Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The bedrock of this new system is transparency and accountability to Parliament. In the unlikely event that the board or National Statistician has a problem that really cannot be resolved within government, they may go public with their concerns, with all the authority that they would carry behind them. The board, of

18 Jun 2007 : Column 58

which the National Statistician is a member, already has wide-ranging powers to comment and report on official statistics. I would be surprised if any public comment by it went unheeded. That alone should encourage Ministers, including the Prime Minister, to take the National Statistician’s views very seriously, as all preceding Prime Ministers have done.

There is no question about the status of the National Statistician in the Bill, and there is therefore no need for the amendment. I hope that it will be withdrawn.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for taking part in this debate.

I hear what the Minister said; it is a pity that he has again reiterated the formula that access is via the Cabinet Secretary and not direct to the Prime Minister. Towards the end of his remarks, he pointed to the ability of the board to comment publicly. We are starting to think that about the only weapon in the board’s armoury against any forces of evil that still stalk Whitehall will be its ability to report publicly. We hope that it will use that judiciously. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 [National Statistician: advisory functions]:

Lord Newby moved Amendment No. 26:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, unless I am very much mistaken, the words in the amendment are almost identical to those used by the Minister a moment ago when he described the role of the National Statistician. That being so, there seems to be no reason why the Minister should not agree to the amendment.

Why do we think that the amendment should be agreed to? First, because the Bill explicitly states the National Statistician’s position as the board’s principal adviser. If the National Statistician is also the Government’s principal adviser, it seems logical that—as well as referring to the board—you would say so.

The second reason relates to the fact that, under the devolved structure that we have in statistics, and particularly with the board now being at a greater arm’s length from government than in the past in order to give it the required independence, there is a danger of a them-and-us situation developing between the National Statistician and his colleagues and statisticians working in individual government departments. This has the potential to be exacerbated where the National Statistician asks for statistics produced by an individual department to be assessed and where the Ministers in that department may be reluctant for that to happen. An antagonistic situation could develop over whether various statistics should be designated as national statistics. In those circumstances, one could imagine Ministers being relatively belligerent about the role of the National Statistician interfering, as they might see it, in what they do. Therefore, it is important to

18 Jun 2007 : Column 59

entrench the fact that in all circumstances the National Statistician is required to provide leadership across the piece. I was reassured that the Minister said that that was indeed the role of the National Statistician but, for the reason I have just given, it would be helpful if that role were specified in the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Howard of Rising: My Lords, we continue to support this amendment and hope that the Government will consider carefully the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. Government Amendment No. 32 makes it clear that the National Statistician is to be responsible for official statistics standards. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will establish the National Statistician as the proper channel for communicating these standards to the Government and to the wider statistical industry. The National Statistician is the right person to undertake this responsibility.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for speaking to this amendment, although the previous debate probably covered a great deal of the ground in question.

Of course, we appreciate the sentiment behind the amendment but we consider that the Bill already provides for the effect that it seeks to achieve. As I said in the previous debate, we are giving the National Statistician a position of unique significance compared with other leading professionals within government, and that difference is set out in statute.

The Bill is clear on the National Statistician’s professional competence. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, agreed that it was “obvious” that the National Statistician would be the Government’s principal adviser on statistics. He was right in Committee and we agree with him, but the arguments are worth repeating here for the sake of clarity.

I emphasise that the board is the legal entity. However, in practice, the National Statistician, as the professional head of the Government Statistical Service, will be the point of professional advice, either through statisticians in departments or formally, because of its legal personality and accountability, via the board itself. This is already clear at Clauses 8, 9 and 27 of the Bill.

Clause 8 provides that the board may report any concerns that it has about the quality of any official statistics, good practice in relation to them or their comprehensiveness to the person responsible for producing those statistics. That gives the board a very large remit to advise government on a wide range of issues relating to official statistics.

Clause 9 gives the board a remit to develop and maintain definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for official statistics. Following on from this, under Clause 27, the National Statistician is explicitly the board’s chief adviser on all professional and technical statistical matters. Indeed, the board must publish and report to Parliament, including giving reasons for overruling the National Statistician on professional, technical matters, if it does so.

The Government are further reinforcing the National Statistician’s role with the amendments that we are

18 Jun 2007 : Column 60

moving today. They will provide further clarity and transparency in relation to the functions of the executive office, underlining the National Statistician’s professional status by ensuring that he or she is responsible for the development and maintenance of definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for official statistics, wherever produced.

Amendment No. 26 would require the National Statistician to provide professional leadership to all persons in government engaged in the production or release of statistics. Inevitably, given the status of the National Statistician within the Bill, they will have to fulfil that role. In this capacity, as has already been said, we intend for the National Statistician to remain as the head of the Government Statistical Service and continue to provide professional leadership to those working on statistics in government.

We have, however, chosen to retain the decentralised statistical system, and this decision has been widely supported, including in the other place by the Treasury Select Committee. A decentralised system inevitably means that statisticians remain working within government departments. It is not appropriate to legislate within the Civil Service structure for lines of accountability between staff working in departments and the National Statistician working in another department.

The amendment would establish a relationship between the National Statistician and statisticians working in departments that would not be workable under our decentralised system. Given, as I indicated, that the National Statistician’s role as chief statistical adviser to departments via the board is clearly established in the clauses identified in the Bill, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Newby: My Lords, I hope the Minister will not object too strongly if I completely disagree with his last point. If he agrees with the content of the amendment—which, in terms, he has—how can he then argue that it would be completely inappropriate to pass the amendment? The only argument with which I have some sympathy is that the point is so blindingly obvious that the amendment should not be necessary. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 [National Statistician: executive functions]:

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 27:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendments Nos. 29 to 32:



18 Jun 2007 : Column 61

(a) the function of the Board under section 9(1)(a) (development and maintenance of definitions, methodologies, classifications and standards for official statistics),(b) the function of the Board under section 17 (production of statistics),(c) the function of the Board under section 18 (retail prices index),(d) the function of the Board under section 19 (statistical services), and(e) any other function of the Board which he may exercise under section 28(2).(a) the National Statistician (who is to be its head),(b) the other executive members of the Board, and(c) such other employees of the Board as the National Statistician may assign to it.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 29 [Head of Assessment]:

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 33:

(a) if an executive member of the Board, may not exercise functions of the National Statistician under section 28,(b) may not be a member of the executive office of the Board under section (Executive office)(2)(b) or (c), and(c) may not in any other way take part in the production of statistics by the Board.”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 30 [Separation of functions]:

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendments Nos. 34 and 35:

(a) an executive member of the Board, not being the National Statistician or Head of Assessment;(b) a person assigned to the executive office of the Board under section (Executive office)(2)(c).”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 32 [Delegation]:

Lord Davies of Oldham moved Amendment No. 36:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Noakes moved Amendment No. 37:



18 Jun 2007 : Column 62

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 37 inserts a new clause before Clause 34. Clauses 34 to 50 contain various powers and obligations relating to information, including personal information. They allow significant data sharing and we debated them fully in Committee. We were grateful that the Minister gave considered replies to the various amendments that were tabled in Committee. My purpose in tabling those amendments, and that of my noble friend Lord Northesk, who is unable to be with us today, was to establish the boundaries of the very wide powers contained in those provisions.

We were in general satisfied with the nature of the replies given in Committee and I believe that we established two important issues. I should like to read a short extract from Hansard where the Minister said:

That is the first important issue. These clauses are not to be used as a vehicle for the Statistics Board to become a hub for, say, the identity card scheme. The Minister went on to say:

The second important issue is that information may be disclosed only for statistical purposes.

I have repeated what the Minister said in Committee because we found those statements very important and we wanted to be quite sure that we understand the Government's intention in relation to the data-sharing clauses. Fundamentally, they are not a part of wider sharing of information across government and statistical purposes are at the heart of the transfer of information. I hope that the Minister will confirm today what he said in Committee. If so, I believe that while there are aspects of the clauses which still cause us concern, we will not seek further changes to the clauses themselves.

Amendment No. 37, however, raises an additional issue in relation to the powers of the Information Commissioner. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in saying that the Information Commissioner is doing an excellent job, albeit with limited resources. The Information Commissioner has no direct powers under the Bill. Under Section 57 of the Data Protection Act 1998, he can assess the processing of personal data if, and only if, the data controller consents to the assessment, otherwise his powers are limited to cases where a request comes from the

18 Jun 2007 : Column 63

person affected by the processing of data. Too often, individuals will be unaware that there has been incorrect processing of their data. The ability of the Information Commissioner to act without a request is important. I understand that, under EU law, the Information Commissioner should be able to initiate his own investigations but the Data Protection Act does not give him that power.

6.30 pm

The Minister will doubtless be aware that the issues about the Information Commissioner’s role have arisen in a similar way in respect of the Serious Crime Bill, which is now being considered in another place. The Government have undertaken to bring forward amendments to meet the concerns of the Information Commissioner, which were expressed during consideration of that Bill in your Lordships' House. Admittedly the data-sharing provisions in that Bill make this Bill look like a teddy bears’ picnic, but the principles are the same, and I hope that the Minister will welcome the placing of this modest additional safeguard in the Bill.

The damage that can be done to individuals by the incorrect disclosure of their information can be incalculable and, once done, cannot easily be undone. Therefore, it behoves us to ensure that as many protections for the individual as possible are enshrined in the Bill. Against that background, I beg to move.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, I support this extremely important proposed new clause. One of the major problems that is starting to arise in discussions in the information security world is that, although the Government are using the Information Commissioner in Bills as a safeguard, he does not often have the powers to act as one because of his not being allowed to go into a company unless he is asked to, as a result of either a complaint or the data controller asking him in. That means that people can ride roughshod over and go round the Data Protection Act and all the other Acts in which he is supposed to be the check, without let or hindrance unless such a complaint is made. Often it is not, because people do not know how or where to do it.

Also, the penalties that the Information Commissioner can ask for are far too low. That is a completely separate subject, but it needs to be looked at in the near future so I add that comment now. We have to look at making him a much more effective safeguard. The proposed new clause starts on that path and it is essential that we agree to it.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we must be getting near the end of Report if the noble Baroness can refer to any part of it as a teddy bears’ picnic; that has been far from my experience with regard to our debates on these important issues in the Bill’s progress through your Lordships' House.

The Information Commissioner has raised no issues concerning this legislation. To the contrary, he has been very positive about it. That should considerably reassure all noble Lords. I wish to emphasise again what I said in Committee on this important point. Not

18 Jun 2007 : Column 64

everything that I say in Committee is always expressed with such graphic intensity that I deserve to be held to every line of it on every subsequent occasion, but the section that the noble Baroness quoted was a categoric statement of the Government’s position on the Bill.

As I said at Second Reading, overall the Information Commissioner has welcomed the fact that the Bill recognises the importance of ensuring that personal information is used only where necessary, and that confidentiality is respected. He very much welcomed the creation of a criminal offence for the illegal disclosure of personal information in Clause 36, which he believes should act as the significant deterrent.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page