|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The key proposal is that the hub will be the separation of policy commentary from statistical commentary and release. Therefore, it will be clear that what are released are the official statistics with proper analysis of their significance, and then separately the policy commentary, which Governments are bound to have and which the nation is bound to be interested in, in response to salient and significant figures. How will that be done in the framework of the hub? The board has the responsibility for overseeing the hub and agreeing how it will operate. We expect, however, that as an executive function, the National Statistician will oversee the day-to-day operation. Indeed, the Financial Secretary has already announced that a key motivation of the hub is that very separation I identified a few moments ago.
I recognise that the hub does not appear in the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, would have sharply pointed that out to me had I not acknowledged the fact. Until the board is established the actual operation of the hub cannot be finalised. It will need extensive discussion on how it will work. It impacts on the role of the board and the relationship of the National Statistician and chairman of the board. I emphasisethe Financial Secretary has already made this quite clearthat it should necessarily be a clear separation between the statistics for which the board is responsible and which are issued, and policy commentary from Ministers. The hub concept would develop that.
The board will have a crucial role in overseeing compliance with the new pre-release arrangement. Parliament will oversee the general policy on the secondary legislation. The board will have a statutory duty to assess compliance with the new tighter arrangements that we are putting into place and enforcement of the code of practice. We expect that if these new rules are complied with, the board will take an assessment of those statistics. If the board is critical of the way releases have taken place then it could use sanctions, such as identifying the fact that those statistics do not meet national standards. The board would do so in a public report. It would also appearthis would be seriousin the annual report to Parliament, although it would not wait upon it.
We are emphasising that: first, we have sought to meet the anxieties expressed in the Committee that arrangements should be codified and that the period of pre-release should come down significantly to the limited time that we are proposing of 40.5 hours; secondly, that the board will have responsibility for assessing this process and ensuring compliance with it; and thirdly, that there has to be a distinction between the release of the statistics and the policy commentary on them by Ministers. The Bill is constructed against that background on these pre-release concepts.
It will, I hope, be recognised that the amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Moser, spoke first seek to put responsibility solely with the board. The
2 May 2007 : Column 1086
Lord Moser: I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed reply to the debate. There were one or two points that I felt uncomfortable about. One was the reference to international acceptance of pre-release; this is true, but not in the sense of international acceptance of the degree of pre-release that we have. In most places it would be regarded as excessive. I said when I introduced the amendment that tightening up to 40.5 hours for non-market-sensitive data is a mini-step in the right direction, but no more than that.
The Minister made very clear that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the board commenting on pre-release arrangements, or monitoring anything to do with statistics. Listening to that took me back to the early days of the route towards this debate when the Chancellor first mentioned what he had in mind. I was one of many in the professional statistical world who welcomed the Chancellors initiative, as I still do. I welcome that there is a Bill. I welcome the fact that this is all intended to improve public confidence in official statistics. It is evident to everyone that the lack of public confidence has less to do with the quality of the statistics than with how they are used by Ministers, the media and everyone else. That is the central issue.
Any commentator from the statistical world, either here or abroad, considering the Bill and welcoming this route towards greater confidence would want to know what is proposed about pre-releasethe one subject on which this country is so out of line with most others. They would be surprised to find that Clause 11, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has already drawn attention, states that that is nothing to do with the code. It would surprise everyone that the board is evidently not given prime authority.
It is not enough to know that nothing can stop the board from taking a key interest in the area. The amendment provides that governing pre-releasein other words, deciding on pre-release arrangements, which, incidentally, should be uniform across Whitehallshould be a prime responsibility of the board and a prime content of the code. It should be able not just to comment or to monitor; it should be in charge of that central aspect of public trust.
The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendment No. 148. Amendment No. 45 seeks to ensure that the board has a clear power to draw attention to the misinterpretation of official statistics and can notify the Minister and others responsible of offenders. At present, there is no adequate safeguard against misunderstandings or the misuse of statistics. Clause 8(2) deals only with the production of official statistics and not with their dissemination. Even flawlessly accurate statistics can be misrepresented. Almost all statistics can be presented in a manner that is designed to confuse or to present only one side of an argument. Data can be misinterpreted deliberately or accidentally by a government department or respected media source. Either way, the Statistics Board should be the appropriate authority to be given the responsibility for monitoring and highlighting any concerns so that the appropriate steps can be taken to correct the damage and prevent further mistakes happening in the future. I beg to move.
Viscount Eccles: I support the amendments. As we have already heard this afternoon, the creation of public trust is at the centre of the endeavour. Public trust will be better created if there is independent and professional critical analysis of statistics. I would like the amendments to be widened at the next stage to include the positive aspects of critical analysis as well as the negative ones.
We are dealing with a profession whose workings are not widely understood by the public. Therefore, the public will always have a feeling that these matters need to be explained to them by someone whom they
2 May 2007 : Column 1090
That is a duty that the National Statistician should certainly be encouraged to perform, and it is the duty of the board to back up the National Statistician if, as has happened to previous chief statisticians, they are subject to serious criticism by Ministers. If Ministers quote selectively from statistics and thus distort the full message that those statistics are intended to convey, it must be for the head of the profession, the National Statistician, to point out that that is misleading the public.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, may have views on this, but I can well understand that it would be a brave National Statistician who chooses to take on a senior Minister. Nevertheless, as my noble friend Lord Eccles has just said, if we are going to restore faith, this may need to be done. Further, the knowledge that the National Statistician can say, Minister, you have actually misled the public with this and we are going to make a statement, and that he is backed by the board on that, would act as a pretty condign disincentive to Ministers who try to fiddle with statistics. While I have not put my name to the amendment, I regard it as important. It would be the head of the profession who would comment professionally on the misuse of statistics. I hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to address himself to that.
Lord Desai: I apologise to the Committee for not being in my place when the noble Lord moved his amendment. In my long experience of dealing with statistics, I know of few which have a single interpretation. I spent a lot of my professional life debating monetarism, and no money number ever commands even partial unanimity, let alone universal unanimity. We have to be very careful. Freedom in these matters is important and, once a number has been released, it is impossible for anyone to declare, That is a misinterpretation, because there is no single interpretation. I will not cite examples but, whenever a number is released, if the rate of growth looks good, you talk about that; if the absolute increase looks good, you talk about that; and cycles
2 May 2007 : Column 1091
Lord Newby: I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken to our Amendment No. 148, not least the noble Lord, Lord Desai, because he has given us a starkly different interpretation from that of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. In an ideal world, this amendment would not be necessary. One would imagine that the National Statistician, who is responsible for the corpus of statisticsif that is the right collective noun for statisticswould comment publicly if she felt that they were being misinterpreted.
While I take what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, says and agree that many statistics are open to a number of interpretations, I believe that in some cases they are clearly misinterpreted, whichever logical view one might take. The reason for tabling the amendment is to give the National Statistician legal cover so that, if or when she wished to comment on a set of statistics that had been misinterpreted, she would be protected against a barrage from Ministers. If, in responding to the debate, the Minister says that the amendment is completely unnecessary because the Government accept that this would be part of the role of the National Statistician, we would be pleased to hear that. Otherwise, the amendment is important.
Lord Moser: When I was in charge, many years ago, I had no problem publicly in doing what is suggested in the amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, if the Minister can reassure us that the amendment is not necessary and that the National Statistician still has this freedom, even encouragement, to comment on misunderstandings, I should be happy.
My second point relates to what I have just said. The Statistics Commission, which has done an increasingly powerful and important job in recent months and years, is to be abolished. When it was set up a few years ago, I took the opportunity of saying to Ministers that I hoped that its terms of reference could include the power and encouragement to comment on Ministers as well as on statistical officials. However, that was not accepted. This is an important point for the future role of the board.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I am delighted to be able to respond positively to the amendments. I shall not accept themthat would be asking a little muchbut I shall respond in exactly the terms that the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Jenkin and Lord Moser, suggested. I give assurances that that is exactly how we believe that the situation will obtain after the Bill becomes an Act. Clause 8 guarantees that. It has the added advantagethe noble Lord, Lord Newby, drew attention to this in his amendmentthat the National Statistician, provided that his judgment is right and is supported by the board, has that dimension to his representation, too.
Under Clause 8, the board is empowered to do exactly what noble Lords have suggested. Where the board judges that a comment by a Minister, department or civil servant is not in keeping with good practice in
2 May 2007 : Column 1092
Lord Howard of Rising: I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances, which I should like to consider carefully when I have the opportunity to read at leisure his words in Hansard. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(2) If the Board has any concerns about the resources that are available for the production and publication of official statistics it may report such concerns to the person responsible for those statistics and to the Treasury.
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 49 would give an additional function to the board. It would add a new clause after Clause 8 requiring the board to monitor the resources available for the production and publication of official statistics. If the board has any concerns on that, it must report its concerns to the person responsible for the statistics and to the Treasury, and it must publish its report and lay it before Parliament.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|