and has been called for by many people with an interest in our parliamentary processes. It is a major reform. As Andrew Dilnot said, the Statistics and Registration Service Bill might be the most important Bill in this Parliament—at least equivalent to the legislation that gave independence to the Bank of England.

We welcome the appointment of Sir Michael. He seems eminently qualified. He is of robust independence. As we heard, he is not entirely in tune with Government thinking on the release of information. We made the point many times that the Government have been very reasonable and generous in taking on almost every amendment produced in this House and elsewhere to improve the Bill to ensure that the service has independence and authority.

I have just one small point to raise. Although I was happy to vote with the Government the other day, there is a lingering doubt, and that is a shame. The Minister is visiting the ONS in my constituency tomorrow, which is a matter of joy both to her and to my constituents. I hope that she will take on the
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unfortunate attempt to reduce the enthusiasm for the move to the Newport. Some people do not seem to accept with the enthusiasm that they should the Government’s offer to give them a passport out of Pimlico to the joys of Newport and its hinterland. I hope that tomorrow she will see the many people who came from the south-east of England—from the Patent Office, the Prison Service, the UK Passport Service and the ONS—with grave doubts about whether they would settle well in Newport and who have found themselves much happier in so many ways with the facilities and the quality of life there. They will be very happy to hear about the appointment, and that the innovation has been used for the first time for the ONS in its new headquarters in the city of Newport.

4.38 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I approve of the nomination of Sir Michael Scholar. I disapprove of combining the commission and the statistics organisation, but that has been decided. I approved of the Government setting up the Statistics Commission, which was a better way of doing things. I thought that combining the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the Central Statistical Office was probably a mistake 11 years ago or so.

What Sir Michael says should be agreed by all—good statistics are like sound money or clean water. He describes them as an absolute necessity. I hope that the Government will use his advice to decide which statisticians sign the statisticians code and which do not. There has been some lack of clarity on that. All statisticians should sign up to the code, whether they are employed centrally or are departmental statisticians. I should declare that had I worked harder at university I would probably have joined the civil service like my brother, my father and our grandfather, and that I might therefore have been approaching this matter from the other end.

One remaining doubt raised about Sir Michael Scholar is whether he can be president of St. John’s, Cambridge and— [Interruption.] I meant to say Oxford.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. There is a considerable difference between those two institutions.

Peter Bottomley: The president of St. John’s, Oxford, should be able to combine that role with having responsibility for statistics, as Lord Rees of Ludlow is able to combine the roles of master of Trinity College, Cambridge and president of the Royal Society—and I do not regard even the statistics job to be more important than that.

4.40 pm

Angela Eagle: I am glad that there has been a widespread cross-party welcome for Sir Michael’s appointment and this innovative process; it is the first of its kind, but I am sure that there will be many others.

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