Draft Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008

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Kevin Brennan: We have had a very useful debate on this important order. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood cited a famous quote about statistics at the outset of his remarks. I have promised the national statistician that that quote will never cross my lips, so I am afraid that I will not be able to respond in kind to it. But for readers of Hansard, it was in his first couple of sentences. I have made that solemn promise, Mr. Amess, and I am not going to breach it at my first opportunity here, on a public stage.
I welcome the contributions from the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood and for Richmond Park and my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth. I can assure my hon. Friend that devolved Administrations will be able to grant pre-release access only to statistics relating to devolved and not shared responsibilities. In relation to pre-release access for journalists, I agree with him and with the hon. Lady that it may be appropriate, if there is any sign of abuse by a particular organisation and an attempt to organise serial abuse of statistics by its journalists, for that privilege to be withdrawn from the organisation, and not just the individual. I can give that assurance.
I will not respond too much to the political knockabout, except to say one thing, which is that I do not remember the party of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood doing much about this issue when his father was on the Front Bench. We are genuinely tightening up the official statistics and I am glad that he welcomes that. The debate here is a bit of salami slicing by the Opposition about the degree to which we should be tightening the rules, rather than any fundamental objection to the idea of pre-release access, or any fundamental objection to the path that we are following. However, I understand the need for a nuanced argument to be made by the Opposition.
Mr. Hurd: Is it possible that we did not do anything about the matter because the public were not so concerned about it because the system was not being abused so much?
Kevin Brennan: Well, in the past couple of years, public trust in statistics has improved as a result of the Government’s actions. I have the statistics in front of me; I am not pre-releasing them, they are on the public records. What the hon. Gentleman did not tell us earlier was that since the 2005 report that he quoted from, ONS public trust has improved significantly. We need to do more to improve it. That is the purpose of the order and we all welcome that—it is exactly why the Government have acted.
As for whether 24 hours’ pre-release access is too long a period and whether we listened to the consultation, of course the consultation brought up different opinions, as any good consultation does. The health statistics user group, for example, said that
“the public also expects these same officials or ministers to be able to talk intelligently about the figures”—
[Laughter.] It may surprise some hon. Members, but they do—
“and their implications, as soon as the figures are published. In order to do this they need to be properly briefed”.
I make the point that the 24 hours is for officials and Ministers. In reality, Ministers get to see such statistics only after officials have had a look at them, possibly tried to explain to Ministers what they mean and put a note in their box. It is likely to be one minute to midnight when Ministers look at the statistics, about a minute before the end of the embargo we are talking about. Twenty-four hours is not that lengthy a period of time, if considering when officials first see the statistics, and when Ministers get their eyes on them.
Despite what the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, there is very little evidence to suggest that there is systemic abuse of the current arrangements. I accept that there is a loss of public trust, and we have been trying to improve that, but let us look at what the reports are saying, including the 2004 Phillis review, which the hon. Gentleman referred to. It found that there was
“no evidence that this right has been abused”.
The Statistics Commission made it clear that this number of breaches is
“an extremely small percentage of the mass of statistical releases”,
going on to say that
“where breaches do occur, they are the result of accidental premature release of data or lack of awareness of the Code by non-statisticians within a department.”
In other words, if you will excuse me for saying this, Mr. Amess, the cock-up theory prevails, rather than the conspiracy theories that the Opposition and some parts of the media tend to prefer.
Parliament decided that Ministers should be setting such rules. I understand that the Opposition do not agree with that position, but that was the decision—Ministers are best placed to judge how much pre-release access is needed, and under which conditions, in order to be fully informed and in a position to act, if required, in response to a statistical release. I shall not say any more about the time arrangements, which I have already referred to.
In relation to whether the Government will use the powers we are talking about with the consent of the Statistics Authority, the Government proposal is to make additional provision for exceptional pre-release access solely to allow for events that we are not able to predict at this stage. All instances of such access would be notified to the authority and published. I shall put this on the record: the Government intend to use this power only in exceptional circumstances and undertake to use it only with the consent of the authority. I hope that that reassures the Opposition.
A number of hon. Members raised the question of journalists. I wonder what the Opposition and the media would have said had we said that there would be no pre-release access for journalists. I suspect that another conspiracy theory would have been born if we had shown an unwillingness to share that information. The point, as I said, is that pre-release access can improve public debate. The safeguard that we are introducing is that we will publish the names of the journalists who have that access, so that Opposition Members and other journalists and media organisations, if they feel that something improper is going on, can absolutely point the finger. That will prevent the kind of cherry-picking that the hon. Member for Richmond Park was talking about.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Opposition. There is a difference between the role of the Opposition and the Government in relation to the release of statistics. The Government have to account for statistics, while the Opposition have to ask questions about them. As you know, Mr. Amess, the greatest fool can ask more questions than the wisest man can answer. The Opposition have a different role to that of the Government, and in arguing that we should further widen pre-release access, they seem to contradict the requests in every other part of their remarks for me to tighten it more. In other words, they want pre-release loosened only when it applies to them. As I said, there will be transparency regarding the journalists.
One or two other questions were raised about which people would be eligible to be granted access in this order. Paragraph 3(2)(h) of the schedule clearly includes policy makers or people who deliver services—for example, chairmen of primary care trusts, charities and external consultants. That will apply only where statistics are directly relevant and at a national level.
Mr. Jenkins: I am sorry to take the Minister back to the point about journalists, but we requested the answer to a specific question. If a journalist breaches the rules, will the journalist or the organisation be barred from pre-release access? We want the organisation to be barred.
Kevin Brennan: I think that the record will show that I did refer to that in the earlier part of my remarks, but I will repeat it for the benefit of the Committee. Where there is evidence of systematic abuse from an organisation, it will be appropriate to consider withdrawing the privilege of pre-release access from that organisation. I hope that that assures my hon. Friend.
Mr. Hurd: On a point of clarification, am I correct in understanding that the new system will allow the Government to give outside management consultants working with the Government pre-release access to potentially sensitive information?
Kevin Brennan: It will be possible for eligible people to include external consultants, but only where the statistics are directly relevant and at a national level. I would like to make that absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that there had been no attempt to define “significant,” and asked who decided what it meant. In this instance, the relevant person is the statistical head of profession, who must advise the national statistician and publish the details and circumstances.
I was asked whether the penalties for breach were too weak. I disagree with the hon. Lady—the penalties for breach are strong. The hon. Gentleman also raised this point. Under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, the Statistics Authority can remove national statistics status from Departments if pre-release rules are breached. Such a breach would be a serious matter. The head of profession for statistics in a Department—who is chosen by the permanent secretary in consultation with the national statistician—would be able to remove future pre-release access from anyone who knowingly breached the rules. Those strong and practical penalties could be used. We have given heads of profession discretion in wielding the big stick of removing pre-release access so that they can manage the implementation of the rules as effectively as possible.
Mr. Hurd: On another point of clarification, can the Minister explain exactly what role Ministers will have in influencing which statistics are open to pre-release and to whom?
Kevin Brennan: It will not be the job of Ministers to influence which statistics are open to pre-release. That should be decided on a set of principles. The statistics head within each Department will look at each individual case and decide whether or not pre-release access is appropriate. It is not for Ministers to decide on such a matter.
Mr. Hurd: Are we to understand from that that Ministers will not be consulted and will have no right of consultation and no influence on the process?
Kevin Brennan: It is not that Ministers will have no influence on the process at all—the issue of the detail of particular statistics will depend on whether a reply is required or expected. It is appropriate for Ministers to be consulted, but ultimately the decision should be taken on the basis of the principles that are set out.
Susan Kramer: On a point of clarity, the Minister said that criteria would be set for whether there should be pre-release access to a particular type of statistic. Will those criteria be published? Will there be something that we can know about for each Department?
The hon. Lady asked me about the 12-month review and what it would include. It will include an assessment of whether the pre-release rules remain consistent with the broader objective of building trust in the statistical system. The Cabinet Office will work with the UK Statistics Authority to develop measures to assess how well the first year has gone. For example, it will consider whether the number of statistics with pre-release access has fallen, whether the number of people receiving pre-release access has fallen, and what the impact has been on officials who provide briefing to Ministers. I will undertake to publish that review, so that the hon. Lady and other interested parties can have sight of it.
Susan Kramer: I thank the Minister for giving way. I anticipated that he was just about to sit down. He has covered many of the questions that have been raised in this debate, but I wonder whether he might quickly address, or agree to write to us about, draft statistics, because we did not cover that issue—the statutory instrument covers final statistics only. Will he also address the issue of the devolved Governments, and how pre-release access to common UK statistics will be handled?
Kevin Brennan: I think I am right in saying that where there are common UK statistics, it will not be possible for Ministers or others within the devolved Administrations to have sight of those before or on any different basis or time scale to UK Ministers and Departments. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s question. In relation to how the rules will apply to published provisional figures or draft figures, as she put it, the rules will apply. Statistics in their final form include so-called provisional or draft figures; if they are being published, the rules apply to them. I hope that that reassures her, and on that basis I shall sit down.
5.12 pm
Mr. Hurd: I thank the Minister for a thoroughly valiant attempt to answer the question. He is quite right that in Opposition there are more questions than answers, and that has proved to be the case in this Committee. In all practicality, we have a 12-month review to assess whether the Government are prepared to walk their talk. There remain residual concerns that this rule-tightening process leaves boundaries that are too broad and badly defined. However, on the basis that we are going to be able to review real progress, rather than rhetoric, in 12 months, I am prepared not to put the order to a vote, not least because I do not think that I have the firepower.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008.
Committee rose at thirteen minutes past Five o’clock.
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