Statistics and Registration Service Bill

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Clause 20

Statistical services
Question proposed, That the clause stand part ofthe Bill.
John Healey: Clauses 20 and 21 are important because they enable the board to undertake valuable activities, currently undertaken by the ONS, that are generally and necessarily widely known. Clause 20 allows the board to provide the range of services that the ONS currently provides. For example, it will be able to provide
“information, advice and technical assistance”
to outside bodies, including statistical agencies in developing countries. Under the clause, the board will also be able to undertake valuable statistical surveys and analyses on behalf of others as the ONS currently does.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 21 to 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25

Dr. Cable: I beg to move amendment No. 89, page 10, line 25, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenientto discuss the following amendments: No. 201, page 10, line 25, leave out ‘any or all’ and insert ‘one or more’.
No. 90, page 10, line 31, leave out ‘as soon as possible thereafter’ and insert ‘concurrently’.
Dr. Cable: With our amendment, we are once again having a gentle tilt at the parliamentary draftsmen, but the amendment is wholly uncontroversial and I hope that the Government will help us with it. Clause 25 concerns the board’s function in reporting to Parliament. Subsections (1) and (2) set out the procedure for annual reporting, and state that the board “must” produce an annual report and lay it before Parliament and the devolved Assemblies. Subsections (3) and (4) then state, for no obvious reason, that it “may” undertake other reports on matters relating to the exercise of its functions, and leave it open as to whether any such report should be laid before Parliament and the devolved Assemblies. That prompts the question as to what they are preparing such reports for—in a vacuum for their own amusement, perhaps.
The clause is about embedding the reports of the board in parliamentary accountability. What we suggest—changing “may” to “must”—is meant as a drafting improvement. It is certainly intended in that spirit, and I hope that the Minister will take it as such.
6.15 pm
John Healey: I have already discussed amendments Nos. 89 and 201 with the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him for raising this matter and for his constructive approach. Under the present drafting of the Bill, reports produced under clause 25(1) must be laid before Parliament and the devolved legislatures. In contrast, under clause 25(3), the board has only an option of laying discretionary reports before Parliament or the devolved legislatures. Looking at the matter, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Twickenham. If the board produces a report under subsection (3) about a matter relating to the exercise of its functions, it must lay the report before one or more of Parliament or the devolved legislatures. That is entirely consistent with the Government’s desire for parliamentary scrutiny to be at the heart of the new arrangements. I will be happy to accept amendments Nos. 89 and 201.
Dr. Cable: That is quite overwhelming. In 10 years of dealing with financial, immigration, asylum and benefits legislation in the House, this is the first time that an amendment I have tabled has been accepted. I will add the experience to my CV. I do not know what the courtesies are—perhaps I should send a bunch of flowers or a case of wine to the Treasury. Whatever is required, I appreciate the Minister’s flexibility of mind, and I am glad that we are proceeding on it.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 201, page 10, line 25, leave out ‘any or all’ and insert ‘one or more’.—[Dr. Cable.]
Clause 25, as amended, ordered to stand part ofthe Bill.
Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27

Stewart Hosie: I beg to move amendment No. 7, page 11, line 13, leave out ‘, with the consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer,’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 8, page 11, line 39, leave out subsection (9).
No. 9, in clause 45, page 21, line 4, leave out subsection (7).
No. 10, in clause 45, page 21, line 7, leave out ‘and the Treasury’.
No. 11, in clause 49, page 24, line 16, leave out subsection (7).
No. 12, in clause 49, page 24, line 19, leave out ‘and the Treasury’.
Stewart Hosie: Clause 27 gives the Chancellor of the Exchequer powers to direct the board if it has failed to comply with its objectives or perform any of its functions, placing the office at the heart of the process when things go wrong, which hopefully will be very infrequently. Clause 27(2), (3) and (4) appear to give Scottish and Welsh Ministers, and the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel, the same powers but, of course, it is not quite the same. Paragraph 116 of the explanatory notes states that devolved Administrations will have powers in “a similar manner”, but not exactly the same powers.
The territorial appointments discussed in a previous sitting are not actually made by the devolved Administrations but by the Treasury following consultations. Scottish Ministers cannot offer disclosure of information to or from the board without consent. Clause 27 operates in the same way for the measures dealing with directions when things go wrong. In a case of failure to comply or perform, the express consent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not the Treasury, is required before the devolved Administrations can issue directions. I might argue that clause 27 follows a rather sad pattern of Treasury command and control of the size and composition of the board, appointments to the board and so on, but I will not make the case speaking to my amendment. I merely argue that it is completely unnecessary, not least because the direction given by Scottish Ministers in clause 27(2) relates only to Scottish devolved statistics, something in which the Chancellor has, or should have, no locus whatever. My amendments would remove the requirement for the Chancellor’s consent in subsection (2), and subsection (9), which is the catch-all measure that would stop Scottish Ministers exercising the functions of the board in the case of its failure to comply other than with the direct consent of the Chancellor.
I tabled the amendments because the powers given to the Scottish Ministers, even with consent, relate only to devolved statistics, so UK Treasury consent should be wholly unnecessary.
I shall speak briefly to amendments Nos. 9 to 12. Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 to clause 45 would remove the requirement for Treasury consent before Scottish Ministers can authorise the disclosure of information to the board. Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 to clause 49 would remove the same requirement before Scottish Ministers can authorise the disclosure by the board. As with amendments Nos. 7 and 8, the proposals are unnecessary as clause 45 applies only to Scottish public authorities under the control of the Executive, and clause 49 allows information to be disclosed only to public authorities.
The clauses allow the Treasury, quite rightly in UK matters, to direct the board where there has been a failure to comply or to perform and the Treasury has the ability to authorise disclosure to and from the board to public bodies. Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and the Northern Ireland Departments have a similar provision, but it still requires the consent of the Treasury. It is a parent-child relationship which many will resent. However, the key point is that the only information being discussed is devolved statistics. In terms of disclosure to and from the board it relates only to Scottish public authorities defined in the legislation.
The power of consent is completely unnecessary and I ask the Financial Secretary to look again at the issue. The Administrations in Wales and Scotland have their own mandate; they are properly elected, functioning Administrations with a Parliament and an Assembly. I hope that one day Ministers in Northern Ireland will take control again, as is specified in the documentation with the Bill.
To require Treasury consent, and in some cases specific consent from the Chancellor in order for Ministers in the devolved Administrations to do their job, is completely unnecessary. I hope that the Minister will consider the matter in a trusting way, acknowledge the mandate of these Administrations and recognise that the power of consent in the clauses is unnecessary.
John Healey: The clause has been drafted to ensure that the devolved Administrations can play a full part in the work of the statistics board and so that they can have control over matters relating to wholly devolved statistics. For statistics that are not wholly devolved, the Bill establishes an appropriate framework for interaction between the board and the relevant devolved Administrations.
In respect of amendments Nos. 7 and 8 tabled by the hon. Member for Dundee, East, the powers in clause 27 are designed to protect the public interest so that if, and only if, the board fundamentally fails to deliver, for any reason, the Government can intervene, always publicly and in writing, to ensure that the board’s obligations are met. The clause provides an important safeguard, allowing the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the devolved Administrations to give the board such directions as are, in those circumstances, appropriate in the event of such a serious failure by the board to perform any of its functions or to comply with EU obligations.
I say this to the hon. Gentleman: it is appropriate that the Chancellor’s consent be needed for directions from Scottish Ministers. That is a last resort because a board failure might affect the position of statistics throughout the United Kingdom and so it is important that such directions be consistent. The consent will ensure that the directions are co-ordinated and that the Bill does not create any potentially conflicting powers. In addition, the resourcing of the board, in order to remedy a serious failure, will remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament, to which the Chancellor will, of course, be accountable. In such circumstances, shared accountability is important for such decisions and interventions.
We have been working closely with the Scottish Executive, as the Committee would expect, to ensure that the provisions in the Bill are appropriate to—in this case—Scotland. I can confirm that Scottish Ministers have agreed to their role in giving directions to the board in the case of a serious failure, including to the requirement for the Chancellor’s consent. The Scottish Parliament is being asked for its consent as well via the legislative consent motion currently lodged with it.
On amendments Nos. 9 to 12, we will discuss clauses on data sharing a little later. Essentially, the Bill sets out a mechanism for data sharing for statistical purposes between the board and public authorities only. The key point is that the mechanisms in clauses 45 and 49 mirror the mechanisms in other data-sharing clauses, which generally require the consent of the Treasury, as the body with residual legislative responsibility for the board, and of the Minister responsible for the other body involved in the data sharing. That will ensure that the Minister for the body disclosing data and the one responsible for the body receiving the data are both content for the regulation to be made. I see no reason why the provisions in Scotland should be any different from those applying else where. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his amendment.
Stewart Hosie: On amendments Nos. 7 and 8, I recognise that clause 27 is designed as a safeguard. I understand the argument that identified flaws might be universal and not simply relate to Scotland. However, on data sharing, which, as the Minister mentioned, we will have the opportunity to discuss in more detail later, I take issue with him when he said that the requirement is that both sides be content. That might be the intention and what is provided for in other legislation, but this Bill requires that the Treasury give consent, not that both parties be considered content with the data sharing. However, I shall not seek to press my amendments, although I might wish to return to them on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Fallon: I beg to move amendment No. 28, in clause 27, page 11, line 35, at end insert
‘and a copy must be placed in the Library of each House of Parliament.’.
I think that we have established that directions under the clause are a serious matter. A failure by the board to comply with its objectives or to perform its functions would be serious and so a direction is not likely to be given lightly. In reply to the hon. Member for Dundee, East, the Minister said that it is right that the remedy remain with Parliament because that is where, he hopes, due accountability will be exercised under the process. As I understand the clause, directions from the Chancellor or devolved Ministers must be in writing, but do not have to be public.
It is true that under subsection (7) a direction must be published in such a manner that the authority to which it is directed must be aware of it. However, that could mean any type of notice—a notice in the Edinburgh Gazette, for example. It could be very localised. If Parliament is to exercise its ultimate accountability functions, it must be aware of any direction made. I suppose that it is too much to hope that the Government might accept a second set of amendments, but I cannot see how he could logically oppose this one. He introduced the idea that Parliament has ultimate accountability, so I think that Parliament must be aware of directions laid under subsection (7). That is the purpose of the amendment.
6.30 pm
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman makes a useful point with his amendment. It is consistent with his intention at each stage to widen and deepen Parliament’s role in the scrutiny and accountability of the system. At this point, I cannot accept it as tabled because I would need to consider whether directions issued by Ministers in devolved Administrations might be laid publicly. If he will permit me, however, I will take away the point to consider, and I assure him that I will do so sympathetically.
Mr. Fallon: I am extremely grateful—I must not sound too surprised—to the Financial Secretary for that acceptance. The amendment makes sense, but I take his point perfectly about directions made by devolved Administrations. In the spirit in which he has accepted the principle, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part ofthe Bill.
Mr. Hoban: I want to push the Minister a little further. He made it clear in response to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Dundee, East that the directions would be used rarely and in grave situations, and we recognise that. He committed to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks that he would consider a way of publicising those directions, but in the context of parliamentary scrutiny, has he given any thought to whether, given their gravity, expected rarity and importance, they should be subject to parliamentary approval through the affirmative resolution procedure to give Parliament the opportunity to hold the Executive to account for such a degree of intervention?
John Healey: I do not think that that approach would be appropriate. The clause is quite standard. It is intended to be used as a last resort when there is a serious failure to carry out the duties with which Parliament will charge the board. It may be that that failure will require rapid direction on the Chancellor’s behalf or that of Ministers in devolved Administrations. Much better than requiring a legislative response to issue such directions might be the approach that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks is encouraging us to take—ensuring that directions laid under the clause would be reported directly to Parliament or the appropriate devolved Administration.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 25 January 2007