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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, this is my first opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, on his membership of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. I supported him in previous debates on the issue and am glad to add my name to the amendment. The key question is: what will best protect and strengthen community justice and the rule of law? The fact that the schemes are voluntary, community-based and address low-level criminal activity does not change the powerful influence that they will have on communities and the public role they undertake. That is especially relevant in the context of Northern Ireland, where, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, himself noted, the threat of instability and potential for paramilitary involvement is very real. The Government acknowledged that community-based restorative justice schemes should not be allowed to devolve into autonomous policing units. However, their view is that the NIO’s protocol provides sufficient safeguards against abuse. We disagree, which is why we seek a statutory safeguard of a modest kind. The type of intermediary role played by these schemes constitutes

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a public activity that ought to be seen to be fair and impartial. Anything less threatens to compromise the justice that the community seeks to achieve.

The regulation of community-based restorative justice schemes is not a symptom of suspicion, nor do I ignore the contribution of the NIO protocol. Rather, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, will ensure that the rule of law is not undermined and that the schemes are born of and exist subject to the rule of law. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has previously expressed concern that the work of the schemes, which engages the statutory sector, is limited to mediating, reparative interventions between the perpetrators and the victims of low-level crime in the local community. Even if, as he suggests, such work forms a small proportion of a scheme’s activities, it must still be subject to the rule of law and protected against the abuse of power. The rule of law requires that these schemes are grounded in a legal basis, so that they do not suffer from the vice of informality with all the dangers that that implies. Although the NIO protocol may give guidance, it is not a statutory instrument. The amendment injects legal certainty into this area without falling into the trap of legalism or excessive regulation. It prescribes that accredited community-based restorative justice schemes are subject to inspection by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, as he explained. Where the inspectorate deems it fit, it may recommend to the Secretary of state that the scheme be removed from the public register.

The rule of law also requires that there are prescribed criteria for the scheme, so that this form of justice is administered independently and impartially. That is the bare minimum one would want of any public service, whether it is exercised by government or community-based schemes. That applies even more in the divisive atmosphere from which Northern Ireland is emerging. Obliging the Secretary of State to maintain a public register of accredited schemes would ensure that they operate according to the principles of fairness and transparency required of any body addressing crime, even so-called low level offences.

There must be adequate safeguards against abuse of the procedures. Whether a republican, unionist or any other political interest group is involved and whatever their associations in the past, those principles transcend party and community. They apply now with particular force in Northern Ireland, which has moved from a period of the grave undermining of the rule of law to what we hope will be a healthy democracy, based on the rule of law.

It should not be left to members of the public to complain about lawlessness within the schemes, as suggested by the Minister in previous discussions; lawlessness should be prevented from the outset. The rule of law requires that of all bodies exercising a public function. It is particularly relevant in a society where paramilitaries continue to have an influence. The structures of the rule of law exist precisely to prevent the type of intimidation and coercion that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has described in previous debates.

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The amendment puts in place a bare minimum of safeguards. We need to look realistically at the practical consequences of omitting these safeguards, which include the undermining of justice, the inculcation of fear and the perpetuation of instability. I submit that community-based restorative justice schemes should complement law enforcement and not turn into alternative and non-accountable systems of justice. Unless the role of such schemes is formalised and their activities subjected to public scrutiny, there is a real risk that community-based restorative justice schemes will undermine the rule of law. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to accept this important amendment.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, in recent years, I have spent a certain amount of time meeting and discussing their activities with those running community-based restorative justice on both sides of the divide in Belfast. It seems to me that they have had some success in reducing the incidence of punishment beatings, which we all know have taken place and may still be taking place.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, mentioned informality. I should have thought that was a good thing when dealing with anti-social behaviour. I also recall that the learned judge from Scotland, who reviewed the whole of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, came down firmly in favour of restorative justice generally. He was also prepared to accept the continued existence of community-based restorative justice. I recall that the Independent Monitoring Commission, of which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has been a distinguished member, considered the matter and, on the whole, gave it a clean bill of health. I ask the Government, first, what is supposed to happen if the NIO guidelines are breached, and, secondly, is the amendment really necessary?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing back his amendment at this stage. It shows the justification of your Lordships’ procedures and that on Third Reading we can make amendments to Bills, having had good debates at each stage.

The noble Lord said that he amended his amendment to meet government policy. That being the case, on behalf of the Government, I am happy to recommend to the House that the amendment be accepted. I agree with every single word of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, I took the reference to informality to be the informality used by the paramilitaries in their “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we are in charge and you can't do anything about it” form of formality, which we do not like. This is designed to stamp that out.

We are satisfied with the present protocol. Our present understanding is that it appears to work. There are 16 community-based restorative justice schemes in Northern Ireland; 14 of those are actively in the process of seeking accreditation. There are two minor schemes—minor only in the sense of the number of cases they deal with, which is a handful—and they have not yet expressed interest in seeking accreditation. They have a very low volume of cases.

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We would welcome all such schemes coming forward to seek accreditation. The four Northern Ireland alternatives schemes, as I believe they are known, have expressed an interest in accreditation. The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice has now inspected each of those schemes and concluded that there are no obstacles to the schemes proceeding to the second stage of accreditation. That has to take place and involves the suitability panel looking at the individual participants. The 10 other community-based restorative justice Ireland schemes have expressed an interest in seeking accreditation and the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice is preparing to inspect each of those. By and large, that is a big step forward from the past situation.

In some ways, I do not make any claims about this—the informality of the protocol and the consultation on it have assisted people to have the confidence to put their feet in the water. Parliament is right to put the principles of the protocol in the provision. That is what the amendment basically contains. There are two “shalls” and two “mays” in the four sub-paragraphs, so it is important that this is not locked down over-rigidly. However, it makes the central point that Parliament wants it to. I have to say in respect of all amendments that have not been drafted by parliamentary counsel, who naturally run the rule over these few words to make sure that the commas are in the right place, that if any textual amendments need to be done in the other place, naturally we will consult with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hilton’s question about the breach, schemes that do not meet the protocol’s full requirements will be de-accredited and receive no assistance from the statutory sector. In other words, no money comes from these schemes but, once accredited, they can apply to other bona fide organisations. However, no such organisation would be funding any de-accredited scheme. That is the ultimate sanction.

On that basis, and given that this proposal has received good will throughout although it was not added to the Bill, it is another good example of your Lordships’ procedures. We have been able to send our goodwill at this stage, with an important process taking place in Northern Ireland, through our unanimous acceptance of this amendment.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his comments and acceptance of this new clause. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that this is a significant step forward to providing a legal underpinning of this provision and trying to do it in such a way that it will not hamper the inspectorate or unduly hamper those who are operating the scheme. I am delighted with this step forward and would like to thank the noble Lord once again.

Regarding textual amendments, after looking at my draft again, I have one in my mind already; others will no doubt occur to noble Lords. I will be happy to see the clause being refined in the way that the noble Lord mentioned.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved accordingly, and on Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

3.58 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]

Clause 8 [Monitoring and reporting of official statistics]:

Lord Moser moved Amendment No. 42:

(a) the release of official statistics, and(b) any access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication.”

The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 57, 57A, 58, 93 and Clause 11 stand part in the same group. The amendments were tabled by several noble Lords following discussions between us, and I support them all, including those to which my name has not been added formally on the Marshalled List. I understand that the other amendments in the group will not be moved by the noble Lords who tabled them.

Let me say a few words about the substance of the clause and the associated clauses, which all deal with the release and pre-release of government statistics. They are crucial to the Bill’s purposes and to all matters of integrity and public trust. I know from my years in charge of official statistics that hardly anything is more important than getting these rules right and making them acceptable. Let me explain why both the way in which statistics are published and the pre-release are so important. In passing, I must say how pleased I am that the Financial Secretary has announced that publication arrangements—the so-called publication hub, a central office—will be set up to cover all national and, I hope, all official statistics. This is not part of the Bill, but it is a very promising development. I imagine that the details will be settled by the new Statistics Board.

That leaves the key issue of pre-release. That is to say that the key issue is not whether Ministers, advisers and key officials get information about the statistics but whether they get them before publication. If it is felt that they need to get figures ahead of publication, how far ahead should they get them? Obviously, the longer ahead they get them, the greater the danger of leaks and the temptation to cover the statistics with spin of various kinds. This is why it is a sensitive issue.

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The way in which the Bill is drafted to deal with this issue is astonishing. Given that these matters are so obviously central to trust and confidence, which is what the Bill is all about, one might have expected it to deal with them positively and helpfully by making them a central responsibility of the new board and central to the code. In fact, almost the opposite emerges. Although the Bill rightly accepts that there must be strict rules and principles on pre-release, these matters are not regarded as a role for the board and it is suggested that they should be dealt with in secondary legislation subject to affirmative resolution. Also, references are made to what are called “appropriate authorities” for dealing with them. In my view, and this is the key point of all the amendments, these are clearly matters for the board and central to the code.

Let me say a word about international comparisons. In many key countries, no pre-release of any kind is allowed. I refer, among others, to Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland. In more countries, while some pre-release is allowed, it is limited to one or two hours, or maybe three. Another variant is that, in some countries, pre-release is limited to the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. It is understandable that special arrangements are made for market-sensitive data, but this country is the odd man out. Market-sensitive data are released to a number of people about 40 hours in advance. Many other public statistics are released to Ministers and officials five days in advance. In fact, I believe that I am right in saying that more people have more access to more data further ahead than in any other comparable country.

It is also sadly true that things have slipped a great deal since 2000, when the last reforms were made. Before that, as I know from personal experience, things were tightened up quite a bit. Now they are more lax than anywhere else or than they have ever been before, which I think is harmful not only to the statistical world but also to the Government as a whole. It has been clear throughout the consultation period that this is the issue that is worrying more people than almost any other, so it was good news when the Financial Secretary announced some progress; namely, that non-market-sensitive data that are now available to many people five days ahead will, I believe I am right in saying, be made available only about 40.5 hours ahead. That is a move in the right direction, but not nearly far enough.

What are my conclusions? I can see the point made by the Royal Statistical Society that there should be no pre-release. Although I rather agree with that, I suspect that it would be a move too far. I would like to see an absolute minimum of availability to Ministers and key officials—something of the order of two or three hours ahead, as in so many key countries, and perhaps an even tighter limit for statistics relating to market-sensitive areas.

My main conclusion and thus my main recommendation to noble Lords is not to set a particular number of hours or days, because that would be too detailed. My simple recommendation is that this matter—the decisions, rules and principles on pre-release—should be the job of the new board and central to the new statistics code. That is what these amendments have in

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mind. I repeat that this is central to the board and to the new code. It is in the interests of the Government and not just the statistical forces that this should come about. No other single change would send a clearer signal to the public and users than this. I beg to move.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: The Committee will have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, with huge interest and will respect the enormous experience with which he speaks. I have two amendments in this group. Amendment No. 68 provides that the board must include in the code of practice rules about pre-release in which access is,

That presupposes that the Bill will eventually make sure that the board, and not Ministers, take charge of the arrangements covering pre-release.

Amendment No. 77 deals with the release of statistics generally and gives the board power in the code of practice, which we shall discuss, to include in the rules where the release is to be done, who is to be responsible, and the minimum time gap between release and ministerial or departmental comment on the figures.

I agree profoundly with the noble Lord, Lord Moser. This group of amendments raises perhaps the most important single issue surrounding the restoration of public trust in the system; namely, the arrangements for the release of statistics and for pre-release access to statistics. The group also exposes starkly what I can only describe as the cynicism of the Government’s present position: that their new Statistics Board, which is intended, in their own words, to distance Ministers from the whole process of statistics, is to be debarred entirely from having anything to do with the pre-release of access to official statistics. Clause 11 of the Bill leaves it to Ministers to make the rules. That is pretty well what happens currently and is what has contributed mightily to the loss of public trust.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, made clear, there are two separate issues: first, the arrangements for the release of statistics generally; and, secondly, pre-release. First, on release generally, at Second Reading I described what all too often happens. In departments, the same press office that handles the release of the statistics also handles the ministerial statement. That statement often quotes selectively from the full statistics so as to put a spin on the figures. The professional commentary is thus obscured by the ministerial spin, and it is the spin that tends to dictate the headlines. There is really only one way to describe this process: it is corrupt. By that I mean that the process corrupts the clear messages in the statistics as disseminated by the professional statisticians by obscuring or even distorting them with selective political messages intended to steal the headlines. That is the first thing that has to be changed by amending the Bill to outlaw the process. There are two distinct activities—the professional dissemination and the political comment—and they need to be kept quite separate.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said, Ministers have some awareness of the problems created by the present process, as can be seen in their reference to

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what they have called the hub for the release of statistics. That seems to suggest that there is some process in mind that may go some way to deal with the problems. But we have been told absolutely nothing about how that hub is supposed to work, how it is to operate, who will be in charge, and how it will be policed. More important, will it separate dissemination from comment? It is all very well to say—and the noble Lord, Lord Moser, is very generous in his comments about this—that this is a step forward. The noble Lord may know more about it than I do, but I know nothing about how this hub is supposed to work, and I hope that today’s debate will give the Minister an opportunity to tell the Committee more about how it will work and to answer some of my questions. Who will be in charge, how will it be policed and will it separate dissemination from comment?

The other issue is pre-release. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has dealt with this, and I hope to do so quite briefly. The board must be given the clear duty to establish the rules and police the practice. As has been said, the United Kingdom is dramatically out of line with international practice with regard to what statistics are subject to pre-release, who has access and the length of time between pre-release and full dissemination. Again, this is an issue that simply must be put right. The board must be put in charge, the rules must be made clear and the Bill must provide for the proper enforcement of those rules.

Naming and shaming will not be enough. Government departments have very thick skins. Those who deliberately flout the board’s rules must be held to account and reported to the parliamentary Select Committee, where perhaps they can be dealt with firmly.

I have been told that these proposals have emerged as a result of much argument between the Treasury on the one hand and departmental ministers on the other. I have been told that the Treasury would have liked to have been able to deal with this abuse of the system but was defeated by an unholy coalition of Ministers in other departments determined to cling on to the existing pre-release arrangements. Presumably these people hoped that that would preserve what they see as the political advantage that the current arrangements give them because of the opportunity to interpret the figures as I have described. Do they not realise the grave damage that is done to public trust by that process? Will not the consequence of clinging to the existing policies be simply to prolong or even deepen the public’s mistrust in the system? The Committee must deal with that along the lines so eloquently laid out a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Moser. We should support his Amendment No. 42 and the other relevant amendments that he outlined at the beginning of his speech. This is perhaps the most important issue that we will deal with on the Bill, and we have to get it right.

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