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I shall say a word about the historical background. Noble Lords probably know that the Central Statistical Office, which was the origin of official statistics in this country, was set up by Winston Churchill in 1941. That great man had wisdom in that, as in everything else. First, he placed it squarely in the Cabinet Office. Secondly, he was clear that the real issue at that high time of the war was linking statistics coming from different departmentsthe role of co-ordination. That is why he put the Central Statistical Office in the Cabinet Office, and that is why I think that the residual responsibilities should be there. In my day, and for long afteruntil 1989the statistical service reported to the Prime Minister via the Cabinet Secretary. I speak from experience of three Prime Ministers when I say that that was a very helpful situation for the statisticians. Several times
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My main points are few. First, we have a decentralised system, and we are sticking with it. It inevitably keeps coming up in our debates. The system is different from those in most other countries where all statistics come from a single statistics office, which makes life much simpler, not least in keeping a distance from politicians and on the key issue of trust. We do not have that system, and it is right that we do not. I used to argue for the decentralised system. I still do, and I am very pleased that in these reforms, it remains. It means that at the centre we have the Office for National Statistics, which is responsible for all the key economic data: GNP, unemployment and much else, including population figures and other macro data. It is a key office, and it comes under the Chancellor and the Financial Secretary. However, 80 per cent of all statistical series come out of other ministries: education, the Home Office, health, environment. That is where most of the most sensitive figures come from, and where there is most need for improvement and governance of some kind.
In passing, I shall say that my suspicious mind has some doubts about whether the Bill has the backing of the Government, as opposed to the backing of the Chancellor and the TreasuryI hope the Minister will reply to this because it is relevant not only to this issue but also to much else that we are discussing. I say this because there are one or two issues in the Bill where I sense the hand of hanging on from departmental Ministers. We will come to them later: one is national statistics and the other is pre-release. I would like to be reassured that independencewhich was the Chancellors invention, and all praise to himis meant to apply for all government statistics. It means independence from the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Education, the Home Secretary and so on. I need some reassurance on that.
That query is relevant to this amendment because the real argument in favour of the Cabinet Office as opposed to the Treasury is that the Treasury is a major and very important consumer of statistics: about 20 per cent of all statistics, but very important ones. On the whole, even for the residual responsibilities, which are all that is left for discussion, I would rather have the Cabinet Office as the ultimate authoritythe department in chargebecause it is not a consumer of statistics. I cannot think of a better department. The Treasury is a major consumer of dataalthough only 20 per centso there is always the risk of distorting priorities in what is done in the statistical system. It may be less of a risk in reality than in perception, but it is certainly a risk in perception. People will find it harder to accept that we have really gone down the road of independence if a major consumer has responsibility for statistics.
My second point also goes back to Winston Churchill. As we have a decentralised system, it is crucial that the residual responsibilities should be placed in a department that can deal easily and neutrally with co-ordination across all the departments. I regard our statistical system as a single whole. It is spread, but all the bits fit together. As was said at Second Reading, the national accounts that come out of ONS are totally dependent on all the other departments.
Finally, I shall describe how the system works. I speak from experience when I say that the department with responsibility for the residual matters has two enormous advantages if it is the Cabinet Office. First, it has the advantage of co-ordinating across all the departments. I used to find it very easy, as did my successor chief statisticians, to link from the base of the Cabinet Office with fellow permanent secretaries throughout the departments when issues were at stake. The fact that we were the neutral central department, not the Treasury with which all departments have different relationships, made it very simple.
That is at official level. I hardly need to say that it was an enormous advantage, with all the respect I can muster to past and present Chancellors, that my ultimate boss was the Prime Minister. Not only did I have access to the Prime Ministerthat is obvious and in the Bill in a different clausebut it was seen publicly and, above all, throughout Whitehall that the Prime Minister was ultimately in charge. That, incidentally, was very real. I would see the three Prime Ministers I served fairly regularly, probably once every three or four weeks and I often had contact with them in between. These were real responsibilities. In the present situation, we are talking about minor final responsibilities and we are talking more about the public vision and perception of independence, and therefore trust.
It is enormously helpful if, for example, there remains a problem with waiting list statistics or crime or migration statistics, the Chief Statistician and the board have behind them the Prime Ministerand I suspect that the next Prime Minister will feel this quite strongly as a necessary responsibility.
So for those basic reasonsfirst, that the Treasury is a main consumer, and, secondly, that from the point of view of co-ordination and keeping the whole system under integrity and controlI think that the Cabinet Office is to be much preferred. I hope that the Government may decide to take the final responsibility back to where it used to be.
Lord Turnbull: So far I have largely supported the arguments put forward by the Minister, but I am afraid that we come to the parting of the ways at this point. I too, after not having started in this position, have reached the conclusion that these responsibilities should be moved from the Treasury. It undoubtedly has the greatest expertise of any department in Whitehall in statistical matters, simply through the nature of the people it employsa lot of economists who have learnt statistics as part of their trainingbut it also has the greatest conflicts of interest. It is a user and a customer of statistics; it is also a producer of statistics; it produces the figures on public spending and national debt; it has an interest in the funding issue we have already talked about; and it has a great deal at stake in
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However, I am less convinced that the Prime Minister should be the designated recipient as opposed to the Cabinet Office. Perhaps the Prime Minister might ask, Where do I get my advice from?to go back to old haunts, perhaps. The Cabinet Office is important for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Moser, mentionedit has a power of co-ordination.
The other reason for making the choice is to recognise that statistics are not simply the big economic statisticsprices, earnings, trade and so on. Increasingly, we are interested in social statistics and the measurement of outcomes achieved by public spending. The location of the responsibility in the Cabinet Office would signal very strongly that statistics were a pan-government issue and not simply an issue of economic policy.
I, too, hope that we can make this change. I would need a little more discussion with other noble Lords on whether the recipient should be the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Office, but that is not really the big issue. The big issue is where this responsibility comes from. I support the amendment.
Lord Newby: Not surprisingly, as we put our names to some of these amendments, we support them. I do not wish to repeat the extremely powerful arguments made so far in this debate; I just want to make two points about the strength of the argument, the moving of responsibility for the Statistics Boardthe residual responsibilities, as the noble Lord, Lord Moser, described themto the Cabinet Office.
The first point harks back to the debate we had a few moments ago about regions. One of the key features of the Statistics Board is that it has to deal with the fact that the nations as well as the regions of England have a major part to play in the whole production of statisticsthat Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need to produce their own statistics. It seems to me that if one is looking at a place in government which worries and thinks about the roles of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the round, it is the Cabinet Office rather than the Treasury. As a co-ordinator of the inputs of the nations and regions, the Cabinet Office seems a more logical place.
The second argument relates to resources, paradoxically in some ways. I think that a Treasury in charge of the Statistics Board is more likely to be macho about its budget than the Cabinet Office, which is worried about the quality of the statistics produced. The Minister has said on a number of occasions, The budget has been set for five years ahead. Why should one be worried?. One should be worried because it has not been set necessarily at an adequate level. Certainty has a value of its own, obviously, but if the level is wrong certainty is not sufficient.
At Second Reading I referred to the cuts in staffing among statistical staff, and the consequence of that along with the move to Newport in terms of the production of statistics moving forward. Since Second Reading I have received a communication from someone who works within the ONS and shares these concerns.
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The reality regarding relocation is that very few London staff are able or willing to move to Newport and it is proving impossible to recruit sufficient replacements in South Wales. The most worrying example at present is the division that produces the RPI and CPI. The Division is due to relocate this year. So far none of the 35 staff have chosen to relocate, including international experts. The risks to the production and quality of these key statistics is of serious concern to the London staff.
That is the consequence of Treasury control of our statistical service. It is only an ancillary argument to some of the extremely powerful arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, but it certainly reinforces me in my belief that the Treasury is not an adequate place to manage and retain residual responsibility for the Statistics Board.
Lord Lea of Crondall: I wonder whether the excellent speeches on the amendments are relevant to the Bill. After all, we are setting up a new Statistics Board, and it is not as though these people will be responsible to the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer from day to day. There are many other issues, such as those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on which I hope to speak next week. However, surely the real point is to have an independent board. If this was a question of whether power should rest with the Treasury or the Cabinet Office, I would vote for the Cabinet Office, but I ask the noble Lord, Lord Moser, whether he is not taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut on this point.
Lord Moser: The simple answer is that many clauses relate to the Treasury rather than to the Cabinet Office, so the decision must be taken anyhow. I do not want to repeat everything that I have already said but, quite apart from all those points, from the point of view of public perception and integrity, one department will be mentioned as being responsible for residual roles, and it would be better for it to be the Cabinet Office rather than the Treasury.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: The noble Lord has made the point that I was going to make in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall. My noble friend on the Front Bench drew attention to the evidence given to the Select Committee in another place that this may be the one move that would be conspicuous evidence of the Governments intention to change things. We cannot go on as we are. That has been the central theme of a great many speeches on Second Reading, in another place, and today. The problem of regaining and restoring trust, not simply enhancing it,
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One of the arguments against giving the board, with residual functions, to the Cabinet Office was that it would point to the fact that Ministers of the Cabinet Office have tended to come and go and that there have been quite long periods during which a Minister has not been appointed to the Cabinet Office. The Prime Minister, however, is always there. He or she is, of course, the head of the Cabinet Office, with the Secretary of the Cabinetno one will know more about that than the noble Lord, Lord Turnbullanswerable to the Prime Minister. I feel very strongly that we must make this move. I hope that the Government will listen to the argument and, if we can persuade our colleagues that this should be done, that it can eventually be returned to another place, which may see the wisdom of this.
My only other point is, in a sense, frivolous. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, mentioned Winston Churchill. The story that I have always told about Winston Churchill and statistics is that he asked about infant mortality. He was brought a huge dossier, which he looked at and handed back, saying, All I want to know is that more babies died when they were in office than when I am in office.
Lord Desai: I am genuinely puzzled by the amendment, because fashions change. People somehow think that Prime Ministers are less political than Chancellors of the Exchequer. That may be so, but one cannot guarantee that. If we are worried about political interference, the questions to examine are how autonomous the Statistics Board can be and, when push comes to shove, what it can do to preserve its independence. A parliamentary scrutiny committee is very good for that. I am surprised if people think that the Cabinet Office is a less political place than the Treasury. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, the Cabinet Office often has very junior Ministers, and if it is a matter of clout, I would rather have a Chancellor on my side than a junior Minister in the Cabinet Office.
Lord Davies of Oldham: Last week, the Evening Standard carried headlines on the clash between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party over the possible candidature of Greg Dyke as Mayor of London. I do not think that there will be headlines this evening saying, Liberals and Conservatives reach agreement on an amendment in the House of Lords. The reason for that is quite straightforward. My noble friend Lord Lea emphasised the point when he asked what we are really talking about. We are talking about a Ministers residual functions. The necessary independence that is sought, and thus the enhanced respect for our national statistics, derives from the creation of the board and its attendant structures, not from the sponsoring body. As we discussed earlier today, the Ministers residual functions act as a link with Parliament through the boards annual report.
There is the role in making appointments, but one that fits with the framework of guidance from the Commissioner for Public Appointments. There is also the limited role with regard to resources, as we have already indicated, although not to the satisfaction of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, because we did so not in tablets of stone but merely by Ministers from the Dispatch Box saying that we intend to introduce a five-year budgetary settlement for the board to guarantee its independence. Who will provide those resources, whatever happens to the amendments? The Treasury will. My noble friend Lord Lea is therefore almost certainly right that we are straining to crack a small nut.
I will address the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, in a moment. First, he should thank heaven that he arrived a little late at the Table Office, because all the amendments are deficient. Should they be carried, we would have to make them coherent and put them into proper legislation on Report. Ministerial departments to which they relate do not have a formal, legal personality. Statutory functions exercised in those departments are conferred on the Ministers of the Crown, and the amendments should address that and not adopt the defective positions that they have adopted. That is a small matter, but it may help the noble Lord, Lord Moser, to recognise that he may be behind the amendments in spirit but that it is better that his name has not been added to defective amendments.
On the broad issues, I do not need to go through the vast list of the amendments because they are all virtually identical and address one significant issue. Let me emphasise that the Bill is constructed on the basis of the independence of national statistics. That is why we have set out elaborately to define the degree of the boards independence and its responsibility for the construction, development, recording and assessment of national statistics. I attest again to the fact that the Treasury Select Committee in the other place agreed with the Government that the residual responsibilitieshere I emphasise once more that they are merely residual in natureshould remain with the Treasury. The Government remain of that view.
As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, indicated, the Treasury has vast experience of statistics. It is important for the Committee to recognise that 20 per cent of all statistics produced are related to the work of the Treasury. While I note that the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, is departing from his support for the Government on this group of amendments, he did testify to the importance of the role of statistics to the work of the Treasury. The co-ordinating and reporting role which the Treasury plays in, for example, the spending review and the setting of public service agreements means that it is ideally placed to play the residual role with respect to the boards relationship with the Government which is defined by the legislation. I should add that the Treasury has considerable expertise in making high-profile appointments to independent bodies; it does so currently to the Monetary Policy Committee and the Financial Services Authority. But again it is carefully specified that that role would be consistent with the requirements laid down by the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
Consistent with the Select Committees recommendation, we have set out to ensure that the board should have independence. Although we still maintain that the Treasury should continue to perform the residual functions, it is why we intend to put the funding on to a five-year basis, thus guaranteeing the board very considerable independence, which again meets an issue we discussed earlier this afternoon.
What I want to emphasise is this: of course it is important that eventually the board should be publicly accountable. Its public accountability will be through Parliament. Parliament is the means by which the boards annual report can be considered and the basis on which any dissatisfaction with its work can be expressed. Further, it should be recognised that the residual functions of any Minister are exactly that: they are residual and limited functions. We have it on evidence from the other place that the view is that those functions should be with the Treasury, and the Government have always maintained that position. One noble Lord suggested that there might be doubts about the Governments view, but I can point out the obvious fact that when a Minister speaks from the Dispatch Box, he or she is speaking on behalf of the whole Government. What I am reflecting today is clear government policy on this issue.
I recognise the element of symbolic gesture here. We are not in the business of making symbolic gestures in legislation. We are about the business of creating an independent board with clear lines of responsibility, distance in its funding from the Treasury, and being responsible for the quality, status and respect in which national statistics are held. Those are the objectives behind this legislation and why it has been brought forward. It is clear evidence of the Governments intention to improve things in this way and it would be a pity if the group of amendments before us, which are in any case defective, was carried purely for its symbolic value when we have the reality of improvement to our national statistics embodied in the Bill.
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