HL Deb 25 February 1988 vol 493 cc1354-9

7.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th January be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to re-enact with some amendments the Statistics of Trade (Northern Ireland) Act 1949. The 1949 Act gives to Northern Ireland departments the statutory authority to conduct most of their statistical inquiries with the business community. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me just to describe some of the amendments to the current legislation in a few moments.

However, first, and most importantly, I wish to make it clear that the order will not result in any increase in the burden of form-filling—what we might call outside your Lordships' House red tape—on businesses in Northern Ireland. Rather, the purpose of the order is to improve the administration of the legislation to relate it more closely to the circumstances of the present day and also to allow a degree of flexibility in the use of statistical information which has already been obtained.

The proposal for an order was published in January 1985. We have given very careful consideration to the comments that we have received, including those from the Northern Ireland Assembly. The changes to earlier legislation fall into four groups. The main disclosure revision is that the order would permit Northern Ireland departments to disclose information from individual statistical returns obtained either under the Statistics of Trade (Northern Ireland) Act 1949 or under the order to public bodies and to consultants working for departments or public bodies. We see this as a valuable change which would maximise the benefit from expenditure on statistical activity.

It is not generally cost-effective for public bodies to duplicate the gathering of information already in the possession of departments, and access to information from individual returns would enhance their research role.

Where public bodies have previously had to collect their own information, that was an unnecessary burden on business. Until now departments have also been unable to disclose information to consultants employed to advise departments or public bodies. This is an impediment to the effective use of consultants.

The order would permit such disclosure. To complement this greater scope for disclosure, the order contains a number of safeguards which is I think what your Lordships would expect. Information may only be released, for example, to a public body, subject to a direction by the head of a Northern Ireland department. The direction would specify the purposes for which the disclosed information may be used. The order would create a new offence for the misuse of any information disclosed. Further, the order would require public bodies or consultants to ensure that in any published report or summary, information relating to an individual return could not be identified or, as we put it tactfully in the order, deduced. The offence of unlawful disclosure would be widened by the order to cover disclosure by any person, regardless of whether he or she is a civil servant. There would no longer he a need for civil servants to make a declaration that they will not disclose information from individual returns, and this requirement is omitted from the order.

The order would also permit disclosure to computer personnel. Noble Lords will see that Article 7 paragraph (4) on page 6 covers this particular point. Disclosure is permitted to computer personnel who service or maintain government computers on which information from individual returns is stored. Furthermore, the safeguards on misuse and unlawful disclosure of information would apply in this particular case.

One element of the original proposal for a draft order had been to permit disclosure to the general public of basic information on the name, the address, the nature of the business and the employment of any individual undertaking. This was viewed with concern particularly by the business community, and this aspect has been omitted from the order now before us.

I turn to the question of fines on summary conviction. The maximum fines in these cases of summary conviction for offences under the 1949 Act require updating. Although the Fines and Penalties (Northern Ireland) Order 1984 increased the maximum fines set in 1949, this served only to bring them into the standard scale and did not take account of the extended period since 1949. The new maximum fines which the order will achieve match those for comparable offences under other legislation and those for the same offences under corresponding legislation for Great Britain.

The Statistics of Trade Act (Northern Ireland) 1949 provided for the establishment and advisory functions of a trade statistics consultative committee. That is something of a mouthful, I think your Lordships will agree, even early in the evening. It was recommended in the Report on Non-Departmental Public Bodies (Cmnd. 7797), popularly known to your Lordships and others as the "quangos report". The report was published in January 1980. One of its recommendations was that the committee should be abolished. That recommendation formed part of the proposal for a draft order which was published in January 1985.

However, we have noted the concern of industry, of the users of statistics and also of the Northern Ireland Assembly about this proposal. The order before us this evening would replace the consultative committee with an advisory committee. Your Lordships will see this item referred to in Article 6 of the order on pages 4 and 5. The new committee will have broadly similar functions but it will also have an expanded remit to consider issues referred to it by the Department of Economic Development.

Lastly, the order contains three other changes to current legislation. The definition of undertakings which may be required to make returns is clarified in the order; your Lordships will find that in paragraph (2) of Article 2. We hope that the definition will ensure that all employers are covered.

The order omits the requirement for a report on each census of production to be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly. This will free the Department of Economic Development to publish results more speedily and, we hope, more effectively.

The schedule to the 1949 Act specified three lists of matters about which returns might be required. These lists applied respectively to production industry, to wholesale distribution, to retail distribution and to other services. Subsequent changes to the schedule made by the Statistics of Trade (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971 and by sundry subordinate legislation removed many of the differences between these lists. The order specifies one list, which your Lordships will find in the schedule on page 9 of the order.

During the period of consultation, we received one suggestion about the proposal for a draft order. It was that there should be a code of practice similar to that operated by the Department of Trade and Industry in Great Britain. Such a code would guide the use for administrative purposes within departments of information collected initially for statistical purposes. However, we do not think it is appropriate to provide for a code within the order. Not all statistical information is collected using statutory powers, and we think it would be desirable for any code to cover information obtained on a voluntary basis. We therefore intend that the Department of Economic Development should produce and publish a code of practice which would cover all these particular factors.

In conclusion, I would say that the order before us incorporates worthwhile changes to earlier legislation without, as I hope I have made clear, imposing further on the goodwill of business and employers. Certainly, we hope that the order will allow greater use to be made of information which is already obtained without damaging the interests of the suppliers of information. Having given that safeguard, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th January be approved. —(Lord Lyell.)

7.27 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, long gestation has produced a very short order but I am glad to say that it is as uncontroversial as the Bill which the House has just been discussing. We welcome the order.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, has explained that the order, as its title suggests, is all about the collection of information by government departments in the Province. However, perhaps the Minister will tell us who is to analyse the mountain of information which will be collected and where this will be done. Are the specialised research and intelligence skills which are necessary and the expensive equipment which is also necessary to be found in the Northern Ireland Office or will this vital work be farmed out in a consumer-contractor relationship?

As we have been told, the order requires the head of the Department of Economic Development to appoint an advisory committee to advise on such matters as may be referred to it by the department. We were told in the explanatory document and indeed by the Minister this evening that this new provision replaces the earlier proposal to establish a trades statistics consultative committee. I must confess that I am still a little puzzled about this change in terminology. I shall obviously have to read the Minister's words very carefully, but perhaps he can confirm whether the difference in title really represents a difference in function.

We note with satisfaction that the order contains a number of important safeguards against the unlawful disclosure of information, supported by criminal sanctions. These have been fully spelt out by the Minister. We are glad that the widespread and proper concern about the unlawful disclosure of information collected by government departments is appreciated and understood by the department. We hope that this short order will prove to be a valuable instrument, which will not be abused.

7.29 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, typically, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, has done his homework, and for my part I should like to congratulate him. The Government are very grateful to him and indeed to all your Lordships who have shown interest in this order.

The noble Lord quite rightly raised the question of disclosure and the reasons why this information might be required and indeed who would make use of it. I think I ought to take your Lordships back to Article 7 of the order, covering the disclosure of information. This gives what I might perhaps call the defensive posture and the safeguards. Article 7 states in paragraph (1) that no individual estimate or return and, above all, no information related to any individual undertaking could be disclosed by any person except in accordance with directions given by the head of that Northern Ireland department. In most cases this would be the Department of Economic Development. Your Lordships will find that. as interpreted under Article 2, "Department" means the Department of Economic Development.

There are further inquiries and surveys undertaken under current legislation. I am given to understand that the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland undertakes a quarterly instruction inquiry; and the Department of Economic Development undertakes an annual census of production, a quarterly production inquiry, the annual new earnings survey, a quarterly coal import inquiry and the annual October earnings survey. Every five years there is a labour costs survey and every three years there is a census of employment.

I am advised that the Department of Agriculture—my own department—undertakes an annual wine stocks inquiry. Until this point came up under the order, I was unaware of this hidden aspect of the department for which I have had responsibility for close on four years. I have somewhere a figure for the amount of wine stocks resident in Northern Ireland.

I hope that this confirms that any information requested under the order will be put to good use and carefully safeguarded from those who should not have it and who have no right to require it.

For the reasons that I explained in introducing the order, we believe that statistics can be of use and can assist business development in Northern Ireland. We hope that the order brings up to date all the matters that have been governed mainly by an Act that is nearly 40 years old, It may have been superseded and amended slightly in 1971 by subsequent legislation, but it is a major step. I commend this order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 p.m.

Moved according, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.32 to 8 p.m.]