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That leads me to my last point: who will be watching the Statistics Board once it is up and running? The case was made during our deliberations most forcefully by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Rodingwho is not able to be in his place todaythat there should be a Standing Committee of both Houses set up to oversee the work of the Statistics Board. That reflected our view that the board's work is so important that it transcends departmental boundaries and should involve the expertise of both Houses. I hope that the Minister can today give the House an indication of the Government's views on this. We accept that it is a matter for the authorities of both Houses, but we all know that the reality is that the views of the Government of the day are influential. I hope that the Minister will be able to conclude our proceedings on the Bill by giving some positive news on that front.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, a good number of humorous remarks were made yesterday in another place about those who were new boys and new girls to the Bill, but, like my honourable friend Vincent Cable in the other place, I am not a new boy on the Bill, although I am not the head boy either. I have to give the apologies of my noble friend Lord Newby, who has a long-standing business appointment in Yorkshire, but I am happy to deputise for him.
We on these Benches concur, as we have throughout the Bills passage, with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. She set out the current position very fairly. I must say in fairness to the Minister that we believe that the Bill has been substantially improved by scrutiny in this place. It has had rigorous scrutiny, fully backed by the threat and reality of substantial amending votes. It has been a very worthwhile process. The substantial and distinguished Cross-Bench input, led by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, has greatly improved this Bill. I pay tribute to him and to noble Lords on the other Benches.
I, too, welcome the proposed appointment of Sir Michael Scholar. I should declare an interest in that St Johns College, Oxford is one of my longest-standing investment clients, so clearly I must not say anything even nicer about him than we have heard already. However, I know him well and believe that he will do an excellent job.
We are concerned, as we so often are when dealing with measures of this type, that so much is left to secondary legislation. As my honourable friend Vince Cable pointed out, that is unamendable. If it is defective, we cannot discuss it and amend it. That raises a serious point of principle, which is why we fought to get as much as possible included in the Bill.
All that said, it would be churlish not to accept that this is a greatly improved Bill. We have not 99 per cent but probably 90 per cent of what we wanted. I pay tribute to the Government for accepting that they have to take this House seriously.
Lord Moser: My Lords, my views are very similar to those of the previous speakers. The amendment proposed by the other House is not quite what we had in mind throughout our debates. As far as I understand it, it does not cover the place of pre-release in the code and it still leaves far more control to Ministers than we think is desirable. However, like the noble Lord, I do not want to be churlish. The amendment brings the board explicitly into the pre-release business, which accepts the spirit of what we have argued for throughout. That is coupled with the Prime Ministers decision to reduce the pre-release maximum to 24 hours. Great progress has indeed been made. I, too, appreciate that and take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the flexibility that the Government have shown throughout the Bills passage in this House. I agree with the previous speaker that it is very much to the credit of this House that the Bill has been so substantially improved. I know that I speak for substantial parts of the statistics profession when I say that this work of the House of Lords is very much appreciated.
As we approach the end of the Bills passage, we recognise that much will now depend on the new board and its work together with that of the National Statistician and her forces. Their task will certainly be helped by the final form of the Bill, achieved after its long journey through this House. If I were allowed one final wish for the work of the board, it would be to emphasise for probably the 10th time that it must be concerned with the statistical system as a whole and not just with its centrepiece, the ONS. I was much cheered by the words of the Minister in the other place yesterday, who said:
All sides agree that this is a desirable Bill, which enshrines in statute for the first time the independence of the Office for National Statistics and the UK statistical system.[Official Report, Commons, 18/7/07; col. 321.]
I very much welcome the proposed appointment of Sir Michael Scholar as chair of the new board. That is not only because he is a very good pianistwe do a lot of music togetherbut because he has a remarkable record in public life, both in the public sector and in the academic world. To my mind, he has exactly the right combination of personal and professional qualities, together with the vast experience that the job needs. It is a splendid appointment, which augurs well for the future of the board.
Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, there is still one gap in the organisational framework to be dealt with, which is the role of Parliament. It has been crucial from the very first thoughts on the Bill that the board reports to Parliament. That is the top layer in the new system on which the reforms must rest. There must be more than just the occasional formal report or questions. That is totally critical to the new reforms. It seems self-evident that the committees in the present structure, with the Treasury Sub-Committee
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Lord Turnbull: My Lords, the proposal underlying the Bill was excellent, but the original Bill was seriously flawed. It displayed a lack of conviction, with Ministers showing great reluctance to let go and trust the board. Happily, this House has done what it is here to do. Even if we have not achieved everything that some people wanted, we have secured some major improvements. Within a unified board, there is greater clarity between the role of the board and the role of the National Statistician and executive. Her status as National Statistician and head of profession has been enhanced. Ministers no longer decide unilaterally which statistics are national statistics and which are not. The code now applies to all statistics, not just national statistics. The principle of pre-release has been accepted, the board is to be consulted and, if it is not satisfied with the way in which the regime is working, it can say so. I, too, accept that this was not my first preference, but I am prepared to accept the position that we are now in. The Cabinet Office is now the residual department and, as the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said, it is clear that the regime applies to the totality of official statistics.
By happy coincidence, the Government have belatedly accepted what this House has been arguing all along, that improving trust in statistics is an essential component of the wider initiative to improve trust in government life. As a result, they have volunteered the 24-hour maximum on pre-release. I am more sanguine than some that this will never be pushed higher than that figure. It has come forward late on, with the creation of the hub separating release from comment, which is possibly the single most influential change in the whole system.
I, too, endorse the proposal to appoint Sir Michael Scholar as chair. His excellent qualities have been referred to, but he was also for a while Permanent Secretary at the Welsh Office and so has a vested interest in making a success of the move of the headquarters of the board to Newport. I hope that the other placealthough, of course, it should be not the other place but Parliament as a wholewill endorse this appointment.
I agree, too, that there is an unfinished piece of business and that we need a Joint Committee with the change to the Cabinet Office as the residual department. The responsibility will now move to the Public Administration Committee. I hold the chairman of that committee in very high regard but I do not think that that committee is really equipped to take on the role, so I strongly support this proposal.
The process of the Bill has been arduous. We have probably had one more round of ping-pong than we
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Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, perhaps a non-Cross-Bencher may intervene briefly. I welcome the improvements to the Bill, as I do the effort that is being made, as a result of those improvements, to create a thoroughly independent and trusted system of statistics in this country. However, statistics must have another important quality relating to the service that they perform. I speak as a former Minister who, in the past, has been a consumer of these statistics. That quality is to provide Ministers in as timely a way as possible with the statistics that they need to make the right decisions.
I should be grateful if, when he responds to the debate, the Minister could give an assurance that, without in any way prejudicing independencethis has nothing to do with thatunder the new regime Ministers will be better able to get the statistics that they need to do their job properly and to get them in time and that, if that requires extra resources to be given to the Government Statistical Service, the Government will provide those resources.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to what I hope will be the last stages of the debate on the Bill. I note the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who, I understand, is not able to be in his place today, and that made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who assuredly would have played a part in our deliberations at this late point had he been able to.
Throughout the Bills passage, the Government have sought to be responsive but, at the same time, they have strongly resisted moves to put in the Bill things which are intended and which will happen in any case. Nothing could be clearer than that with regard to the 24-hour maximum period for pre-release. The Prime Minister included that in his important announcement and it was an iron-clad statement. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said when she reiterated that she would have preferred that to be stated in the Bill, but she should acknowledge that the Government could not have been more categorical or authoritative on this issue, nor could they have committed themselves more fully than the Prime Minister did a short while ago.
I emphasise that there is always a problem with putting figures in a Bill. The maximum period is 24 hours but we want flexibility potentially to move that downwards and not only to have, as the noble Baroness suggested, flexibility in one direction. The problem with putting figures into the Bill is that they form part of the definitive law of the land and to change them requires primary legislation. We want this Bill to last for a very substantial time. It will certainly do well if it matches the previous legislation on statistics, which lasted for more than 60 years. The Government have a legitimate anxiety in such circumstances about putting such a figure in the Bill.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, what we have always failed to understand, both in this place and in another place, is why the Government cannot put in the Bill the provision for a maximum of 24 hours, since we understand that to be their firm intent.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that we bring a powerful new structure into place and a very powerful new actor in the board and its responsibility for statistics. Yet, with her proposal, should the board reach any different judgment on pre-release at any time in the future for any reason, it would be faced with a fixed position in primary legislation. We all acknowledge the significant role of the board. I do not see why the noble Baroness cannot accept that the Government are resistant to the rigidity that her proposal would impose.
I add a further point, to which the noble Baroness has scarcely referred at any stage during the passage of the Bill. The Government had to negotiate aspects of the Bill with the devolved Administrations; the Bill of course refers to national statistics and reserved statistics. We did, and do, discuss with the devolved Administrations their roles and legitimate interests in such structures. If we changed this position, as suggested by the noble Baroness, we would have difficulties with the agreements that we have struck with the devolved Administrations. This would cause considerable difficulty and delay.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, that raises a very interesting question. The Minister says that there is an iron-clad assurance from the Prime Minister. Is that iron-clad assurance also given on behalf of the devolved Administrations?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is within the framework of the Bill. The problem with regard to the legislative position, as the noble Lord will recognise, is that we have proceeded with the blessing and good will of the devolved Administrations and we did not say that we would put this issue into the Bill. I am sure that he will recognise our difficulties in that area.
I very much appreciate the approval that noble Lords who are very knowledgeable about this issue have given to the putative appointment of Sir Michael Scholar as chair of the Statistics Board. I enter a caveat of reservation at this stage, because the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that this appointment should be subject to parliamentary consideration. The Treasury Select Committee interviewed Sir Michael yesterday and is due to produce a report before the vote in the House of Commons on his appointment. I have no doubt that the other place will take firmly into account the widespread approval expressed in this House today by noble Lords with great expertise in these areas that this is an excellent appointment. Certainly, the proceedings in the Select Committee went well yesterday. The appointment is subject to parliamentary approval. I am quite sure that no one in this House will not applaud the Governments intent with this and, of course, with the role that Parliament plays in a number of critical appointments.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has played a very constructive role in our deliberations and I thank him for his contributions. On not every occasion have I been able to accept his suggestions wholeheartedly, but I greatly appreciate the amount of work that he has done on the Bill. The only thing that I want to emphasise in response to his short contribution today is that the Bill provides that the board must treat the content of the secondary legislation as though it was part of the code of practice. I can give an assurance that it locks it into the boards operations in those terms.
We have been asked again how Parliament will organise parliamentary scrutiny. Even at this late stage, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has expressed a further anxiety. Let me make it absolutely clear that it is for Parliament to decide. How we best approach the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of the statistical system, including the board, must take into account the change of responsibilities to the Cabinet Office. Proposals will be put forward, but it should be recognised that it is not for me to attempt to be definitive about arrangements that are for Parliament to make. Suffice it to say that the crucial role of Parliament in this area marks a considerable step forward in terms of our scrutiny of national statistics and the role that the board will play. I hope that this will be looked on in this constructive way.
I believe that we are concluding as we have proceeded throughout our deliberations. The contributions made at all the stages of this Bill have been thoughtful and constructive. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, has come to the debate rather late and has raised a somewhat extraneous point on the question of legislation, because he is in fact talking about government resources. I shall make the obvious point that the board is going to be a very powerful lobby for the effectiveness of the national statistical system and its credibility. I have no doubt at all that, in doing so, from time to time it will have occasion to express its view that certain resources need to be increased to improve that effectiveness, and Ministers will need to respond to such pressures. The whole point of this legislation is to enhance public awareness and the accountability of the statistical system. To that end, all these issues relate to the question of available resources. That, in the end, is why the Government need to have the last word, because it is the democratically elected Government who take decisions on such resources.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
The noble Baroness said: This amendment relates to regional assemblies and therefore to a certain extent has been overtaken by events, given the announcement about the abolition of regional assemblies. However, I have decided not to withdraw it because it raises what I believe is an important point of principle on which it would be useful to understand the Governments thinking.
About two years ago, I was slightly alarmed to discover that the so-called stakeholder members of regional assemblies are not covered by the code of conduct for standards of behaviour in the same way as councillors who sit on regional assemblies. The point had arisen in a regional assembly during which there was a debate on house building. A member of the construction industry who was present as a stakeholder member refused to declare an interest. In the ensuing brouhaha, it transpired that someone who wanted to threaten him with the Standards Board was unable to because he was not covered.
I have raised this point several times in your Lordships' House because it seems quite extraordinary that a member of the smallest parish council is subject to the rulings of the Standards Board and the procedures relating to the code of conduct, while someone who is on a regional assembly, putting together regional housing and planning strategies involving tens of thousands of houses, is not subject to that. In parenthesis, I add that I discovered at the same time that regional assemblies are not included in the bodies subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I have not tabled any amendments in that regard, but that goes to show that there appears to be one set of standards that apply to local authorities and their members and quite another for quangos. Given that quangos are now spending more public money than local authorities, I should be interested to know why the Government do not think that codes of conduct and the Standards Board ought to cover quangos, especially regional assemblies. I beg to move.
The noble Lord said: The purpose of my two amendments, which are linked, is to widen the discussion slightly from the specific question of regional assemblies, which may not be with us for much longer, to the general question of partnerships and partnership bodies at all levels. The whole question of declarations of
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