House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Official Statistics Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Joan Walley
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Browne, Mr. Jeremy (Taunton) (LD)
Clark, Greg (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)
Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
Kramer, Susan (Richmond Park) (LD)
Prentice, Mr. Gordon (Pendle) (Lab)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Skinner, Mr. Dennis (Bolsover) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Watson, Mr. Tom (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 20 March 2008

[Joan Walley in the Chair]

Draft Official Statistics Order 2008

8.55 am
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Official Statistics Order 2008.
An initial sample of colleagues in this room suggests that 100 per cent. of us welcome you, Ms Walley, to your first time in the Chair. I look forward to working with you in the future. Bearing in mind the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, I hope that, at the end of our sitting, at least 60 per cent. of us here will have supported the order.
The order is part of a wider programme of work implementing the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which gained Royal Assent last summer. Ahead of explaining in detail what it does, I shall remind the Committee a little about the Act and about the wider statistical reform programme across government. In line with their agenda of delegating ministerial powers to credible, independent institutions with a clear remit set by them and Parliament, the primary goal of the reforms is to reinforce the independence, integrity and quality of statistics produced in government, helping to improve evidence-based policy making and thus contributing to better public services and the long-term stability of the United Kingdom economy.
At the heart of the Statistics and Registration Service Act is the creation of a new independent body, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority, which is known under the Act as the Statistics Board. It has a statutory responsibility to promote and safeguard the production and publication of UK official statistics that serve the public good. The authority will begin its work fully on 1 April 2008, and two of its main functions will be to monitor and report on all official statistics, wherever they are produced, and assess independently the quality of a core set of key official statistics for formal approval as national statistics.
The order relates to the definition of official statistics—the set of statistics that the authority must monitor and on which it must report. Under the Act, all statistics produced by the Statistics Authority, Government Departments, devolved Administrations and other Crown bodies are automatically deemed to be official statistics. That means that numerous bodies are automatically under the oversight of the Statistics Authority. However, the Act allows us to add further statistics by order. That is necessary for bodies that are clearly producers of important statistics, but that fall outside the core definition under the Act—for example, NHS organisations such as the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which produces statistics on the number of children drinking alcohol.
The order is particularly pressing for those bodies that are producers of national statistics in the current system, such as the Health and Social Care Information Centre to which I referred earlier, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Under the Act, statistics must be official statistics before they can become national statistics. To allow current producers of statistics to continue to be national statistics at the start of the new system, those statistics must therefore be specified first as official statistics by order. That is our intention today. If we do not make the order, those key statistics will no longer have national statistics status, which is bad for the organisations that use such data.
We have, of course, consulted the new Statistics Authority about the order, as required under the Act. The authority was keen to be sure that all current statistics could continue to be national statistics in the new system, and that we have processes in place to ensure that the eventual scope of official statistics would be as comprehensive as possible. I am glad to say that we could reassure the authority on both points.
In summary, the order needs to be made now to ensure that a core set of crucial statistics can continue to be branded as national statistics, come the start of the new system. I hope that the Committee will agree that that is necessary and appropriate, and will support the order, which is a necessary part of implementing vital reforms to the statistical system that the Government have put forward to improve the quality and integrity of statistics for the public good.
8.59 am
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I echo the Minister’s welcome to you, Ms Walley, in your role as Chair of the Committee. Furthermore, may I saw what a pleasure it is to be debating matters with the Minister for the first time in Committee? Lewis Carroll said that, if we want to inspire confidence, we should get plenty of statistics and that it does not matter whether they are accurate or even intelligible, as long as there are enough of them. There is a certain Lewis Carroll/Alice in Wonderland quality about our debate. It rests on the distinction between national statistics and official statistics, and when they are official—but not national—and national, but not official.
The integrity of our national statistics concerns the Committee. That is the danger to which the Minister referred. The Conservative party supported the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 from which the order arose, and we were successful in strengthening it during its passage through the House to meet our worries about the rigour and independence of official statistics. As he said, the order is fairly technical, but it is important in its implications. Under section 6(1) of the Act, any statistics produced by the Statistics Board are automatically official statistics, as indeed are any statistics produced by a Government Department. That is taken as read.
Under the order, additional statistics that are not produced by the Statistics Board, Departments or an Officer of the Crown should continue to be official statistics and, as the schedule to the order makes clear, there is quite a mixture of such bodies. They range from statistics produced by the Audit Commission to Ofcom to the Fleet Air Arm museum. Several statistics are already official and the purpose of the order is that they remain so. Statistics from the Learning and Skills Council fall into that category, for example. I should be interested to know from the Minister what process lay behind the selection of the statistics listed under the order. Why was it considered necessary to include those from the Fleet Air Arm museum while others were not? What process resulted in the list of such organisations?
Official statistics become elevated to the status of national statistics if they are assessed by the Statistics Board against the code of practice that it is obliged to publish and, thereafter if they are designated as national statistics, they need to maintain compliance with the code. It is for Ministers to refer a particular statistical series to the Statistics Board to consider whether such figures should be national statistics. Should it not be for the Statistics Board, rather than Ministers, to decide what statistics should be defined as national statistics? The board cannot designate a series as national statistics unless it has been referred to it for that purpose by Ministers. That means, in effect, that Ministers are choosing what is and what is not a national statistic. Surely the Statistics Board should be able to choose unencumbered what is and what is not a national statistic.
If official statistics designated by the board following reference from Ministers as national statistics fail to comply with the code of practice, they will lose the label of national statistics. That might be a source of mild embarrassment and inconvenience, but section 13 of the Act makes it clear that failure to comply with the code
“in relation to any statistics means that the designation of the statistics as National Statistics may not be confirmed”—
this is the important bit—
“but no action shall lie in relation to any such failure”.
Surely if we have a code of practice that is designed to ensure the rigour and authority of statistics and the body—especially if it were a Department—responsible for producing that series fails to meet the code, just to have the designation “national” removed does not seem a sufficient sanction. There should be a way in which the code can bite and require the deficiencies to be remedied.
Under section 11 of the Act, the code of practice cannot consider any matter relating to the timing of pre-release access to official statistics. There have been assurances that a 24-hour window will be the limit of privilege granted to Ministers, but explicit leaks are reserved to be outside the code of practice for statistics promoted by the Statistics Board. Instead, decisions on the timing of pre-release access will be handled by the appropriate authority, who is—surprise, surprise—the Parliamentary Secretary, the Cabinet Office. Whatever his credentials, I do not think he will enjoy the same degree of public confidence as the independent Statistics Board if it were able to make that decision.
My understanding is that only national statistics will have to comply with the code of practice. In other words, the Minister can designate an official statistical series suitable for reference to the board; the board can decide whether that should be a national statistic, in which case the code of practice should apply or it loses its designation. Surely, if the Statistics Board has a code of practice for the rigour of its production and preparation of statistics, it should apply to all official statistics, not just national statistics.
We welcome the broad thrust of the order, but it has loopholes galore that undermine the intention in the 2007 Act, which was to inspire greater confidence in the integrity of statistics. It is significant that in its final report, which was published this week, the Statistics Commission—it is about to be wound up—was devastating in its criticism of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and other Departments in their release of official statistics. The independent commission accused the DCSF of failing to provide “clear and separate publication” of statistics before issuing ministerial statements on them. It also referred to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office, and said that all three Departments went
“to some lengths to ensure that the press receive ‘the departmental line’ on the figures, through separate press releases, giving a departmental steer on the numbers with attributable quotes from ministers.”
That is very much against the spirit in which the 2007 Act was introduced, and emphasises the need for reassurance on the points that I have raised.
Given that we cannot amend the order, I should be grateful for reassurance from the Minister on whether he will commit to endorsing and acting on the proposal of my noble Friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, who suggested that there should be a Joint Standing Committee to scrutinise the work of the new statistical institutions reporting to the House. That would provide greater reassurance that some of the loopholes that allow continuing ministerial interference in statistical processes will at least be subject to independent scrutiny from both Houses.
9.8 am
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I also welcome you to the Chair, Ms Walley, which is a mark for gender, as well as generation.
Today is Maundy Thursday, which behoves me to be brief on a small, narrow and technical order. I welcome any step that moves us firmly in the direction of greater independence in the production and oversight of statistics.
We all recognise the huge need to develop public confidence in the Government’s statistics, and all hon. Members will be aware that, in its latest survey, the Statistics Commission has been bold in its language, which is a good thing, and has been able to raise confidence in public statistics. However, only 16 per cent. of the population believe that the Government use statistics honestly. In a democracy, that frankly leaves a poor framework for dealing with the complexities of modern life. If there is no trust in the numbers, I do not see how we can move forward, but to the extent that the provision is a tiny step in that direction, I welcome it.
I shall not repeat the comments made by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, but we particularly echo the need for parliamentary scrutiny of the general process of production and publication of statistics. No other mechanism will allow for that greater confidence to be developed. Ultimately, only when major, absolutely fundamental analysis—particularly the economic cycle analysis in the Treasury—is in the hands of a public body and carried out by an independent authority, rather than by the Government and then reviewed by independent authorities, will we achieve the trust that we need.
9.11 am
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Lewis Carroll has already been mentioned, and it was either Mark Twain quoting Disraeli or Disraeli quoting Mark Twain who said that there were “lies, damned lies and statistics”. Too often, statistics have been manipulated, I concede, by Governments of every political persuasion over the years, and anything that tightens up the reliability of statistics as a source of information must plainly be good.
There are one or two things that I do not understand, so I have a genuine probing question for the Minister, because there is a hotch-potch of organisations in the order. Some are clearly national bodies, but the explanatory memorandum says:
“The order does not apply to wholly Scottish devolved statistics.”
Under “Territorial Extent and Application”, however, the memorandum says:
“This instrument applies to all of the United Kingdom.”
It goes on to say:
“We understand that the Scottish Executive will be making its own order to cover wholly Scottish devolved statistics produced by these bodies.”
The question must be: when? Is it the national Parliament’s aspiration that Scotland will at some point fall into line? Does that mean that until it does, we cannot rely on any statistics emanating from Scotland because it is not subject to the same scrutiny and process to which we aim to subject the rest of the UK? I am slightly confused. The order is either national or it is not. It is important to have accurate statistics, so perhaps the Minister will tell us more about that.
9.13 am
Mr. Watson: I apologise to my officials, because I am going to veer slightly from the script that they have so helpfully given me this morning.
I shall make a general point about the direction of travel of the order. We have created the new, independent Statistics Authority because I believe that the way in which we present data—the more of them the better—helps public services improve what they do. If we can use that for a social good, we will all be united in this Committee.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells raised several questions about how the new operation of the Statistics Authority will work. I shall try to answer all the detailed points, but if I miss anything out, I shall write to him. The important question is whether the body will be independent. The early signs are that it is. It has already taken a robust view of how it defines statistics and, under the new arrangements, the Statistics Board will report directly to Parliament rather than to me. The onus will be on Parliament to take an active interest and respond to reports that the board makes.
Greg Clark: I share the Minister’s admiration for the work of the Public Administration Committee, but technical expertise is required to interrogate statistics robustly, and there are many eminent Members of the other place, including Lord Moser, who has participated in these debates, and they could bring real technical authority to bear. The Public Administration Committee has many things to consider, and I wonder whether it can give its full attention to this important matter.
Mr. Watson: It is my view that it can. It can take a cross-departmental strategic view of how national statistics operate across government. It can call on experts and even a national statistician to answer to it. The Public Administration Committee will have to decide how it wishes to organise its affairs. It is robustly independent, but Parliament can be assured that the new authority will be tested probably to the limit. The poor Minister at the Cabinet Office, whether it be me or whoever, will have to wise up when it comes to the presentation of statistics.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about pre-release. He will be aware that a consultation on that has recently been completed—he may even have contributed to it. We have to consider its findings before we report back. People will want to be reassured that the way in which statistics are presented is fair.
When I read my notes yesterday, I thought, “How am I going to define a ‘national’ statistic and an ‘official’ statistic?” I had a bit of a Jim Hacker moment; I thought how could I describe to a non-statistician how this will work? Statisticians will shoot me down in flames for this, but, essentially, a national statistic is the SAS of statistics. It is the most robust, quality-tested statistic with great methodology and good sampling. We cannot get away from such statistics; they exist as a fact. Something is statistically true if it is a national statistic.
Just below national statistics are official statistics, which have passed their basic training. They are not bad: they involve good sampling, are of great quality and can be tested out. Below them are those defined by Winston Churchill as the “politician’s statistics”. I could say to the hon. Gentleman that 80 per cent. of young mothers had told me that it is outrageous that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) chooses to parade his children on national television, but the hon. Gentleman would rightly get up and say, “What is your sample size? How many have you talked to?” I would probably say Mrs. Watson and the next door neighbour. We all aspire to giving quality data and statistics.
Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that if there was a designated national statistic on economic competency, 100 per cent. of the nation would still say that the Conservatives do not rise to the challenge.
I think that I have covered all the general points that have been raised. This is a new authority; let us go with the direction of travel. [Interruption.] I have very helpfully been reminded that there is the question of Scottish statistics. The Scottish Parliament wants to define its own statistics and, if I can put it like this, do it its way. However, a similar order will be debated there and the system should be in place by 1 April. I will write to those hon. Members who require more clarity.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Does the Minister think that that is sensible?
Mr. Watson: That is devolution. The Scottish Parliament has to define its own statistics. It will have to rise to particular challenges in Scotland and it is appropriate that it should make its own decisions about that. I think that I have covered most of the points.
Greg Clark: Since the Minister is coming to a conclusion, may I ask him how the particular bag of statistics that is listed in this schedule was arrived at, given that they seem to be many and varied?
Mr. Watson: I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the journey that every single body has gone through to get there. I suspect that the Fleet Air Arm museum or the National Army museum have got there because they provide visitor numbers and that has to be an official statistic, but I will clarify that. It might be that after consultation with the Statistics Board, we have to gather again to consider other non-Crown bodies. I know that the board is discussing how the commission covers the issue of presentation and release of statistics. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that and clarify what other bodies might be considered.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Official Statistics Order 2008.
Committee rose at twenty minutes past Nine o’clock.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 25 March 2008