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Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
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 25 January 2007


[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

Clause 45

Power to authorise disclosure to the Board: Scotland
1 pm
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): As we have been talking about the need to share data and the clause is among a set that deals with devolved bodies, I wanted to ask how we deal with the fragmentation of statistics and what co-operation exists with devolved Administrations. We know that the census agreement for 2011 has been signed by the three Registrars General of England and Wales, of Scotland and of Northern Ireland. None the less, the Treasury Committee report “Independence for Statistics” raised a concern that the fragmentation of some statistics across the UK was continuing. One of the report’s recommendations was to review the concordat on statistics. It states that the Select Committee
“welcome the Minister’s commitment, on behalf of the Government, to review the Concordat on Statistics, particularly in light of his suggestion that, while this fragmentation has been an issue for some time because of differing local circumstances and requirements, devolution has led to an inevitable intensification of the problem.”
It goes on to recommend
“that the Government negotiate a revised Concordat with the devolved administrations, that the National Statistician, in consultation with the chief statisticians for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, be given responsibility for drafting a revised Concordat and that the new independent board be given responsibility for monitoring the implementation of the revised Concordat.”
Taking into account that recommendation and the evidence of witnesses who believe that recent experience has provoked the need to review the issue now, surely it makes sense for a review and renegotiation to take place. I am asking for the Minister’s commitment not only to review the concordat but to renew it. What plans does he have to update that?
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): If the hon. Lady looks at the official record of our discussions on Tuesday afternoon, she will see that we had quite a good debate on devolution and concerns about the coherence, comprehensiveness and co-ordination of statistics. I will not reiterate the detailed points covered by the Committee, but I will say one thing about the Treasury Committee and then deal specifically with the concordat, as I accept that we did not deal with it in particular detail on Tuesday afternoon. The hon. Lady will find that the Treasury Committee report was published before I could announce the full participation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the Bill’s provisions. She will also probably find that that participation was welcomed by members of the Select Committee as well as by Opposition Front-Benchers.
As the hon. Lady said, I made it clear when I gave evidence to the Treasury Committee that we had begun work with the devolved Administrations to take a fresh look at the concordat and see where it needed updating and strengthening. The concordat is an important and useful arrangement that cannot be replicated or imported into primary legislation, so it has an important part to play alongside the Bill.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that producing UK statistics, and doing so in a combined way when those statistics relate to devolved matters, relies on the co-operation of the devolved Administrations rather than on legislation. All Administrations expressed their commitment to co-operation in the concordat, which was annexed to the memorandum of understanding on devolution in 2001. Given that it set the overall framework for co-operation and was supported by other non-legislative bilateral agreements between the Administrations, that framework had the full support of the devolved Administrations. The framework document described in detail how the framework for national statistics, which we introduced in 2000, would operate in each Administration. There is clearly more to do, and that is probably the reason behind the hon. Lady’s concern. I strongly welcome the decision of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to sign up to the legislation. It will give the board a role working with all four Administrations. I expect the board’s objective of promoting and safeguarding the quality of official statistics, which includes coherence with other statistics, as stated explicitly in clause 7(2)(b), to give it a role in promoting consistent statistics throughout the United Kingdom.
To further our aim for improvement in the consistency and coherent co-ordination of statistics, we are working with the devolved Administrations to see whether other, non-legislative mechanisms may be needed to support the Bill, including the possible revision of the concordat on statistics between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I hope that the hon. Lady is reassured that we are working on those non-legislative matters with the commitment of all four Administrations, although the work that we are doing on the legislation may be more obvious.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 47

Power to authorise use of information by the board
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
John Healey: I think that the Committee may wish for a brief explanation of the clause, as it is an important part of the Bill. It sets out a mechanism that allows the board to use information that is received from a public authority, by creating a power for the Treasury to make regulations to authorise the use of that information, where there is an existing legal barrier to the board’s using it. The power may be used to allow the board to use for additional purposes information that it has already received, which could allow it to improve the quality of statistics. That in turn could improve policy making, resource allocation and the delivery of public services. The power may also be used to reduce the burden on data providers, such as requests for businesses and individuals to fill out surveys, by removing the need to collect information that is already held by the board.
The clause uses the same mechanism as that in clauses 44 to 46. Regulations must be made with the consent of another Minister of the Crown who, together with the Treasury, must be satisfied that the disclosure is required for the board to carry out the functions for which the disclosure is authorised, and that the disclosure is in the public interest.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 48 to 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 52

Cessation of Office for National Statistics etc
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I wish to speak briefly on the clause, which envisages the abolition of the Office for National Statistics and the Statistics Commission. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of both those organisations.
With regard to the ONS, the key problem that we have focused on is the treatment by Ministers of statistics. Of course it is important to consider the methodology and quality of the production of statistics, but there is consensus that they are of high quality. The problem that we are trying to address is political interference, or the perception of it, in the fruits of the labours of statisticians. I pay tribute to the high quality of the work of Government statisticians.
I also congratulate the Statistics Commission on its excellent work since it was founded in 2000, and I give credit to the Government for setting it up. It has been a fearless defender of statistical integrity and a fearless critic of ministerial activities in a number of instances. As we have stated, it is a weakness of the Bill that it merges the activities of the Office for National Statistics and the Statistics Commission. That was why we tabled a number of amendments to separate responsibility for the production of statistics from the responsibility to scrutinise their production and release. There would have been a much more effective structure if the Bill had kept those functions separate, as illustrated by the effective role played by the Statistics Commission in the past few years.
I ask the Financial Secretary for more detail on the timetable for the abolition of the two bodies. As I understand clause 71, it refers to different commencement orders being laid for different provisions. I am not sure whether the abolition will have to come into force as a whole or whether it will be possible to delay the commencement of clause 52(b)—the abolition of the commission—until we are sure that the appropriate replacement scrutiny functions are in place. I understand why the board will take on the existing functions and staff of the ONS—that is quite clear. It does not necessarily follow that within a week or so of the Bill being passed the Statistics Commission, our only watchdog, must be swept away. Given the pace with which change is implemented in the House, it is wholly possible that the House willnot have come to a conclusion on the scrutiny arrangements that it wishes to make to replace the Statistics Commission.
I understand that it is not for the Financial Secretary or the Government to prescribe the new scrutiny arrangements. Indeed he has emphasised, if I am right, that that will be a matter for the House as a whole or probably for both Houses of Parliament. However, it is in the gift of the Financial Secretary to decide when the existing watchdog will be abolished under the clause. Can he confirm that it will be possible for him to delay the commencement order in clause 52(b) if he wishesto do so?
Will the Minister give the Committee further illustration of the proposed timetable? Is it intended to abolish both bodies swiftly after the Bill is passed, or is there to be a longer implementation period? He will understand that a large number of staff not only of the ONS but of the commission will be affected. It would be helpful if he indicated the timetable for the replacement of the two bodies that are being abolished.
1.15 pm
John Healey: I shall begin by replying to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, and then I shall turn to the questions that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks asked.
The clause provides for the Office of National Statistics and the Statistics Commission to cease to exist as administrative entities. “Abolition” of the Office of National Statistics, as the hon. Lady put it, is rather misleading and inappropriate, because its functions and service will be carried out under the legal remit of the board, which will become the legal entity.
Mrs. Villiers: I concede that the use of “abolition” was infelicitous.
John Healey: I have trouble saying that word, let alone understanding its proper application. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s point.
The board will assume all functions that the Office of National Statistics undertakes, with the exception of the civil registration duties. I am not sure that “abolition” is entirely appropriate or that it pays due recognition to the role of the Statistics Commission. Its work has paved the way for the Bill, its responsibilities will be assumed by the board, and the commission has contributed a great deal to our understanding of how important it is for the statistics system to evolve.
I join in paying special tribute to the chairmen who have served the Statistics Commission and to their work. Over the seven years of its existence, they have consistently produced high-quality, wide-ranging research and reports, which have greatly added to our understanding of how the system has worked, and have given us ideas about how to fashion it in the future.
We have made it clear before that the property rights and liabilities of the ONS will transfer to the board. Any statutory references to the ONS will be amended after Royal Assent so that they refer to the board.
In response to the questions that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks asked, I have in earlier discussions about the Bill been clear that at an appropriate point during its passage, I shall consider the appointment of a chairman to the shadow statistics board, allowing him or her to start without delay preparations to put the board in place. I shall do so without offending any propriety of this House or of the other place. However, all hon. Members will agree that the current shape of the statistics system will not benefit from undue delay, and if we can move properly to ensure that the transition is as rapid and as smooth as possible, we should.
I have also been clear that if Parliament assents to the Bill, we want the board in place and in operation from April 2008. The Statistics Commission has already undertaken some useful work to prepare what it believes could form the basis of a code of practice. It will be one of the board’s responsibilities, and central to the operation of the new statistical system. The commission is undertaking important work with us to prepare to hand over its responsibilities to the statistics board.
The short answer to the second question askedby the hon. Member for Sevenoaks is that it is theoretically, legally and technically possible to delay the implementation of paragraph (b). However, it is probably most appropriate to ensure that the changes are implemented together, not least because the commission’s responsibilities will become the board’s and there is no obvious sense or gain in having two competing bodies with the same responsibilities. I hope that that is helpful to hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and I ask that the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Fallon: I am grateful to the Financial Secretary first of all for what he said about the Statistics Commission and secondly for making it clear that different parts of this section could in fact be brought into effect on different dates.
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger, not uncharacteristically, on quite an important point, but I think he would accept that it really cannot be for me to propose or set the terms in which Parliament considers how it wants to play its proper role of scrutinising and holding the new system to account or indeed the pace at which Parliament considers that. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope, and I know from the interest that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House takes in these matters, that such discussionsand any decisions that may be appropriate will not be left until the statistics board is up and running inApril 2008.
It also seems to me, although the hon. Gentleman may have greater experience and be able to contradict me on this, that Parliament can set itself up in any way that it chooses to scrutinise whatever it chooses. If Parliament decides that certain arrangements are appropriate for the new system, I can see no immediate reason why it should not set such arrangements up whenever it wished. Perhaps I am tempting fate, but it may well be that, if Parliament does that, it will take an active interest in scrutinising and holding to account the preparation that Ministers and others are making for the full operation of the new system that will, I hope, come into force, in April 2008.
I do not see the problem that the hon. Gentleman points to. Although it is not within my authority or remit to solve this, I hope that he will play his part in Parliament in making sure that scrutiny and accountability arrangements are in place in good time. I do not see the strength of his argument for prolonging the existence of the Statistics Commission when we will have in place a statistics board taking over the responsibilities of the Statistics Commission, with a much wider and more powerful remit to boot.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 26 January 2007