|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The amendments, tabled both by the Government and by other Members of the House, broadly reflect a goal we all sharethat of making the Bill as clear as possible on governance and roles and responsibilities. We are legislating in some respects for a dynamic situation. This is the first creative phase with regard to the board, so the definition of the role of the chairman, the amount of time that he or she will devote to it and the remuneration reflect the arduousness of creating a very substantial institution. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, that that can change when we get into steady statethat the demands may not be so great on the chairman then. I also agree with a number of other noble Lords that, as with so many boards and the relationship between the chairman and the chief executive, the relationship between the chairman and the National Statistician may change according to their personalities and how they work together. We all know that there has to be recognition of evolving change in those terms, but this board is like no other. We seek to create an effective board with the two key figures working together to reach the objectives for which it was established, but we recognise that the relationship between them may change over time.
Of course the Government are committed to the governance structure established in the Bill, in which the single legal entity charged with delivering the functions in the Bill is the Statistics Board. The Bill provides for a single institutional structure with a board that is legally responsible and accountable for
18 Jun 2007 : Column 23
We expect that the executive business of the board will be discharged by professionals, acting under the boards direction, but the legal authority to act on behalf of the Statistics Board flows through the board, and it must therefore retain the authority to act in relation to matters for which it is accountable. As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, indicated, one aspect of that is its accountability to Parliament. This issue was mooted during the debate on the previous amendment. The noble Lords, Lord Jenkin and Lord Newby, referred to it with regard to statistics on migration, which are causing considerable public comment. If the board were in existence, the interest of Members of Parliament would force it to respond in the way that I have, in a most perfunctory fashion, sought to identify. I have no doubt that Parliament would expect the board to respond in a committed and effective way to a problem that arises.
The model we are using is a straightforward one for the governance of public authorities. We believe that it is the most effective way to deliver greater independence for the Office for National Statistics and independent scrutiny and oversight of the statistical system as a whole, while avoiding the creation of competing centres of statistical expertise within it. The unitary structure is the right approach. That is why I have resisted amendments that would fracture the single structure and leave unclear who is legally accountable for the functions specified in the Bill. A mixed executive/non-executive board would no longer have the capacity to ensure the discharge of the functions for which we wish it to be responsible. All it would have the power to do is to monitor the National Statistician as he or she exercised those functions, and the National Statistician would be able to ignore any views the board might have about how its executive functions should be discharged. The burden of some of the amendments we have considered is to confine the role of the non-executives merely to monitoring, which would be a tremendous waste of the talent and experience that we intend them to bring to the board and to the statistical system as a whole.
This is a standard approach in statutes that establish new legal entities. For example, the board follows the pattern of the Food Standards Agency, which was set up under the Food Standards Act. The non-ministerial department established in that Act consists of the 13 or so people who sit on its board. The board is charged with the responsibility for carrying out a range of functions, which those 13 people clearly do not have the capacity to do on their own. The Food Standards Act, like the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, provides a flexible framework. That framework enables the Food Standards Agency to discharge its functions, either through decisions at board level or through delegations to staff. That also applies in respect of taxation and the powers that are vested in the Commissioners for Her Majestys Revenue and Customs.
I do not think that the model of unitary governance in the Bill leads to confusion. The arguments that have been put forward and amendments that have been tabled have obliged us to be more specific about several of those functions and I recognise that the House has made a considerable contribution to the most important feature of the Bill: the structure and responsibilities of the board and its operations.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the National Statistician as the chief executive of only the production function. That is the primary responsibility of the Statistics Board. The fact that he is not involved directly in the assessment of the Statistics Boards own functions does not prevent him being ultimately responsible as the chief executive for ensuring the effective and efficient discharge of the boards functions. It is not unusual for a chief executive of any corporate body not to be directly involved in the assessment function. Nevertheless, he or she takes final responsibility for all the boards actions. I hope the noble Lord will recognise that we are not departing from past models regarding how the board will work in these terms.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for her understanding of the Governments attempts to respond to some of the points she has made in the past. She will recognise that the National Statistician as chief executive of the board has a relationship to the chairman. The chairman is also accountable for the work of the board. In that sense, there is an element of review between them of the National Statisticians work.
The noble Baroness will recognise that the National Statistician is a civil servant. Therefore, at some stage he may also be responsible to the head of the Civil Service. This is a significant post in public life. We all recognise that. He or she is being greatly strengthened by this concept of the board, which produces a distance from the Government. However, with a board of this significancethe noble Lord, Lord Moser, indicated this in his contribution about accountability to Parliamentone cannot separate the board and its great significance from public accountability and, ultimately, full government responsibility for the effectiveness of its actions.
I appreciate that the Government could have been a little quicker off the mark and therefore perhaps have reduced the workload on the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in producing her amendments, although she had already foreshadowed those by her work in Committee. I hope that she will recognise that our amendments go a considerable way to meeting arguments advanced on these most important issues. I trust that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment and that in due course the House will give its support to the government amendments when they are moved.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for all those comments which will have put to rest some of the concerns that some people still have. I still think that the Government are muddled about what a unitary board is. When challenged on the idea of performance review, we were told that there is an element of review, but that there is also the head of
18 Jun 2007 : Column 25
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 4. These amendments seek to extend the definition of the public good objective in Clause 7 by adding to the explanation of public good, which is found in subsection (2). It says that serving the public good,
Doubtless, the Minister will say that my amendment is unnecessary because the existing drafting is precise, succinct and clear and that endless refinements do not helpat least, that is what he said in Committee. I would like to explain why the drafting is not precise, succinct and clear enough. I believe it to be Whitehall-centric. One way or another, the amendment is designed to stretch the footprint of the definition of public good so that it is indeed clear that it covers some other vital elements of public good.
to the public policy reference in Clause 7(2)(b). Of course, the existing drafting does not exclude the evaluation of policy at other than the national level, but the practice to date has been that the local dimension of statistics has been the second cousin, or even further removed than that, to national statistics. The fact that the Local Government Association and bodies representing the regions are concerned about the recognition of their needs in the Bill is proof enough that we should be doing something positive to ensure that the Statistics Board has those issues at the heart of its work. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, made the other points relevant to that leg of my amendment.
That also relates to the needs of local government and other non-national-level users of statistics, but goes beyond that. In Committee, I cited the information needs of those involved in issues of domestic and social cohesion, which are not fully met by current statistics. There will be plenty of other examples. User orientation is not covered by the current wording and its absence implies that users are not an important element in defining what is meant by serving the public good.
A further leg of my amendment is the need to produce benefits for citizens. The current wording talks about informing the public. That certainly does not go far enough. I am sure that citizens benefit from being informed, but benefits for citizens operates on a much wider plane. For example, it involves having a statistical system that meets the highest standards. It would be possible for the wording of Clause 7(2) to be met with little perceptible advantage for citizens.
It is curious that a Bill that we all believe is important because it offers a chance to restore public trust is so coy about even mentioning the subject of public trust. Citizens benefit when we have a system of statistics that is both excellent in itself and trusted. That in turn will increase the degree of trust attached to the policies which statistics underpin, which leads to better government.
My case is not that it is impossible to stretch the interpretation of the current definition to meet the items that I have mentioned, but that by ignoring those items we are left with a definition of serving the public good that is exclusive and Whitehall-centric. We believe that a more inclusive definition that incorporates local needs, user needs, citizens and public trust would more fairly communicate what I hope that the Government agree are important components of the public good. We believe that those elements are so important that they should be in the Bill, not left to the vagaries of legal interpretation once the Bill has passed into law. I beg to move.
Lord Newby: My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment and I shall speak briefly to two aspects of it. The first is an aspect that we discussed under Amendment No. 1statistics at levels lower than the national. We have had a good airing of that issue. In replying to Amendment No. 1, the Minister accepted the importance of statistics at those levels. He argued that Amendment No. 1 was not the best way of recognising that in the Bill. Given the importance of the issue, however, I hope that he can accept Amendment No. 3, because it is the only other way in which the Bill can refer to the importance of local statistics.
The second, and final, aspect of the amendment about which I feel particularly strongly is the question of how we achieve high levels of public trust in statistics. At Second Reading, almost every speech referred at some length to the problems that have arisen in the way in which statistics have been used and the consequent falling levels of public trust. If one believes the statistic, well under 20 per cent of the population believes any figure that the Government publish. Therefore, requiring the board to think about specific activity that might help to restore faith in statistics would be very valuable. It is all very well producing statistics properly, but a proactive programme by the board to explain what it is doing and why statistics are being produced under its watch to the highest possible standard would be very worth while. Without that in the Bill, this area will, by definition, fall to the bottom of the list. As I
18 Jun 2007 : Column 27
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I hope that the Minister will accept my noble friends amendment. Both my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, have explained with considerable force why there is real advantage in spelling out the public good in the way in which the amendment does. I shall give two examples. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others have referred to the problem for local governments of the paucity of statistics on immigration and population movements. It is only a week or so since the House debated the report of our own Economic Affairs Select Committee, to which Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, gave some very disturbing evidence on the first day of evidence. On 31 October last year, which is some while back, he was challenged on why he found it so difficult to provide accurate forecasts. He said:
On the quantity side, the single biggest uncertainty is the size of the labour force. We just do not know how big the population of the United Kingdom is and, because the composition of the population and its split between different groups of workers, young versus old, migrant workers versus normally resident workers, has changed in recent years, it may well be that some of the statistics we are using are not giving a very accurate reading.
That puts it very modestly. I shall not read what he went on to say, but it is quite clear from that evidence and the Select Committees view of it that this is a very serious failure of the present system. The Bank is perhaps one of the most important users of statistics, and it is quite inadequate merely to wrap all this up in the phrase the public good. One could give other examples, but I would have thought it very valuable to add the words in my noble friends amendment about the users of statistics. I shall not repeat what I said at an earlier stage when I quoted from the Statistics Commissions own report about the needs of users, because that is already on the record.
Statistics are produced for the benefit of those who are going to use them. It is not an exercise conducted in vacuo and simply for someone to stand back and say, This is for the public good. The users have to develop policies and activities on the basis of the figures that the statisticians produce, which I would hope could be recognised.
Another example of the public good is the access of the public to the figures. Remarkably, there arrived on my desk this morning a report from the Statistics Commission entitled, Data on DemandAccess to Official Statistics. This very thorough report is based on a couple of considerably detailed research studies. Its main point was to find out what use the public make of statistics. How do the public access statistics? Is it easy for them? Do the public find it easy, for instance, to access statistics via the internet? The
18 Jun 2007 : Column 28
Since the most satisfactory forms of data provision are still evolving, UK government statisticians should adopt an explorative and experimental approach to dissemination and access to statistical data through the internet.
I shall not weary the House with principles 3 to 8 at this stage. I do not think that that is included in the phrase, the public good. This is a question of users, who are not only the official users but, with the participative democracy that we are increasingly moving towards, also members of the ordinary public who will wish to have access through the means with which they are becoming familiar; namely, the internet. That would be summed up in my noble friends amendment for the benefit of users.
I give just those two examples. I do not believe that the words in the Bill are sufficient to embrace all those considerations. My noble friends amendment does that. I hope that the Minister, on reflection, will think it possible to accept the amendment, or that, at Third Reading, he might like to put in words that have a similar effect.
Lord Dearing: My Lords, I support these two amendments. When I consider what is proposed and how the board might feel about it, I cannot think for a moment that the board would find it unduly onerous to be required to take into account the local level, as it is left to the board to define what is local, to what extent and how frequently. It is useful to include the provision. As I said previously, even if the effectiveness of expenditure can be increased by only 0.1 per cent, we are talking about a benefit of £100 million every year. That is very big money for very little. I cannot think of an easier way of raising the prospect of a gain of £100 million.
As for the emphasis that the board will give, the Bill states that the board shall have a chairman and not fewer than five others; so the implication is that it will be a small board. Three of the others should be appointed having regard to a concern with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On such a small board, it would be surprising if, with the national requirement and the needs of those three countries, the needs of local communities in England did not get decent weight. This is a desirable safeguard in view of the structure of the board itself. In the light of what I said about money and the Ministers understanding of monetary matters, I hope that the Minister will be responsive.
Lord Chorley: My Lords, when I first saw this amendment, I wondered whether it was really necessary. The Minister may say, Is not serving the public good sufficient?. However, while listening to the discussion, in particular to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, I have become convinced that, given the history and background, it is important to have both belt and braces. That is
18 Jun 2007 : Column 29
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as the objective set out in Clause 7 is the cornerstone of the Bill it is right that the House should subject it to the most robust debate, and the amendment raises important issues. The noble Lords who contributed to the debate emphasised the value of local-level statistics, the importance of meeting the needs of users, providing benefits for citizens and, of course, the crucial issue of public trust. The Government believe that the objective set out in the Bill should be succinct, broad and high-level. It is designed to make a clear statement of the overall purpose of the board. It is to promote and safeguard the quality, good practice and comprehensiveness of the official statistics that serve the public good. Clause 7 sets out the objective clearly, concisely and in an entirely appropriate way by covering the right ground in sufficient detail.
One of the Governments key aims in establishing this independent board is to improve the level of public trust in official statistics. That is the genesis of the Bill. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has repeatedly made that point, as did I when the legislation first came before your Lordships House. As I argued in Committee, however, many factors outside the scope of the boards responsibilities determine the level of trust in statistics and it would be an unrealistic obligation to put on the board in specific terms. When considering this issue at Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said that trust is a complex matter, and indeed it is. He observed that trust in statistics is part and parcel of trust in the Government themselves, and indeed in politicians in general. I am sure that we all recognise the truth of that remark.
Levels of numeracy and peoples understanding of figures and statistics are likely to impact on peoples degree of scepticism or otherwise of official statistics. Peoples individual experiences of issues presented at an aggregate level by statistics also play a part in their propensity to trust statistics. We know, for example, that the public perception of levels of crime does not mirror what often appears in crime statistics. How statistics are used and how they are presented to people, especially by the media, plays an important role in whether they trust public figures.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|