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Lord Desai: Let me add one more thing to what the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said, with whom I agree. Statistics are a technical matter, and we require a technically competent National Statistician to be in charge of them. However, there are statistics that will be socially explosive. I mentioned the census in my Second Reading speech. Questions of census definitions of identity will come. I would prefer it not to be the National Statistician who takes the heat of the moment but the board and especially the chairman of the board. We must remember that statistics may look technical to statisticians, but a lot of people view them as quite incendiary, explosive stuff. For that, we need the board to protect the National Statistician and to allow the National Statistician to do his or her work as well as possible.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: Is it not perfectly consistent with what the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Moser, and I have been arguing that the National Statistician should have full responsibility for the production and dissemination of statistics? If disputes arise, the board can give the National Statistician its full support without itself becoming responsible for any of the professional work that the statistician has done. The board will have a scrutiny role, and it will presumably be able to say, “We are satisfied by the processes, and therefore we believe that she is absolutely right, and we back her”. Does that not meet the case that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has been making?

Baroness Noakes: Does the noble Lord, Lord Desai, want to answer the question?

Lord Desai: I think that will not be enough. I still think that I would rather the National Statistician not to be put on the spot and then the board coming in. We can always say that the board has guaranteed the National Statistician’s independence and allowed him or her to issue the statistics. When it comes to the dissemination or production of statistics, believe you me, when the next census comes there will be explosive social issues, and the National Statistician should not be left alone.

7.15 pm

Lord Jenkin of Roding: I am sorry but, with respect, I do not accept the argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, was absolutely right. Previous statisticians have come in for much flak, if I may put it that way. The former National Statistician Len Cook described himself as the country’s most abused civil servant. Who was supporting him? I do not know. He came in for a great deal of flak. Under the Bill, there will be the board, and if we accept the Government’s advice, the National Statistician will be a member of the board, but the board will be there to support and endorse the work of the National Statistician. It will not be producing the statistics. This raft of amendments, which I totally support, is getting the board out of the business of producing and disseminating, because that is to be the responsibility of the National Statistician.

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Lord Desai: The noble Lord has exactly argued my case. Len Cook was a most abused civil servant, but if there is a board to protect the National Statistician, that will be the chairman of the board; and that is what they get paid for.

Lord Chorley: It seems to me that this was the main point that the briefing material put out by the Statistics Commission in March was on about. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that it is terribly important that the National Statistician is responsible at the sharp end and he is backed up by his board. I agree with everything that the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin and Lord Newby, said, and I hope I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, will say.

Baroness Noakes: I will speak to Amendment No. 34 and the other amendments in this group, some of which have my name attached. Some of them are in the names of those on these Benches alone, some have been tabled with the Liberal Democrats, and some have been tabled with the noble Lord, Lord Moser. Amendment No. 40 rejoices in the support of all of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, moved his Amendment No. 30, which leads this group. I suggest to him that he has in part thrown the baby out with the bathwater, since his amendment deletes Clause 5(2)(b), and in doing so he would not allow the board to set the terms and conditions of the National Statistician’s appointment, including those relating to dismissal. I still think that is important, so we cannot support that amendment, although we agree with the thrust of it, which is to emphasise that the National Statistician has to operate independently within the board.

Noble Lords know that my preference was for a non-executive board, as I outlined when I spoke to Amendment No. 2, and the amendments attempt to tease out the split between executive and oversight functions. Even if we stick with a unitary structure, there should be much more clarity about the oversight functions of the board and the executive functions of the National Statistician. Therefore, we believe that all or part of this group of amendments is necessary.

Our amendments in this group are formulated slightly differently to those of the Liberal Democrats, and I will briefly outline our approach of placing more functions in the name of the National Statistician rather than the board. That should go beyond the production of statistics in Clause 6, which both Front Benches have suggested. We have also suggested the definitions for official statistics in Clause 9, which is in Amendments Nos. 50, 51 and 53; the production of statistics in Clause 18, which is Amendments Nos. 94 and 96 to 99; and the compilation of the retail prices index in Clause 90, which is in Amendment No. 100, which is in addition to the consultation of the Bank of England, which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to in separate amendments, which we agree with. There is also the provision of statistical services in Clause 20. It seems to me to be nonsense that the board is going to be

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offering statistical services; it must be the National Statistician via the executive office. In addition, we have amendments to Clauses 21, 22, 23, 26, 29 and 31.

To put it simply, we have written the National Statistician more into the Bill and have, therefore, reduced the functions attributable to the board. The board will remain, but with the important function of monitoring the National Statistician, as set out in our Amendment No. 40 and the Liberal Democrats’ Amendment No. 34. Their Amendment No. 47 also mentions assessing the performance of the National Statistician, which is a helpful addition and we support it.

The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, suggested that the board should have a bigger role, which would de-emphasise the role of the National Statistician, so that if there was trouble, she could hide behind the board. That is one possibility, but that would downgrade her role. She should be the public face of statistics and, while she may need to be backed by the board in her judgments, she should certainly not hide behind the board in all circumstances.

Lord Turnbull: My point was that Clause 28 makes clear the status of the National Statistician as the principal adviser. That is where her strength comes from; her advice must be taken into account and can be over-ruled in only exceptional circumstances. I was certainly not trying to downgrade the position of the National Statistician, which is why I earlier supported the fact that she should be the chief executive of the board.

Baroness Noakes: I am grateful for that clarification from the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, but if the National Statistician is seen as the board’s adviser and the board is still in the front line, the public perception of her will be that this is a back-room person, not a front-line person. That is what we need to tease out in these amendments.

The Minister will be aware that the Royal Statistical Society, the Statistics Commission and the Treasury Select Committee in another place are at one on this issue. If we allow the Bill to remain without amendment, we will have created much scope for misunderstanding and muddle which would almost certainly lead to the undermining of trust—and we are trying to create trust in statistics.

Perhaps the Minister would deal with the practical impact of some real-life examples. Suppose that expert users in local government, with academic support, criticise local government finance methodology on technical grounds—for example, that the weights in a linear model are not derived in a sensible way and that a non-linear approach would be better. The board agrees with that, but the National Statistician and the Department for Communities and Local Government argue that the criticisms are unfounded and that there is no case to answer. Whose opinion prevails? The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, will say that the National Statistician is the adviser and that any disagreement with that needs to be made public; but is that a sensible way to go about this? Should it not be the National Statistician who makes that judgment?

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The board should deal with any issues relating to the National Statistician’s performance if it believes that those judgments are incorrect or do not gain a proper degree of support in the communities affected by those judgments.

These are difficult issues. We are creating a board with oversight functions but to which we give most of the functions; those functions are then carried out by the National Statistician who somehow hides behind the board. This has not been thought through and executed properly. I hope that the Minister will either accept some of the amendments, although I am sure that he will not accept all of them, or agree to come back at Report with government amendments to sort out this mess.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful for the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has advanced the cause of her amendments and I am grateful also to all other noble Lords who have contributed to this debate—and to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for his amendments. I am not going to accept any of the amendments this evening, but this has been a useful debate in clarifying some of the issues and I wish to say a little more about that in due course. First, let me explain why I cannot accept the bulk of the amendments.

The Bill creates a new, independent Statistics Board, reflecting the Government’s commitment to two key principles: first, where appropriate, devolving ministerial power in statute to credible independent institutions with a clear remit set by government and Parliament and, secondly, leadership by a board, which means sharing accountability across a group of individuals with a range of expertise, rather than vesting all authority in one individual.

Given the unique features of the UK’s strongly supported decentralised system of statistical production, the Government have concluded that it would be best to establish a single oversight board to scrutinise the statistical system, and to provide the top governance layer in an independent ONS, reflecting the key goals to put statistical production and scrutiny on an independent footing. One of the key reasons for that is to avoid creating competing, independent centres of “statistical expertise” that might undermine confidence in the system. In the Government’s chosen model, the board is able to draw on the professional advice of the independent statutory National Statistician, rather than requiring its own separate independent professional adviser.

As Ministers have effectively been removed from the accountability structure for the ONS, it is absolutely fundamental to replace that governance role, and a new statutory board will undertake the role that Ministers currently undertake. Within that single structure, the Government have included mechanisms to ensure clear delineation of production and scrutiny responsibilities. However, I recognise that there is uncertainty in parts of the Chamber on how clear we have been on these matters. That is why this debate, to which I will respond, has advanced the cause further.

The National Statistician is required to establish an executive office of the board, to which she must appoint

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the other executive board members and can appoint other staff. It is through that office that we expect the executive activity of statistical production to be undertaken on a day-to-day basis, just as the ONS does now. Some have suggested that the legislation involves some kind of downgrading of the post of National Statistician. We regard that post as being extremely important and high status. Unlike at present, the post will be a statutory, Crown appointment and key roles are designated within our proposals.

The National Statistician is the board’s chief professional adviser, she is the chief executive of the board, she is head of the executive office responsible for establishing, managing and leading that office and its staff, and although this is not in the legislation, we intend that she will be the head of the Government Statistical Service. The assessment function will be operationally independent of statistical production in the executive office. A statutory post holder, the head of assessment, reporting directly to the board, will lead the assessment function and all the staff working on assessment. The head of assessment cannot work on statistical production and will not be part of the executive office. We are seeking to establish that structure within the Bill and I recognise that doubts have been expressed about aspects of that structure.

7.30 pm

I turn, first, to the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, which would require the National Statistician to operate independently of the board but with scrutiny of the National Statistician provided by the boardI understand some of the thinking behind this proposal but I consider that it would confuse the governance model and leave blurred lines of accountability. For example, under Amendment No. 30, the National Statistician would be employed by the board but she would act independently of it and therefore not be accountable to it.

The Government believe that it is right that the board provides a top layer of governance for the statistics office—currently the ONS—replacing the role that Ministers currently undertake where they are not involved in day-to-day operations but provide strategic oversight and help to set direction. The majority non-executive board will provide support for, and exercise a challenge function to, the National Statistician and her executive team in the usual role played by non-executive boards. We expect the board to feed into and sign off long-term strategic documents, such as high-level business plans for statistical production, as well as take a key role in issues such as high-level risk management.

As I said earlier, the National Statistician’s role is clear and her status is assured in the Bill. As I indicated, in addition to the functions that I identified, the Government also intend the National Statistician to be the head of the Government Statistical Service, leading the professional development of staff across government and having responsibility for maintaining staff development functions to ensure the availability of skilled, professional statisticians across government. I believe that that is clear and that Amendments Nos. 30, 40 and 47 muddy the waters.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, spoke to a large group of similar amendments, which all seek to reassign responsibilities in the Bill from the board to the National Statistician. As I have already said, we expect the National Statistician to undertake the largely executive functions on the board’s behalf through the executive office that she will be obliged to establish. Under Clause 29(2), the National Statistician may exercise all the board’s functions, with a couple of limited exceptions, related to that separate assessment function.

There is also another lock to assure the National Statistician’s rightful and clear role as adviser to the board on all statistical matters. The board is required to publish and report to Parliament, including the reasons why it over-rules the National Statistician’s advice on technical issues, if indeed it does so. That would be a significant action by the board and would require publicity.

The board is the legal entity which will be statutorily responsible for the exercise of the functions established in the Bill. This provides a governance structure that allows corporate oversight of executive and assessment functions, while maintaining a single centre of expertise for statistics.

As has been reiterated this evening and in other quarters—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred to it—there has been some confusion about the unitary model adopted in the Bill. I do not accept that. We are clear about the model that we are following. One corporate legal entity has statutory responsibility for discharging all the statutory functions conferred by the Bill, acting through a professional executive, except in relation to certain reserved functions; namely questions of assessment. That is a fairly familiar set-up for governance arrangements throughout government and the wider public sector, and we think it is an appropriate model for the board. That is why I express difficulty in accepting the amendments, although I recognise that some of them are probing and that they intend to ensure that we are clear about these functions.

In speaking to Amendment No. 95, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, suggested that there was some anomaly in the drafting. However, the use of the word “itself” is to make it clear that this clause, unlike the preceding ones, is about statistics which the board ultimately produces, rather than the statistics that other organisations, such as government departments, produce and which the board monitors. We have already discussed why the Government are committed to the principle that the board should be ultimately responsible for statistical production, although on a day-to-day basis the National Statistician will run the organisation responsible for that delivery. So, in an attempt to preserve the clarity of this clause, I hope that the noble Lord will recognise that his amendment would cause some degree of confusion.

Amendments Nos. 121 to 124 would require the National Statistician, as well as the board, to exercise their functions efficiently under the terms set out in Clause 26. The board has ultimate responsibility for the functions established in the Bill and it has ultimate responsibility for the proper discharge of those functions, even if delegated to the National Statistician. Therefore,

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only the board can properly be ultimately and legally responsible—the point that we are considering in the Bill—for the efficient exercise of those functions, although we would of course expect the National Statistician to play a full part in operating efficiently as a member of the board and as the board’s chief executive.

Amendment No. 150 seeks to make the National Statistician chief executive of the executive office, rather than the board’s chief executive. We do not regard this as a necessary or helpful change. The board, as a corporate body, needs a chief executive. Parliament will expect a single person to be accountable for the activities of the board as accounting officer. In response to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I indicated that that accounting officer would be the National Statistician. The chief executive need not be operationally involved in every aspect of the board’s activities to discharge that responsibility, and the Bill ensures that that is the case.

Finally, Amendments Nos. 154, 155 and 156 seek to alter the governance arrangements that we have established and would prohibit the board from directing the National Statistician and staff of the executive office on the exercise of executive functions. Again, I simply repeat what I have said before: we have chosen what we believe to be the right governance structure in this respect.

I said “finally” but I have overlooked one amendment. Amendment No. 157seeks to alter the name of the executive office, making it no longer “an executive office of the Board” but just “an executive office”. I cannot agree with that. The executive office that the National Statistician is to establish will ultimately be under the board’s direction, and consequently it is appropriate to describe it as such in the Bill.

I recognise that all noble Lords have been constructive in this debate. I also recognise that anxieties have been expressed and that the amendments give vent to those anxieties. I shall not accept the amendments this evening and I do not want noble Lords to press them, but I agree with the Committee that clarity about the roles is extremely important. If these anxieties are expressed in the Committee, it is incumbent on the Government to take further steps to clarify the roles—particularly that of the National Statistician—within the structure as set out in the Bill. I undertake to dwell on the contributions concerning this important area and to reflect on previous amendments which have given clear verse to some of these problems. I undertake that on Report I shall attempt to satisfy noble Lords’ anxieties, possibly more fully than I have been able to do this evening.

Baroness Noakes: Before the noble Lord, Lord Newby, decides what to do with his amendment, I ask the Minister whether he agrees with Amendment No. 47 that:

In my remarks I said that that is an important element of the board's functions. How do we put that alongside Clause 28, which says that the National Statistician is the chief adviser to the board? It is difficult to see how

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we can put those two points together, although I strongly support the notion that we should write into the Bill the fact that the board is there to oversee, to monitor and to assess the performance of the National Statistician.

Lord Newby: I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have spoken in this debate. I am extremely pleased that the Minister is to give further thought to the points made. Everyone is after truth in this area rather than attempting to take a partisan or an acrimonious view.

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