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4.15 pm

Lord Turnbull: My view on this matter can be simply put. I have defended the principle of pre-release, which I think is consistent with the way we operate ministerial accountability. Nevertheless I support the

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central thrust of this group of amendments—that responsibility for this should be given to the Statistics Board, which should settle these matters after consulting with Ministers. I agree with the phrase proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin: “the minimum necessary”. That recognises the principle of need.

I have reservations about some aspects of these amendments. One, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, seeks to separate in time the release of the statistics and the release of the ministerial or departmental comment. I see no comment to separate the two in time, because in that lag various things could go wrong. I believe the principle should be separation of channels, which is why I think the “hub” idea, in which the statistics are released in one place in a central hub controlled by the board and the comment comes out of the department—separation in space, so to speak—is the better route to follow.

There is also an amendment from the Liberal Democrat Benches that seeks to give the power to the board, but then seeks to set a maximum time. If they are giving this power to the board, it should have the responsibility for settling matters, and different series of statistics may require different lengths of time.

Lord Newby: I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Moser and Lord Jenkin, that this group of amendments is probably the most important of all the amendments that we are debating in ensuring that the Statistics Board has the best chance of enhancing public trust in official and national statistics and demonstrating its independence.

As Members of the Committee pointed out, we are dealing here both with release and pre-release aspects of statistics. On the release arrangements, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that it is very good that a hub is promised. “Hub” is an interesting word which can mean a lot of things, and I am absolutely sure that the Minister will explain them when he replies to this group of amendments. I assume that the hub will be based in the Cabinet Office. Given the amendments that we passed last week, that is appropriate. We look forward to hearing from the noble Lord exactly how the hub will work.

Whatever the details of that, I am less worried about it than the issue of pre-release. I think all Members of the Committee agree that the existing arrangements are unacceptable. It is quite extraordinary how far away we are from international best practice in this area. The way in which the Government have sought to argue that having a new norm of 40.5 hours is somehow a huge concession is completely ridiculous. Leaving aside that fact, what is so special about 40.5 hours? It gives a spurious accuracy to a huge degree of ministerial discretion. The figure 40.5 gives the impression that there might be a rationale for it, but there is no rationale. If it were 40.75, it might be even better, but 40.5 suggests that there is something hugely significant about this period, which is clearly nonsense.

As the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, pointed out, we have tabled a number of amendments looking at ways of dealing with this issue. The ones that we wish to support today give the power to decide to the board.

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We have also tabled an amendment that would limit the period to two hours, as we were trying to tease out what made best sense. However, we are persuaded that different statistics may have different requirements. Giving the responsibility to the board enhances its power and credibility. Therefore, we do not propose to move the amendment that limits the period to two hours.

The noble Lord, Lord Moser, set out the amendments that we support. I urge all Members of the Committee to support them too.

Viscount Goschen: This Bill is about nothing if not enhancing the public’s trust in statistics. I support the principle of pre-release. There are many occasions where government should have informed access to statistics before they hit the markets. However, it is an area where the Government are most open to the charge of manipulating the information if they have too great a head start. Therefore, it should not be solely in the gift of Ministers to determine how much of a head start they have over other interested parties.

The Government have gone to the trouble in the Bill of setting up the board and giving it powers. They acknowledge the reduction in public trust in statistics over past years. Therefore, they would miss a trick by insisting on Clause 11, which specifically states:

The board should have a role in this, but perhaps the best compromise is for the board to be able to put forward advice to discuss with Ministers its requirements. Ultimately, the provisions of the code should be confirmed by Parliament through the mechanism of an affirmative resolution.

Baroness Noakes: Our names are added to several of the amendments in this group, and I support what the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said about the core group of Amendments Nos. 42, 57, 57A, 58, 93 and Clause 11 standing part. We also have in this group Amendments Nos. 90 and 92, which we shall not be moving. They propose the publication of the names of the people who were granted access and the terms of the access. We commend that to the Minister as a good idea, whatever happens with this group of amendments, and we hope that he will respond to it.

Amendment No. 42 introduces a function of the board to monitor arrangements for release and pre-release. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the board will be setting the rules under the amendments via the code of practice, but it also needs to monitor how it will work out in practice and include that in its annual report. Doubtless, the Minister will argue that the Bill does not give the Government the power to set new rules but Parliament will make those decisions by approving a statutory instrument. The Minister will know that we regard that as a mere fig-leaf. The Government will customarily get their statutory instruments through, and they will certainly have control over whether any alterations are made to the rules once they are set by

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statutory instrument. It simply does not meet the public interest of ensuring that statistics are free from government spin.

To reiterate points made by my noble friend Lord Jenkin and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the hub for statistics, that is a very interesting idea about which we have heard almost nothing in detail. Whatever the Minister says today—and I am sure that we will be grateful if he gives us any further information—we believe that the issue of release should be in the Bill within the power of the Statistics Board, however persuasive the Minister is about the Government’s plans for a new hub.

Finally, I alluded a moment ago to the issue of changing the rules for pre-release. However they are set up initially, they may not work in practice, and we may find that particular Ministers abuse the pre-release access that they are given, or that too many people are given pre-release access. With a statutory instrument, we would be in the hands of the Government to make changes. Clearly, as the most interested party, it is unlikely that they would make changes. The key issue of giving the board control is that the board has the ability to change the arrangements over time if what is initially set up proves not in practice to provide arrangements that form an important part of restoring trust in statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, my noble friend Lord Jenkin and others have referred to the need for those arrangements to play their important part in restoring trust, which is why we firmly believe that the Statistics Board should be in charge of the arrangements.

Lord Chorley: At Second Reading, I deliberately said nothing about the pre-release issue for the simple reason that I did not really know anything about it. I had no experience of it, although clearly from the debate it is rather a murky area. At Second Reading, I was struck by the severe criticisms made by the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin of Roding, Lord Turnbull and Lord Moser, among others. All of them were persons of considerable practical experience whose views were important to me. The language used by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, was even rather colourful for an ex-Permanent Secretary. He said:

I was impressed by the measured way in which the noble Lord, Lord Moser, introduced the series of amendments on pre-release today and perhaps more importantly by the balanced nature of the amendments, which have other names added to them.

After Second Reading, I did not need much convincing that something along the lines of the amendments was clearly needed. Everything that the noble Lord and others have said this afternoon underlines this as being an important flaw in the Bill. I would have no hesitation in supporting the noble Lord’s amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, said that it was the most important group of amendments to the Bill. Given his great experience, I am sure that we should listen carefully to his view.

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4.30 pm

Lord Desai: The amendments raise the central issue in the Bill, but a number of issues are being confused. It is very important that rules of pre-release be stated clearly so that everybody knows what they are. As far as is possible, pre-release times should be short. However, governments do not gain much advantage from pre-release. Whatever advantage is gained is quickly dissipated partly by incompetence and partly by the fact that clever people can see through any spin that statistics may be given. As I said earlier, when the party opposite was in power and changed the definition of unemployment 22 times, it was quickly seen through. In the case of this Government, the Prime Minister not only pre-released some statistics but got their interpretation wrong. Therefore, I am not much worried about that.

The next question is which agency will state the rules. I do not mind whether it is the board or Minister as long as the first statement of principles and the procedure for revision are not only clear but are placed before Parliament. However, if the board decides to change the rules of pre-release, Parliament should have the right to comment on it or at least to be told about it as soon as possible, because it will not be technical no matter how competent the board is.

As long as those rules are followed—that is, that the pre-release period is short, that a definite agency lays down the rules and that any revision of the rules should be conveyed to Parliament as soon as possible and Parliament is able to comment on it—there is no problem in handling pre-release in a way which best aspires to restore trust in official statistics.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this constructive debate. I am also pleased to record a measure of agreement between the Government and all noble Lords who have spoken today. Although some noble Lords indicated that they do not think that the Government are tightening up the system sufficiently within the framework of the Bill, it was conceded that the Bill is about tightening up the arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about what he called the extraordinary figure of 40.5 hours. That seeks simply to regulate the most sensitive of all statistics; namely, those relating to the economy and market-sensitive information. The 40.5 hours is not a figment of strange imagination, but merely the calculation of the time taken up by a clear day’s grace between the closure of the markets on one day and the their opening on the next day but one. It derives from a calculation of those hours: one clear day plus the hours before the markets open on the actual release day, and from the time that the markets have closed on the day before. It is not a strange formulation but rationalises a period within which statistics would be released under the pre-release arrangements, against a background of the necessary arrangements for market-sensitive material.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: When the Minister says “financial markets”, which ones is he talking about? We work in a world where markets are

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open 24 hours a day all around the world and trade in each other’s bonds and currencies. I wonder what he is saying here.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I understand the noble Lord’s point, but I am talking about London. The noble Lord will recognise that it is reasonable that we measure the amount of time for which Ministers should have access to information which they know to be market-sensitive, within the UK framework, against the period which I have indicated.

I also recognise that there is appreciation of the Government’s proposals to address these issues within the framework of a central publication hub. Pressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, indicated that he would like to hear more about it—I shall enlighten the Chamber on government thinking on these changes. I must add that there is consultation on this concept which will relate to the future working of the board. Final development of work in this area will therefore depend on consultation after the chair of the board has been appointed. I therefore cannot be definitive today, but I shall address those questions.

That pre-release is necessary is recognised in this House, in the other place and by the Treasury Select Committee in its July 2006 report. I am grateful that none of the amendments today, although spoken to in typically forthright terms, denies the principle of pre-release, but the movers of the amendments constructively seek to identify how it could be affected. I emphasise the obvious fact that the principle of pre-release is accepted in a large number of advanced countries, with many statistics available to Ministers in the USA, Canada, Spain, France and so on, the day before publication.

Pre-release access provides a fundamental safeguard, enabling the Government to consider and plan contingency or mitigation measures, release further clarifying information which might be needed on the basis of a statistical release, and to guard against disproportionate and potentially costly market reactions and currency movements. Governments are ultimately responsible for maintaining economic and financial stability. Pre-release access to data may be necessary to meet this fundamental responsibility. I therefore make no apologies for the Government having set out to emphasise the statistics pre-release structure in the Bill, thereby attracting a considerable range of ideas on how we could tackle it in a different way.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, gave a perspective on how government policy evolves. He is experienced enough to know that it does not fall out of a hat but is the result of considerable discussion within government, particularly over a policy like this which, as he rightly indicates, is of interest to all departments. There has been considerable discussion but I emphasise that the outcome is that agreed by Cabinet as government policy, which is contained within the Bill.

In line with the devolution settlement, we intend that the devolved Administrations will set their own pre-release arrangements for national statistics that are wholly devolved. The basic means—and I note the slightly derisive terms in which the noble Baroness,

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Lady Noakes, referred to the parliamentary process—of putting the process within the framework of secondary legislation guarantees parliamentary scrutiny. I understand that these amendments provide for an alternative approach to the issue, but the Government are fully aware that there is parliamentary interest in how these statistics emerge in the process, and that we are guaranteeing parliamentary control in those terms. We guarantee that where the board, in fulfilling its purposes, gives rise to parliamentary anxiety, there will be a framework within which this can be tackled.

It is not fair to suggest that the Government are shying away from necessary scrutiny of this important part of the arrangements—far from it. We are proposing a real tightening up of the process as compared to current practice where pre-released arrangements agreed by Ministers are contained in a non-statutory protocol; whereas the new arrangements will be subject to full scrutiny.

We also commit ourselves to establishing a statistical system which can be developed in the light of experience. We will review the whole operation of pre-release after 12 months. If it is the case, as some noble Lords are indicating, that the Bill will not be sufficient to restore and enhance that trust in official statistics—which is the objective of the Government and is shared by all sides of the Chamber—we will revisit these issues in due course.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for his identification of the amendments which light the core of his argument on what needs to be changed in the Bill. I will first of all address those amendments, while recognising that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, tabled amendments which also need to be seriously considered.

Under Clause 10, the board will already have the ability,

Under Clause 12, it will have a duty to assess compliance with that code. The Government fully expect the board to include in its code of practice arrangements for the release of statistics. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent the board not only monitoring the arrangements for the release of official statistics, but determining them in the first place—after all, the main thrusts of the amendments relate to the significance of the board in relation to these issues. The Government would expect the board to do that.

The arrangements for pre-release are different in so far as they may be—and indeed in some cases will be—of special status, agreed by Ministers and approved by Parliament. But even under that provision, Clause 11 states that the pre-release arrangements contained in that order will be considered as part of the code for which the board will have responsibility. We are not therefore devaluing the role of the board with regard to pre-release; we are indicating that the board and its code will have a framework within which it can comment on government practice.

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4.45 pm

Baroness Noakes: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I was puzzled by what he just said. Clause 11(1) states:

I do not think that that is what the Minister said. I think he said completely the reverse and I shall be grateful for his explanation.

Lord Davies of Oldham: We are identifying areas for which Ministers will be responsible and on which the board in its code will seek compliance with regard to statistics. If a practice is adopted which the board finds exceptional and of which it is critical, it will, with its code, have the framework for comment. It will be making a report to Parliament in any case and, as we have indicated, the prime responsibility for parliamentary scrutiny of ministerial action lies in the secondary legislation. The proponents of the amendments suggest that we substitute the board for ministerial action. I indicate that the Bill envisages ministerial action subject to parliamentary scrutiny with regard to secondary legislation and that the board, with its code of compliance, will, if necessary, comment on practices that are operating.

The release practices are set out by the board in the code. The only part reserved for Ministers is on the pre-release arrangements. We therefore have the board identifying the broad structure and Ministers dealing with certain sections of pre-release. Within that framework, the board is not devalued in its role on official and national statistics. A particular area of pre-release is reserved to Ministers, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Also within the framework, we expect to see the tightening of arrangements. I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that the 40.5 hours’ restriction is significant as regards present arrangements. It codifies the existing system and makes a due response to the view expressed in this Chamber that we need closer control over pre-release and I have indicated the basis on which the timescale is to be adopted.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, emphasised his anxieties about certain aspects of the process. Within the framework of the Bill, the Government address the main issue the noble Lord raised at Second Reading, when he emphasised the importance of the pre-release issue. It is sought to keep pre-release to a minimum and within the framework proposed by the Government on these matters.

Noble Lords raised a number of other points in the debate. The most important was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and reflected in other speeches, including that of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, which is the concept of the hub. That is also part of the Government's thinking on how we will seek to obtain greater coherence to the pre-release arrangements and guarantee that the structure in this country meets the needs of Ministers with proper responsibility for statistics, and the wider public's concern that this necessary responsibility of Ministers

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should not be turned into what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, identified as the possibility of spin by Ministers, which therefore affects the acceptance of statistics when they enter the public domain.

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