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Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Statistics and Registration Service Bill

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Sir John Butterfill, Mr. Bill Olner
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brennan, Kevin (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Cable, Dr. Vincent (Twickenham) (LD)
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op)
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H. (Central Ayrshire) (Lab)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Fallon, Mr. Michael (Sevenoaks) (Con)
Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
Goldsworthy, Julia (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD)
Healey, John (Financial Secretary to the Treasury)
Hoban, Mr. Mark (Fareham) (Con)
Hosie, Stewart (Dundee, East) (SNP)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Mactaggart, Fiona (Slough) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Reed, Mr. Andy (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
Emily Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 18 January 2007


[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

Clause 5

Executive members and other staff
Amendment proposed [16 January]: No. 15, in clause 5, page 3, line 13, after ‘Majesty’, insert
‘on the advice of the Prime Minister’.—[Mr. Fallon.]
9 am
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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’.
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is similar to ones that I have raised in the past. I seek assurances from the Minister about the way in which the most basic information on local issues will be available in the future. Given the direction of travel in the Office of National Statistics and the discussion about the importance of the most local information possible, I am calling for something that follows that direction of travel.
My concern is that it is possible sometimes for the more local interests to get lost in the sound and furyof the discussion of national statistics, international comparisons and the rest. I have suggested that a further requirement should be added to the role of the National Statistician in clause 28. The clause states that the National Statistician is to be the board’s principal adviser on three things: the quality of official statistics, good practice in relation to official statistics and the comprehensiveness of official statistics. It is possible to argue that one could not have good practice in relation to official statistics without ensuring that they demonstrated evidence of local variations and that the comprehensiveness of official statistics must be such as to produce evidence of service needs at the local level.
My experience from working in the inner city is that in some areas figures at a ward or sub-ward level may be insufficiently fine-grained to ensure that needs are tackled and the facts are understood. I discovered when dealing with rural affairs that when one considers statistics in rural areas it is certainly the case in spades that the population may be so small that half a county is covered by ward-level statistics. It is important that the National Statistician has in mind not only the great sweep of statistics and policy but the need for the statistics that are produced, other than national statistics, to be sufficiently fine-grained to be overlaid and used by those who analyse service delivery requirements and so on.
I hope that the Minister, if he is unable immediately to leap to accept the sensible drafting of my amendment, will at least acknowledge the importance of the issues and show that they are taken as a part of what they are seeking to do in the Bill. I hope that the Minister can give a positive response on a point that in practice will be important to local authorities up and down the country, to voluntary and non-governmental organisations that are concerned with local issues, and to Members of Parliament. We frequently try to dig down into the needs of our constituents and such information is important, as is cross-cutting analysis rather than mere analysis down the silos of different bits of information. Such information allows one to consider health, education, economics and other social factors across the board. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively on that point, which in the long term will be of interest to Members from all parties in the House in practice, even if it is not exciting to them now.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): We are debating a long list of amendments. Indeed, I was somewhat worried that much of this sitting would be taken up by your reading out the list, Sir John, such was its considerable length.
Amendments Nos. 188 and 189 stand in my name and replicate what I proposed in amendments Nos. 186 and 187 with regard to non-executive members of the statistics board. Amendments Nos. 188 and 189 would apply the same approach to the National Statistician, who, as the Bill is drafted, will be appointed under the royal prerogative. I propose, in the first instance, that the appointment should be subject to the approvalof the parliamentary commission, with a right of veto—as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet proposed in new clause 2—or, alternatively, that the parliamentary commission should at least produce a report, along the lines of the Select Committee on the Treasury, with respect to appointments to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. I would not be surprised if we ended up with something similar to the second approach, as a consequence of a Select Committee taking it upon itself to hold such hearings.
I do not want to rehearse all the arguments on that point again. When I made the case for the power of veto on Tuesday, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that it was appropriate that Ministers should play a role in appointments, because to do so was a function of the Executive. However, even under my proposal in amendment No. 188, Ministers would still play a role. They would still appoint, or at least propose the National Statistician, although not the number of non-executive members. The proposal would be made by Ministers and it would be for Parliament to confirm that appointment or otherwise. There would still be considerable powers in the hands of Ministers, although the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was making a broader point—that the making of such appointments is an executive function and that Ministers, as members of the Executive, should make that appointment.
“We do need a new settlement over these next few years between, if you like, the executive, the legislature—and that is the power of Parliament and the House of Commons—and people themselves”.
He continued:
“I think we’re moving to a new understanding over the next few years, of more accountable government, a stronger parliamentary democracy, and a more active population”.
One of the areas in which there is a greater rolefor Parliament and scope for greater accountabilityis in the exercise of the royal prerogative in making appointments. We have an opportunity, here and now, to begin that approach and to make an historic step forward in parliamentary accountability. Were the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to be sympathetic to that approach, his name would live on in posterity as that of a wise, far-sighted and radical Minister who recognised the importance of Parliament. He would become one of our constitutional heroes—if he is not already one for other reasons. I fear that this will be a missed opportunity, but I urge the Government to consider the proposal again.
I turn to other aspects of the amendments. Many of them seek to address what many outside observers see as a fundamental flaw. Confusion and potential conflicts of interest exist, as it seems that the statistics board will be conducting two sets of activities. First, it will be performing a scrutinising audit role; secondly, it will be publishing statistics, as the Office for National Statistics now does. One can read through the Billand come to the conclusion that the statistics boardis a scrutinising body, almost overlooking the factthat it will continue to perform the executive function of producing statistics. If the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West will forgive me—hon. Members will know that it is rare to find a more assiduous member of a Standing Committee—but in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, he challenged her—
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): A challenging question.
Mr. Gauke: It was a question; but the hon. Gentleman will know that all his questions are challenging. He asked where in the Bill it said that the statistics board would publish statistics, and my hon. Friend was more than capable of answering him. None the less, it is somewhat surprising that such an assiduous Member did not immediately pick that up. If he will forgive me, I suspect that he had not.
The publication of statistics does not sit easily with the statistics board. There is a distinction betweenits scrutinising and executive functions and, to a considerable extent, I think that the Government recognise that in the Bill. I say that because of the provisions of clause 29; and a number of amendments in this group would affect that clause. I am sure that the Financial Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but clause 29 states that some of the functions of the statistics board set out in the Bill may be performed by the National Statistician. Clause 29(3) contains reserve powers. It states that
“The National Statistician may not”—
exercise the function of adopting a code of practice; nor is he able to assess or reassess whether official statistics comply with the code. That is clearly for the board, and the board alone. I would be interested to know from the Financial Secretary what is the rationale for that.
For what it is worth, I assume that those are areas of the code, and its assessment and reassessment, for which the full credibility of the board is necessary, and that it would be wrong to hand that power to one individual. The fact that that approach does notapply to the executive functions suggests that the Government realise the distinction between the two.
While I am on the subject, under clause 29(4) the board is able to assert that it will not allow certain of its functions to be performed by the National Statistician. For that reason, amendments Nos. 128 and 129, tabled by the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Falmouth and Camborne, do not quite work. They seem to turn clause 29(4) around so that, rather than give a power to the board to have a reserve right on certain functions, they would prevent the board from directing the National Statistician to perform certain functions, which is not the right way to deal with the issue. None the less, where there is that distinction, the Government have not taken the provision to its logical conclusion, which would be to set out in the Bill precisely those activities that should be performed by the National Statistician in the capacity of National Statistician and those activities that are performed by the statistics board.
9.15 am
Amendment No. 151 to clause 6(1) would make it clear that statistics were produced not by the board but by the National Statistician. Amendments Nos. 100 to 102 apply a similar approach to clause 9, which relates to the creation of definitions, methodologies and so on for statistics; that, too, is an area for the National Statistician, not the statistics board.
Why does that matter? My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet very ably set out the arguments. A particularly important point is that if the statistics board is drawn into a controversy about statistics that it has produced and it is ultimately criticised strongly for the manner in which it has produced them, that damages the credibility of the statistics board. Given that the board is the very entity that we want to assess other statistics and to be essentially the judge and jury on other statistics, its position would be substantially weakened in such circumstances, which would be unfortunate.
My hon. Friend also gave the example of a dispute relating to pensions contributions and the manner in which it was possible to raise that with the ONS but then go beyond that. When the ONS is within the same body that conducts scrutiny, that will create a difficulty. During our consideration, we have to remember that the Statistics Commission, which has played a useful role in commenting on the use of statistics, will no longer exist following the implementation of the Bill. Clearly, the intention is that the statistics board will fulfil the role that the Statistics Commission currently undertakes, but if the statistics board is drawn into too many disputes because of its own statistics, that will weaken its position.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): My hon. Friend is setting out a very clear argument on why there is confusion at the heart of the Bill between the scrutiny role of the board and its responsibilities for the production of statistics. Can he envisage a situation in which the board has to arbitrate or adjudicate between the views of the National Statistician in his role of producing official statistics and the views of the head of assessments, who has to assess and reassess national statistics? He may have a disagreement with the National Statistician about how those statistics are produced. The board, which has responsibility for both production and assessment, will be drawn into a great conflict within itself because of the actions and the views of two different people. Would it not be easier simply to prise away at board level those two different responsibilities, so that it is clear that one organisation is responsible for the overview—the scrutiny—of statistics and one organisation is responsible for their production?
Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I assume that the logic of his argument brings into question the position of the National Statistician as an executive member of the statistics board. Certainly there are issues in that respect, but there are various permutations of potential disputes within the statistics board. The provision creates a regrettable flaw.
I would be interested to know how the Financial Secretary envisages clause 29 working as the arrangements settle down. To be fair, it may be impossible for him to give a view, but what does he envisage will be, in practice, the delineation of responsibilities between the National Statistician and the statistics board? Is it expected—or at least, would he be surprised if it were the case—that ultimately the National Statistician will produce all the statistics, and that the statistics board will find itself not producing the statistics, as it is empowered to do under clause 6?I would be interested to know his thinking regarding that area.
Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman adverted to my intervention on the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet at column 80 of the Official Report of the afternoon sitting. She did not pick up on the implication of my question to her, so perhaps I will now make it clear to him because of the large number of amendments that have been tabled. He is discussing the potential conflict between use and supervision, if I can put it that way, to explain why he did not seek to amend clause 6(1)(a)(i) and clause 18(1) and (2), which are to do with the production of statistics by the board. If he thinksthat there might be a conflict, another way to resolve the conflict that he foresees would be to take out the production side and simply leave in the supervision side, rather than to employ the complicated method, including tabling a huge number of amendments, with which he seeks to deal with the issue.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet seeks to amend clause 6(1)(a)(i) with amendment No. 151, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will find there are similar amendments—Nos. 103 to 107—in respect of clause 18. He raises a good point, but I think that it has been addressed.
Rob Marris: With respect, it has not. I was aware of those amendments; they would insert the words “National Statistician”, instead of the word “Board”. They would leave production with the National Statistician—that is the general, overarching thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s amendments and those of his hon. Friend. I am suggesting that another way to resolve that perceived conflict between production and supervision would have been to take production out of the Bill completely. The hon. Gentleman has chosen not to follow that route; that is obviously his choice, but I wonder whether he can explain that choice.
Mr. Gauke: The hon. Gentleman makes a case for one way of dealing with the issue. However, one would expect the National Statistician to be involved in the production of statistics, because, as I understand it, that is traditionally what the National Statistician does. The hon. Gentleman proposes a more radical step than has been proposed by the Opposition. It seems to me that, given where we are on the Bill, it is a perfectly reasonable approach to try to divide the activities between the National Statistician and the statistics board. That is the approach that is outlined in the various amendments.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): It is worth the Committee bearing in mind that the National Statistician is currently very much involved in the production of statistics, because she runs the ONS. The Opposition would be reluctant to table an amendment suggesting that that involvement should cease. It makes sense to beef up the role of the National Statistician. An amendment that sought to restrict her ability to take part in the production of statistics would cause great problems. That is why I took the approach that I did.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying the position; indeed, I am convinced by her remarks.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): In a similar vein, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the submission of the chief statistician of Canada that the proposals that we have before us already weaken the role of the National Statistician, and we should be seeking to strengthen that role, not to weaken it further, which is what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West seems to be indicating we should do?
Mr. Gauke: The hon. Lady makes a good point. It is well worth considering the testimony that the Treasury Sub-Committee received from the chief statistician of Canada. There is a concern that we have a structure in the Bill wherein the National Statistician is not in as strong a position as she should be. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has tabled a number of important amendments relating to the status of the National Statistician. Returning briefly to amendments Nos. 188 and 189, the fact that there would be high-profile parliamentary hearings regarding the role of the National Statistician would help the profile of the post and suggest a higher status and sense of power in the hands of the National Statistician. Anything that weakens the position of the National Statistician in the Bill would be regrettable.
Rob Marris: I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the Committee that I was not proposing anything. I was suggesting that there were two alternatives that he and his colleagues could have chosen. He has chosen one alternative and I was simply inquiring why he had not chosen the other. I am grateful to him and his colleagues for their explanation.
Mr. Gauke: As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his characteristically assiduous and thoughtful interventions.
I move on to another set of arguments in relation to this group of amendments—
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Before my hon. Friend moves on, the intervention made quite fairly by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West may be assiduous and thoughtful, but it may also be wrong. The two alternatives are not equally valid. If we take the National Statistician out of the production of statistics altogether, all we would end up with in the Bill is the replacement of the commission by the board. The board would be the same as the commission, except it would have some kind of statutory basis. That would result in an even weaker Bill than the Government are proposing.
Mr. Gauke: Perhaps I should have said that it is characteristic of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West to be assiduous, thoughtful and wrong.
I move on to another set of arguments. We touched upon the co-ordination role for the statistics board, which leads us to issues relating to clause 10, which is about the code of practice. I will confine my remarks to the amendments tabled, but there is concern among the statistical community about the lack of co-ordination in relation to statistics that are classified as official, not national, statistics. The submissions received by members of the Public Bill Committee, the testimonies provided to the Treasury Sub-Committee and other evidence reveal widespread concern about the dichotomy between national and official statistics.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are now wide even of this enormous group of amendments in that he is discussing amendments that will come up under clause 10, for example amendment Nos. 140 and 91. We are at risk of deviating too far because of the complexity of this large group of amendments.
Mr. Gauke: I will bring my comments back to amendment Nos. 29 and 98 which deal with the roleof the National Statistician in co-ordinating statistical planning and production. In that context, those amendments are part of the issue.
The Chairman: They are indeed, but they relate to clause 29 and not to clause 10.
Mr. Gauke: I do not wish to get into the issues relating to clause 10, and, Sir John, you are, of course, right to remind me of that. I merely raise the issue in the context of concern in the statistics community that that, although clause 10 sets up a code of practice for national statistics, the statistics board will not have a sufficiently large role in areas outside national statistics. The intention behind amendments Nos. 98 and 29 isto beef up its role and give the board power and responsibility to co-ordinate activities.
9.30 am
I have no doubt that the Financial Secretary’s argument against the amendments will be that we have a decentralised system and that it should be preserved. I understand that argument and those about keeping statisticians close to data sources and able to move among Departments and so on. I thought that the speech made by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on Second Reading was an interesting examination of the various arguments—clearly, he was not persuaded by some of them. There is something to be said for amendments Nos. 29 and 98, which would improve the co-ordination role. They were supported by submissions from several outside experts.
Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend is making an important point about the co-ordination role that the National Statistician and the board can undertake. It would underpin the board’s responsibilities under clause 8, which deals with the monitoring and reporting of official statistics. I suspect that the extension of the National Statistician’s powers that he wants would enable the board to fulfil more fully and adequately its role under clause 8.
The Chairman: Order. We are again going wide even of this group of amendments. I apologise to right hon. and hon. Members. The grouping was done with the advice of counsel, who, while well meaning, perhaps did not entirely appreciate the difficulty that the grouping would create in Committee for Members to remain in order. I apologise to the Committee, but we must not go even wider than the grouping permits, otherwise chaos ensues.
Mr. Gauke: Thank you, Sir John. I am grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham. I shall not dwell on it, but he makes a good point.
Amendments Nos. 97 and 127 to clause 28 address the same point about the role of the National Statistician in respect of official statistics that are not national statistics. I shall not labour the point, but there is much outside concern about the issue. The arguments are similar to those that applied to amendments Nos. 29 and 98. How does the statistics board or the National Statistician deal with official statistics? Amendments Nos. 97 and 127 seek to provide a role for the National Statistician in giving advice to the Government on official statistics—largely departmental statistics. It would be a useful addition to the Bill to enable the National Statistician not to exercise control in absolute terms—we would still retain a decentralised system—but to perform a greater role in guiding and advising the Government.
Rob Marris: I shall not go through all the amendments—there are a great many, Sir John—but if the amendments that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members have tabled were passed, the job and role of the National Statistician, albeit bearing in mind the inevitable delegation, would be enormous and undoable.
Mr. Gauke: I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As ever he is probing our arguments thoroughly, but he suggested earlier that our amendments were not radical enough and now he suggests that they are too radical. If our amendments were made, the role of the National Statistician would become more important, and the status and profile of the National Statistician would be strengthened, butI do not believe, particularly when one makes comparisons with the historical role of the National Statisticians and international comparisons, that the job would be such that it could not be done. I am not sure about whether I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.
I have spoken to the amendments for long enough, I think. They address a large number of the arguments on whether enough is done in the Bill for official statistics that are not national statistics, on whether there is conflict of interest and a blurring of the lines of responsibility between the National Statistician and the statistics board, and on the position of Parliamentin scrutinising the appointment of the National Statistician. I look forward to the comments of the Financial Secretary, because our discussion this morning is perhaps one of the most important that we will have during the course of the Bill. Many of the key weaknesses of the Bill are revealed, and a number of the amendments deal with those issues and can address the problems.
Julia Goldsworthy: As I was not here on Tuesday, I take this opportunity formally to welcome you to the Chair, Sir John.
To try to stay in order as I speak to this large group of amendments, I shall focus on the common themes in the speeches that have already been made, which relate to the relationship between the National Statistician and the board as well as the role of the National Statistician and the status that that role should be given. Those two issues are important, because one of the key problems that have been highlighted by the statistical community is the muddiness of that relationship.
The Royal Statistical Society’s response to the publication of the Bill states:
“As drafted the Bill muddles the roles of the Board and the National Statistician. This lack of clearly distinct roles and responsibilities will cause confusion and will undermine public confidence in the system if circumstances arise where the Board needs to comment publicly on some failure within ONS.”
It goes on to say that the board
“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.”
The society said that it believes that to be the intention behind the Bill, but that that is not what is achieved by the Bill as it stands.
Mrs. Villiers: Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem to which she and the RSS have referred is intensified by the fact that the Statistics Commission is effectively being merged into the Office for National Statistics? The loss of that separate oversight body constitutes the removal of an existing safeguard, so the Bill could result in a system that is weaker in some respects than the current arrangements.
Julia Goldsworthy: That is the key concern. Although there is an attempt to build a series of Chinese walls, the result is a confusing maze and unintended conflicts.
Amendment No. 120, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham,is an attempt to clear up the muddiness of the relationship by making it clear that the National Statistician is independent of the board but still subject to its scrutiny and oversight. That is not explicit in the Bill as drafted.
Amendment No. 21, which would amend clause 8, is an attempt to provide clarity by giving the board the responsibility to monitor and assess the performance of the National Statistician. Again, the aim is to create a degree of separation that is not there now. A lot of the other amendments that would replace the word “Board” with “National Statistician” are designed to do exactly the same, in order to make the Bill consistent. I do not think that it is necessarily helpful to go into all the amendments in great detail, because the case has already been made for many of them, but amendment No. 100 is another good example of trying to create that separation. As the Bill is drafted, the board has the wherewithal to produce statistics—I understand that that raises an issue to which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West referred in previous debates—yet clause 8 also makes it clear that it also has a responsibility for scrutiny. Amendment No. 100 would separate those two roles.
Amendment No. 127, which would amend clause 28, raises the second issue—that of the National Statistician’s status. It would make the National Statistician the principal advisor, which would be appropriate in terms of the National Statistician’s specialist role in the production of statistics. In a way, it seems absurd to create that role but to limit it to national statistics, rather than expand it to statistics as a whole. I see no reason why either the guidelines that are produced or the National Statistician’s principal role cannot apply in principle to other statistics. In fact, if Ministers decide what statistics are to be considered as national statistics and if the opportunity does not exist to bridge those two different grades of statistics, how will the lower tier ever make it to the higher tier? It is also important to provide a leadership role for all those who produce and use statistics.
I should like to refer briefly to the Treasury Sub-Committee’s work and the Bank of England’s response. The Bank of England found the proposals to be somewhat unclear and noted that the role of the National Statistician under the new arrangement did not seem akin to that of the National Statistician under the present framework. Again, those concerns were raised by the chief statistician of Canada, who was concerned that the proposals weakened the role of the National Statistician. Our amendments would address those concerns. I therefore welcome clause 29, because it would beef up the role and status of the National Statistician.
Amendments Nos. 128 and 129 would amendclause 29. We shall not press those amendments to a vote,; we are simply trying to raise the key question whether there is a potential for conflict between being scrutinised by the board and being directed by the board.
Mr. Gauke: My interpretation of the Bill as drafted is that the board is able to reserve some of its powers to itself and to prevent the National Statistician from performing certain roles given to the board under the Bill. Amendments Nos. 128 and 129 put the matter the other way round and would prevent the National Statistician from exercising particular powers, so on this occasion I am sympathetic to what I anticipate the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will say.
Julia Goldsworthy: I certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s points, although I am disappointed that there was no reference to his wife, who I understand is not particularly interested in this area, which is a great shame.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): She will be.
Julia Goldsworthy: She may well be, depending on how long we take.
Mr. Hoban: I am slightly curious about the impact of amendments Nos. 128 and 129. Under clause 29(4),
“The Board may direct the National to how he should exercise a particular function.”
Would the consequence of the hon. Lady’s amendments be that the board would not be able to direct the National Statistician on how to exercise a particular function? If he is doing something wrong and continues to do so, should the board, in her view, be unable to tell him to correct his mistakes?
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Julia Goldsworthy: I can see the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. We were pressing for greater independence for the National Statistician. That is the clarity that we sought to introduce in the amendment.
We welcome amendment No. 15, tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. It, too, provides clarity, as itis not obvious who is responsible for making the appointment. Given that the Treasury takes primary responsibility for the board, I would understand a Treasury Minister being made responsible for the appointment. However, we have a great deal of sympathy with the proposal to transfer that responsibility to the Cabinet Office, as the Treasury is such a great consumer of statistics. On that basis, we support that amendment.
The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members that, although we are discussing the amendments now, the hon. Members who have tabled them have the opportunity, should they wish to press them to a Division, to do so when we reach the clause to which they relate. Do you wish to reply, Mr. Healey?
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): I thank you, Sir John. I had not realised that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne had petered to a halt. I was waiting for the culmination of her contribution, but I missed it.
It has been an illuminating debate—and flattering in parts. As the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire observed, it is probably one of the most important discussions that the Committee will have. In summary, we heard an explanation of a wide set of amendments—from the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne for the Liberal Democrats, from the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet for the official Opposition, and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth.
Essentially, the amendments seek to bolster the role and status of the National Statistician, in response to the perceptions and concerns that may have been raised with or occurred to members of the Committee. They also reflect concerns about the distinction between the board’s scrutiny role and its executive statistical production functions.
Given the detailed and reflective nature of the debate, it may help if I try at the outset to explain the thinking behind the provisions. I appreciate that for many, particularly those in the statistical community, it is a matter of leading concern. I am not certain that everyone is entirely clear about exactly what is being proposed.
As we heard during the debate, the Bill is indeed part of the new settlement of which the Chancellor has spoken. It is one of a series of steps that he has put in place, setting out arrangements for the modern economic governance of the country. It is based on track records and our commitment that, as we have demonstrated, we will, when appropriate, devolve ministerial power by statute to credible and independent institutions the remit of which is set by the House and the Government.
The Committee will recognise the Government’s belief that sharing accountability collectively acrossa group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of experience will in the end deliver better results than vesting all authority in one individual. At the centre of the Bill, therefore, we have the new independent statistics board.
During the development of our reform proposals and through the process of consultation, we examined carefully the case for creating the scrutiny board as a wholly separate body—in other words, essentially putting the Statistics Commission on a statutory footing that is completely separate from statistical production.
However, we had another important policy and reform goal, which is one that many have supported. That was to place the ONS and the National Statistician on an independent statutory footing; no longer reporting directly to Ministers but independent, statutory and reporting elsewhere. One of the ways of doing that was to remove Ministers from the direct accountability structure. Everyone agrees that that was the right move, and I have not heard serious voices suggesting otherwise. By doing so, it is important to replace the role of Ministers in overseeing the National Statistician and their staff. In considering that, we concluded two things. First, that the oversight role is best delivered by a board for the reasons that I have just explained and as explained in relation to the proposal for a parliamentary commission. Secondly, we concluded that it would be best to establish a single oversight board to scrutinise the statistical system and to provide the top governance layer for an independent ONS. One of the key reasons for that was to avoid creating competing independent statutory centres of statistical expertise.
Our chosen model is the board, which is able to draw on the professional advice of the independent statutory National Statistician rather than requiring its own separate independent professional adviser and voice. That leads to a series of reasonable questions that it is right to pose about the proper separation of functions, which the Treasury Committee in its inquiry and report dealt with assiduously. In the arrangements contained in the Bill we tried to reflect comments from the Select Committee in particular. The single structure includes arrangements that ensure a clear delineation of the production and scrutiny responsibilities. We have set that out in the Bill.
Mrs. Villiers: The Financial Secretary will forgive me if he was going on to deal with my point. I appreciate that he attempted to respond to the consultation process by incorporating the concept of a head of assessment as opposed to a delegated office. However, if the National Statistician is designated chief executive of the board, surely that gives her a remit across the whole function given to the board by statute, in other words its executive and assessment functions. Does clause 29(1) not undermine the separation to which he has just referred?
John Healey: No. If the hon. Lady will bear with me and study some of the provisions in the Bill, she will see that the important assessment and scrutiny functions of the board, which if one wanted to draw a parallel may be called regulatory although I am unsure that is quite the right term, may raise issues of a potential conflict of interest. The legislation is clear that the head of assessment and the staff can have nothing to do with the production function of statistics and that the National Statistician should not be involved in that. The assessment function will be operationally independent of production in the executive office. A second statutory post holder—the head of assessment—will be created to report directly to the board and will lead the assessment function and all the staff working on assessment.
Mr. Hoban: The Financial Secretary answered in part the question that I was going to pose—I would have raised it during the stand part debate if it had not come up in the discussion today—about the distinction between the head of assessment and the National Statistician. He said that the head of assessment would be separate from the National Statistician and that he would report directly to the board. Does the Financial Secretary expect that the head of assessment will be entirely independent of the chief executive of the board—the National Statistician—and that he will have full control over his staff, the terms and conditions of appointment and the work that they do? Does he expect that, in effect, there will be two separate organisational groups operating under the remit of the board?
John Healey: In practice, I would expect the boardto take an interest in details such as the terms and conditions of any staff whom it is ultimately responsible for appointing, but in respect of the responsibility and accountability for carrying outthe assessment functions and all the activities related to the assessment function, any staff working in that area will be separate from those on the production side and will report directly and only to the head of assessment. The head of assessment will report directly and only to the board. The National Statistician will have no involvement. The production staff and managerswill have no involvement. They will therefore be operationally separate, and that operational separation is codified in the Bill.
Julia Goldsworthy rose—
Mr. Gauke rose—
John Healey: I will give way to the hon. Lady, who was on her feet before the hon. Gentleman was.
The Chairman: Order. I should say that, in discussing the staff, hon. Members are going somewhat wider than the amendments that they are supposed to be discussing. The issues that hon. Members are discussing would normally be dealt with in a clause stand part debate, which I propose to allow. I call Julia Goldsworthy.
Julia Goldsworthy: Thank you, Sir John. Doesthe Financial Secretary agree that the statistical community is confused by the proposals in the Bill, as the submission from the Royal Statistical Society shows? Would it not be a good idea to follow up the issue raised by the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire and set out clearly in the Bill a summary of the function of the board and the function of the National Statistician, because at this point there is still a lot of confusion out there?
John Healey: I began by saying that I thought that many in the statistics community were not entirely clear about the proposals in the Bill and the way in which they were designed to operate. I hope that the scrutiny and deliberations of the Committee will help to illuminate that.
Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his remarks about the operational points. To the extent that this is relevant to the discussion that weare having about clarity, will he accept that, notwithstanding those operational divisions, statistics will still be produced under the structure set out in the Bill, whereby statistics will be labelled as produced by the statistics board? People closely involved in this area may appreciate that that is done by the operational side as opposed to the assessment side, but to the wider public, the statistics will still be produced by the statistics board. That gives rise to confusion and possible damage to the reputation of the statistics board in the event of a controversy.
John Healey: I suppose that there may be a theoretical risk of that. I am sure that that will be a feature that Parliament will examine closely in following closely the way in which the board and its operations are established and the way in which its duties and responsibilities are discharged. In practice, the legislative separation in the Bill, the professionalism that we can expect from those involved in statistical production and assessment, the sense of service and commitment to providing the best possible statistical service that we are likely to see in those whom we appoint as non-executives to the board, the fact that all involved are likely to work to common goals, and the fact that this is a system, a board and an institution that is by law independent from Ministers will provide the basis for what will prove to be a very sound and increasingly authoritative and credible body. It is one of the underlying purposes of the legislation that that will lead to improving credibility and quality in official statistics in this country—the statistics on which so many of us, in different ways and for different purposes, rely.
Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for his characteristic generosity in giving way. In addressing the points made by Opposition Members and in helping to reassure those in the statistical community who are confused about how the system will work in practice, perhaps he could give comparisons with existing institutions that are organised along similar lines; that is, with an internal split between scrutiny functions and production.
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John Healey: I think that the hon. Lady would accept that we are dealing with the imperatives, interests and importance of statistics. There are no direct comparators—they are difficult to find. Even international experience, which we have studied carefully, does not immediately suggest a single obvious and consistent model that is used elsewhere. When one considers the different nature of governance and use of statistics in other countries, again, there is not a ready model that can be borrowed and imported to Britain. We are constructing something that is breaking new ground, that is radical and innovative.
As I have stressed in public and in Parliament, we are setting up a system and a framework that can evolve in the light of experience and, crucially, the judgment that Parliament makes on how well the board is carrying out its duties. That is one of the reasons why members of the Committee, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, will hearme say consistently that it is important to set the framework and the principles in the legislation but not be too prescriptive about how we require the board to discharge its functions.
To respond further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, let me amplify my argument. Some view the statistics board as some sort of regulator. It is important to be quite clear about the nature of the audit and assessment function that the board will be required to perform to give confidence in the integrity, credibility and quality of statistics. In many ways, it is hard to make the argument at anything other than a superficial level that somehow the board is a regulator. I do not think that it will stand comparison with, for instance, a regulator of competition among industries.
In essence, the statistics board’s assessment and audit function is much softer in nature, in terms of auditing or regulation. It is about setting and assessing against standards of production and handling of statistics. The questions of compliance that the board will be askedto consider are likely to be specific technical and professional questions; for example, assessing what is done in practice against a published code and set of standards for which the board itself is responsible. That is an important auditing function but not one that could credibly be called a regulatory function and therefore close to the models of the regulatory authorities and functions that we are used to in this country.
Mr. Hoban: I am following the Financial Secretary’s arguments closely. He said something that strikes a chord with me, because prior to coming to theHouse, I worked as a chartered accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. I spent a considerable part of my career as an auditor and assessed company numbers against public standards, and checked whether businesses complied with accounting standards. That involved a process, and the distinction I draw is that confidence was—
Mr. Fallon: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Hoban: I think that Sir John would say that hon. Members cannot intervene on an intervention.
The credibility of the data that are produced by listed companies is dependent upon an external audit. An external audit validates those data and an opinion is given on the financial statements. The same degree of credibility, however, does not come from those functions being performed internally by an internal audit. The Financial Secretary suggests that there should be an internal audit within a board, but in the private sector the validity comes from an external audit. In a way, that is another argument for drawing out the scrutiny part from the board’s activities in its overview of production.
John Healey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He expressed his concern in an earlier intervention in a way that illustrated the over-inflated nature of the risks that some claim might be contained in the proposed model. He has just introduced a similar point, but in much more measured and sharply observed terms, with which I shall try to deal in two ways.
First, we have proposed that the discharge of the assessment function be separated in statute from the production function of the statistics office, unlike with an internal or external audit function in a corporation. So, there is a statutory separation. Secondly, the statistics produced by the executive office—currently the ONS, but in future the statistics office, answerable to the board—will be assessed to the same standards and with same rigour as the national statistics thatare produced elsewhere in Government by other Departments, the majority of which are not produced by the ONS, as we have discussed.
The Chairman: Order. The Minister is intending to be helpful to the Committee, but he is going quite a long way into the objectives that are set out in clause 7 on the quality of the statistics, which is not covered by the group of amendments that we are discussing. We need to take the Bill in the order in which it is printed, subject to the variations brought about by the grouping of amendments, but I am afraid that we have gone beyond that and are straying into other areas.
John Healey: I am grateful for your guidance,Sir John. As you observed earlier, the choice of amendments in the current group makes some elements of what is a directly associated debate a little difficult.
I make my final observation on the concern that flows from the separation of functions, which is dealt with in this group, and the likelihood of the board deciding not to criticise or challenge when that was required or when standards had fallen short. If I, as the Minister responsible for the ONS under the current arrangements, criticise, challenge and make public, where that is required, the quality of the statistics or how the ONS operates—as I do and have done, on migration statistics, the quality of local and regional economic data, and on aspects of the census functions—it is hard to argue that there would be a risk of the board not doing that in future.
Mrs. Villiers: Will not a more significant problem arise not when the board decides that the ONS has done something wrong and issues a rebuke, but when it decides that the ONS has acted correctly? Will the claimant not respond, “Well, you would say that. You were responsible for making the decision in the first place”?
John Healey: We will deal with that in other parts of the Bill. The board will be required to publish the results of the assessments and audits of national statistics that it undertakes. The board will confirm the judgment and what lies behind it, and that will be clear for examination and challenge. It will be clear also for Parliament should it wish to pick up such matters with the board. We have built into the structure the safeguards for the unlikely situation that the hon. Lady is talking about.
I turn now, with some helpful general explanations and points, to some of the amendments. I turn first to those tabled by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, which he said were designed to boost the status of the National Statistician. I hope that he will recognise that the Bill and our proposals do that in a significant and groundbreaking way. They create the National Statistician as a statutory post and set out that the Crown will make the appointment. The functions are placed on a statutory footing and there is a requirement for the board publicly to justify any departure or decision that runs contrary to the professional advice of the National Statistician. The Bill gives the National Statistician a unique and high status codified in statute. A pause for thought will allow the Committee to recognise the force of that.
10.15 am
The nearest comparators in government to the National Statistician that one could think of might be the chief medical officer or the chief scientific adviser. Neither is a statutory appointment and although they lead their respective professions in government, there are no disciplines about the Government following their advice and certainly no disciplines about publishing reasons why their advice has not been followed. I have also made it clear, as have the Government in our formal response to the public consultation and at other stages, that we intend the National Statistician to be the head of the government statistical service and thereby offer the necessary professional leadership to the specialist statisticians who will continue to operate and be employed in other Departments.
Julia Goldsworthy: The Financial Secretary mentioned the similarities between the new role of National Statistician and those of the chief medical officer and chief scientist. Does he know who appoints those officers?
John Healey: There are established procedures for those officers. The Committee’s concern is principally to consider the appointment of the National Statistician, as the hon. Member for Sevenoaks encouraged us to do. It will be a Crown appointment. Let me address the hon. Gentleman’s points now. I confirm that when appointing the National Statistician, we will follow the usual, established procedures for such matters.
I turn to amendment No. 16, with which the hon. Member for Sevenoaks addresses the issue of the National Statistician having direct access to the Prime Minister. I do not consider that to be appropriate or necessary in the Bill. When he spoke to the amendment, he quoted Lord Moser telling the Select Committee that it is important that the National Statistician’s boss is the Prime Minister. With respect, that misses the whole point of the Bill, which is intended to ensure that no Minister is the National Statistician’s boss.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet are also concerned about the National Statistician having access to the Prime Minister about issues and disputes with Departments. One interesting and unusual, if not unique, feature of the post of National Statistician is that it has, codified under the framework for national statistics, access rights to the Prime Minister through the head of the civil service. On page 20, at 4.3.4(l), the framework states that the National Statistician will
“have the right of access to the Prime Minister, through the Head of the Home Civil Service, on matters concerning the integrity and validity of official statistics including on resources where he/she believes they impact on the integrity and validity of official statistics”.
We intend that the National Statistician will continue to have that right of access. The key point is that the National Statistician’s position is codified. It is more codified than any comparable post—the chief scientific officer does not have such codified access, nor does the head of the Government economic service. The wider position of the National Statistician is very different and much more formalised than it was in the days of Lord Moser.
Amendments Nos. 97 and 127 would require the Bill to state that the National Statistician shall be the Government’s chief adviser on statistics. The National Statistician’s chief adviser role is already well established. Under the Bill, the National Statistician is the board’s chief professional adviser, and the board must take account of the National Statistician’s advice on all statistical matters and must publish and report to Parliament if it overrules the National Statistician on professional technical matters, giving its reasons. This House and others will be able to scrutinise closely any such decision.
Under the duties and powers established in the Bill, the board, in turn, advises Government Departments on statistical issues, including such technical matters as methodological definition and classificatory issues, as well as on standards for official statistics. In practice, the National Statistician might well do that on the board’s behalf from day to day. As I have already said, we intend the National Statistician to be the head of the Government statistical service, providing the professional leadership required and being useful to those working on statistics in other parts of Government.
We have, however, chosen to retain our established, decentralised statistical system, with professional heads of statistics in the Departments under the leadership of the National Statistician. That decision has been widely supported, including by the Treasury Committee. A decentralised system inevitably means that statisticians will continue to work within the Departments; it is not appropriate to legislate within the civil service structure for lines of accountability between staff working in Departments and the National Statistician working in another body.
The next set of amendments seeks to reassign a number of the responsibilities in the Bill from the board to the National Statistician. We expect the National Statistician to undertake all those responsibilities on the board’s behalf, through the executive office that it will be required to establish. Under clause 29(2), the board may delegate its functions to the National Statistician, with a couple of limited exceptions that relate to the board’s assessment function. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire was concerned about that, and I think that he will accept that it is appropriate.
Mrs. Villiers: Returning to the separation of assessment and executive functions, if the board were taking a decision about a complaint made about ONS, would the National Statistician be present at the meeting? Would she be able to take part? The board cannot delegate assessment functions to her, but if it were voting on a complaint relating to her work, would she, as a member of the board, be able to vote?
John Healey: I have made it clear that I am reluctant to see the functions and workings of the board prescribed in primary legislation. The way in which the board conducts its meetings is a matter for the board to address in future. I do not think that the hon. Lady would expect me to offer a firm observation, and it would not be right to set that out during this Committee’s proceedings.
I am disappointed that we have not made sufficient progress to allow me to deal with all the points that have been made.
Mr. Gauke: I appreciate why assessment is the reserve of the board, and I would go further: why not make clear what is the responsibility of the board and what is the responsibility of the National Statistician?
John Healey: We are doing exactly that in the Bill.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.

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