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House of Lords

Monday, 19 February 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Lord Attenborough—took the Oath.

Office for National Statistics

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government’s aim has always been to deliver statistics in which people trust; for statistics to be, and be seen to be, produced to the highest professional standards and free from political interference. We are delivering on this aim. The public do have confidence in statistics published by the ONS. A key finding of the independent statistics survey Official Statistics: Perceptions and Trust was that the statistical quality of official outputs in the UK was considered to be generally good and to rival the best in the world.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is he not honestly ashamed to be the Minister responsible for an executive agency, set up 10 years ago and reporting to the Treasury, which, in its own report in 2005, found that more than 80 per cent of the public surveyed thought that official statistics were produced with political interference; 59 per cent perceived that the Government used the statistics dishonestly; and only 34 per cent felt that the Government’s figures were accurate? Given this miserable record, how on earth will the Bill in another place improve the situation if it still leaves Ministers and departments responsible for producing their own statistics? For example, 20 per cent of Home Office statistics—that is 32 out of 160 sets—are inaccurate. How will that ever improve the situation?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord overplays his hand somewhat. Of course the general public treat government statements and statistics with proper scepticism. We expect that from a mature and educated electorate. He will recognise, however, that not only did we come to power pledged to improve the quality of statistics but we acted on this in 2000 by the decisions we took on the independent presentation of statistics. The new Bill, which will be before this House in the very near future, enshrines the concept of an independent stance on statistics. That will add to the confidence which the statistics already enjoy.

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Lord Barnett: My Lords, most noble Lords will be interested to hear that the Treasury never interferes with the preparation of the statistics. One is bound to ask why not. On the other hand, what has the Treasury been able to do in advance of publication? Has it ever made representations to the ONS? If so, have they been rejected or accepted?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, government departments have prior knowledge of any statistics that emerge and it is only right that they should do so. Ministers are answerable to the two Houses of Parliament for those statistics and the decisions taken on the basis of them. However, he will recognise that, not only have government departments been scrupulous about these matters in the past, particularly the Treasury, but the new Bill that will be before the House shortly will guarantee that that position is there in statute.

Lord Bilimoria: My Lords, those of us who have studied statistics remember our first lesson when we are told Mark Twain’s famous saying that there are,

Perhaps the noble Lord means, “There are lies, damned lies and government statistics”. On a serious note, there is public scepticism and it is further accentuated if the statistics themselves are felt to be inaccurate. I urge the Government to go further than the Bill; will they do so?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Bill will provide a forum in which these issues can be discussed. We are aware that there have been one or two lapses. Parliament has drawn the Government’s attention to these lapses, which are regrettable. But they have been limited, and the overall position of statistics is as I reflected. Independent opinion considers British government statistics to be almost unrivalled in their accuracy.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, the Minister mentioned the need for Ministers to have prior knowledge. Why, if we are trying to make them free from political interference, do Ministers in this country have longer advance notice of statistics than their counterparts in any other country in Western Europe or the United States?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we can discuss that issue fruitfully all in good time and we are only a matter of a few impatient weeks before we enjoin debate on this matter. It is reasonable. United Kingdom Ministers have a relationship with Parliament that is close and under the most vigorous scrutiny. It is only right that they have some access to statistics if they can be questioned on them the moment they become public.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important for the arrangements for statistics to be independent of the Government and the Treasury? In the arrangements for the new Statistics Board, which Minister will bat against the Treasury when the question of resources comes to be debated?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that, for the foreseeable future, the Treasury will remain part of the Government. Therefore, splitting the concept of the two is an odd one. I emphasise that the Treasury will have overall responsibility with regard to the situation, but the noble Baroness will recognise that most of the debates about statistics revolve around particular policy areas. The debates are enjoined most fruitfully in the specific areas of those departments.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer handed over the setting of the bank rate to an independent monetary committee? Does he recall that its reports are received with universal acceptance?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, what is recognised universally is the wisdom of that move and the success of the running of the economy, to which that particular feature makes its contribution, over 58 quarters of growth.


2.44 pm

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as set out in the 2006 Pre-Budget Report, national accounts data together with the Treasury’s trend assumptions implied a small negative output gap in the third quarter of 2006. The Pre-Budget Report forecast showed the economy returning to trend in early 2007 and latest data for the fourth quarter of 2006 are consistent with this forecast. The Treasury will update this assessment in the forthcoming Budget.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Three weeks ago the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a green budget and concluded that the public finances are healthier now than they were in the year when the Chancellor took over from Kenneth Clarke. So there was quite a successful changeover. However, there is still a current annual deficit. The 2007 spending round is being prepared and a considerable slowdown in the amount of both current and capital spending is anticipated. Should not the reduction of the deficit be the important matter that the Government need to take into account now?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is certainly an important matter, but I think that my noble friend will recognise that we are heartened by the extent to which the trend reflects our recent forecast. Although we have still to make an update in the Budget, as I indicated, the Treasury is nevertheless confident that it has accurately defined its analysis of economic trends; and of course the Budget will set the framework for the next stage.

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Lord Bilimoria: My Lords, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that of 22 leading OECD countries, 17 have improved their structural budget balances more than the UK. In fact, Standard and Poor’s went further to say that the UK slipped from 14th to 35th out of 41 European countries and was the worst performer of the AAA-rated countries. What are the Government’s plans for dealing with this serious situation?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I do not think that we consider the situation serious, but it will be watched carefully, and the noble Lord will recognise that the Chancellor will take these dimensions into account as he prepares his Budget. But the noble Lord should give credit where credit is due. Not only has the United Kingdom economy in recent years performed exceptionally well against all international standards, but the Treasury’s forecasting perspective has been remarkably accurate. On that basis, we can look forward to the Budget with confidence.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, where are we currently in the economic cycle?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are near the end.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, on that point, will the Minister pass on to Gordon Brown our congratulations on inventing a truly amazing game? You do not know where it started or where it is going to finish—the only thing you are sure about is that he knows he is always winning. When are we going to get an independent referee to tell us when the cycle ends?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I confirm to the House that the Chancellor is always winning—certainly. The noble Lord knows that the judgment on the economic cycle is complex, but he will also recognise that there are fixed points in that analysis with regard to trend. The reason for the somewhat jocular fashion in which I responded to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is that we are nearing the point when the trend has been established and we can therefore go on to the next stage.

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: My Lords, at the risk of heightening my claim to be crawler-in-chief on these Benches—

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, that is my job.

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: I am sorry, my Lords; I shall not compete with my colleague. Is it not true that the Government’s economic record of low inflation and high employment constitutes a 40-year record? In my recollection that has never been achieved by anyone on the opposition Benches for 100 years or more.

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Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: My Lords, I am coming to the question, and you probably won’t like it. Does my noble friend agree that the Government should be congratulated on that record, and that the Tories should be challenged to produce anyone who could achieve half as much?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, would that all questions were so challenging. I emphasise only that this House benefits greatly when Labour Back-Benchers speak with such clarity.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I ought to take the Minister back to the economic cycle. Does he agree that the main problem is that the Chancellor has changed its beginning and end so many times that the golden rule, which depends on the length of the economic cycle, has lost all credibility? Can the Minister name one respectable economic commentator who thinks that we should now place reliance on the golden rule?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, confidence in the golden rule is based on the successful operation of public investment in recent years and the successful conduct of the economy. The noble Baroness indicates that she never knows when these things start or end. However, I say to her with the greatest confidence that we are near the end, so she will be able to define the terms.

EU: Active Citizenship

2.51 pm

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Europe for Citizens programme promoting active EU citizenship uses a joint legal base, Article 151 and Article 308. The Government’s position is that Article 308 does not require that every proposal using it as its legal base should relate in a narrow and restrictive sense to the operation of the Common Market. The civic participation aspects of this programme go towards meeting various Community objectives.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which refers to a new €235 million propaganda campaign. Is it true that the Government overrode the Commons’ scrutiny reserve on this initiative, making 181 overrides between both Houses in the past three years? If it is true, what is the point of the scrutiny reserve and, indeed, of the scrutiny committee? Secondly, are the Government

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really now saying, as the Minister appears to have just said, that Article 308 and other clauses in the existing treaties can be used to pass pretty well any integrating proposal in the Council, thus allowing the failed constitution to be put in place piecemeal and illegally, to the point where the proposed referendum in this country becomes superfluous?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, the Government take the role of the scrutiny committee seriously. The noble Lord will recognise that the Minister in the other place took steps to assure the scrutiny committee that what had happened in this case ought not to have happened and will not happen again. On the noble Lord’s second point, he extrapolates too far. We are talking about a general programme of citizenship and shared values. To suggest that because Article 308 has been used in this context such an initiative has created a basis on which the whole European constitution can be revisited, via Article 308, is a step too far.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, can the Minister explain why, like others, he is obviously puzzled that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is so obsessed by Article 308, a relatively innocuous article which was included in the original Treaty of Rome? We accepted that article when the United Kingdom carried out its very prolonged entry negotiations. It has been used occasionally for slightly wider but very innocuous purposes. Why is the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, concentrating on that instead of on the UKIP campaign to leave the Community, which is more important to the public? Was not the Minister also shocked that in the previous exchanges we had on this subject on 17 January, the Tory anti-EU spokesman objected to the Government not blocking the EU tsunami rescue scheme for third countries?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I have many responsibilities but responsibility for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is not one of them. I want to emphasise that we do not regard Article 308 as the Trojan horse of the European constitution. It is being used in this context in a very limited way. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is right to refer to the previous circumstance in which it was used, with regard to tsunami relief, one which also commanded wide assent. Let us just reflect on the fact that it can be used only with the Council’s unanimous consent. Therefore, the idea that it would be used easily, readily and flippantly, or against significant opinion within the European Community, is quite wrong.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the noble Lord appreciate that it is not a question of whether anyone is obsessed with Article 308 but whether it is being used properly? Does he agree that it is plain wrong—and indeed unlawful—to use Article 308 to advance measures which are not in furtherance of the Common Market, and that that use cannot be made right when it is plainly wrong in law just because all the member states want to use Article 308 in a particular case?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, matters are a little more complex than the noble Lord has indicated. It is the case that with the Council’s unanimous consent, and I might say with Parliament’s approval, Article 308 can be used in association with Article 151 to give effect to this programme. Therefore, the legal basis is not Article 308 but Articles 308 and 151 combined. That is how the Government reached the decision that the basis was a proper and legal one for action and that has been supported across the Community.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on answering 75 per cent of the current cycle of Oral Questions. However, is this not carrying the concept of active citizenship a little far?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I always ask my noble friend to rise in my defence and he never lets me down.

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, given that this is a complex matter, as the Minister has said, and that there is concern about how a treaty provision may be used in future, will he consider outlining in writing to the House, and putting in the Library, the criteria by which the Government believe that Article 308 should be used so that both they and the House can refer to that in the future?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that that is exactly what my right honourable friend Mr Hoon did with regard to the Commons position on this issue. He identified why the action had been taken in these terms and the basis for it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, what concerns me very much is the Government’s use or misuse of the scrutiny reserve. In 1990, it was made perfectly clear by Parliament, and by the House of Commons in particular, that nothing should be agreed until full debate had taken place in both Houses. However, the Government have used the scrutiny reserve 108 times, a misuse of the power that Parliament gave them. I wish they would get back to accepting Parliament’s rule that matters should not be agreed until Parliament has had proper scrutiny of them.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I indicated to the House earlier, an apology was given to the scrutiny committee in the other place because a mistake was made which pre-empted the position. It is not intended that such a thing should happen again in that way.

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