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assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy.
That sets in a proper context the duties of the board as originally stated in the Bill. I give three cheers for what the amendment achieves. Earlier, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) confirmed, in response to my intervention, that she sees statistics as having the purpose of informing decision making. I welcome that, because it means that Members on both sides of the House are clear about the wider purpose of statistics. Amendment No. 48 is not controversial in that sense, but sometimes an uncontroversial amendment is nevertheless very important. This amendment means that the Minister has responded positively to our discussions in Committee.
New clause 1 is not really a matter for legislation, although the authority of the chief statistician is very important, as underlined by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. New clause 3 rather misses the point, because it treats statistics as if they are an end in themselves, but of course they are not. Similarly, amendment No. 24, which we come to in a later debate, refers to statistical purposes. The crucial point is that statistics need to be useful and to help to inform the public debate; indeed, that is the most important development in the Bill as it comes before us today.
I know from personal experience and from discussion with those working at a local and a regional level that good-quality data and the ability to share and use it effectively is an essential aid to public services. That applies across a wide spectrum of activity, be it developing local economies, tackling crime and disorder, understanding what is needed to improve community cohesion, or the effective delivery of health and social care. It is worth saying that all those apparently separate issues are closely inter-related when dealing with policy at the most local level.
My own experience at ward and sub-ward level as a youth and community worker and a local councillor before entering Parliament, as endorsed and reinforced by my experience as a Member of Parliament, is that people rarely take seriously the evidence that exists in statistics. By people I mean local people, those in institutions, professionals, and those who are responsible for public policy. A comprehensive approach that overlays nationally available figures from the census and other sources with specific local statistics, including figures on health, criminal activity, unemployment and so on, can provide powerful evidence of the need for change.
I have seen such an evidence-based approach, led by a doctor and scientist in Cardiff, reduce violent crime and lead to Cardiff becoming one of the safest cities, which has been of no small benefit to the NHS as well as to potential victims. I have seen an evidence-based approach help to give the youngest children a start in life. I have seen it focus a variety of agencies on a realistic joint programme in a deprived area. I have seen it enable us to measure the effectiveness of intervention, instead of wringing our hands about how difficult it all is. Those are important products of the proper use and application of statistical information.
That practical use of statistics can be almost invisible even at local authority level, never mind at the more rarefied levels of academic research. That is why I am keen to ensure that the needs of those who believe in action researchor the link between research and actionthe needs of the grass-roots workers who can make such a difference to the health of the local community, and the needs of the community itself receive proper attention as the system for improving statistics is developed. As an MP and a Minister, my experience has been that many national statistics are collected to be consistent and objective over many years but not to tell us anything that is useful or that informs the development of public policy.
Amendment No. 48 would therefore give the board the clear function of improving the use as well as the gathering of statistics. For those working at a local authority level and below, we need to maximise the value of our investment in statistics by ensuring that four or five principles are pursued. The National Statistician and the board need to champion the development and use of national and official statistics for local policy and public service delivery purposes, as implied in amendment No. 48. The National Statistician and the board must strive to ensure that statistics can be and, wherever sensible, are collected and presented on a consistent basis at local as well as national aggregated level.
John Bercow: I both understand and appreciate the thrust of the right hon. Gentlemans remarks. May I put it to him, however, that it would probably be an unwise assumptionand it may not be histhat one should simply allow a trickle-down of national figures to the local level? For example, in the field of special educational needs, it is not much good expecting an individual local education authority simply to extrapolate and form its policy on the basis of national averages. What we need to move towards is a situation in which LEAs are expected as a matter of course properly to conduct and update audits of their own community, the better to inform both their policy and perhaps their lobbying of Government.
Alun Michael: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentlemans comments. My point is not that everything needs to be done at the most local level, but that if information is not collected and available in order to be aggregated upwards, we will not have the instruments to interpret what is happening, whether at a regional or higher level. I agree that the information must then be used at the appropriate level. My basic point is that if the information is available right down at the grass-roots level, where some of the real problems of society are to be discovered, we can aggregate upwards in a way that suits any service. In relation to issues of disability and special educational needs, he is right that a more strategic level is appropriate.
At all levels, the ability to cross-reference and use statistics to describe and understand the complexity of modern society is invaluable. For example, identifying and helping vulnerable children is much aided if people working locally can bring together health, education, crime and social care data to create a fuller picture. That does not provide a complete answer, but it is a powerful diagnostic tool. That implies a need to collect information at the most local level.
The National Statistician and the statistics board actively need to foster the best and widest use of public investment in statistics for public benefit purposes. That is why I am delighted that Government amendment No. 48 makes that clear. They need to tackle any unnecessary blockages to that end, commensurate with genuine data protection and confidentiality requirements. For example, they should work to remove unnecessary barriers to data access and sharing; they should ensure that the definition of approved researcher includes those working in local authorities and other local service providers, as well as those undertaking policy work and practical interventions for organisations in the third sector; and they should ensure that there is a robust, simple and non-bureaucratic system to provide ease of access for approved researchers.
My particular concern is to ensure that statistics are fit for purpose in terms of their effective use at local and sub-regional level, as well as at national and regional level. Statistics are not an end in themselves, but the means to an end, such as crime reduction, improved quality of life or better service delivery. I hope that that will be translated into action by the National Statistician and the board, so that there is a proportionate but effective focus on ensuring that relevant national and official statistics provide evidence of, for instance, local variations and different service needs. That would be greatly welcomed by all those concerned with local policy developments and service delivery, and it will reflect well on the Government and Parliament. It is in that context that I appreciate the thought that my hon. Friend the Minister has given to the matter and the way in which he has tabled amendment No. 48.
It is always best to keep the wording of any Bill as simple as possible, which is why I did not press some of the amendments that I moved in Committee to a vote. Underlining something by making the wording too emphatic can, by implication, make other things seem less important, or even exclude them by implication. So I did not press some of the amendments, especially given the Ministers welcome assurances in Committee that the measures set out in the Bill embrace the need for statistics to aid local and, indeed, very local policy making. He has carried his words in Committee into action by tabling amendment No. 48. I both welcome it and commend it to the House.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I agree with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that there are many good aspects to the Bill. We all welcome the move towards strengthening the independence of Government statistics. I also agree that there are some things to which the Government have listened. Amendment No. 48 may reflect that. I think that it subsumes what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) was trying to achieve, and that is progress.
There has, however, been no movement on the main issues of substance, and I entirely agree with the arguments developed by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). There are serious deficiencies in the Bill, and some of them lie in the area covered by this group of amendments. They stem from the basic strategic judgment that the Statistics Commission and the Office for National Statistics can be combined. The Government make a good case for that on one level. There is something
to be said for combining two quangos in one on cost and efficiency grounds, providing it is clear that the roles are properly demarcatedthe Chinese walls are clearly definedand that the different jobs are clearly specified.
One of the problems from the outset has been that it is not clear that those distinctions are being properly made. The hon. Lady quoted the Treasury Committee on the need for the role of the National Statistician to be spelled out with more detail and clarity than is the case. That still remains an issue. More worryingly, the Bank of England expressed the view at an early stage in the consultative process that the role of the National Statistician was unclear under the Governments proposals. That still remains the case.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other concerns is that the role of the National Statistician has effectively been downgraded as a result of the proposals? That is why the principal role of the amendments is to ensure oversight of the production of statistics and the people generating them, as a way of preventing that role from being undermined.
We are particularly concerned to take on board the constructive criticisms of the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistics Commission, which argued that there must be a demonstrable separation of powers between the National Statistician and the non-executive members of the board. There is no fundamental reason why they should not work together as part of the same structure, provided that that separation of powers is made absolutely clear.
Our amendments are designed to complement the arrangement favoured by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, and I do not think that they conflict with it. They have specific aims, the first of which is to define the roles of the National Statistician and the board. Amendment No. 42 states that the National Statistician is to be
employed to operate independently of the Board with scrutiny and oversight of the role provided by the Board.
That makes it clear that delivery and scrutiny are separate functions, even within the board itself. Amendment No. 43 states that the National Statistician must be accountable to the board, whose role will be to monitor and assess his or her performance.
Amendments Nos. 39 and 45 are designed to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), in defining more fully, and stressing the importance of, the National Statisticians role. They make it clear that the National Statistician is the Governments principal adviser on statistics, and that he or she is there to give professional leadership to Government statisticians as a whole. They also make it clear that the National Statisticians role is to co-ordinate statistics across Government, and to promote them consistently across the United Kingdom. I do not think that any of those definitions conflicts with the way in which the Government see the National Statisticians role; they merely make it explicit.
The Board may direct the National Statistician... not to exercise a particular function, or... as to how he
should exercise a particular function.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I did not serve on the Committee, but I think that the hon. Gentlemans point strikes at the heart of the matter. If the National Statistician, or the body producing the statistics, is in any way controllable, and can be ordered by the Government to remove a set of statistics or review the way in which statistics are presented, surely the independence that is the Bills aim falls apart?
Dr. Cable: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. What I am not clear aboutperhaps the Minister will clarify itis whether that is due to an oversight, or deliberate. Subsection (4) states explicitly that the board can intervene to direct the National Statistician as to how he or she carries out the operational part of his or her task. That is clearly wrong, and I do not think it is what the Government intended.
Having reflected on what the subsection could mean in practice, I discussed with a former National Statistician how it would have applied in the context of the Railtrack classification. I was told that that decision had been extremely difficult and complex, and that a whole manual of national accounting must be consulted when such decisions are made. Had the Bill been in force at the time of the Railtrack decision, and had a non-executive member of the board been involved in the operational side of it, someone with a different opinion could have applied for a judicial review, because the non-executive board member would have been wholly unqualified to deal with such a difficult, technically demanding function.
Probably only two or three people in the United Kingdom are competent to handle such decisions, but there are people overseas who could perhaps be involved in an advisory capacity. The purpose of the board, in its supervisory role, would be to ensure that good practice was followedthat the overseas advisers were enlisted, and that the National Statistician followed the correct procedures. In no circumstances should the non-executive members of the board be involved in such decisions. As the proposed legislation is currently drafted, the door is open for there to be intervention in operational matters. That would not only be contrary to the spirit of the legislation, but it could leave the Government open to expensive and damaging litigation.
I urge the Minister to think carefully about the current drafting of the clause, as it is wholly contrary to the spirit of the Bill. What I have said lays bare the difficulty that Opposition Members are having in respect of trying to make sure that the legislation properly defines the scrutiny role of the board as opposed to the operational role of the National Statistician.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I shall shortly speak to amendment No. 1, which stands in my name, and Government amendment No. 48, which has, I think, been tabled in response to it. However, I shall begin by addressing new clause 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers).
I support the new clause, and I will be surprised if the Minister does not agree to it. It is extremely important that there be the right of direct access to the Prime Minister. Lord Moser, who served four Prime Ministers, was emphatic in his evidence to the Select Committee that that is an essential weapon in the armoury of any National Statistician who is involved in any dispute with either the senior statistician or, indeed, Ministers in other Departments.
So the Government have not accepted a broader supervisory function for the National Statistician, the right of direct access is all the more important. Not only does it reinforce the leadership role that my hon. Friend has sketched in new clause 3(3), but if the Government are not going to concede a supervisory function, there should certainly be that safeguard for the National Statistician. When it is necessarywhich will be very rarely, as Lord Moser made clearit is essential that that right exist.
It is also important to have that right of direct access to the Prime Minister because it is direct. It is not to be exercised through the Cabinet Secretary. That is important, because the department will be retained within the aegis of the Treasury. It will not be transferred to the Cabinet Office. It will not be brought any closer to the Prime Minister. For that reason, the right of direct access is particularly important.
The National Statistician might get into a serious disputefor example, with the Chancellor himself. The Treasury is the Department that will fund the new board and appoint its members, but there could be a dispute about a matter. Let us speculate about what could be the subject of such a dispute: the definition of private finance initiative liabilities, for example, or the cost of public sector pensions, or the net investment rule. As there could be a dispute, the National Statistician must have the right of direct access to the Prime Minister.
I also support new clause 3, which sets out the proper role for the National Statistician and the board. It is extraordinary that that is not done in the Bill itself. We found that out in Committee. We had to supply amendment after amendment in order to insert into the Bill that key leadership role. Perhaps to make her amendment more compliant and to give it a chance of success, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet has not included the key word supervisory in it, but that is the matter that we are talking about. In the end, the National Statistician must be able to exercise some leadership role across the Departmentsacross the statistical divisions of those Departments. That is why new clause 3 is so important.
I note that my hon. Friends drafting covers all statistics and not simply official statistics. I support that; it is important. She specifies a clear duty of co-ordination across the different Departments of State and also the promotion of consistency between the territories, which we might hear a little more about later in our debate.
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