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I am coming fairly near to the conclusion of my remarks. There are enormously important reasons why the ONS needs to regain its reputation for independence. The challenges facing statisticians at present are unprecedented. There is the example of the earnings index. I am still not clear how far that is to do with checking medians versus averages, taking into account City bonuses, equity gains and so on, but there is an issue there.
Although the Bank of England ought to look at the mote in its own eye before criticising the ONS, it has said that,
Does my noble friend believe that the Banks anxieties have now been laid to rest? If so, can he draw my attention to the chapter and verse where it has said so?
Will my noble friend confirm that there has been movement on the two key points that I have put to him? If he meets them in terms, I will not seek to divide the House. I will of course judge that when I have heard his response.
Lord Newby: My Lords, in an ideal world, both amendments would be unnecessary. The first deals with resources and the second with relocation, but they are linked, because with the relocation comes a cut in the resources available to the ONS.
On Amendment No. 23, I reiterate the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, which we have raised in the past. The Minister said that the amendment, or something like it, was unnecessary because the ONS had a five-year settlement. As the noble Baroness said, if the settlement is unsatisfactory, the fact that the ONS is saddled with it for five years is a demerit rather than something from which to take any satisfaction.
Amendment No. 24, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, should be unnecessary. However, all those who have looked at the way in which the relocation has been handled, whether it is the unions or the Bank of England, have been very concerned that it has been done so badly that the key economic statistics produced by the ONS have been put in jeopardy. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, we are looking for reassurance from the Minister that the Government and the ONS have taken notice of what has been said and that the speed with which the relocation is taking place has been moderated to be certain that key economic and social statistics have not been jeopardised in the mean time.
Lord Northbrook: My Lords, I support both these important amendments. With regard to paragraphs (a) and (b) of Amendment No. 23, in the name of my noble friend Lady Noakes, it is important that the board is happy that the resources available to it are adequate, particularly if there are problems in the first year. Resources should be adequate over the five years, and the board should have the ability to say when they have not been.
On the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, despite the Minister trying to impress on us the charms of Newport, if the board is unable to get the staff required there, it should have the flexibility to locate them in such other places as may be appropriate.
Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I ask the Minister to address the point about adequate resources in a slightly different way. The future is more important than the past and the Bill is intended to create a new
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It is probably true that the Government are moving away from what has on many occasions been rather a heavy-handed approach to the terms on which public bodies should be funded towards a light-touch approach. I should be most grateful if the Minister could assure the House that we are talking about true independence, a light touch and not too many core targets and performance indicators in the future.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, in seeking to reassure the noble Viscount on that last point, I wish to avoid going into too much detail on the annual report which the board has to make. That is the burden of Amendment No. 23, which I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw.
To what extent should we prescribe in legislation specific aspects of the boards activity? The noble Lord quite rightly asked why we should not have a light touch. I cannot think of a heavier touch than prescribing in considerable detail in legislation exactly what the board must do. As I have emphasised in the past, our purpose is to create an independent board. It seems a little odd, then, that we should write into the statute detailed, specific information that the board should include in its annual report beyond what we already have. The board will recognise its responsibilityit is publicly accountable. It knows what it will have to identify in broad terms to the wider public and to Parliament. What should be resisted is excessive prescription in these terms, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, enjoined me to do.
A major part of the boards activities will be monitoring the quality and comprehensiveness of, and good practice in, official statistics under the wide-ranging powers that it already has under Clause 8. Under them, it can report on matters of funding and resources. In monitoring and reporting on the quality and comprehensiveness of, and good practice in, statistics, the board will be able to comment on all issues that it considers help determine quality and comprehensiveness. Clearly, financial and staff resources will often be relevant factors, and the board will comment on them. If the board was of the view that statistical quality had been badly affected by insufficient resources being devoted to the production of certain statistics, it could comment publicly to that effect. I assume that it would do so as it is clearly its role.
I make it clear that we would expect Parliament also to play a full part in examining the resources of the board and others who produce official statistics, including identifying any concerns that it may have, and holding to account those responsible for making decisions on the allocation of resources. The Bill therefore
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Grouped with the noble Baronesss Amendment No. 23 is Amendment No. 24 tabled by my noble friend Lord Lea. I recognise that the location of the ONS has been a matter of some controversy and that this House, the other place and those elsewhere have concerns about the impact on staff, the quality of statistics and the links between statisticians and users of statistics in London.
Let us recognise that the ONS is not unique in relocating work. Relocation is a cross-government initiative intended to move 20,000 jobs outside of the south-east. The vast majority of Members who speak in this House, and certainly of those who speak in the other place, are generally of the view that relocation is a good idea in broad terms to reduce overheating in the south-east, to spread jobs more widely in the country and to promote a degree of regional policy, but as soon as any particular case emerges, it is argued that the department and function concerned ought not to move.
This move has been going on for a considerable time. We are not in the early stages, but more than halfway through. I can confirm my noble friends statistics: there are now 1,200 staff of the ONS in Newport and about 600 in London. That is just about right. He was right also that the numbers going to Newport will increase and that the numbers remaining in London will decrease. I can confirm to him that about 50 to 100 staff will remain in London in 2010. They will be there for essential operational need. As he emphasised, it is expected that national accounts staff are likely to form the majority of London-based staff in 2010 because of the significance of their role, which he described to the House. Of course, he is right that the board can at any point make the case for retaining more staff in London. If it feels that there is an essential operational need for that, that will be its decision.
On the question in broad terms of whether the board in future could decide where it should be located as a whole, other factors come into play. The board needs to identify where it can best achieve the objectives that the Government have set before it, but it would be passing belief if it were suggested that the Government, Parliament or this House should give any government body the inalienable right to decide exactly where it would locate itself, with Parliament and the British taxpayer voting the necessary resources. That is not acceptable; it could not be, otherwise we would have every non-governmental public body located somewhere in Whitehall. Certainly, they would be located pretty close to London, because they would be able to put forward two propositions: first, quite rightly, that they and their contribution to the life of the nation and public policy are highly significantand in every case they would be right that their roles were significant, or they would not exist for the functions that they had. Secondly, it is always the case that the closer you can get to the Prime Minister, the greater your influence is likely to be. What an excellent argument for a geographical
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I can tell my noble friend that if the board identifies that its functions can be more effectively pursued in another location, of course it can make its case. There are proper procedures in which boards make their case with regard to the location of their functions. It is then for the Chief Secretary to analyse each case and for public resources to be brought into play according to the decisions of Parliament on their allocation. That is an entirely proper function. We could not possibly put into a particular piece of legislation a guarantee that a board in future could locate itself wherever it chose.
I recognise my noble friends concern about the procedures with regard to the transfer. We are at the mid-point of that transition; it is a programme that has been going for several years and has three more years to run until 2010. This is a difficult phase for the Office for National Statistics. It is important that the office maintains its standards, and of course it will endeavour to do so. If an early transfer of certain staff should not be effected because it causes anxiety among very significant consumers of statistics, the programme may be moderated in those terms. In broad terms, the Office for National Statistics is following a pattern that several other bodies and departments of government have followed with regard to relocation. Of course, relocation is never easy, but we should consider that for the staff, relocation to a place such as south Wales significantly decreases their housing costs and therefore potentially enhances their living standards. We are guaranteed that we can retain staff. We have a higher staff retainment level at Newport at present than we do in London. We should not underestimate the mobility of graduates; the extent to which our university provision right across the United Kingdom is such that we can guarantee the flow of highly qualified manpower in Newport.
I recognise my noble friends anxieties. This is a difficult time, as it is mid-point in the move. He will recognise, however, that the Government cannot accept in legislation an amendment that effectively would give to the Office for National Statistics a position that is not vouchsafed for any other government body; nor is it conceivable that any Government at any future time would do so. I hope that he will recognise therefore that he has brought to the attention of the House the necessity for very effective action regarding the transfer, but I hope that having raised the issue he will not move his amendment. I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, we have listened to my noble friends overkill on how we perceive the location question. I asked a question about the Bank of England. There are quite serious concerns. Is everything in the garden lovely now? Can he draw to my attention where the Bank of England has hadits problems, whichI say to my noble friend the Whipdo refer to location, and say that they have been dealt with?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I did refer to that in broad terms. Of course the move is causing some difficulty and anxiety; it is bound to. The Bank of England speaking up in those terms gives a salutary warning to the Office for National Statistics that it must preserve the quality of its work while effecting this change, as it has undertaken to do.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, The amendments are unnecessarybut. The but is important. Great concerns have been expressed not only about the generic issue of resources, which is addressed by my amendment, but about the specifics of the relocation to Newport, which is addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, in his amendment.
To paraphrase what the Minister said: We told you all along that the Statistics Board was going to be a great, independent and free-standing body. But that only applies when we choose it to be so, because we will interfere whenever we want to, because it is a government body. I hope that those who seek to become involved in the Statistics Board understand the rules of the game that the Minister has outlined. The board will have one way in particular of expressing itself, which is its annual report. The Minister said that it could cover resources; I hope it does. I hope it covers any other aspect where the board is dissatisfied with the way in which the Government are trying to stop it acting in the way it thinks right for its work of producing good quality statistics, whether it be forced relocations or any other aspect of government policy. I hope that the Statistics Board will read the debates that we have had and be encouraged by the fact that we want to keep these things in the public domain and not hidden behind closed doors in the Treasury. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Noakes moved Amendment No. 25:
The National Statistician shall have right of direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving the integrity of official statistics or a dispute with a government department regarding official statistics.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 25 inserts a new clause before Clause 27, which grants to the National Statistician the right of direct access to the Prime Minister. We would not normally expect to see such a clause in a Bill, because access to the Prime Minister is more an issue of custom and practice than a matter of statute. We tabled the amendment for Report following an unsatisfactory debate on similar amendments in Committee.
We firmly believe that the work of the National Statistician in achieving high standards for statistics across the whole of the Government will be aided by the informal pressures that can be brought to bear behind the scenes. The mere fact that the National
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Something seems to have changed since the noble Lords day and, according to the Minister, access to the Prime Minister now needs to be negotiated through the Cabinet Secretary. That opens up the possibility that the Cabinet Secretary might, for whatever reason, deny or hinder access. That would not be satisfactory, not least because the Cabinet Secretary may be drawn into the substance of whether the National Statisticians case was better than that of the potentially offending departments.
My amendment merely reinstates the former practice and has the advantage of emphasising the personal role of the National Statistician within Whitehall. We debated earlier the muddle of roles and we do not think that that has been fully resolved by the amendments we have now passed; but we wanted to be clear that the National Statistician, not the chairman of the board, is to lead on the issue of statistical standards and practices in government departments. I beg to move.
Lord Moser: My Lords, I speak only because my name was mentioned. It is true that in my day the role of the post of what is now called the National Statisticianthen the director of the Central Statistical Officecame directly under the Prime Minister. I was directly responsible to the Prime Minister, and this was real. I served three Prime Ministers, all of whom took a direct interest. Although I need hardly say that the link was encouraging, its importance was not so much personal as the fact thatbecause we had a decentralised system, to which we have referred at various timesif there were problems with statistics in other departments and the National Statistician found it difficult to deal with them, the post had the Prime Minister directly behind it. That was invaluable. It made the running of a decentralised system much easier than it might otherwise have been.
In the other amendment, which is now part of the Bill, the so-called residual responsibilities would move anyhow from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office, and therefore, with that direct link, through the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister. That would ensure the link anyhow. But just in case that amendment does not commend itself to the House of Commons, or to us if it returns here, I support this amendment.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the amendment seeks to establish that the National Statistician will have direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving the integrity of official statistics or a dispute with a government department regarding official
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I remind the House of the status of the National Statistician which will be established by the Bill if and when it becomes an Act. The post will be statutory. He or she will be the head of the executive office in the same way as the current head of the Office for National Statistics, reporting in the future to a board instead of Ministers. The post will be a Crown appointment, provided for by Clause 5, and the holder will be a full member of the board, sharing responsibility with other board members for ultimate decision-making and its chief executive.
The answer to the noble Baronesss query on that is straightforward. The National Statistician will take primary responsibility for the integrity of national statistics in any discussions with government departments or others. Clause 27 states that the National Statistician is also the chief statistical adviser to the board on all professional and technical statistical matterswe are reinforcing that status todayand he or she will remain the head of the Government Statistical Service and the Governments chief statistical adviser, providing leadership to the professional statisticians in government. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, discussed the crucial responsibilities involved.
The nearest comparators to the National Statistician are probably the Government's Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, or perhaps the heads of the Government Economic Service and the Government Social Research Service. However, none of those is a statutory post, unlike this one, and while they are leaders of their respective professions in government, they have no right of access to the Prime Minister, statutory or otherwise. Nor are there requirements on the Government to follow their advice or to give reasons if they do not do so. But that is exactly what this legislation will require of the National Statistician.
I am sure that noble Lords recognise that the National Statisticians position is unrivalled among professionals in government. I recognise the concerns of noble Lords to ensure the influence of the National Statistician, both behind the scenes and in public. I reassure the House that the Government take this very seriously, share this aim and have tried to respond to it in the Bill. However, given the status of the National Statistician in the new arrangements, they are bound to carry weight within government at the very highest levels.
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