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We believe that the objective as drafted is clear and covers the right ground and we do not feel that the suggested amendment is necessary. Amendment No. 43 would require the board, in its duties at Clause 8, to keep under review whether official statistics meet users information needs. We have touched on some of
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Baroness Noakes: Perhaps the Minister could answer my specific questions about a social capital index. I asked what was happening with the project on that and why we do not have a social capital index.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I hope that I can. That was one of the things that I said that we would take away and think about. The information that I have is that the ONS carries out work on social capital, and has done since 2001. The boards powers, including, at Clause 18, that to produce statistics, would enable it to produce additional work on social capital if necessary. I am told by officials that we will write to the noble Baroness to explain more and to answer any specific points that she has.
Baroness Noakes: I am grateful that the Minister will write because people who have been in touch with me are particularly concerned about that. I see that those in the Box are smiling. They will do the letter for the Minister; it is not a problem.
The Ministers response was entirely predictable. Anything that these Benches suggest to improve the Bill and to keep the needs of persons such as users properly in view are regarded not as an improvement but as an unnecessary elaboration, or possibly even unhelpful. I will consider carefully what the Minister said. I look forward to the letter that his officials will draft for him on social capital and I will decide at that stage whether I shall return to this issue on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl said: We will in due course move on to discuss the information-sharing provisions of the Bill, when we reach Clauses 35 to 51. To an extent, therefore, this amendment foreshadows our debates on those issues, although I shall endeavour to confine myself here to the matter in hand.
The logic of the amendment is straightforward. The later clauses of the Bill sanction access to wide swathes of administrative data, a fair proportion of which will be personal and/or sensitive information within the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998. In such circumstances, it is wholly appropriate that,
should include adequate and proper safeguards for the raw data from which they are derived. Manifestly, this is what the amendment seeks to achieve as a counterpoint to the Bills entirely appropriate emphasis on the desirability that, as it were, the finished product of official statistics should be properly accessible. I beg to move.
Baroness Noakes: My name is added to this amendment and I have nothing of substance to add to my noble friends remarks. It is important always to keep in mind data protection and the Bill is keen on data moving around. We will come to information clauses later in the Bill, but it would be helpful to have a reminder in the core of the Bill that data protection is important.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: These amendments change the boards objective. We have already discussed a number of amendments on this topic. Although I understand the thinking behind them, our view is that they do not ultimately improve the objective. We feel that they are unnecessary.
The objective is the cornerstone of the Bill. We believe it to be clear in stating that the board is to promote and safeguard the quality, comprehensiveness and good practice of statistics that is serving the public good. It is from that core objective that the boards functions which will allow it to deliver on the objective flow. Amendment No. 39 would add into the objective a requirement that the board ensures not only the accessibility of statistics, but appropriate data protection safeguards in respect of the raw data from which official statistics are derived.
As I have explained in earlier discussions, the Government believe the objective is right as it is designed to provide a clear statement of the overall purpose of the board. It is the subsequent clauses that provide the details about the duties and powers the board has which it will deliver on that objective. These include the necessary restrictions on disclosure of personal information set out in Clause 36.
As well as the specific restriction on disclosure of personal information in Clause 36, the board will more generally be required to comply with the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998 and, in so far as the information is personal data, the Data Protection Act 1998. The Government take the view that it is not necessary to specify in each Bill past obligations which apply by virtue of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, the ONS has a wide range of security protocols and mechanisms in place to protect raw statistical data. We fully expect that the board, and through it the executive office of the board as established by the National Statistician, would have similar operation controls in place, given that the board will need public confidence in its handling of data for its role to be fulfilled.
The Earl of Northesk: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and grateful for the support of my noble friend on the Front Bench. On the basis of the Ministers response, I could be tempted to believe that the Government believe that the objective of data protection and safeguards in respect of it can be shuffled into the background. That makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I am bound to say.
I really do not want to return to the issue on Report, and in a sense the Minister is right that it is not incumbent necessarily that this provision should appear at this particular place in the Bill. But almost in a fit of pique, purely and simply because the Government seem to be so dismissive of the whole concept of data protection, I really would like to test the opinion of the Committee.
That is certainly true, and by producing statistics at the local level, the accuracy and relevance of the data are improved, and local users can be responded to more flexibly. However, this concentration on local statistics does not, and should not, limit the production of statistics to a standard and consistency that will enable them to make a positive and useful contribution at a national level.
The response of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to similar amendments in another place was not very reassuring. In the event that the board concludes that a department is producing statistics inconsistently, he offered the following possibilities:
The board can report its concerns to the relevant Ministers, make its views public, and report concerns to Parliament and the devolved legislatures in either its annual or a special report.[Official Report, Commons, Statistics and Registration Service Bill Committee, 18/1/07; col. 114.]
None of these possibilities is particularly impressive, and the department can ignore them all if the inconsistency is sufficiently to its advantage. This problem is, of course, related to the Bills failure to give the board real powers to enforce its code of practice. As the Financial Secretary rightly noted in the debate that I mentioned, the board can put consistency in its code of practice, but this is in essence unenforceable, and we will debate this issue specifically when we discuss a later group of amendments. The amendment would at least ensure that the Statistics Board could isolate inconsistent amendments, and it would be part of its remit to ensure that local statistics are adequate for use in the national context. I beg to move.
Lord Newby: We have tabled a similar amendment in this group to reflect the concerns of the Royal Statistical Society, which feels that the Bill if anything weakens the current rules that enable a coherent framework to be established and implemented. The current framework for statistics requires the National Statistician to produce a high-level business plan for all national statistics, not only for statistics from the Office for National Statistics. There is no such requirement in the Bill, so there appears to be a weakening. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that this is yet another unnecessary amendment and that everything is fine. We beg to differ.
Lord Moser: I shall briefly explain my strong support for Amendments Nos. 41 and 153. I put my name to Amendment No. 41, but I feel equally strongly about Amendment No. 153. They relate to two different issues. One relates to the United Kingdom, which will come up again in our discussions. The other relates to all departments, as has just been mentioned. I cannot stress sufficiently often how important this is. I repeat again that 80 per cent of statistics come from outside the ONS. Secondly, most of the problems are in outer departments, not in the ONS. The ONS rightly has a very high reputation across the world; the same is not true of a lot of departmental statistics. It is therefore absolutely crucial that the board, and indeed the National Statistician, have authority and responsibility across all government departments. As the Minister has said that he was going to think again about the precise definition of the boards role in relation to the National Statistician, could he include in that rethinking strengthening the Bill further to ensure that the board, and of course the National Statistician, have adequate authority over departmental statistics?
Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was almost right when he anticipated that I would say that the Bill already strikes the right balance and therefore Amendment No. 41 would not be acceptable, but I am going to be slightly more assertive in my criticism of Amendment No. 153. So at least that will strike a fresh note, if only one of discord on which to conclude our debates today.
The Government recognise that consistent UK-wide statistics are beneficial and often desirable. Such consistency means that statistics about the devolved countries can be combined, allowing figures to be produced for the whole of the United Kingdom and enabling the situation in the different administrations to be properly compared. I should note how pleased the Government are that the devolved administrations have all decided to join in with the new arrangements.
However, there is bound to be some divergence between the different parts of the UK given the different political, legal and administrative systems and policies across the four nations, many of which pre-date the development of devolution. This means that it may not always be appropriate or desirable for statistics to be consistent. If any inconsistency has a material effect on the quality of statistics being produced, it will be a matter to be taken into account in the assessment of national statistics or as part of the boards duty to monitor official statistics as already set out in Clause 8.
The problem with Amendment No. 153, and I respect the support of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for it, is that it would revert to old ways. It places this responsibility on the National Statistician when like a golden thread through all our debates today it will be clear that the Government have sustained their argument that it is the boards responsibility in these terms, and to whom the National Statistician works. The board will be independent and it is important that it should be allowed to develop its own approach to these issues. It does not need specific mechanisms laid down in legislation. However, what is most important about Amendment No. 153 is that it addresses issues not to the board but to the National Statistician. The Government sustain their position that the board must have statutory responsibility for these matters. That is why I cannot accept either of the amendments. I am sorry to end on a note of disagreement on what has been a constructive day.
Lord Howard of Rising: I thank noble Lords for their support. If the trust which has been discussed at such length today is to be created, power must be given. That is the underlying position of the amendment. Members on these Benches will support proposals to take another look at this issue with a view possibly to bringing it back on Report. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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