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I propose to speak first about the key mechanism—the board’s assessment function. The definition of official statistics that we have used in the Bill is wide, covering all statistics produced by Government and their agencies, the devolved Administrations and Crown bodies. This will allow the board to monitor and report on the ever increasing range of official statistics and official statistical information that is being produced across government and which we expect to continue to grow in years to come.

The starting point for the board’s process of assessment and approval of those key statistics upon which the Government, business and the public rely is those statistics that are currently designated as national statistics. The system can evolve as additional statistics can be nominated to the board for assessment by the person responsible for those statistics—usually the relevant Minister. Additionally, as part of the board’s duty to monitor and report on the comprehensiveness and coverage of the system, we expect it to comment publicly on which official statistics should be nominated to the board for assessment.

We have ensured that, within the single structure that we propose, there is a clear separation between the board’s production and scrutiny responsibilities. In the other place, the Treasury Select Committee urged us to do that; I believe that the Bill largely achieves those requirements. First, the board’s assessment function will be operationally independent of statistical production within the National Statistician’s executive office. A statutory post-holder—the head of assessment—reporting directly to the board will lead the assessment function and all staff working on assessment. The Bill also strengthens the role of the National Statistician. As I have already mentioned, the National Statistician will be required to establish the board’s executive office and appoint its other members and staff. We expect the executive office to undertake the statistical executive production activities on a day-to-day basis, just as the ONS does now.

In addition, for the first time, the National Statistician will be a statutory post appointed by the Crown, rather than, as now, by Ministers. She or he will be the board’s chief executive and will run the body, which is essentially currently the Office for National Statistics. The National Statistician will continue to be the chief statistical adviser to the Government and to the board on all professional and statistical matters, and will be head of the Government Statistical Service. She or he will be a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with the other board members for the ultimate decision-making, rather than, as now, advising the Minister. Taken as a whole, this is unquestionably a more significant, high-profile post than the current one.

I now turn to how we are using this opportunity to build further value into the system. The Bill creates a framework that will ensure the continued sharing of data between the board and other parts of

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government for the purpose of statistical production and analysis—for example, the sharing of birth and death registration data between the board and the Registrar General, after the Registrar General separates from the statistics office.

In addition, at Clauses 44 to 50, the Bill includes a mechanism to allow for increased sharing of data between the board and other public authorities, and vice versa, where that sharing is similarly for the sole purpose of statistical production and analysis and only where such sharing is judged to be in the public interest. The specific extensions of access would be agreed through secondary legislation, subject to full parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative resolution procedure. This part of the Bill has received broad support from a range of stakeholders, including the Statistics Commission, the Royal Statistical Society and the opposition parties.

Sharing of administrative data for statistical purposes can improve the quality of statistical data and analysis, and therefore improve our ability to make and judge the impact of policy. This re-use of data means that statisticians can produce richer statistics without needing to survey again on the same topic. It also has the potential to bring real benefits in reducing the burdenon those who are required to complete the surveys upon which many of our official statistics depend. This has therefore been recommended by both the Better Regulation Task Force and the Confederation of British Industry.

Within the Whitehall-wide Administrative Burden Reduction Project, the Office for National Statistics has committed, as part of its simplification plan, to a £10 million reduction in burdens on business up to 2015, of which £6 million is expected to come from the use of administrative data for statistical purposes in place of survey returns.

Enhanced sharing of administrative data will also help to address the problems of declining survey response rates. Response rates in many of the ONS’s surveys have also been declining over the years; for example, the response rate to the General Household Survey was 83 per cent when it started in 1971 but that fell to 72 per cent in 2005. As survey response rates decline, the higher the chances become of the survey results being biased and not properly representing the true state of the population.

In broad terms, increased data sharing could occur between the board and other public authorities, where regulations are made under Clauses 44 to 50 permitting such sharing. The regulations will be subject to further scrutiny and approval by Parliament and will be made only where the Treasury, by virtue of its residual responsibilities for the board, and another Minister agree that the sharing of information is for statistical purposes of the board or the public authority to which the disclosure is made, and in the public interest.

Clauses 44 to 50 will permit further sharing under powers set out in regulations rather than in primary legislation. That will allow the system to adapt to future statistical resources and needs, allowing new indicators to be developed to provide a more accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive and meaningful description of the UK.

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While there is a strong public interest in greater sharing of administrative data, I recognise that there is also a public interest in ensuring that the confidentiality of such data is properly protected. We have attempted to ensure that the Bill strikes an appropriate balance. A crucial part of the board maintaining its credibility in collecting data is that there are the highest levels of protection for personal information. We hope that the existence of such safeguards within the Bill will help to address the declining response rates to which I have just referred.

The Bill therefore introduces a criminal sanction on the unlawful disclosure of information concerning both individuals and businesses, whether held by board members and employees or by anyone to whom the board has passed the data, where that information identifies the individual or business, or where it might allow someone to deduce their identity. This criminal sanction, which could be up to two years’ imprisonment for unlawful disclosure of data, is a key addition to the confidentiality regime for personal information collected by the board.

The confidentiality provision at Clause 36 is structured to allow the sharing which currently goes on between the Office for National Statistics and other public authorities to continue and to facilitate extensions of data sharing between the board and the public sector under the regulation-making powers at Clauses 44 to 50. The necessary exceptions at subsection (4) of the clause—for example, to allow for disclosure for the purposes of a criminal investigation—therefore reflect that. In doing that, the Government were conscious of the human rights implications and sensitive to the need to strike an appropriate balance between the wider public interest in data sharing and the rights of the individual. I am pleased to note that the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the Bill did not raise sufficiently significant human rights issues for it to examine the Bill further.

Since the publication of the Bill, the Information Commissioner’s Office has told the Treasury that the Information Commissioner very much welcomed the creation of a criminal offence for the illegal disclosure of personal information in Clause 36, which he believed should act as a significant deterrent. He also welcomed the measures in the Bill that aim to ensure that any personal information required by the board for the production of statistics is tightly controlled and used only for the purposes required to exercise its functions. Overall, the Information Commissioner welcomed the fact that the Bill recognises the importance of ensuring that personal information is used only where necessary and that confidentiality is respected.

Perhaps the area of the Bill over which there has been the most controversy is the principle of pre-release access by Ministers and officials to official statistics in their final form prior to release. Despite the areas of disagreement on this, I hope that the House will recognise, as the Opposition did in the other place, the clear and internationally accepted case, in principle, for pre-release access to statistics. I also hope that the Opposition, in particular, will agree that the new system as set out in the Bill will benefit from increased clarity

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and transparency on when and to whom pre-release is granted and under what conditions. In recognition of that, the Bill will put new, tighter pre-release arrangements on a statutory footing.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way—it might save me some of my speech. Why does the Bill not give the board responsibility for deciding and recommending pre-release arrangements? The board is expressly excluded from having anything to do with it. Why?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, this is an important point of principle. As the noble Lord will recognise, I introduced my comments on this part of the Bill by saying that I recognised that there had been controversy. That controversy was partly reflected in the fact that the opposition spokesman has very kindly indicated an element of dissent at certain parts of the points that I was putting forward. I have no doubt that we shall approach these matters with due rigour in Committee. At that point, I shall establish further the Government’s case. I recognise that the noble Lord is addressing a significant issue of principle on which he and the Government are currently in disagreement. I hope in due course to persuade him and his colleagues, particularly those on the Front Bench, of the wisdom of the Government’s approach.

I repeat the assurance that the Financial Secretary gave in another place, that the Government will tighten the current pre-release arrangements. The length of time for which pre-release is available will be aligned at 40.5 hours for all national statistics and not just market-sensitive statistics. These new tighter arrangements will be set out in secondary legislation. The regulations will include principles to provide guidance for departments and to ensure that pre-release access is limited to those individuals who require the data for operational reasons.

The regulations setting out the principles and rules for pre-release access will therefore be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That ensures that Parliament, not the board through its code of practice, approves the new rules and procedures and ensures that they are suitably comprehensive. This will ensure strong parliamentary scrutiny of and input into the proposed arrangements, with Parliament’s consent being required before any order becomes binding. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will recognise that, with these arrangements, the Government are substantiating their case on this issue.

We expect the board to carefully monitor compliance with the new system and to make its findings publicly available in order that it and others can assess whether the terms of the new system for pre-release are being met. The board can remove national statistics status from statistics that are found to have been prepared or handled in a manner contrary to the code of practice, including in relation to pre-release arrangements.

Consistent with the Government’s approach of designing a general statistical system that can be developed in light of experience, the Financial Secretary gave an

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undertaking at Second Reading, repeated in Committee and on Report, to review the operation of the system 12 months after its introduction. In addition to these reforms, the Financial Secretary has announced that the Government are committed to the principle of creating a central publication hub through which all national statistics are published. This will ensure that statistical release is separated from policy commentary.

I am grateful for the House’s patience thus far on this important and complex Bill. Before concluding, I propose for the sake of completeness to briefly summarise the Bill’s provision for the registration service in England and Wales. The Bill is the central part of a wider reorganisation of the UK statistical system. There is general support for the proposals to separate the General Register Office and the NHS Central Register from the ONS and to retain them under ministerial responsibility. The finer details are still being worked out. As a result, these transfers are not provided for within the Bill itself.

Clause 66 establishes, for the first time, proper employment status and rights for the approximately 1,700 registration officers in England and Wales. Registrars are statutory officers appointed and paid for by the local authority but not employed by that authority. They can be dismissed only by the Registrar General and consequently do not enjoy the rights and protections that are taken for granted by other groups of workers, such as access to an employment tribunal. The Bill will give registration officers access to such rights and ensure that registration officers retain their current terms and conditions on transfer to local authority employment.

The Bill is a step forward in what will be a major and evolving programme of reform. It holds out the possibility of substantially improving the quality of and confidence in government statistics. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

3.34 pm

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to the Minister for his painstaking rehearsal of the Bill’s contents. I add my thanks to him and to the Financial Secretary, Mr Healey, for having arranged a meeting at which we were able to discuss some of the issues. Mr Healey kindly promised that we should have copies of the letter written to Members of another place and I was glad to be able to pick them up about 10 minutes before Question Time today—although they were dated last Wednesday. My noble friend Lady Noakes shakes her head; she probably has not had a copy yet. I do not know why that happens.

The Minister recognised that certain aspects of the Bill will prove controversial. I can give the Bill a cautious welcome and I certainly welcome the intentions that have prompted the Government to introduce it. However, I cannot give it 10 out of 10; I can give it six or seven for effort, but no more than two or three for getting it right. I am glad that Parliament will have an enhanced role in the scrutiny

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of the system and, as I argued in the debate on the Queen’s Speech last November, I hope that that will involve both Houses. There is a wealth of experience in this House, and the system would benefit from it.

I acknowledge the intention to distance Ministers from the processes of producing and disseminating statistics. However, the Bill still leaves far too much to Ministers’ discretion; for instance, Ministers decide whether official statistics will become national statistics and various other matters are left with them.

I recognise that with the proposed Statistics Board, which the Minister outlined in some detail, the Government are aiming to establish a body with expertise and clout to oversee the processes, monitor the system and give advice. However, the Bill seriously muddies the role and responsibilities of the board with those of the National Statistician. Their roles are completely different and they should not be confused. There must be a much clearer distinction than the Bill provides between the function of producing and disseminating statistics and the quite different function of scrutiny and oversight of those who do that job. I do not see how the board can do both.

As the Minister recognised, the biggest source of public mistrust is the handling of the release of statistics. The Bill has virtually nothing to say on that, except that Ministers seem determined to keep the right to decide the rules and principles on pre-release. As I indicated in my intervention a few moments ago, the board is explicitly excluded from having anything to do with that. What is the purpose of an overarching board if, on the issue of the greatest sensitivity, it is hands off? That cannot be right; the present release practices are wholly unacceptable.

So what is the purpose of the Bill? The Minister spelled out the objectives, but the purpose is to restore public trust, which has undoubtedly been eroded in recent years. If any noble Lord doubts that, let him read the report last year of the Treasury Select Committee in another place, which was a damning indictment of the way in which the system is being manipulated by Ministers. Many noble Lords will remember the titter that ran round the House when Her Majesty read the sentence about this in the Queen’s Speech. I judge the Bill by whether it will restore that trust, and I find it wanting. My honourable friends in another place made valiant efforts to remedy the defects in ways that would have gone far to restore trust, but virtually all of them were rejected by Ministers. Therefore, this House must help Ministers to achieve their objective of restoring trust. We will work with Ministers to do that, but they must listen to what we say and I hope that they will realise the sense of the amendments that we will put forward. I am looking forward to a full and constructive Committee and Report on the Bill.

At Second Reading, it would be quite wrong to go into detail about the changes that I believe must be made, but I shall briefly mention a few. The flaws in the present system are sometimes most clearly seen by those with a long professional interest in statistics, and we shall listen with great interest to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, who is to follow me in a few moments. That professional concern is nowhere more

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evident than in release practices. I had the advantage of a long discussion with Professor Tim Holt, a former chief statistician and now chairman of the Royal Statistical Society. On the basis of his advice, I have made the point that the current release methods are unacceptable. Often the statistical release is disseminated alongside the ministerial release addressing policy implications. The same press office handles both and is required to present the statistics as objectively as possible while defending and promoting the Government’s policies. The ministerial statement often prints extracts from the statistics to defend and promote those policies. It thus shapes the public debate on aspects of the Minister’s choosing. That process fails to separate the contents and dissemination of statistical release, which is a matter for the professional statisticians, from the policy context, which is the legitimate concern of Ministers.

These should be two separate processes and they should be seen to be two separate processes. The professional commentary by the statisticians should be by them alone. Policy comments are for Ministers. The two must stop being muddled up together. That is one of the principal sources of public concern and it is why the public have come to feel that the statistics are being manipulated by Ministers.

The noble Lord mentioned the pre-release of statistics. The fact remains that, even with the changes in the Bill, the United Kingdom is wildly out of line with the practice in most other advanced countries. We allow pre-release on a far wider range of statistics and we allow a far greater number of people to see them and far further in advance than in almost any other advanced country. There is the risk of leaks and improper use. We all remember that, last September, the Prime Minister disclosed the employment figures to the Trades Union Congress two days before they were supposed to be released. The Minister said that that was inadvertent—some inadvertence!

This aspect of the present system also gives rise to a wide perception of political interference. As I said in my intervention, the Bill astonishingly excludes the Statistics Board from having any involvement in this process. That cannot possibly be right. It simply perpetuates the impression that Ministers are determined to brook no interference with their right to spin the statistics as they will. I have to ask the question: is that supposed to restore public trust?

On the composition and role of the board, I will at this stage say only that we must see written into the Bill the clear distinction between the production of statistics and the oversight of those who produce them. It is not enough simply to assert, as the noble Lord did, that the way in which the board will work will ensure that there is a distinction. I look forward to the advice that the House will get from the noble Lord, Lord Moser, who has unparalleled experience in this field as a former chief statistician.

Many other issues will need to be addressed in Committee, but I will mention one more now: the absence of any express commitment to co-ordinate the existing fragmented system. Many users, such as local authorities, need to draw on statistics from many different sources. There is a great need for more consistency

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within the UK-wide system. This morning, I had a communication from the Society of Business Economists, which made this point very strongly. This is especially true of the so-called cross-cutting issues, which cover statistics related to socially deprived areas, migration or pensions. The current system is widely perceived as not responding fast enough or flexibly enough to meet the needs of users.

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