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The Bill appears to give control over pre-release to Parliament through the approval of a statutory instrument setting out the rules. My honourable friend Mr Michael Fallon described the proposed arrangements as,
We all know that affirmative instruments give the appearance of parliamentary power, but in practice, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, pointed out, they act an elaborate rubber stamp for the Government's views. Parliament would have no power to initiate changes if the arrangements set up by the order proved not to work in practice.
A purist response would be to give Ministers no pre-release access and hence open up no possibility of abuse. However, we agree with several noble Lordsin particular, the noble Lords, Lord Turnbull and Lord Dearingthat it is a legitimate role of government to make effective policy responses. In our society, that is what is expected. But at present the Bill positively prohibits the Statistics Board from getting involved in pre-release. We are very clear that the Statistics Board must be given the leading role in pre-release arrangements.
More important, if the pre-release arrangements do not work well in practice, we need a flexible mechanism for changes to be made. Let us suppose, for example, that a ministerial team abused the pre-release access that they had been given. That is not fanciful. The Statistics Board should be able to decide in that case that different arrangements for those Ministers and their department are to apply in future. Statutory instruments cannot do that. They cannot be used with either the precision or the speed that may well be needed. Under the Bill, it will be left for the Government to initiate changes, but they have the most to gain from abusing the system.
The third area in which we find the Bill deficient is the status of the National Statistician. We have a vision of a strong and independent National Statistician with a remit that runs across the whole of government. The Bill does not give the National Statistician any powers outside the Statistics Board. He has no formal role across Whitehall or the devolved Administrations. Other aspects of that include access to the Prime Minister, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Moser, valued when he was our leading National Statistician. The Bill needs to enhance the National Statisticians role.
Alongside that, we need to consider the role of the National Statistician and the governance arrangements that are being set up. It is proposed that he will become a member of the new Statistics Board, but that board will have a chairman who may himself become the face or the story of statistics. When I asked the Financial Secretary at the helpful briefing meeting that the Minister arranged what sort of role
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There is also the issue of confusion of roles under the Bill. My noble friend Lord Eccles made a powerful contribution on that subject. As others have pointed out, the board produces and publishes statistics under Clause 18, but under Clause 8 the board monitors the production and publication of statistics. Which is it? It cannot be both. Under Clause 3 the National Statistician is a member of the board, but under Clause 28 he is the board's principal adviserwhich I think means that he advises himself. There are similar confusions with the role of the head of assessment and his position with the board vis-Ã -vis the National Statistician.
We must look very carefully at the BBC precedent cited by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, who has a different view of the applicability of the BBC precedent, will be able to join us in Committee when we will debate that.
My noble friend Lord Goschen raised the question of disputes about statistical decisions taken by the ONSfor example, in the classification of Network Rail. Those ambiguities about roles will represent no improvement on the current position in getting a satisfactory response to those difficult issues.
We also want to look carefully at the role of the Treasury, whose fingerprints are all over the Bill. The Treasury is involved in appointments to the board and in removing people from the boardand, of course, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has extensive powers of direction. The Treasury will be setting the budget of the Statistics Board, as the Chancellor did in last week's Budget. We do not believe that five-year budget settlements are any substitute for non-Treasury influence on the budget-setting process. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said about that budget-setting arrangement. If the Statistics Board is under-resourced, the quality of statistics will drift down, as happened following resource constraints in the 1980s. As night follows day, trust will ebb away.
Whether the solution is a role for the Cabinet Office, which has attracted a lot of support today, or for Parliament is a question that we must debate in Committee. Whatever the answer on money, my noble friend Lord Jenkin rightly raised the issue of parliamentary scrutiny and the role of your Lordships' House. I hope that we can get more clarity about that as the Bill goes through later stages.
A large part of the Bill deals with the use of information by the board. My noble friend Lord Northesk drew out some important issues here. We understand the desire of statisticians to use data to generate powerful statistics, but we are wary of increasing powers through the use of gateways without commensurate controls or restrictions. As my noble friend Lord Northbrook pointed out, there are important
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In another place, many of those issues were rehearsed in detail, but the Government did not listen. They still have their parliamentary majority in the other place and they do not have to listen. Only small changes were made to the Bill. I hope that the Minister will take away two clear messages from today's debate. The first is that your Lordships' House is committed to ensuring that trust is restored to a national statistics system. We support the Bill, but only because it is a step in the right direction. The second is that we will be mounting a strong challenge to the detail of the Bill as it proceeds through your Lordships' House. There are major issues here that strike at the heart of whether trust will be restored and maintained. We shall be ruthless with those parts of the Bill that do not maximise that potential.
I begin with an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and all those who attended the meeting last week. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury was aghast when he heard that the letters, which he had signed on Thursday, did not arrive until today. They were posted on Thursday evening; I have ascertained that. I regret that they did not arrive until they did. That was by no intention on his part and he asked me to pass on his apology to all colleagues who attended what we all thought at the time was a useful meeting. The letters were designed to capitalise on that.
In this wide-ranging debate, we heard points of real criticism. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, duly wound up her speech by suggesting that fire and brimstone might attend certain parts of the Committee. I am heartened by the broad areas of support I heard in all speeches on the Governments intent with regard to the importance of national statistics, which are of enormous value for business, academia, the media, charities and the wider community as well as for Government. Changes in technology and the availability of data via the web also mean that more people use statistics more regularly. We owe it to the citizen to provide accurate statistics more fully than we have been able to do in the past. I appreciate the recognition on all sides that the intention behind the Billand, the Government will argue, the realisation contained in itis to improve the quality of our national statistics, the process by which they are generated and the extent to which they are safeguarded by proper public scrutiny, including the role of Parliament.
We believe that these proposals will help to reinforce and strengthen the UKs statistical system, ensuring that it adapts to the needs of the modern world and that public confidence in it is reinforced. We are aware of the loss of respect for certain aspects of national statistics in recent yearsperhaps even
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Several areas of controversy were identified in the contributions, such as the separation of the boards executive and scrutiny roles, the scope of its responsibility for official statistics, the application of the code of practice for national statistics, the critical issue of pre-releasewhich emerged very early on in the debateparliamentary scrutiny and resources. It is unlikely that in the 12 or 15 minutes I have for a winding-up speech, I will be able to satisfy all noble Lords on all those points, but I am heartened by the fact that we will deal with them in detail in the not-too-distant future.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, spoke of pre-release arrangements at the beginning of the debate and, towards the end, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, castigated the 40.5 hours proposed in the Bill as unacceptable and too precise. Pre-release arrangements will be given a special status in the new system. Unlike the rest of the code, the content of which will be backed by but not prescribed in statute, new pre-release rules will be set out in secondary legislation, proposed by Ministers but approved by Parliament.
I hear what the noble Lord says about secondary legislation not providing the same opportunities as primary legislation. Of course he is right, but although dealing with issues in statute which give both Houses the opportunity for scrutiny places additional limitations on this House, there are some fairly lively debates on secondary legislation at the other end, to say nothing of the fact that from time to time it is rejected. And in the space of only eight days, this House will have engaged in fairly lively debate on secondary legislationthere was such a debate last Wednesday and one is forecast for this Wednesday. I am not prepared to accede to the proposition that where Parliament is engaged in scrutiny of issues by affirmative resolution, it is somehow superficial. That is not the view taken in the other place, nor is it its practice. Moreover, Ministers at this Dispatch Box do not get an easy ride every time secondary legislation is debated.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, also spoke about whether it is appropriate for one board to have responsibility for production and scrutiny. This is a point of principle on which we at this stage disagree, although I hope to persuade him of the virtues of the Governments case as we proceed through the decisions on the Bill. We believe that a single-institution structure is the most effective way to deliver our goal of greater independence for the ONS, and independent scrutiny and oversight of the system as a whole. It avoids creating competing centres of statistical expertise. We see the board as being held fully to account by Parliament.
We all listened to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, with considerable respect; he has played a significant role in this area in the past. I pay tribute to the enormous interest he has taken in the development of this legislation, while he has reserved a critical stance with regard to certain aspects of it. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, questioned the scope of official statistics
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In addition to the two noble Lords I have mentioned, others have expressed reservations about this approach. We will debate them further. The Government have thought about these issues with great seriousness and intend to present and protect the Bill in terms of this commitment, as we regard producing essential flexibility as one of the key strengths of the provision of statistics.
My noble friend Lord Desai questioned me on the quality of such statistics. That is of the greatest importance. The board will not be doing its job, nor will it be able to restore public regard for national statistics, unless it addresses itself to the quality of the statistics provided.
The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, among others, spoke of the boards responsibility for scrutiny and deliveryits two crucial functions. There are competing models of how these issues can be tackled; we considered having a separate scrutiny body, but decided that as a key goal is to place the ONS on an independent statutory footing, a single oversight board and a single line of accountability is the best way to achieve this. It avoids creating competing centres of statistical expertise. The Bill therefore includes mechanisms to ensure the clear delineation of production and scrutiny responsibilities. I outlined those mechanisms in my opening speech, and I have no doubt that they will be subjected to full scrutiny in our debates in Committee as one of the areas that causes anxiety in the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned funding near the end of his contribution, as did other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. In common with all government departments, the budget will be set by the Treasury as the holder of the public purse. I know that it is easy for noble Lords to disparage the Treasury, particularly a week after the Budgetindeed, that seems to be the common sport of Parliament at this stagebut some department must take responsibility for the proper discharging of national resources, and the Treasury is obviously the first port of call. The arrangements for the new board reinforce statutory independence. Funding for the board is set outside the normal spending review process, and is decided by periodic review. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, must have taken great sustenance from the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on the opposition Front Bench also supports the view that this is the most minor of concessions. However, five-year funding is not a minor concession; it is an indication of the proper independence of the body. The Government will guarantee the board funding over periods of five years. Parliament will of course be able to hold the
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My noble friend Lord Haskel talked not only about the quality and comprehensiveness of statistics, but their relevance. It is right that he should have drawn attention to this. We expect the code of practice to include quality standards and to focus on relevance. There is no doubt that, in a rapidly changing world, government and wider society must keep up to date with the changes that will be reflected in technology and in the wider aspects of society. I was grateful to my noble friend for emphasising that point.
The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred to the status of the National Statistician. The National Statistician is the boards chief executive. The noble Viscount disputed the suggestion that the Governments model could have a proper structure. However, the Financial Services Authoritys combined code principles of good governance and code of best practice include the principle of board balance and independence. It says:
The board should include a balance of executive and non-executive directors (including independent non-executives) such that no individual or small group of individuals can dominate the boards decision taking.
The Bill is clear that the National Statistician is the boards chief executive. The majority non-executive board replaces Ministers current oversight role and support of the National Statistician in the delivery of that role. As the board is accountable for delivering its statutory functions, it must be able to exercise oversight over the chief executive and executive office. The National Statistician has been subject to that scrutinyI would not go so far as to say controlledby Ministers. That scrutiny has now been transferred to a more independent structure in the form of the board, and I hope that, despite his doubts about the board, the noble Viscount will recognise that as an important step forward.
My noble friend Lord Lea also emphasised the relevance of statistics. He will forgive me if I do not discuss income statistics at this stage, as it would take me all my allotted time to deal with the issues that he raises. He threw a sharp focus on where statistics might prove to be inadequate. It is important that we have a framework within which we can deal more effectively with such issues.
The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady ONeill, referred to the confidentiality obligations in the Bill. These are strong. As she said, we may be moving into a period of some confusion over data protection. This is an important issue that we must all scrutinise most closely. As the Government move into an era of greater data sharing to deliver better, more customer-focused services, it is essential for people to be confident that their personal data will be handled appropriately. The noble Earl will
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The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was also anxious about the status of the National Statistician. Ministers will actively seek the added authority and credibility gained from national statistic status. After all, they rely on accurate, up-to-date statistics and data for their policy decisions. In a decentralised system, the responsibility for submitting statistics for assessment must lie with departments. That is the reason for our separation. Certain statistics need to lie with departments, but we recognise that the quality of official statistics needs to be promoted and safeguarded. The board will have a statutory responsibility to advise on areas of concern about any statistics right across government. The independent board will be enabled to comment publicly and make recommendations on statistical information used throughout government. Parliament is, of course, likely to take an interest in any public comment made by the board, and might choose to call Ministers to account if it is thought that their statistics are less than adequate.
I am conscious of the fact that I have not answered every point made in this debate. Far too many points are always made in debates of this kind that cannot be dealt with adequately in a winding-up speech, but I take consolation in the fact that we have a number of opportunities to return to these important issues in Committee and on Report. I look forward to those opportunities as much as the rest of the House.
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 106 to 108. These amendments aim to insert the affirmative procedure for orders that contain statutory instruments made under Clause 61 as they affect the specification of an anti-fraud organisation and the Secretary of States powers under Clause 62, as underlined and suggested by the report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.
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