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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Amess
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)
Browne, Mr. Jeremy (Taunton) (LD)
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Evans, Mr. Nigel (Ribble Valley) (Con)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Kramer, Susan (Richmond Park) (LD)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Smith, John (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 4 November 2008

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Draft Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I am sure that, in your usual fashion, you will keep us well in line and on the subject in hand so I shall move swiftly on to explain the order. It is part of a wider programme of work implementing the Statistics and Registration Service Act, which gained Royal Assent during the summer of 2007. The order relates to the principles and rules to be followed when granting pre-release access to official statistics. The rules, along with the UK Statistics Authority code of practice for official statistics will be used as the authority’s benchmark for its formal assessment of national statistics.
Pre-release access to statistics is access primarily by Ministers and officials to the final statistical data in the form in which they are to be published in advance of release. The aim of pre-release access is to enable Ministers at the time of release to account for the implications of policy areas for which they are responsible. Additionally, it allows them and their supporting officials to take any immediate action that might be required in the light of the statistical information being released.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): When the Minister refers to pre-release, he does not mean leaving documents in a train, does he?
Kevin Brennan: With his customary friendliness and repartee, the hon. Gentleman has cut right away from the issue at hand to something completely different. No, the order does not mean that, but it represents a significant tightening of the pre-release of statistics.
Following careful consideration of responses to their consultation on the matter, the Government propose to tighten the rules under which pre-release access can be granted. Access will be limited to a strict maximum of 24 hours, reduced from the present maximum of up to five working days. Pre-release access will be limited to the minimum necessary number of people and the minimum number of statistics. When pre-release access is granted, it will be done in an open and transparent manner, with details documented and published at the time of release.
The need for pre-release access to statistics, and the people who are granted access, will be reviewed ahead of the release of the relevant statistics. The decisions on pre-release access will be led by the head of profession for statistics for each Department and each Department will publish the arrangements that it has put in place to implement the pre-release regulations. Access will also continue to be allowed in a limited number of special circumstances reflecting current practice, such as to allow the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England to make decisions about interest rates with access to the latest up-to-date statistics, and to allow journalists to support accurate reporting and well-informed debate. Details of journalists who are given access to statistics ahead of release will be published.
Mr. Evans: I understand fully that journalists are sometimes given pre-release access to documents so that they may understand better what is contained in them. But how will the action be properly monitored to ensure, for instance, that journalists with access to sensitive information are not using it in newspapers or on the air?
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important issue. The aim of allowing pre-release access to journalists is to prevent them from rushing to be the first with a story about important statistics and to stop inaccuracies creeping in, for them to be well informed and to improve the quality of public debate. It really applies only to more complex statistics, on which journalists will benefit from early briefing from professional statisticians. The intention is to improve the quality of debate. To ensure transparency—for which the hon. Gentleman is looking—the names of the journalists granted pre-release will be published. If there is abuse of the system, that privilege will be withdrawn from the journalist. Anyone concerned about such a breach can inform the UK Statistics Authority. Those measures are in place to provide exactly the sort of assurances that the hon. Gentleman is looking for.
Once pre-release access to a statistic in final form has been granted, that statistic will be under embargo, meaning that its contents cannot be shared with others until the point of publication. As now, those granted pre-release access to statistical releases must not alter or attempt to alter the content or timing of the releases, or how they are presented. The pre-release access period must not be used for any personal gain, which might clearly be the case with market-sensitive statistics and which the hon. Gentleman might be concerned about, or for political advantage. Pre-release access may be removed from anyone knowingly breaching those rules.
Only statistics that are deemed by the independent UK Statistics Authority to comply with the rules in the order will be eligible to be branded as national statistics. The Government will review the new pre-release arrangements after 12 months of operation, including an assessment of whether they remain consistent with the broader objective of building trust in the statistical system. The rules ensure that pre-release will take place in an open, clear and more transparent manner, with clear accountability.
Mr. Evans: I am just wondering about the aspect of not giving anyone political advantage. What if a journalist is given pre-release access to information and wants to interview a Minister prior to the official release, on the understanding that the interview will be embargoed until the information is released—in other words, they do the interview the night before? If the statistics are to be released at 8 am the next day, the interview also does not go out until 8 am. Would that be allowed?
Kevin Brennan: I think it is highly unlikely that that would be allowed, although I may confirm that later on, when I respond to the debate. The principle involved is that the Minister should have pre-release access in order to be able to explain properly the implications for public policy and for the public of the statistics in question. However, pre-release should be granted only where that is necessary, and such a judgment should be made by the head of profession within the Department concerned. The journalist should have pre-release access for the reasons that I outlined earlier. It would not be consistent with those principles for such a pre-embargo interview to take place.
The Government will review the arrangements after 12 months. The rules ensure that there will be more clarity and transparency. They are a considerable tightening of current practice and I hope, therefore, that the Committee will support the rules and principles set out in the order to help improve the credibility and trustworthiness of official statistics.
4.38 pm
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I look forward to your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Amess. It is my debut on the Front Bench on a statutory instrument, so I shall be looking to you for guidance.
The Minister opened his remarks by placing the order in context. I would like to do the same. In large part, we are here because the British people lost faith in the ability of the Government to tell them the truth. We are all aware of the quote about lies, damned lies and statistics, but we had got into a very sorry position, not least with the report of the Office for National Statistics in 2005, which identified that fewer than one in five of those surveyed thought that official statistics were produced without any political interference, and that 59 per cent. perceived that the Government used statistics dishonestly.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the Committee how many times the formula for calculating unemployment was changed by the Conservative Government? If he does not know the answer, it is 29.
Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As always in these situations, Members on the Labour Benches immediately revert to the Conservative era, 10 years after my party was in government.
The process of distrust of what is being said by Government may be cumulative, but we have to deal with where we are. The fact is that, in 2005, the survey was devastating. It was picked up by the Statistics Commission, in its 2005 report on trust in official statistics, which reinforced the perception about the scope for abuse of data. In its language,
“it is not the data that are at fault but rather the presentation”.
The report pointed to big differences in international comparisons of prior access to information. Countries such as Austria, Denmark and Finland operate a no pre-release access policy, and others such as Australia, France and the USA allow much shorter times for pre-release access to statistics. That was borne out by the evidence given by the Royal Statistical Society to the Treasury Committee. Even more worryingly, the Statistics Commission identified concerns about the process. In its 2005-06 annual report, it stated that there had been nine suspected incidents of pre-release access, and that it was concerned about the amount of pre-release access to statistics within policy departments. In its evidence to the Treasury Sub-Committee, it noted that procedures for investigating suspected breaches of the code of practice were “not sufficiently robust.”
The whole theme, this mood music, was picked up in the Phillis review, which described a system that was
“open to the perception of abuse.”
The general feeling of a culture of promiscuity—which I think was the word used by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) during the debate—reached its low point in September 2006, when No. 10 had to be reprimanded for comments made by the Prime Minister to a conference about employment data being released the next day. We got into a bad place and, to their credit, the Government responded to public concerns with the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and this order relating to pre-release access.
The Conservative party accepts the principle of pre-release access within tightly defined boundaries. However, as the Minister knows, our position is that provisions on access should be taken out of the hands of Ministers and placed into those of an independent board. We object fundamentally to the process that we are being asked to consider. We also have problems with the detail, which boil down to the fact that the boundaries seem so badly defined and broad.
The Minister talked about a desire to minimise the amount of statistics open to pre-release access, but there is nothing in the order that limits that. There is no response in the order to consultation with bodies such as the Royal Statistical Society, which thought that pre-release access should be given to a limited number of key national statistics. The Minister emphasised that responsibility or leadership would remain in the hands of the profession. In his response, I would like him to be clear about what degree of ministerial involvement there will be in decisions about pre-release access, according to the new code.
Again, the definition of eligible people seems extremely broad, despite the language about wanting to minimise participation. In paragraph 3(2)(h) of the schedule to the order we are told that eligible people will include those
“accountable to the public for the formulation or development of government policy or for the delivery of public services to which the statistic has direct relevance”.
If we extrapolate that information, would it include the chairman and CEO of my local primary care trust? Does it include an increasing number of voluntary bodies that the Minister is responsible for and who are increasingly responsible for the delivery of public services? It is extremely vague. The order extends eligibility to people who are in a position of giving advice to eligible persons. The Local Government Association expressed concern about the role of special advisers in that context, but does the order extend to outside consultants, who are increasingly used?
The Minister may stress—as I would expect—the reduction of the limit from the wholly unacceptable 40 days to 24 hours, but that is still an outlying number. It is still a big number compared with other countries and is bigger than the three hours suggested by the Treasury Committee in its report. During the public consultation, there was a lot of support for a smaller number. Leaving aside the number, the Government have under the statutory instrument given themselves plenty of wriggle room under paragraph 5 of the schedule when they refer to exceptional circumstances. We are being asked to contemplate a situation in which a responsible person can give a subjective view of an extension beyond 24 hours when that person believes that the benefit
“significantly outweighs the detriment to public trust in official statistics”.
Again, there is no attempt to define “significantly”. What does it mean, and who decides? Paragraph 5(1)(b) makes it clear that anyone can become an eligible person if they make representations on need. Basically, the Government have given themselves room to do absolutely anything.
We welcome paragraphs 6 and 7 of the schedule, and increased transparency of the guidelines and what recipients of information can and cannot do in response. We welcome greater disclosure on who receives market sensitive information. However, the order is silent again about what happens if the code is transgressed. No information is given about what happens if things go wrong other than that people who transgress will not receive the information in the future, and that is not strong enough.
There was discussion about pre-release to journalists. The language is troubling. We are told that the Government are giving themselves freedom to pre-release information to journalists when a decision is made that that is
“likely to facilitate well-informed debate”.
That raises questions about which journalists are chosen, and the Government’s perception of their ability to facilitate such debate. I suspect that the order will not change the public’s perceptions or concern about media management and the manipulation of data with which the Government have been so closely associated. Few people have put it better than Liam Halligan, the economic editor of The Sunday Telegraph, who was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) when the Statistics and Registration Service Act was considered on Report. He said:
“I can tell you from personal experience that pre-release is constantly used by the government to divert the media away from numbers which make for uncomfortable reading. It allows pre-emptive spin, with government departments sometimes putting out data designed to contradict evidence about to be revealed by the industrious, independent boffins from the ONS.”
Section 14 of the Act and the treatment of journalists does little to stem or mitigate public concern about the relationship between the Government and journalists in that respect.
The order is a movement in the right direction. It would be churlish to say otherwise, but we were in a bad place. We would have done it differently. The process, the code and the system setting out rules and regulations for pre-release should be taken out of the hands of Ministers and put in the hands of the independent board. I have identified several concerns to which I should like the Minister to respond. They boil down basically to boundaries being too broad and badly defined; they have given the Government too much wriggle room and there is a complete lack of clarity about what would happen if things went wrong. The statutory instrument is silent on the penalties of failure and it serves only to undermine the credibility of an instrument that is designed to stir up public confidence in the facts that they receive from the Government.
All our constituents are bombarded by information. We want to believe what the Government tell us. We want cast-iron confidence in both the data and the management of the data, and I am not at all sure that the statutory instrument does that. Conservative Members will be listening carefully to the Minister’s response before deciding whether to press the matter to a Division.
4.49 pm
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I agree with the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood about being disappointed in where the statutory instrument has ended up, but I recognise that it is a major improvement on what we have now. It has been an incredibly missed opportunity because public trust is invaluable and the order is instrumental in trying to restore general public confidence in information, data and statistics that are presented to them. As it still leaves scope for manipulation—adequate scope for anyone intent on manipulation, I would say—it falls short of seizing that opportunity. Of all the times when we need public trust I would suggest that we need it now, when we are hard-pressed on a number of fronts, including the economy.
The Minister talked of a review in 12 months. That will be very necessary, but perhaps he will enlighten us as to what the review process will be, what he thinks it will include, how that review will come before Parliament, and how Parliament will have an opportunity to respond to it. I join the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood in saying that the UK Statistics Authority should have been the body with the power to determine the arrangements for pre-release. When given the opportunity, my party supports that. We support the attempt by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) to introduce that kind of amendment into the language. That would have been better than leaving it to the heads of audit in Departments or to Ministers, who will always be considered to have an interest in how those numbers are revealed and handled. I echo the comments about the fact that international standards suggest that many other countries are able to operate on a narrower period of pre-release, with more stringent restrictions. If they can do it, I honestly think that we are good enough to be able to do the same.
I have one or two particular questions that I would like to put to the Minister. First, the statutory instrument applies only to statistics in their final form. Will he enlighten us about what happens to statistics in draft form? The draft may be close to the final statistics, and I would not want to see wriggle room around that issue. I seek assurances on that point.
On discrepancies within the language, this statutory instrument applies to statistics that are not wholly within Scotland, Wales and so on. Many of those statistics will cover the whole of the United Kingdom. Scotland, for example, has a completely different code. How will pre-release be managed under those circumstances? We could have something eccentric, such as the Scottish Government being able to discuss the statistics before the official release date, and everyone else pinioned to a much narrower period. I would like clarity on that issue.
To go back to the question of release to journalists, which is probably something that troubles many people in this House, I rejoin by saying that there is a real risk that the opportunity to get the pre-release data is seen as a favour for those who are likely to come out with a sympathetic report at the end. That is quite disturbing, and I wonder what mechanisms will be used to prevent that.
I note that the rationale for releasing to journalists is to ensure that there is a well-informed debate. How can there be a well-informed debate if Opposition parties, for example, are excluded from the information? How can a journalist pick up the phone and call someone and say, “Wait a minute, what is your take on this? What do you know?” It seems that a restricted debate is being organised here, rather than a well-informed debate.
I also question the penalty for a journalist misusing information—and presumably taking advantage of the fact that he can have a scoop if he breaks the embargo—that he or she will not receive information again. Do I misunderstand? Perhaps it should be the organisation as well as the individual journalist that is penalised in that way. Otherwise, one can see the potential for careful decisions from time to time, to take advantage of the scoop and then shift around roles. Organisations need to be held accountable in some way on this particular issue.
I find a contradiction within some of the language. Those who have pre-release information—Ministers and others in Departments—are not allowed to use that pre-release opportunity to change or compromise presentation, but they are allowed to have the information so that they can make statements. The notion that there is a hard line between information that comes in a statistical chart, and the accompanying statement, is a weird one. I do not think that the statutory instrument accepts or fully recognises the ambiguity.
A lot will hang on the review that is to happen in one year. The form of it, which I asked the Minister about at the beginning, will be exceedingly important. I am glad that we have made some progress. However, in going this far, why not go that extra mile and put this beyond the pale? It would seem to me that the Caesar’s wife principle is a good one in cases such as this, and I wish that the Government had adopted it.
4.55 pm
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess.
I shall not take too long, because much of what I was going to say has been said already. I agree with the hon. Member for Richmond Park that it should be the organisation and not the individual. As we all know, one can always replace an individual within an organisation—particularly a large one. We all feel a slight concern with regard to the journalist issue. I hope that the Minister can at least give us some confidence that he has considered it and got it in hand.
The second part is the devolved Assemblies. Has the Minister worked with his friends in the devolved Assemblies to ensure that the information they will give out is totally restricted to devolved matters, and will not impinge on the national statistics? I would hate to see a situation where the devolved Members are being given information which can then be spun to the media without their having an opportunity to contribute towards a discussion because we restrict it. Can the Minister give us an example of what he would consider to be these devolved statistics? Can he put that on the record so that we can build on that, without no doubt long negotiations with the devolved Assemblies?
4.56 pm
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