Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

It is quite clear that most of the time the board will be drawing anxieties to Ministers’ attention to improve performance to guarantee that the code is complied with. That is how government works and how we would expect it to work in a mature society. However, in law we have to have some form of sanction. We cannot say that the process will be of people necessarily agreeing to a common standard. That is why we have the sanction and why the sanction, so being applied, involves such work for the board that we could not possibly say that it can apply this sanction across the whole range of official statistics. We are saying that it can apply the sanction for national statistics and it can begin the process of demanding that certain statistics are of such import that they need to be brought within this framework. Pressure is put on departments accordingly.

I do not underestimate the difficulty of the board’s work. That is why, if noble Lords do not mind my saying so, we all respect the role of the National Statistician, who will be chief executive of the board. Even working three days a week, the chairman of the board will be a pretty substantial figure and will command a fairly reasonable rate of remuneration. We recognise that we are creating a body with very formidable duties, not ones which are easy application of rules but ones which involve substantial interaction with powerful producers. I never underestimate the significance of government departments in looking after their own interests in these terms; neither does anyone in this House, least of all the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who has repeatedly pointed that out to me during the course of proceedings on the Bill.

I emphasise again that, first, we seek to produce some fluidity whereby those statistics that are included in national statistics can change over time. Secondly, in order to be within that framework, there is a significant sanction. To have that sanction, we need a differentiation between national statistics, which can be subject to such sanction and official statistics, which are too numerous for the board to be able to enforce compliance. Nevertheless, the board is establishing a code of practice that it will expect to be the lode star to which all official statistics aspire. It will set standards that will be mandatory on all categories of national statistics but will also be the guide for all official statistics that are intended to have national approval.

The process of sanction will not often, if at all, be as crude as the sanction in the Bill. Ministers will be all too conscious of the fact that serious bad publicity will attend them if they are guilty of basing their policies on statistics which, in the board's opinion, fall short of the code. That sanction will apply long before the actual sanction in the Bill, which is also necessary. If the department does not measure up, such statistics would lose their status. The implications for Parliament and the wider public would be bound to be very significant.

18 Jun 2007 : Column 45

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, several of us have raised the question of why the code is now the code for statistics, not the code for official statistics. A definition of official statistics is clearly laid out in the Bill. National statistics are in effect a subset of that, but the Government have chosen to say that this is a code for statistics, which implies that it goes beyond official statistics to we know not where.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the intention is that the code should apply as widely as possible within the framework of the board's competence. I have said that our crucial distinction is between national and official statistics, but the board will identify clear criteria for a code that ought to obtain with certain other statistics which may not be official but nevertheless may be of significance to the public realm. The board will be looked to to set the standard by which everything else is judged.

Lord Newby: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I am slightly mystified. I did not think that the board had any role beyond what is defined in the Bill as official statistics. What kind of body other than those covered by the definition of official statistics would the board have any jurisdiction over or seek to take a particular interest in?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the issue of national statistics—official statistics which are largely the statistics of governmental bodies. We can see no reason why certain non-governmental organisations that produce statistics for the public realm should not seek to hit the standards that the code will embody. Of course, the board will not have control over them, but it will be issuing a code which others will observe if they want credibility in public life.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.]

Clause 11 [Assessment]:

[Amendment No. 9 not moved.]

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 10:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 11 to 14 not moved.]

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 15:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move.

[Amendment No. 16, as an amendment to Amendment No. 15, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 15 agreed to.

18 Jun 2007 : Column 46

5.30 pm

Clause 12 [Re-assessment]:

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 17:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 18 to 21 not moved.]

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 22:

(a) the appropriate authority has not under section 11(1) requested the Board to assess and determine whether the Code of Practice for Statistics has been complied with, and(b) the Board is of the view that it would be appropriate for it to do so,the Board must notify the appropriate authority accordingly. (a) a statement that he intends to make a request under section 11(1) in relation to the statistics; or(b) a statement that he does not intend to make such a request, and must lay a copy of the statement before Parliament.(a) make a statement that he does not intend to make such a request, giving reasons, and(b) lay a copy of the statement before Parliament.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 24 [Reports]:

Baroness Noakes moved Amendment No. 23:

(a) a statement that the Board considers that the resources available to the Board and any others who produce or publish statistics have been adequate during that year, or(b) an analysis of the extent to which the Board considers that resources have not been adequate together with the actions that it intends to take.”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 24 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, which we support. I thank the noble Lord for agreeing to group his amendment with mine so that we can debate the two issues together, as I believe that that is convenient for your Lordships’ House.

18 Jun 2007 : Column 47

My amendment would merely add to the annual report requirement in Clause 24 a statement that the resources available to the board and others who produce statistics have been adequate. If they have not been adequate, the board would have to give an analysis of the situation. Most of us have been concerned about the short-term and long-term impact of resources on the quality of statistics. I have not been convinced by the talk of five-year resource settlements, because they do not address the adequacy of resources. If resources are inadequate in year one, being told that they are available at that level for four more years is absolutely no comfort.

My amendment would cover the resources not only of the board but of departments. It is obvious that quality statistics that comply with the code of practice cannot be produced on the cheap. Given the cost-cutting that is being forced on departments under the Comprehensive Spending Review, it would not be surprising if corners were cut. My amendment would allow the board to keep an oversight on this and, importantly, to report publicly if problems emerged.

Adequate resources are essential if the board is to have genuine independence and freedom of action. Public reporting is a necessary counterweight against the pressures that will be put on the board and others who produce statistics to cut costs, thereby impairing quality. This is the link between my amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lea. His amendment is about a very specific issue of independence and freedom. The board must be able to locate its activities where it considers best. Normally, such an amendment would be regarded as very odd, but those who have been following the Bill or the affairs of the Office for National Statistics will know that there is a very real problem with the current relocation to Newport. The Government have not even acknowledged the disastrous effect that the move is having on the retention of key staff; yet we know that some of the key statistical series are at risk because, inter alia, the Bank of England has warned us of that.

It may well be too late to turn the clock back on Newport, but the question is whether the board is allowed to establish a larger London presence than has been planned, or whether the Treasury can use the weapon of a Lyons type of review again to force some other form of relocation. The amendments are about the freedoms of the board and its independent decision-making. We heard throughout Committee that the board was to be given responsibilities for statistics and would not be micromanaged by the Treasury or anyone else. We never quite believed that, but the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lea, gives the Government a wonderful opportunity to state that one aspect of operational freedom in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will grasp it. I beg to move.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, as this is my sole contribution to our debates on Report, I trust that the House will indulge me if I paint a fairly wide canvas. I hope that the self-evident merits of Amendment No. 24 will, on reflection, have become apparent to

18 Jun 2007 : Column 48

the Minister and his colleagues in the Government. I shall return to the substance of the matter in a moment and I trust that it will receive a favourable response.

The other reason I would far rather avoid the need to divide the House is that if this amendment were carried because the Government could not meet my modest points and they lost the vote, they would be tempted to characterise, if not caricature, what people like me were arguing; namely, that this is all about people not wanting to be sent to Newport, rather like people in Moscow after the revolution in 1826 not wanting to be sent to Siberia. I have some numbers. Kursk was not two hours from Moscow; until recently, it was two weeks and before that it was two months.

Wearing my TUC liaison hat for a moment, I assure the House that our three affiliates—the FDA, the First Division Association of senior civil servants; Prospect, the professional civil servants union; and PCS, the largest Civil Service union—are not centring on that point and the amendment, of which of course they have knowledge, makes that absolutely clear. Perhaps I may summarise Amendment No. 24, which states:

The reasons it might have in mind are to do with recruitment and retention,


Perhaps my noble friend will comment on whether there is anything with which he disagrees on those points.

The amendment can be characterised more fairly as simply codifying common sense. The ONS Relocation Business Case, a year ago, analysed what are objectively quite obvious pros and cons in all the scenarios ranging from, more or less, a 100 per cent move to something far less than that. It includes consideration of the geographical dimension and separation, along with the opposite argument that computers now make geography totally irrelevant. Just to remind ourselves of the scenarios that the ONS Relocation Business Case looked at, Option A states:

Option B states:

Option C states:

A further option states:


18 Jun 2007 : Column 49

As I understand it, there are 1,200 staff in Newport and 600 left in London. Perhaps my noble friend will correct me if those numbers are wrong.

Since our very interesting debate early in May, there has been an important interchange in the Financial Times where people have given different points of view. Karen Dunnell, director of ONS, has given evidence to the Treasury Select Committee and has written an article in the Financial Times in answer to some earlier briefing. Incidentally, that briefing included on-the-record expressions of concern from the Bank of England, to which I shall come back.

Among other things, Karen Dunnell said:

I could say rather pedantically that that is the same as saying, “There are only 10 left in London, and six of them deal with the national accounts”. One has to be clear about the time-scale here, although I am sure that Karen Dunnell would not have written those words without a bit of steering from the Treasury, given that at present the ONS is obviously under its thumb. You would not think that there was a Statistics Commission expressing any views about these matters at all. Given the cul-de-sac the Government found themselves going down in May, some of us have had contact not only with the trade unions, but also with my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, whom I applaud for the courtesy he has shown. I have also been holding further talks with the First Division Association and others, and I hope and believe that there has been some movement.

I now wish to summarise where I think we are and ask my noble friend to confirm my understanding. I have before me a table given to the unions last week. It is in the public domain, I checked that, and shows two pieces of arithmetic that are worth quoting. On the last occasion, I talked about the central importance in Whitehall of the national income statistics produced by the National Accounts Group. The numbers now given to the unions show that London posts in April 2008 will be 118 staff in the group; London to Newport 2008-09, 35; and London to Newport 2009-10, 16. If you add 35 and 16, it comes to 51, which when subtracted from 118 will mean 67 staff left in London. So the question is: is that it in 2010, or will there still be an escalator going down? I think that the Government are now saying that that is it, in the sense that there is certainly no escalator. For different reasons, we could look at another set of statistics for the total picture, but given that the House may have a limited capacity to digest statistics, perhaps I should concentrate on the National Accounts Group. Can my noble friend assure me that the earlier picture which everyone was led to believe reflected the Government’s real intention and understanding of only a small consular rump left in London remains in place and confirm that the 65 staff do not have an automatic guillotine hanging over their heads?

That leads to the overlapping but longer-term question of how far the new board will simply continue under the thumb of the Treasury. I am aware

18 Jun 2007 : Column 50

that this has been debated in the Cabinet Office, but the main point is that the Treasury cannot go on having its cake and eating it. It always controls resources directly. The problem is not just the overall control of resources, but also the contradiction that this relates to two even more important questions: the perception and actuality of the independence of the board, and the credibility to other people. I shall mention the Bank of England again in a minute.

5.45 pm

Does the Treasury want the ONS and the board to have a reputation for independence or not? Yes or no? I think that is a fair way of putting my finger on the question. If it does, the best thing it can do is find a good psychoanalyst and ask them to look at this rather advanced case of schizophrenia. After all, the Statistics Commission is not doing anything like the job the Government say they want the board to do.

It is going to be difficult enough for the board to engender a reputation for independence. The least my noble friend can honourably do is not to say that the board will merely be able to “make representations” to the Treasury, because that does not help us; it means that the Treasury controls everything, although it is rather desperate that the board should have a reputation for independence. It cannot have this both ways. Rather, he needs to say that the board has responsibility for all these manpower questions, and if it has doubts about the resources to be able to do the job it is statutorily required to do, it ought to resign, because that is its own responsibility.

Without going into the question of responsibility to the Cabinet Office, and I shall not go so far as to say that that is a red herring, I think the central issue is—

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am extremely sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but we are talking about the location of the statistical board, not its relationship with the Treasury. We are on Report, and I would be grateful if my noble friend could direct himself to the amendment he has tabled.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I am sorry to disagree with my noble friend on the Front Bench, but we are debating a group of amendments. I have agreed to put my amendment in the group. I have not been speaking directly to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, so I am saving the time of the House. I am only speaking once in this debate, and I have been very helpful to my noble friends. I think that remark was out of order.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page