Statistics and Registration Service Bill

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Clause 4

Non-executive members
The Chairman: I am advised by my fellow Chairman, Sir John Butterfill, that you may wish to move amendment No. 14 formally, Mr. Fallon.
Mr. Fallon: I do not wish to move amendment No. 14, but I hope to catch your eye if there is a stand part debate, Mr. Olner.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Fallon: I want to raise three technical, house-keeping points about the clause. I fully recognise that the Minister might not be able to respond to my points on his feet, so I should be quite happy for him to answer them in the course of our proceeding. First, can non-executive members of the board be reappointed? The wording of subsections (1) and (6) leads me to conclude that they can be reappointed, although on first reading of subsection (1), one might get the impression that they can serve only a five-year term. I take it from reading both subsections together that a member can be reappointed, although it would be useful to have that clarified. The explanatory notes on the clause refer to
“the rules for the appointment of, resignation or dismissal of, and reappointment of, non-executive members”.
I hope that I am correct in my assumption, although if I am not, I hope that the Minister can clarify the matter.
Secondly, there is the issue that amendment No. 14 would have raised, and which applies more generally, of dismissal under subsection (4) seeming to be entirely summary. I assume that the non-executive members are not employees. If they are, I am at a loss as to how to reconcile the provision allowing them to be summarily dismissed—I shall not go over the arguments about misbehaviour—without having the normal recourse to the protection of employment law. Perhaps the Minister will advise me that they are not employees, but enjoy a different employment status.
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Rob Marris: I want to tuck right in behind the hon. Gentleman on this. Because of the compensation provisions in subsection (5), and without rehearsing the debate on amendment No. 14, I urge my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to reconsider subsection (4)(d) and adopt the Fats Waller approach—“Ain’t Misbehavin’”. The word should be removed or changed to misconduct. We referred earlier to misconduct. That is a potential minefield, which could lead to the sort of compensation payments that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That word might be used in a railway or energy Act. As a lawyer, I have to say that it is most unsatisfactory, and I suspect that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire would agree. Misbehaved does not need to be in there; it should say “misconduct” or nothing.
John Healey: Perhaps I can deal with the four points that have been raised now, rather than in writing. On the first point made by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, yes, non-executive members of the board can be reappointed. It is a feature of the guidance issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I have stressed that we will follow the procedures and the guidance. If he will permit me to reflect on the need for clarity in the legislation about the fact that reappointment is possible for non-executive members, I shall do so.
Mr. Gauke: For what it is worth, I agree with that interpretation. Does the Financial Secretary share my concern that where there is a power of reappointment, serving members of the board might be perceived to feel some pressure to comply with the person or entity making the appointment—in this case, as it is currently drafted, the Treasury. The benefit of reappointment is that expertise is retained. Does he recognise that concern?
John Healey: I recognise it only in the most conceptual way. In practice, there is a process for the appointment of board members selected by the Treasury through the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which is well established and well regarded. The Treasury Committee has said that it will give sufficient independence to those appointments. If we get those right, the composition and conduct of the board will rapidly establish its authority and its credibility, and will demonstrate the distance that it has from Ministers—a distance at which it will be able to set the statistical system. The conceptual problem that worries the hon. Gentleman will prove not to be a problem in practice.
On the second point raised by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. Non-executive members of the board will not be employees. In the event of a problem, they will have recourse to a judicial review or, conceivably, the ombudsman. The answer to his third question is that these are matters not of employment, but of appointment. The Government rightly remain involved in the appointment, as we have discussed, hence the wording of subsection (5)(b).
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has an endearing habit of not giving up on something that he feels is not correct. We had a full discussion this morning, but he is clearly not satisfied with the fact that there are legislative precedents for the criteria concerned. Neither is he satisfied that the provision is an attempt to bring up to date some of the terminology that we use in legislation. As a lawyer, he will know that the equivalent of misbehaviour is malfeasance. Essentially, they mean the same thing. If he is disturbed by subsection (4)(d), I will take a fresh look at it to see whether there is a case for making amendments that could achieve precisely the same effect but avoid the use of the term misbehaviour, which he does not feel is appropriate for use in legislation.
Mr. Fallon: I am grateful to the Minister for answering most of those points. I hope that he understands our concern that we want the non-executive members to be as independent as possible; they should not have to be skating carefully all the time. I hope that he will reflect on the drafting, which—I think inadvertently—gives the impression that the members can be reappointed only on the whim of the Treasury and can be summarily fired for the slightest misbehaviour. I am grateful for his offer to re-examine the drafting.
John Healey: Does hon. Gentleman not recognise that the examples that I suggested might constitute misbehaviour were certainly not trivial or light? They were very serious indeed. The concept of misbehaviour as framed in the Bill is by no means a light offence.
Mr. Fallon: I understand that. As the rest of the Committee is suggesting, it would have to be reasonably serious to justify summary dismissal. I do not want to over-egg the issue, but when we pressed the Minister earlier he went into the area of misconduct. We spoke this morning of corruption and violence, in which case I do not think that compensation would be paid for loss of office; it would be strange if it were. Today, he has introduced the concept of malfeasance, the proving of which leads down a tricky legal path. I urge him to have another look at the drafting. He may be able to strengthen it in all our interests.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Executive members and other staff
Mr. Fallon: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in clause 5, page 3, line 13, after ‘Majesty’, insert
‘on the advice of the Prime Minister’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 120, in clause 5, page 3, leave out lines 14 and 15 and insert—
‘(b) employed to operate independently of the Board with scrutiny and oversight of the role provided by the Board.’.
No. 188, in clause 5, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(2A) No appointment shall be made under subsection (2) until it has been approved by the Commission established under section (Establishment of a Commission for Official Statistics).’.
No. 189, in clause 5, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(2A) Appointments made under subsection (2) shall be subject to review by the Commission established under section (Establishment of a Commission for Official Statistics) within one year of their having been made.
(2B) The Commission shall produce a report on any review carried out under subsection (2A) and shall lay it before each House of Parliament.’.
No. 16, in clause 5, page 3, line 19, at end insert—
‘(3A) The National Statistician shall have right of direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving dispute with a government department.’.
No. 151, in clause 6, page 3, line 34, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 121, in clause 8, page 4, line 35, at end insert—
‘(4) The Board shall have responsibility to monitor and assess the performance of the National Statistician against the assigned responsibilities.’.
No. 100, in clause 9, page 4, line 37, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 101, in clause 9, page 5, line 2, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 102, in clause 9, page 5, line 4, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 103, in clause 18, page 8, line 15, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 104, in clause 18, page 8, line 17, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 105, in clause 18, page 8, line 19, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 106, in clause 18, page 8, line 21, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 107, in clause 18, page 8, line 23, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 108, in clause 19, page 8, line 26, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 125, in clause 19, page 8, line 30, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 126, in clause 19, page 8, line 36, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 109, in clause 20, page 9, line 11, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 110, in clause 21, page 9, line 20, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 111, in clause 22, page 9, line 23, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 112, in clause 22, page 9, line 25, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 113, in clause 22, page 9, line 27, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 114, in clause 23, page 9, line 34, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 115, in clause 26, page 10, line 34, after ‘Board’ and insert ‘and the National Statistician’.
No. 116, in clause 26, page 10, line 35, after ‘Board’ and insert ‘and the National Statistician’.
No. 197, in clause 28, page 12, line 6, at end insert—
‘(d) ensuring that, where appropriate, official statistics provide evidence of local variations and service needs.’.
No. 97, in clause 28, page 12, line 17, at end insert—
‘(5) The National Statistician shall be the government’s chief advisor on statistics, including, inter alia, matters relating to the planning, production and quality of official statistics, and shall provide professional leadership to all persons within government who are engaged in statistical production and release.’.
No. 127, in clause 28, page 12, line 17, at end insert—
‘(5) The National Statistician shall be the government’s principal advisor on statistics and provide professional leadership to all persons engaged in statistical production and publication.’.
No. 80, in clause 29, page 12, line 19, leave out ‘Board’ and insert
‘executive office created under the provisions of subsection (5) below’.
No. 98, in clause 29, page 12, line 22, at end insert—
‘(2A) The National Statistician shall—
(a) coordinate, and promote coordination of, statistical production across government and the devolved administrations; and
(b) take steps to ensure consistency in the production of official statistics across the United Kingdom.’.
No. 29, in clause 29, page 12, line 27, at end insert—
‘(3A) The National Statistician shall have responsibility for promoting—
(a) the co-ordination of statistical planning and production across government departments; and
(b) the production of statistics that are as consistent as possible across the United Kingdom.’.
No. 139, in clause 29, page 12, line 28, leave out from ‘Board’ to end of line 30 and insert
‘shall monitor the National Statistician in the exercise of his functions in relation to official statistics, inlcuding the duty set out in subsection (2A) above.’.
No. 128, in clause 29, page 12, line 28, after ‘may’ insert ‘not’.
No. 129, in clause 29, page 12, line 29, leave out ‘not’.
No. 117, in clause 31, page 13, line 26, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 130, in clause 36, page 14, line 35, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 132, in clause 36, page 14, line 40, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 133, in clause 36, page 15, line 4, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 134, in clause 36, page 15, line 23, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 135, in clause 36, page 15, line 25, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 136, in clause 36, page 15, line 27, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 137, in clause 36, page 15, line 30, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
No. 138, in clause 36, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘Board’ and insert ‘National Statistician’.
Mr. Fallon: You have conveniently grouped together a large number of amendments, Mr. Olner, only three of which stand in my name. I wish to speak only to amendments Nos. 15, 16 and 29.
The provisions relate to the status and role of the National Statistician. Amendment No. 15 deals with the way in which the National Statistician is to be appointed. I have tabled the amendment because it is still slightly unclear to me exactly how that appointment is going to be made. The Minister may recall that I pressed the matter twice on Second Reading, and I have still not had a specifically clear answer.
If we look at current practice, the National Statistician, Karen Dunnell, was appointed in August 2005, and the press release from National Statistics described her appointment as:
“The Prime Minister, with the agreement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has approved the appointment of Karen Dunnell as National Statistician”.
Subsection (2) is clearly an improvement on that; that is an administrative statement, and we now have in the statute a Crown appointment. However, like all Crown appointments, that appointment can only be made on advice, and the issue with which amendment No. 15 deals is on whose advice the appointment is to be made.
Lord Moser—the doyen of statistics, the man who served three Prime Ministers—was very clear in evidence to the Select Committee. In answer to question 213, he said:
“If it was left to me, I would have the Prime Minister being given that responsibility.”
That, of course, means not the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In fact, even if one agrees with the Financial Secretary, as the Committee has had to do today, that the residual functions should stay with Treasury Ministers, even as the Treasury Select Committee recommended, there is still a case for making the appointment of the National Statistician a prime ministerial appointment.
If we are serious about restoring trust to the office and its holder, we should be boosting it. It should become one of the big offices of state. I should like the National Statistician to become more of a household name—a key public figure in leading the profession and championing the public interest in statistics. It is worth emphasising the importance of the office and making a distinction in statute about the appointment being in the end the primary responsibility of the Prime Minister—although, of course, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be consulted.
The Prime Minister makes a number of appointments. I have been checking the people whom he has appointed over the last year and it includes a number of appointments of people who we might not think of as being in the front rank of public figures: the first parliamentary counsel; members of the Judicial Appointments Commission; the non-executive member of the Forestry Commission for Scotland; a member of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales; together with perhaps more central public figures, such as the permanent secretaries of the different Departments. When the last permanent secretary to the Department for Education and Skills was appointed, the wording was as follows:
“The Prime Minister, with the agreement of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has approved the appointment of David Bell to be Permanent Secretary”.
The same wording was followed for the permanent secretaryship to the Treasury itself. There is a parallel, and I think that it is important that we formally emphasise that the new post, placed in statute properly for the first time, is a public figure of the very front rank. We would remove any perception that the appointment remains within the control of the Treasury or the Chancellor. That is the purpose of amendment No. 15.
Amendment No. 16 is designed to make clear that the National Statistician should have right of access to the Prime Minister at all times. I want to emphasise that although you have wisely grouped amendment No. 16 with No. 15, Mr. Olner, it is not necessarily dependent on it. In other words, even if amendment No. 15 falls, and Ministers insist that it should be a Chancellor’s appointment, I would still argue that the National Statistician should have in statute this right of access to the Prime Minister.
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Why should the National Statistician have such a right of access? Because, as we have begun to establish today, they need the authority if they are to do their job properly across the system. Lord Moser, who served three Prime Ministers, was quite emphatic about that. He explained to our Select Committee what happened if there were problems in a particular Department. I will not quote his evidence at great length but he gave the example of a dispute with the Department of Health over hospital waiting lists. I do not know whether that arose when he was the chief statistician in the late 1960s or 1970s, but it is clearly of topical interest today.
If there were a dispute between the National Statistician and the Department of Health about the way in which waiting lists were being compiled or the statistics were being announced, Lord Moser said that his first recourse would be to take it up with the statistician—under our decentralised system, the senior statistician in the Department of Health. It also helps that he would have some role in appointing that statistician and, as we shall come to in later amendments, some liaison duty with all the statisticians across the Departments. If he did not get any joy in persuading the statistician in that Department, he said that he would then go to the permanent secretary. If he got no joy from the permanent secretary,
“then I went to my boss. This is important. My boss was the Prime Minister.”
That is the crux. There could well be a dispute between the National Statisticians and different Departments and different departmental Ministers. There has been in the past. Indeed, Lord Moser told us that he resigned privately twice during his period of office. Therefore, we must put the right of access of the National Statistician to the Prime Minister in statute and give the National Statistician real authority across Whitehall.
I hope that amendment No. 29 speaks for itself. It is slightly different from the supervisory functions that we dealt with earlier today. I think that it has the support of many outside the House, including the statistics users forum. Its objective is that we should give the National Statistician some overarching responsibility to co-ordinate statistics across the decentralised system that the Financial Secretary and I are so keen to preserve and to ensure consistency, not simply across the United Kingdom and the different nations and territories, but between the Government Departments and the different series of statistics that exist.
Mrs. Villiers: It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow my hon. Friend and to speak in support of amendment No. 15 and various other amendments in the group. We have a variety of issues to deal with and I hope that the Committee will bear with me as I go through them with some care. There are a number of areas where, even if we are unable to persuade the Minister to accept our amendments, it would be useful to receive some clarification from him. There is genuine confusion among much of the statistical community about how the Bill will operate in significant respects.
The first set of amendments deals with the split between executive and scrutiny functions. The second set seeks to enhance the authority of the National Statistician and to clarify her role. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks eloquently referred to the way in which it would boost her status. Prime ministerial involvement in the appointment, as amendment No. 15 describes, would play an important part in enhancing that authority.
It is also vital to consider the issue that amendment No. 16 raises about direct access to the Prime Minister. I shall not deal with it at length under the amendments before us, because I anticipated it when we considered the transfer of responsibilities between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. Instead, I shall highlight the question that I posed to the Minister when we considered the issue during earlier amendments. I asked him to clarify the National Statistician’s current access to the Prime Minister. We heard how Lord Moser was convinced that the link between the National Statistician and the Prime Minister had been broken by the switch from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the National Statistician still sees the Prime Minister regularly, and that she has access as and when she needs it.
The first group of amendments starts roughly at amendment No. 100. There should be a clear separation of the executive and scrutiny functions. The Government’s attempt to split the two roles within the board does not go far enough to answer the concerns that a significant number of people expressed during consultation. The executive functions proposed for the board should be removed and transferred to the National Statistician. That is the objective of most amendments in the group; the remainder focus largely on enhancing the authority of the National Statistician.
The Opposition support the Treasury Sub-Committee’s approach to the matter. It stated that executive responsibility for delivery of statistics should remain with the National Statistician, whom the board would hold to account. Its statement echoed the sentiments expressed by the Royal Statistical Society on this important matter. It said:
“The National Statistician should be responsible for professional and operational matters and for statistical production. The Board should not be assigned responsibilities integral to statistical production and dissemination as the Bill envisages. It should instead hold the National Statistician to account for these responsibilities so separating the role of statistical producer from the role of monitoring to ensure that the public interest is served.”
Commenting on the issue, a number of people have referred to the independent status of the Statistics Commission, which is separate from the production of statistics. Professor David Martin of the university of Southampton said:
“It is a matter of concern that this board will be responsible both for the production and quality assessment of National Statistics and no provision is made for a separate quality assurance body, closer to the role of the current Statistics Commission.”
Similar concerns have been expressed by Brian Gosschalk, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, and by Jill Tuffnell, head of research at Cambridgeshire county council. Speaking on behalf of the Central and Local Government Information Partnership, she said that
“the group would like to comment on the need for independent scrutiny of official statistics. The Statistics Commission is just such an independent body. There is no guarantee that the proposed board will be able to act in this way. A much clearer divide is required between scrutiny and operations.”
Making a similar appeal, Will Rossiter, the chairman of the Association of Regional Observatories, said:
“The proposal to combine the executive (production) and scrutiny functions within a single board is problematic. It is unclear as to what form of redress or appeal would be open to an individual or organisation wishing to challenge the decision of the board. The statistics commission should not be abolished if the board is to have executive functions.”
The Committee will be aware that the Statistics Commission has done valuable work in improving the quality and integrity of statistics in the UK, and I acknowledge the achievements of the changes made by the Government in setting it up. However, one of the commission’s strengths has been its independence from the production process, and it is difficult to believe that it could have had the same impact had it been part of the Office for National Statistics. The statistics users forum put it this way:
“The proposals suggest that the Board of the non-ministerial department has responsibility for both the delivery of statistics and for assuring quality and adherence to standards. We do not believe it is good governance that the same body should be responsible for both functions. Neither is it conducive to restoring or maintaining public trust in the system ... The proposed disappearance of the statistics commission would eliminate a check on the system while replacing it with a system that would appear, at least, to be weaker.”
Although, in the main, the Bill is certainly a step in the right direction, a fact which was acknowledged by both Opposition parties on Second Reading, it is a matter of real concern that this particular aspect of the Bill could be a step backwards—that it could actually weaken some of the safeguards that currently exist.
At the heart of the anxiety that has been expressed about the merging of functions is that the proposed combination of functions will give rise to a conflict of interest. The Select Committee on the Treasury considered that this
“would be likely to have a negative impact on the board’s perceived independence.”
As John Carlin, head of the North East Regional Information Partnership has pointed out, there will be a problem reporting concerns about decisions taken at the ONS because the board’s executive functions will mean that it “will not be detached.” That, at any rate, is how matters will be perceived.
Rob Marris: I wonder whether the hon. Lady could help me by telling me which part of the Bill indicates that the statistics board produces statistics in contradistinction to examining quality, good practices, comprehensiveness and so on?
Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful for that intervention. I shall direct the hon. Gentleman to clause 6(1), which says:
“In this Part ‘official statistics’ means ... statistics produced by ... the Board.”
There is another reference, in clause 18, where it says:
“The board may itself produce and publish statistics relating to any matter relating to the United Kingdom or any part of it.”
I think that those are the clearest examples.
It will be perceived that the board will not be detached, and perception is crucial in this matter because the purpose is to rebuild trust in official statistics. The RSS have said:
“Were the Board itself to be involved in the production process then it is difficult to see how it could command the public’s confidence in its ability to monitor statistical production.”
The problem essentially arises because the board will be judge and jury in its own case.
Let us look at what happens when a member of the public or a Member is concerned about a decision taken by the ONS. I shall give an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) campaigned for a number of years about the way in which pension contributions were measured by the ONS and assessed in ONS statistics. In the end, the ONS admitted that he was correct on several points, and it changed its approach, but that took some time.
What if the same situation arose under the new structures? When, for example, my hon. Friend received the initial response from the ONS, rejecting his complaint and asserting that it considered its procedures to be correct, the natural step would have been to make a complaint to the board and to ask for an assessment and review of the decision. Let us assume that the board were sufficiently wise to realise that the ONS had not adequately or appropriately responded.
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If the board were to issue a rebuke to the ONS it would, in effect, be talking to itself. The chairman would be in the awkward situation of issuing a rebuke to himself. The board’s standing to hold the ONS to account would be undermined by the fact that the board, as a body, was technically responsible for the decision taking in the first place.
The issue is thrown into stark relief when one looks at it in relation to judicial review. A person who is concerned about practices at the ONS or a decision made by it could in theory decide to apply for judicial review at the same time as making a complaint to the board. However, the board itself would be the relevant body for the purposes of reviewing the decision. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?
On Second Reading, I made a comparison with the structure of the BBC. The regulatory and delivery functions of the BBC are mixed in a similar way to the arrangements proposed in the Bill. Concerns have been expressed about the BBC arrangements, including by the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC’s Charter Review, which called for greater external regulation. The Burns panel, in its independent report to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, labelled the dual role of the governors as regulator and defender of the BBC “unsustainable”. Clearly, the Hutton crisis has led to a shake up of governance, but controversy remains. How much greater would the controversy attached to the BBC’s governance arrangements be if it had the responsibility for regulating not only its own activities, but the activities of other key broadcasters? That analogy can be applied validly in the context of the statistics board, because of its dual roles in relation to the production of statistics and monitoring the statistical system as a whole.
Now I come to a tricky point relating to clause 29, which I think is one of the more difficult issues that the Committee must address, and I am particularly keen to get the views and guidance of Ministers. A number of interest groups expressed concern that the Bill fails to distinguish properly between the functions of the board and the National Statistician. That is a particular worry in relation to clause 29. Who is to make technical decisions on statistics: the board, or the National Statistician? Take the example of Network Rail given by the Royal Statistical Society in its briefing. Let us assume that the ONS makes a controversial decision relating to the classification of Network Rail liabilities. Clause 29(4) gives the board the power to direct the National Statistician to take a different decision—in essence, the decision of the board can be substituted for that of the National Statistician. Concern has been expressed that that blurs the role of the board and the National Statistician and leaves the line of responsibility for a decision insufficiently clear.
In some ways, those concerns echo the Minister’s response to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, which would give the board the power to direct Departments. The Minister indicated that the board should focus not on directing people, but on monitoring and scrutinising how they carry out their functions. The issue is one of some subtlety and there is confusion, which is why I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that he will be able to reassure me and those who have raised the concerns, because it is not easy to get to the bottom of the matter.
Another concern about clause 29 relates to subsection (1), which states:
“The National Statistician is also to be the chief executive of the Board.”
The Minister might be able to reassure me, but I do not understand how the National Statistician can be the chief executive of the board when, in theory, there is to be a split between assessment and production roles. My understanding is that the Bill is structured to keep the National Statistician out of the assessment process, but to make her chief executive of the board indicates that she will have important assessment powers as well as her production role. Surely the subsection therefore undermines the split of functions in the board that the Government envisage.
The Opposition tabled amendment No. 80 to attempt to make the National Statistician the chief executive not of the board as a whole, but of the executive office to be set up under clause 29(5). I understand that the Government envisage that the production work carried out by the board will be formally delegated to the executive office, which, in effect, will replace the ONS, which is formally abolished by the Bill. Will the Minister expand on the background to that change and the way in which the delegation will work in practice, to reassure those who are concerned about what they regard as a merging and blurring of executive and scrutiny functions?
The second big issue raised by this group of amendments is the office of National Statistician. It is a pivotal role in both the existing and the proposed structures for the statistical system. If the reform is to achieve its goals, it is vital that the status and authority of the National Statistician is strengthened by the Bill and that the functions of her office are clearly defined. The reforms must enable her to provide effective leadership of the statistical system. We must ensure that she has real authority and that her views and concerns have an impact right across Government and statistical production. That is why I would be particularly pleased by the strengthening of her position through amendments Nos. 15 and 16, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks.
The reforms should make clear provision for the professional authority of the National Statistician. That point was made strongly to the Treasury Committee by the Canadian chief statistician, Dr. Ivan Fellegi. He felt that the role set out for the National Statistician in the Government’s consultation document was weak and saw it as a major defect in the proposals. Some of the amendments in the group are intended to deal with Dr. Fellegi’s concerns, many of which were acknowledged as important by the Treasury Committee.
Amendment No. 97 emphasises the vital leadership role of the National Statistician and would make explicit the fact that she should be the Government’s chief adviser on official statistics, including on matters relating to their planning, production and quality. I hope that that is implicit in the Bill, but those are vital tasks and it would send a strong signal of the status accorded the National Statistician if they were given explicit recognition. Some members of the statistical community have expressed the concern that in the past Governments have failed to engage in effective planning for statistical production. An explicit recognition of the importance of that task would be valuable; if that is not possible, recognition by the Minister today of the importance of the planning process would be welcomed.
Amendments Nos. 29 and 98 would ensure that the National Statistician’s remit includes the co-ordination of statistical production across the Government and ensuring that the production of official statistics across the UK is consistent. The importance of co-ordination has been emphasised by a range of expert groups. There is grave concern that past efforts to co-ordinate statistical production have been insufficiently effective. Given that the Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—statistics Bills come only every 60 years—we should use it to try to put that problem right.
The amendments also raise the question of consistency. Clearly, it is vital that we address the concerns expressed about the fragmentation of UK statistics and the difficulty of obtaining information to cover the whole country. It is extremely welcome that the Bill proposes a framework that is to apply across the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the work that the Minister must have done to bring that about; it cannot have been an easy political task, and he deserves the Committee’s congratulations.
Amendments Nos. 115 and 116 would impose the efficiency obligations in clause 26 on the National Statistician. Unlike most of the other amendments in the group, which would substitute the words “National Statistician” for “Board”, amendments Nos. 115 and 116 would impose the duty on both institutions. Clause 26 contains sensible provisions on minimising the burdens placed on businesses and individuals affected by statistical collection, and the Opposition will return to that issue at another point. However, given the important role that the National Statistician should play in the production of statistics, it makes sense for the efficiency requirements to apply to her and her office as well as to the board.
I welcome amendments Nos. 118 and 119, which would provide very useful parliamentary input into the appointment of the national statistician. They would enhance parliamentary scrutiny in respect of the statistical system as a whole. In many ways, the reasons for supporting the amendments would be similar to those for supporting the previous group about the importance of hands-on parliamentary scrutiny of the statistical system. The amendments would also give parliamentary recognition to the importance of the role of National Statistician. We want to make hers a household name, and having hearings in Parliament and increasing parliamentary scrutiny of the appointments process would strengthen and enhance the role of National Statistician.
Alun Michael: I should like to clarify something. The hon. Lady referred to amendments Nos. 118 and 119, but they are not in the group that we are discussing.
Mrs. Villiers: I might have mixed up the numbers; I meant to say amendments Nos. 188 and 189. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s correction and apologise.
Finally, I appeal to the Minister to assist the Committee by providing clarification on those important questions. I hope that he can allay the fears that I have expressed and those expressed by the many people who are very keen to see the structure work. We want a rational separation of the roles of scrutiny and delivery and to ensure that the Bill achieves its purposes.
Debate adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]
Adjourned accordingly at Seven o’clock, till Thursday 18 January at Nine o’clock.
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