§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord Donoughue rose to call attention to the quality of government statistics; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have just enjoyed a debate characterised by a surprising degree of cosy consensus. We now turn to a much spicier and sexier subject. I hope that my noble friends will not be deterred from partisanship by the total absence of any speakers opposite to support the Minister. I am sure that that does not derive from any lack of support for the Government; it probably reflects the classical tradition of education and the almost total lack of social science training opposite.
The subject is of great importance. Statistics are the bricks and mortar of all policy areas which concern government. Through them are assessed the problems which confront government and through them we assess how successful or otherwise governments are in facing those problems. Therefore, the subject we are discussing today is very important.
I should like to open with a firm statement:
There is no doubt that the quality of UK economic statistics has deteriorated over the last two years".
I can say that with confidence because it should not be disputed from the Government Front Bench. It is a quotation from the opening sentence in the first issue of the bulletin published by the Treasury last summer. That issue carried a preface commending it by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. John Major. Mr. Major was also quoted by the Sunday Times last September as,
not knowing whether to laugh or cry",
when the balance of payments for the second quarter was revised upwards by nearly £1 billion.
Today we have experienced two more major statistical embarrassments. The first is that the 1990 trade deficit which has been going up is suddenly 221 revised down by £2.2 billion. The second is that the Financial Times pointed out today that the February output prices seemed quite incompatible with other official price statistics.
Last May when Mr. Major was Chancellor he brought in a small package of reforms which were very welcome. But the head of the Statistical Service, Sir Jack Hibbert, stated in July that they were,
unlikely to be sufficient to solve the problem".
In July of last year the Royal Statistical Society described the Major reforms as "incomplete" and published its own devastating critique of the state of government statistics. It referred to the,
serious erosion of public confidence in UK official statistics".
Last September the Public Accounts Committee reported on the retail prices index and savagely criticised both its collection of data and the construction of the index. It found an "unacceptable" shortfall of 50 per cent. in the number of prices collected and that the sample of towns used was unchanged for 50 years. On the construction of the index, it was unhappy with the treatment of house mortgage costs—a view often expressed in this House.
Many other doubts have been expressed about the quality, the accuracy and the timeliness of our statistics. Last summer's Treasury bulletin identified three main detailed problems. It referred to the,
lack of coherence between the different measures of GDP … frequent revisions of demand data [and] inconsistency of national and financial accounts".
The Government's own internal review, the Pickford Scrutiny of Economic Statistics, conducted in Whitehall in 1988, identified its own three concerns:
"wide discrepancies" between three measures of GDP;
large and growing errors and omissions",
in the sector accounts; and "frequent and major revisions" to the statistics. It also concluded that,
the problems were deep-seated and pervasive, had multiple causes, and had existed for a long time".
There is no question that there is widespread concern about the general quality of official statistics. The Prime Minister has joined in the concern. There is also no doubt that it matters. It is not just a pedantic question for academic number-crunchers, for it has profound implications for policy making. It matters because policy decisions are so often taken on the basis of statistics, and wrong decisions may be taken on the basis of bad statistics.
Worrying examples of that litter the recent history of economic policy. The Government's failure to deal with the upsurge of inflation from 1987 was described by the Governor of the Bank of England as due primarily to bad statistics. In his Durham lecture in April 1990 he explained:
We put the brake on when the speedometer indicated we were doing 60 mph … when the tachograph was opened, however, it revealed that we had actually been doing 70 mph".
Because of slow and poor policy responses to that situation we have suffered damagingly high inflation and interest rates for three years.
The RPI certainly matters. It matters because if the RPI is artificially high or low, inflation-linked payments—pensions, social security and so forth—will be wrong. Either the Treasury pays out too much or the customer receives too little (as I believe happened with social security payments in 1987). 222 Moreover, if the RPI is artificially high, many pay settlements will be based on it, and in due course the artificially high inflation will be converted into high real inflation. That is why the related question of including mortgage interest payments in the RPI is so important.
It means that, perversely, when a government wish to conquer inflation by raising interest rates, the first consequence is to raise the RPI, which in turn increases inflation. Before leaving that point, perhaps I may add that I find it puzzling and very odd that the poll tax is included in the RPI yet I believe that poll tax rebates are not. It is said that Mr. Major has asked for a review of the RPI. Perhaps the Minister can give us a report on the progress of that.
The balance of payments is another area prone to statistical error and revision. I need only remind the House of the experience of the government of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, in 1976. The official numbers for the first half of 1976 showed a deteriorating balance and indicated a major deficit for the year. Rapid depreciation of the currency and an autumn sterling crisis followed. After that came the approach to the IMF, to which noble Lords opposite so often nostalgically refer. In fact the final revisions for the first half of 1976 (completed in 1978) showed us always to have been in surplus. It does not matter whether it was a Treasury plot, as some thought, or a statistical cock-up. Major policy decisions were based on bad numbers. So there is no doubt that our provision of statistics is seriously inadequate and that those defects have serious consequences.
I will wish to make some suggestions for reform in the way our statistical service is operated. But first I should like to analyse the reasons for those faults. The defects do not arise on a random basis, simply because it is the nature of numbers to be difficult. It is possible to identify several clear potential explanations, or alleged explanations.
The first alleged explanation I will touch upon only briefly —the wicked fiddling of the numbers by the Government. I am aware that that suggestion will cause such shock and numbed incomprehension on the part of the Minister that he will feel incapable of even responding. I will assist him by disposing of it quickly. There is no evidence or reason to question the integrity of professional statisticians. They are as honest as they have always been. Moreover any manipulation could never be proven. If it happens, it happens through subtle political and departmental pressures which can never be documented. But we should be aware that equally honourable people working in the fields of poverty and unemployment, for example, have alleged that the statistics in those areas are manipulated for political reasons.
I shall not pursue that. But I would say to the Government that if those allegations are sometimes believed, it is because the whole organisation of official statistics is open to suspicion in that professional statisticians are not autonomous and ministers are in charge. The integrity of official statistics must not only exist, as no doubt it does, but also be seen to exist, which is not the case.
223 The operational framework is wrong. It was wrong for this Government to put the government statistical service under the Treasury. The Treasury is inevitably the department most sensitive to embarrassing numbers. Few other countries have statistics answerable to a ministry of finance. It is wrong to have statisticians decentralised into departments, appoint-able by, promotable by and answerable to departmental ministers and permanent secretaries. They should be in a separate professional agency. It is wrong to leave departments, and especially the Treasury, with control over statistical publications and the timing of announcements. Because of that lack of autonomy, suspicions will arise even when there are no grounds for them.
This Government are also directly responsible for several other aspects in the deterioration of the statistical service. In particular I refer to the changes introduced after the Rayner review of Whitehall efficiency in the early 1980s. That review had many virtues. Anybody who experienced Whitehall in the 1970s will sympathise with any efficiency review, especially under such distinguished leadership.
But the effects on the statistical service were harmful to its performance. Government statistical service manpower was halved in the decade from 9,000 to 4,200 between 1980 and 1989. Ours is now the smallest official statistical service in the advanced world. Valuable surveys, micro-business surveys and social surveys, were abolished or reduced. If we know less about the building or textile industries, we end up knowing less about the national gross domestic product. Having less form filling is an attractive slogan. But again less information equals less accuracy.
Putting the government statistical service under the Treasury was a mistake to which I have already referred. One additional bad consequence of that—I look forward to listening to any noble Lords who will pick up this point in detail—is that it inevitably means the downgrading of social statistics compared with economic statistics. That is a mistake. Even more important and harmful was the new Rayner doctrine that the government statistical service served only Ministers. That narrow definition of its constituency was quite wrong.
The Government's responsibility for the deterioration in our statistical service is quite clear and serious. Perhaps I may quote last year's report by the Royal Statistical Society. It concludes that:
In summary, the Government statistical service is seen as starved of many essential supports for the proper exercise of its functions. It suffers from lack of autonomy and control over operational and publication decisions".
Not all the fault lies with the Government. One finds it difficult on this side of the House to say that, but it is true. In recent years external circumstances have made the task of statistical monitoring more difficult. The grey economy is larger and hard to track. Deregulation has a similar effect. For example, the abolition of currency controls makes it harder to monitor financial transactions and especially hard to calculate invisibles—that was probably the main
factor in today's revision of the trade deficit. I doubt whether we include in the numbers the massive and very welcome expenditure by Arabs on our horseracing industry.
These statistical problems, arising from deregulation, will grow worse after 1992 and what happens in Europe. However, the main responsibility for the inadequacy of our services lies with the Government. It is for the Government to provide the remedies. To me those remedies are clear. They arise logically from the analysis of the defects. The main thrust must be to establish an organisational and operational framework which ensures a quick improvement in the quality of the statistics and in their accuracy and timeliness and that the integrity of the statistics is transparent—not only exists but is seen to exist.
That means institutionally establishing the autonomy of the professional statisticians. There should be, as indeed there is in most advanced countries, a centralised government statistical service, perhaps with departmental satellites in an autonomous agency with control over its own personnel, product and publications, and accountable to Parliament through its head and its sponsoring Minister. I add that it is also important that its head should remain a professional statistician and not be a Whitehall bureaucrat.
It will also add to the autonomy, efficiency and integrity of the statistical service if, as the Royal Society suggested, we have a UK statistics Act giving statutory authority and responsibility to the service, as in most advanced countries, and if we have a statistical commission to recommend improvements to statistical quality and consider complaints about integrity. Such a statistical commission would be a link between the producers and the users, legitimising the product and reporting to Parliament. It certainly means abandoning the Rayner principle that the government statistical service serves only Ministers. The service should serve a wider constituency: Parliament, industry, universities and the general public, who ultimately pay for it.
In conclusion, I assert that our statistical standards are inadequate for our domestic needs and are well below those of most advanced countries, especially our EC partners. I ask the Minister to consider seriously and actively the suggested reforms which have widespread support in the statistical community. Will he also tell us whether the proposed move of the service to a next steps agency is on course for next month and whether it will incorporate these reforms and characteristics?
When the Royal Statistical Society produced its report last July, Mrs. Thatcher, so it is widely alleged, wrote immediately to reject it. Will the Minister now announce that that rejection is, in General Schwarzkopf's phrase, inoperative? Will he replace it by a commitment to urgent and radical action to restore our statistical service to its previous excellence? My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.225
§ 5.47 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester
My Lords, I shall let your Lordships into a secret. One of the joys of being a Bishop is that one no longer has to engage in the laborious chore of writing out marriage registers before a wedding. It has to be done in duplicate and woe betide the man who makes a mistake. It might have sweetened the task over the years if I had remembered that I was taking part in a long tradition which saw progress toward the creation of national statistics.
It was Thomas Cromwell—that very useful but very unpleasant man—who as Chancellor to Henry VIII in 1538 ordered that registers of baptisms, weddings and funerals should be kept carefully in all the churches. It was in 1597, by an Act of Queen Elizabeth, that transcripts had to be sent to a diocesan registrar. It was Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth, who had the vision to see that they could be used as the foundation for national statistics and something which would be useful to the nation in the years ahead. Along with Lord Burghley, to whom we duly give thanks, we should give thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for offering us an opportunity to think about this very important subject this afternoon.
I believe that statistics are absolutely vital to the health of our national economy and our progress as a nation. They are concerned with truth and a proper picture of society. Adequate statistics are a foundation for democracy. I should like to concentrate for a few moments on social statistics, which have already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I realise that they form only one part of the field, but I believe that it is a very important part.
In recent years we have had two major Church reports: the Archbishop's Commissions, first, on urban priority areas and then on rural areas. They were efforts to chart the pressures on the quality of life of some of the people in communities who are most disadvantaged in our society. They inevitably relied very heavily on the use of statistics.
However, the attitude of successive governments to statistics is somewhat ambiguous. I claim that consideration of the adequacy of government statistics is a non-party matter. It is well documented that, when one considers the past, governments of whatever colour or complexion have felt strongly tempted to manipulate statistics, or at least to lean on those who have produced them.
The integrity of statistics has already been referred to by the mover of the debate. Perhaps I may quote Sir Claus Moser, former head of the Government Statistical Service. He stated:In official statistics and research, nothing is more important than integrity. Once the public start questioning the integrity of government statistics, they are questioning the integrity of the government itself".I believe that those are wise words. However, it is not simply the integrity of such statistics as are published but their quality and the way in which they are presented and made available to a wider public that is of concern. It has been correctly stated today that it is 226 a grave mistake to suppose that government statistics are relevant only to those making government policy. In a democracy they ought to be widely available and easy to understand.
It is not surprising that there are now many voices expressing grave concern about what has been happening to our statistics over the years, not simply under this Government—I emphasise again but under governments of past years. If your Lordships wish to have an example, I quote the words of Muriel Nissel, founding editor of Social Trends. In that useful publication she identified some of the changes that have taken place as,stemming not only from different political attitudes, but also from the lack of data resulting from Sir Derek Rayner's report on the Government Statistical Service in 1981 which led to severe cuts particularly in social statistics, and restricted them to what is considered relevant to government".However, she also stated that,the political problem was there back in the seventies. The poverty trap and the decline in living standards (for some) were so glaringly obvious. But when I tried to show the decline, the answer was that there was no satisfactory measure of poverty available".It is only fair to say that this attempt to lean on the statisticians pre-dates the present Government.
However, matters seem to have become worse. Many of the statistics about which people are most anxious now relate to poverty and inequality in our society. We can be profoundly thankful that since Victorian times an impressive array of evidence has been built up in relation to aspects of our society where social pressures are the greatest. But those statistics have always been produced with some difficulty.
If noble Lords wish to know examples of the ways in which matters have deteriorated in recent years, they do not have to look far. For example, Social Trends—which I believe we agree is a useful publication, as is Regional Trends—used to provide a table showing a link between unemployment and ill health. It no longer appears. There was a standing Royal Commission on the distribution of income and wealth. Many of us concerned with progress in our society towards a healthier and happier community in which resources are widely shared regarded that commission as of great value in past years. It was abolished in 1979.
The general household survey has been curtailed in recent years. The Department of Social Services used to produce statistics on low income families annually. In 1979 that was changed to every two years. It was then replaced with another method of statistics—households below average income. Those who study such matters carefully say that those statistics do not give nearly as accurate a picture of poverty as the former statistics on low income families. There is useful information in both surveys but if one compares the two that is the picture that emerges. The Child Poverty Action Group, for example, claims that it was an attempt to stifle debate about poverty in this country.
The supplementary benefits commission was abolished. There are various views about the work 227 that it was doing and the reasons for its abolition. The point that is relevant to our debate is that although the commission used to produce some useful statistics, nothing took the place of the survey of low incomes which used to be published regularly.
I am sure that other speakers in the debate will mention unemployment data, and the fact that there have been a number of changes in their presentation over the years—more than 20, I believe. Those changes have resulted in reduced numbers of unemployed being shown on the registers —and that must be a cause for concern.
Mortality data are absolutely vital to our understanding of society. They indicate death according to social class and occupation. There is less information now from the Registrar General on those important areas.
If one goes back a few years, the Black Report of 1979 on Inequalities in Health Care was never properly published. It had privately to be brought to the public's attention. As a result, all the work that had gone into the study—it was a remarkable picture of inequalities in health care in Britain—was largely wasted. Those are causes for concern which should be addressed.
Mention has been made of the Rayner Report. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, emphasised the importance of keeping down public expenditure. We all know that we cannot have as much money to spend in any field as we should like, and that includes the collection and presentation of statistics. Undoubtedly some good savings were effected. The noble Lord gave one set of figures. I have one example. Government statistical staff in the Department of Employment fell from 1,430 to a mere 314—a reduction of more than 75 per cent.
However, one must ask whether we have suffered as a result of government cuts of that order, some of them doubtless brought in by the introduction of new technology, of which we always need to be aware. At what cost have such cuts been made in the collection and presentation of statistics? The damage may be to the reputation of government. Surely one of the worst errors that has been made in recent years occurred in 1988. It was announced, based on the statistical evidence available, that the poor not only benefited from rising prosperity but had done particularly well. I quote Mr. Nicholas Scott, Social Security Minister, who stated in August 1988:This Government has achieved the longest period of sustained high growth and increasing prosperity experienced by this country for half a century and, since 1981, the poorest people in our community have not only shared in this rising prosperity—these are the significant words—but have actually done better than the population as a whole".That turned out to be completely and utterly false. The previous figures had been wrong. The poorest tenth saw their income rise by just 2.6 per cent. between 1981 and 1985 after housing costs, whereas 228 for society as a whole the figure was 5.4 per cent.—twice as much. The poorest tenth had done half as well.
I give that illustration to show that it may be false economy for government to cut down on the way in which statistics are collected and presented. It seemed at the time to prove the trickle down theory: that if one creates wealth all round inevitably it trickles down to the poorest in society. But that is a theory that has been shot to pieces. Sadly, those statistics led a government minister, who later resigned, to make the absurd claim that poverty in Britain had been abolished—something that I am sure no noble Lord would today wish to claim.
I conclude by adding my voice to that of others in saying that we need an independent body or council to monitor government statistics—a body or council independent of pressures from this or any government in the future. It would ensure that statistics are properly presented, and that they cover the correct areas of national life. Statistics are far too important to be left in the care of certain groups of people, however influential and responsible. They must belong to us all.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support my noble friend Lord Donoughue. My contribution will not be on the same intellectual level but I hope to throw a light on certain issues that I believe to be important. When I sit in this Chamber I am always worried when Government Ministers talk about new money. When I speak to people about new money they ask whether I mean those silly little five pence pieces. One feels as though that is the generosity that we are receiving from the Government. I imagine members of the Cabinet sitting around a table and someone saying, "Give them some new money". The person who is granted the new money is handed a big bag of new £5 notes which he is able to dish out. I cannot understand the nomenclature of new money.
I am also worried by the statistics that are thrown at us. When I sit in this Chamber I sometimes think to myself that the Minister went into his department that morning to be told by his adviser, "These are the tables that you must learn today, Minister, so that you can quickly rattle them off". I see that the Minister is nodding his head in agreement. It reminds one of being at school and learning one's tables. That is the picture that is given to us and therefore we cannot really accept the figures.
However, I accept that the Government try to put a good show on the unpalatable figures that they give in this House. Noble Lords can judge them for themselves and it appears that some of the figures that we are given cannot be related to what we see happening on the ground. I am involved with a number of charities and other organisations in Birmingham. Sometimes when I repeat the statistics that have been given in this House people around the table simply laugh and not all are members of my party.
229 I am especially interested in housing and I wish to comment on the figures relating to the sale of council houses which has been the most successful of the Government's privatisation programmes. It has generated £18 billion for the Government; that is, 43 per cent. of all privatisation receipts, excluding the figures that were given yesterday for the privatisation of electricity. A great deal of that income has been lost to housing investment. A certain percentage of new money, as the Government call it, is being used, but a greater amount has been lost to housing investment. That has resulted in a substantial increase in homelessness. The Government try to get away from the figures relating to homelessness and now we hear the wonderful word "rooflessness". I regard the use of that word to be peculiarly funny because I have just returned from a long tour of Egypt. I said to one of the guides, "We have visited new housing, but I haven't seen roofs on any of the properties". He said, "We don't need roofs because we have no rainfall". I thought that perhaps the Minister had been to Egypt and could ensure that we have a similar climate. But for a Minister even to use the word "rooflessness" leaves me speechless.
The Government get fed up with being told about homelessness. If I were a government minister I should feel so fed up about it that I should make sure that something was done. The previous DoE minister in another place became so fed up with the homelessness statistics that instead of calling them Local Authorities' Action Under the Homelessness Provisions of the 1985 Housing Act, he changed the title to Households Found Accommodation Under the Homelessness Provisions of the 1985 Housing Act. That was quite wrong because the figures relating to housing provided by local authorities are different from the figures relating to the people whom they accept for homelessness. The local authorities accept people as being homeless but they are not always able to find them accommodation. It was wrong to say that all those who were accepted as homeless were rehoused. The DoE has suddenly decided that it will alter the statistics when social trends are published in the future. Having accepted someone as homeless does not imply that accommodation has been found.
I hope that when the Government give figures from the Housing Corporation they will not show an increase in the number of houses provided by the corporation by including the houses taken into occupation by housing associations. There has merely been a transfer to local authorities because some have made themselves into housing associations. Such a figure would be untrue and would not show any new housing but merely transfers.
I turn to some of the points raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. If one wishes to look at figures and statistics about poverty one merely has to look at the report of the Social Services Committee of another place. Its fourth report is entitled Low Income Statistics and was printed on 25th April 1990. The report asks the Government to provide different statistics. Paragraph 18 states:We need to know much more about exactly who the poorest group is. The stated aim of the Government's reform 230 of social security in 1988 was to target benefits more precisely on those who needed them. To judge the extent to which those aims are achieved it is necessary to be able to measure, over time, not only the numbers living in poverty relative to the rest of the community, but also the composition of the poorest groups".We require a fuller development of the statistics that are collected.
Some noble Lords are keen to abolish wage councils. The noble Lord who is particularly keen is not present in the House. It is always argued that if we abolish wage councils we know what will happen; we will get low pay. People argue that low pay equals more jobs but there is no proof that low pay increases employment. One could argue a good case for saying that low wages are a subsidy to the employer. If people are paid low wages they will need housing benefits, income support and all the other benefits that they can obtain.
I shall give an example which may come as a surprise to some noble Lords when they consider the West Midlands. There is a definition which the Government call the "low pay definition", and it is £143.66 for a 30-hour week. It may interest noble Lords to know that 30 per cent. of adult workers in the West Midlands fall within that definition. When one sees that definition, one can appreciate that people are almost on the poverty line although they are in employment.
There is now a new definition for training; namely, the TECs. That is another means of transferring and lessening the amount of government money. Every time there is a new definition or agency, it means that the Government put less money into it. As regards TECS, I should like to put in a plug for those students and those returning to work who suffer from sensory handicaps. The new TECs will have a very serious effect upon sensorily impaired trainees. The Government have always considered central funding to be necessary for the expert training given to sensorily handicapped people and those returning to work after perhaps being blinded or becoming deaf. That training is of a very high calibre. Noble Lords may have seen the exhibition in Central Hall last week which demonstrated the very high standards of training given to the deaf and blind.
As president of the Queen Alexandra College for the Blind in Birmingham, I know of the excellent training which is given. I ask the Minister to look at this matter. There is no need for the Minister to look so horrified because he has been asked to look at only about three matters all afternoon. I know that he will not look at them anyway but that is beside the point. However, I ask the Minister sincerely to look at the training for students and those returning to training so that they can rejoin the employment market. That training has always received national funding but now it has become the responsibility of TECs.
I know that the TECs are run by top businessmen, but they will not be primarily concerned with the long-term training which those people need. When the minister publishes his advertisements for TECs and says that they are run by top businessmen, perhaps he will give the names of those top businessmen so that 231 we know who they are. That is especially important for those of us who live in the provinces where we perhaps do not receive the same information.
I believe that the widening gap between rich and poor is not only to do with wages and disillusionment but arises because of the way in which the economy has been run. The statistics do not and cannot possibly show the plunging morale, the lack of aspirations and diminishing opportunities which people have. If we look at the people who are at the bottom of the pile, they are normally low earners or they are living on benefits. They live in poor housing or they are homeless. Often they are in poor health and lack the access to leisure and pleasure which we all enjoy. More often than not their education facilities are not good because they live in inner cities and they have limited employment opportunities. Government statistics do nothing to show that they are helping those people.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Lord McGregor of Durris
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the statistical services, without which modern government would be impossible. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, and the right reverend Prelate, he has tackled major themes.
I thought that I might prepare for this debate by re-reading a sermon of Benjamin Jowett written after he had read the results of the 1851 census, preached on the text from Matthew:The very hairs on thy head are numbered".However, I felt that a discourse on statistics and faith would be inappropriate. On the eve of the Committee stage of the Child Support Bill it is more appropriate to comment on the official statistics relating to the amount and consequences of breakdown of marriage. That is a very small corner of the vast field of social statistics to which other speakers have already referred.
When the civil judicial statistics were edited by Sir John Macdonell between 1894 and 1921, he provided valuable information about the divorcing population and those litigating their matrimonial problems in the magistrates' courts. However, when the compilation of the statistics was transferred in the 1920s from the Home Office to the newly formed County Court branch of the Lord Chancellor's Office, their content was greatly reduced and the critical introductions disappeared. That remained the condition of the annual volume for the next 40 years. It is a sad reflection that data on divorce first published by Macdonnell in the 1890s were not again published until after the Second World War and then only by the Registrar General.
Thus, demographic interests have secured good, though by no means complete, information about divorce. However, proceedings in magistrates' courts registered the final collapse of large numbers of working-class marriages whose spouses never secured licences from the superior courts to marry again. For years the Home Office published in the criminal statistics a table headed "Certain Other Proceedings" which contained the bare number of applications and 232 orders made by magistrates in affiliation and matrimonial proceedings. That same table contained also simple intelligence about orders for the destruction of unsound meat, the removal of dead bodies and the forfeiture of indecent photographs. That is eloquent witness to the official esteem for a civil jurisdiction dealing almost exclusively with working-class marriages.
In 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1974 official committees recommended that the table should be transferred to the civil judicial statistics and its unreliabilities remedied. The Home Office had been told repeatedly that the table was in any event grossly inaccurate.
It was removed without notice or comment from the criminal statistics in 1973, but meanwhile the Lord Chancellor's Office had begun to publish a couple of tables in 1968 in the judicial statistics which were more accurate but not more informative. Those were dropped without explanation after 1978. Therefore, no reader of the judicial statistics was informed. For the next five years, nothing was printed or made available in the official statistics about the matrimonial work of magistrates' courts. In 1984 the Home Office Statistical Bulletin, newly published, gave,the first results from a new system for collecting statistics of domestic proceedings in magistrates' courts".If official information about the number of proceedings and persons involved is inadequate and probably misleading, there is none whatever about their financial results for the spouses and their children either for the summary courts or the superior courts. In a paper on the financial consequences of divorce in 1981, the Law Commission observed,One of the most serious difficulties encountered in examining any proposal for law reform in this area is that … very little reliable up-to-date information is in fact available about the operation of the existing law. Even the most basic questions about the extent to which the existing private law imposing financial obligations on spouses does, in reality, provide any significant support for their families cannot be answered. We do not know how much maintenance is in fact ordered to be paid by the courts. Still less do we know in what proportion of cases such payments are actually made, and for what period of time they continue. The lack of such factual information obviously constitutes a formidable handicap to the task of law reform".Many attempts during the last quarter of a century to persuade the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office to set about the provision of such information have come to little or nothing. I have time to illustrate the seeming uninterest of those departments in securing factual data about their responsibilities by one example only. When the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Bill was in Committee early in 1984 the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and I put down an amendment to provide through statistical research on court records,a factual basis for analysing the resulting effects of the collapse of marriages upon spouses and children".The noble and learned Lord then on the Woolsack explained that he had already asked OPCS to conduct a survey that was actually based on some 2,000 divorce decrees of 1984. The report of the findings under the title, The Consequences of Divorce, was actually published at the end of last year. I therefore 233 assume that the very informative 242 pages have been languishing in a Whitehall pigeonhole for at least four or five years.
What we now know about maintenance comes from surveys conducted mainly by university departments. The first was done in my own department at Bedford College and published in 1970. It was followed by valuable work in Bristol, Oxford and elsewhere. That explains why the Government's White Paper Children Come First, relies almost wholly not on official and regularly published statistics but on data from ad hoc commissioned surveys.
Oddly enough, the OPCS survey to which I have referred does not appear to have been used in drafting the White Paper of October 1990 which, according to its introduction, relies to a large extent upon,some preliminary results … from a study carried out for the DSS,by Bradshaw and Millar of York and Bath Universities which,it is planned to publish … in the next few months".In November last year I asked whether I could see a copy and was told that the DSS,are to publish early in the New Year".Early in the New Year I asked again and was told that the study,"is unlikely to be published before June 1991".Last Monday The Times carried a report of an extract from the Bradshaw and Millar survey, put out by the Family Policy Studies Centre. When I inquired how the material had been obtained, I was told that a copy, "had been made available". Yet a further request to the DSS was met by the statement that a decision on release of the material could not yet be taken.
In my opinion it is thoroughly bad practice on the Government's part to rely in an important White Paper leading to immediate legislation upon unpublished survey data which have not been subject even to the scrutiny let alone the assessment of the authors' academic peers. Worse still is the Government's withholding the data from the public and Members of Parliament when the Bill is going through this House and yet leaking them to a private organisation.
Good court records and statistics are essential both for the proper administration of justice and for the compilation of figures relating to the work of the courts in order to provide a measure of their efficiency and information for their proper management. Far more important is that the doing of justice requires knowledge of the results of its own procedures. Legislators, judges, administrators, critics, Parliament and citizens must have knowledge of the social consequences of legal actions without which a democratic society cannot keep its institutions under regular and open scrutiny. Court records and legal statistics cost money. However, it is indispensable expenditure.
I should like to remind the House of a comment made in 1857 taken from a report of the Society for Promoting the Amendment of the Law commenting on the then paucity of judicial statistics. The society said, 234Such statistics afford the best, if not the only, means of noting the practical working of laws and tribunals, of testing the principles of legal reforms and of estimating the utility of any system of jurisprudence by the testimony of actual fact".The lack of official statistical information about the actual working and social results of the jurisdictions I mentioned means that an informed public awareness of the issues involved has never developed; there has been no public or parliamentary assessment of the quality of justice with which citizens have been served and no general public opinion upon which the recommendations of the many departmental committees, uniformly ignored by governments, could bite. Neither politicians nor officials cared about the people affected. Therefore, nobody in government troubled to find out what was happening, and those subjected to the jurisdictions have never been able to make their discontents felt.
Too much of our statistical equipment—social, legal and judicial—is inadequate. I have tried briefly to sketch in one explanation of why your Lordships' House will be spending three days in Committee on a piece of legislation at the core of which is plain ignorance about the circumstances with which it is attempting to deal.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's Motion and the opportunity that it gives us to discuss the quality of statistics. I agree completely with him when he says that statistics are the "bricks and mortar" of policy-making. That being so, it is essential that their quality is of the highest standard. I shall not follow my noble friend in his penetrating analysis of the statistical system and some of the economic consequences, but rather I want to underline the importance of statistics in the social field.
As well as being about finance and economics and figures in their millions and billions, statistics are about people. Too often we talk about figures and we forget about the people behind them. Yet it is only by the collection and analysis of statistical data that we can better understand the nature and quality of people's lives, their needs and expectations. If the quality and analysis of statistics is faulty, however, then the policies that follow are likely to be deficient. We were given an excellent example by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester when he talked about the miscalculation of statistics with reference to the poorer sections of our community.
The bottom decile of the community to which these statistics refer, represents between 5 million to 6 million people. Therefore, when the Government were under the impression that the standard of living of the bottom decile had risen twice as fast as that of the population as a whole—although it had risen by only half the percentage of the population as a whole—they were basing policies for people on faulty statistics. Therefore, these 5 million to 6 million people were suffering as a consequence of the poor quality not only of the statistics but of their analysis. We must recall that it was as a consequence of the cuts following the Rayner Report in 1981 that the interpretation of statistics and the definitions on which the statistics 235 were built were changed. We are talking about the lives of people when we speak about statistics. I shall not say any more about that aspect because it was well covered by the right reverend Prelate.
I wish to concentrate on some areas in which I have had a special interest and to illustrate some of the practical problems that can arise either through a lack of statistics or an inadequate interpretation of them. In his opening remarks my noble friend said that this debate was perhaps going to involve a less sexier subject than the previous one. I wish to speak about gender, which is an area for which I had some responsibility as chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission from 1975 to 1983. The commission was set up under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The work of the commission is based on gender. It has three main areas of responsibility; first, as a law enforcement agency. Here it needs statistics to illustrate and prove where discrimination exists and the nature of it. That is particularly so in indirect discrimination which is about the disparity in numbers and the proportions who can and who cannot comply with a particular condition or requirement. Obtaining data for this area of the commission's work is a very slow business indeed and sometimes the data is hard to come by at all.
The second area of responsibility is as a promoter of equality between the sexes. In that respect the commission needs access both to statistics and to models in order to assess what are appropriate policies for promoting equality. For example, equal access to employment opportunities for women is hindered by the absence of sufficient data on the need for, and the whole question of, child care provision.
Thirdly, the commission has statutory responsibility for monitoring the impact of government legislation on the sexes. Again, one can give an example of where the lack of data impedes the commission's work. As the commission has pointed out, the availability rules for employment, for example, both minimise in recorded statistics the number of women seeking employment and exclude some women from benefits. So it is quite clear that in all three areas of responsibility the statutory body of the Equal Opportunities Commission relies on comprehensive statistics and access to them.
When the commission was set up it was rightly said time and again that women were invisible. The census statistics were based, and still are, on the head of the household who is usually the male partner. A married woman's social status is derived from her husband's job or profession and not her own unless she happens to be the householder. The position is better than it was in the sense that many government statistics are now produced more frequently on a male-female basis though Treasury models for tax and social security purposes are still based on male patterns of behaviour.
The Equal Opportunities Commission itself, despite its limited budget, makes a major contribution to statistical information through its annual statistical report Women and Men in Britain. Reference has been made to the excellent work of Social Trends. In this respect it is a pity that the work of the Equal 236 Opportunities Commission is not better supplemented by Social Trends which is rather sparse in its coverage of gender-related issues. Its wider usage throughout the community could do much to illustrate some of the policy issues in this area.
In preparing for this debate I am led to believe that the problem is not always about the collecting of statistics, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, in another context. The Central Statistical Office collects the majority of its data by gender. The trouble is that much of it is not published, neither is it analysed. Publication and analysis of statistics lead us into the wider area of resources. Continual economies in the statistical service are widely believed to have led to a deterioration in the provision of statistical data—a point which has been stated by previous speakers. Nevertheless, in the modern society, with its high rate of marriage breakdown and the growing incidence of one-parent families, it seems to me that the only sensible way for the future is to treat women as individuals. There must be much more statistical data about women in their own right and not as the dependant or appendage of their husband.
The second area to which I should like to refer briefly is the field of education statistics. The Department of Education and Science collects a considerable number of statistics but the statistics are not always meaningful and they are usually published very late. There are three main publications: Education Statistics for the United Kingdom; the DES Statistics of Education; and the DES Statistical Bulletins. All three are usually published well over a year after the collection of the statistics. Data for the DES 1989 Statistics of Education were collected in January 1989 and were required by July 1989 for the 1990–91 standard spending assessment. Yet the DES did not publish the statistics until November 1990. The 1988 edition of Education Statistics for the United Kingdom was printed in November 1988; and the 1989 edition in December 1989. The 1990 edition was published today, 13th March 1991. It gets later every year.
A further area is that relating to the national curriculum assessment arrangements. Again the DES is very late in setting out its plans for data collection for the seven year-olds who will be assessed in the summer of 1991. In a Written Answer to my noble friend Lady Blackstone on 6th March, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, stated:The precise nature of the information to be requested by the Secretary of State and the nature of its transmission will be settled shortly".—[Official Report, 6/3/91; col. WA72.]There are now only two weeks before schools commence the standard assessment tasks. It is disgraceful that the Government have not got their act together earlier to enable LEAs to plan for the collection of this data. It is such action by the Government which leads to the poor quality of statistics.
I entirely agree with those previous speakers who referred to the inappropriateness of placing the central statistical services in the Treasury. As the right reverend Prelate has said, we need a much more independent home for them. I agree, too, that the 237 service should be geared to the needs of all policy makers and not just to what is perceived by the Government to be their needs. A previous Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Douglas Wass, is very critical of the Government's cuts in statistics. It is his view that the cuts have gone beyond the intention of improving efficiency. He says:It is as though the Government sets little store by public information, seeing its role as simply to find out what itself needs to know".We need a much wider dissemination of our statistics both for a wider contribution to policy making and for monitoring the effects of those policies.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords, in spite of the words from the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in introducing this debate, statistics may not seem a very alluring subject to many of us, but they do have an extremely important place in our national life. They are the foundation of the science of economics and the basis of vital decisions taken by our national authorities, yet they are not very often the subject of informed discussion in Parliament. The Motion tabled by the noble Lord is therefore most welcome. I should explain that I speak neither as a statistician nor as a trained economist but as one who has used statistics in a number of countries over the years.
Since the days of Sir William Petty in the 17th century we have produced many excellent statisticians in this country and we were one of the first nations to produce a reliable series of national accounts. Somehow it seems that the statistical habit has become ingrained in our way of looking at national problems —partly, perhaps, because of our preference for a pragmatic approach to most issues and our wish to know what the facts are before suggesting prescriptions to particular problems and partly because of our experience in the past two generations. The nature of the most important crises which we have faced has made us very much aware of the need for good statistics.
In the great depression of 1929–31 we measured with attention and anxiety the state of the national economy and the number of unemployed. During the Second World War, when every available resource was brought into use, accurate statistics were an essential tool for the War Cabinet. In the post-war years, when we found ourselves desperately short of foreign exchange while still running what was at that time a reserve currency and a sizeable empire, the statistical record of our foreign exchange and the balance of payments was just as vital as it had been during the war. The Central Statistical Office performed its function admirably throughout those difficult times.
However, it now appears that the statistical system is not functioning as well as it once did. I quote two examples. The first concerns the records of our visible trade. The 1990 edition of the Pink Book on the balance of payments, which is the most recent edition, shows 1989 exports fob at £93 billion and imports cif at £117 billion, in rounded figures. I have for some years had doubts about the accuracy of this table, for 238 reasons which are explained in the notes in the opening pages of the Pink Book. These show that the figures are calculated on the basis of returns made by importers and exporters; but the basis on which these returns are made is different.
Importers must present their documents before Customs clearance of the goods, whereas exporters, if they use the simplified clearance procedure, may send documents to the Customs within 14 days of shipment. It is stated in the foreword to this publication that:There may be rather less accuracy in the valuation of exports than in the valuation of imports".It is also stated that,the margin of error in the estimates for visible trade is probably very small, although probably significant in relation to the visible balance".I take this official explanation to mean that the percentage figure is small but that the numbers are large.
In the table a figure of more than £1 billion for the year in question—more than 1 per cent.—appears as what is called a "net adjustment for recording exports". It is not clear to me why it is a figure of 1 per cent. It might be 5 per cent. or it might be 10 per cent. But the difficulties are very evident. We have an effective, compulsory figure for recording imports, and a much less water-tight system for recording exports. I suggest that this difference of system must cast some doubt on the reliability of the series. For example, how is it possible to estimate accurately the considerable volume of merchandise which now leaves the country in the personal baggage of a traveller by air or in a car? Yet the figures which we read each month showing a substantial deficit on the nation's visible trade may well be a considerable exaggeration.
More serious, and much better known, are the problems with the balance of payments statistics—a matter already alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. It has attracted more attention because the figures for the balancing item are embarrassingly large. The edition of the Pink Book from which I have already quoted shows a deficit for 1989 in our balance of payments of the enormous figure of £19 billion, with a balancing item of no less than £15 billion. In other words, three-quarters of the deficit is not accounted for.
The foreword acknowledges the problem and tells us of various steps being taken to identify transfers, investments and credits which have somehow escaped the statistical net. We are also reminded that in March 1990 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the present Prime Minister, announced a new programme to accelerate improvements to our statistics. This programme is to include a radical review of the balance of payments figures: and that, indeed, is surely called for. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how this review is progressing and when we can expect some results. It is clearly unsatisfactory that a major statistical series should be eroded, as this basic series of figures appears to have been in recent years.
On reflection, I suggest that it is hardly surprising that difficulties of this kind should arise. The recording of the movement of goods and payment for 239 them, on the scale of 40 years ago, was not perhaps a particularly exacting or complicated task; but a number of factors have now entered the scene to make this a much more difficult exercise. First, there is the rapid growth of the services sector of our economy, operating on an international scale, and the decline of our manufacturing industry. Secondly, there is the round-the-clock global financial trading system in which the City of London plays a large part. These two factors make it difficult to capture the result in statistical terms. I sometimes wonder whether it may be impossible to do so in the complete way which was achieved in the more regulated financial system of the immediate post-war period. Nevertheless, improvement is long overdue and I hope that we shall see this shortly if the Government are not to find the making of basic decisions even more difficult than it normally is.
Meanwhile, I suggest that the two series I have referred to should be treated with some caution. In particular, the balance of payments figures no longer present the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the hard evidence on which the Treasury used to rely. They are as difficult to interpret as the various monetary indices about which there has been so much discussion; but we do need better balance of payments figures as there is really no substitute for them.
My personal suggestion to those involved in the management of our domestic economy is that we might do well to pay more attention to more elementary figures, such as the size of the fiduciary issue and the velocity of currency in circulation. Those figures are much used in less developed countries as being cruder and less sophisticated measurements. They are, nevertheless, measurements in simple terms of what is happening now rather than constructed numbers which emerge in the monetary figures and which may or may not tell you much about what will happen next.
I should like to make one specific suggestion about statistics which I made in the House on 27th February during the debate on an Unstarred Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. The debate concerned the situation of children in this country. I referred to the need to publish data to enable us to monitor the situation of children. I speak on this matter as someone involved in the British National Committee of UNICEF. The plan of action adopted by the Children's Summit promoted by UNICEF and held in New York last September contained a fairly precise commitment on this subject to which the participants, including our own Prime Minister, agreed. The Government are no doubt considering how to carry out this suggestion. In the debate to which I referred I suggested that the Government might find it useful in looking at our statistics on children to examine what has been done in the International Child Development Centre in Florence, which is part of the UNICEF organisation and possesses the fullest knowledge of international statistics on this subject. The noble Viscount, Lord 240 Astor, in replying to the debate did not mention my suggestion. I hope I may be forgiven for repeating it on this occasion.
To conclude, I believe that our national statistics require some urgent attention and action by the Government. Unlike some noble Lords who spoke earlier in the debate I pay rather more attention to the external circumstances which make the gathering and analysis of statistics more difficult at the present time. Nevertheless, I believe that more needs to be done if we are to have adequate tools for the taking of sound financial decisions and for the information of the public in general.
§ 6.57 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, emphasised the necessity for the people at large and their representatives to have adequate and, as far as possible, reasonably accurate statistical information about various facets of our society. In a democracy, where the people at large and their representatives are supposed to make judgments as to various aspects of the society in which they live and the actions of governments in dealing with the many problems with which all governments must deal, it is vitally necessary that accurate statistics, accompanied by adequate verbal qualifications of those statistics and verbal titles, should be made available to the public.
I shall not repeat many of the admirable observations made by my noble friend Lord Donoughue in introducing the debate. I should like to give one or two examples where in my view the official statistics have fallen far short of the degree of accuracy in expressing a true and fair view of events, whether economic or social, which is necessary for objective judgments to be made. I give one example which I have had the pleasure of raising before in the House. I refer to unemployment.
According to the official figures for January of this year, unemployment in the United Kingdom was 1,959,747 and as the headline figure, is what appears in the press. I say the "headline" figure, because of course it is not purely the unemployed as such who are dealt with in the figure but also the unemployed-and-eligible-for-benefit—and the two are very different.
As unemployment rose in the early part of the decade an endeavour was made to minimise the figure by changing the description. As is well known, the economists and the Bank of England working party have emphasised that if the figures given in January had been prepared on precisely the same basis as they were before these 29 or 30 changes took place, unemployment at the end of January would have been almost exactly one million more than is in fact disclosed by what purports to be the total number of unemployed in the United Kingdom.
This distortion is bound to create an impression in the population at large. Unemployment has always been a critical political factor in the United Kingdom. In fact, immediately following the war and the publication of the Coalition Government's White 241 Paper, anything greater than 3 per cent. unemployment was reckoned to be intolerable. The appropriate policies which were outlined in the Coalition Government's White Paper at the time were designed to keep unemployment within tolerable levels.
So today the number of unemployed in the United Kingdom—and as my noble friend Lady Lockwood said, we are dealing with human individuals and not merely figures—is much greater than it is represented to be by the figures put forward and headlined. Your Lordships may also have been disturbed by a report which appeared in the Guardian on 25th February last to the effect that the Government were contemplating yet further changes in their definition of "unemployment"; and I quote:More than half a million people could be removed from the jobless count under a government plan to put the long-term unemployed into temporary work or projects in the community.The Chancellor is expected to announce the measures being prepared by Michael Howard, Employment Secretary, in the budget on March 19. The Government has come under increasing pressure to deal with rising unemployment, which will take the jobless total over the 2 million mark next month. This move on the long-term unemployed would reduce it to well below 2 million".The question I must ask the noble Lord—and I hope he will answer it—is whether there is any truth in the report which appeared in the Guardian and whether such steps are in contemplation. One can only hope that if they are contemplated an appropriate and widespread announcement will be made regarding the effect upon the figures, as distinct from the number of people who are actually out of work.
Further, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, in view of the census which is due to take place on 21st April next and which will employ temporarily for a period of two to three weeks some 140,000 people, of which about one-quarter are expected to come from the unemployed, whether the temporary distortion of the figures by some 35,000 will Be widely announced when the April figures come to be determined. I refer to the unemployment situation, about which I suggest the Government have been less than frank with the people of the United Kingdom as to the real nature of the number of living human beings who are actually out of work, as distinct from those who are claiming benefit.
The other figure to which I should like to allude has already been mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Manchester, and it concerns the low income statistics published by the Government. It is clear from reading the report of the Commons committee who are dealing with this subject that originally the increase in real income of the bottom tenth of the population, as originally put out by the Government, was 8.4 per cent. whereas in fact ultimately it emerged, after the figure was challenged, as a mere 2.6 per cent.—a gross error in the statistical representation which had profound effects upon the whole attitude of the Government and indeed upon Parliament itself regarding the amount of relief that was required by lower income groups in the country. It led to some 15 million people getting far less in terms of benefit in one form or another than they 242 would have received had the correct figure been published. I want to be fair to the Government and must immediately acknowledge that they apologised quite frankly for the error, and they made the appropriate noises and the appropriate explanations to the committee in another place.
I should like to refer to one other item which also illustrates the point that I have been making, and that concerns the retail prices index. That index has a tremendous effect on wage levels in the country, on social security benefits and other things that may be geared to it. It has a very considerable impact on the whole feeling of the country as to how inflation is going. At the end of 1990 the headline rate was 9.3 per cent. or, excluding mortgage interest, something like 9 per cent.
If one looks at the make-up of some of the figures that have found their way into the compilation of the retail prices index, one finds, according to the Public Accounts Committee in another place, that the method of collection of the data concerning increases in the prices of food, household goods, clothing and leisure goods has been left on the basis of a geographical distribution which was set in 1940. It would appear that the coverage of items, which is done presumably on a part-time basis by employees of the Department of Employment, dealt with only half the number of samples (some 200,000) that were originally anticipated. That means that we have figures which tell us that the price of food increased by 6 per cent. in 1990; household goods by 6 per cent.; clothing and footwear by 4.8 per cent.; and leisure goods by 4.0 per cent.
Like many of your Lordships, I do the shopping and I know the prices in the shops. If anybody tells me that the prices of those goods in 1990 increased by anything less than between 10 and 15 per cent., they want their brains examining or their sight tested, because everybody knows that these figures, on the basis of their collection so far, are completely false.
I return to another question by way of illustration only: the figures for the PSBR. It is ancient government folklore that the Labour Government in 1976–77 had to go cap in hand to the IMF to obtain relief. What was not disclosed until the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right honourable Denis Healey, revealed it, was that his own Treasury officials provided him with completely incorrect estimates of the PSBR that in 1976 overestimated it by £4 billion and in 1977 by £3 billion; and that had the correct statistics been available it would have been unnecessary to have gone to the IMF. Indeed, as the Minister is aware, the whole of the debt was repaid within six months.
I pass to one final point within my allotted time and it concerns the statistics likely to become available in the event of the single market coming into operation on 1st January 1993. With the abolition of frontiers, it will be most difficult to collect the figures. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, already has some reservations about the accuracy of our trade figures in the Pink Book, although I venture to suggest that the £15 243 billion discrepancy is more likely to come from dealings in capital—90 billion dollars a day crosses the exchanges—than in regard to the figures.
As I understand the position, when the frontiers come down the Commission proposes that 20 per cent. of retailers dealing with trade between us and the Community should be required to make regular returns, and that the rest of the particulars should come from the VAT returns of small traders. Our visible trade deficit with the Community at the moment is £8 billion. I am well aware that there are noble Lords on my right who would be only too happy not to have the figures, because it is embarrassing to have a trade deficit between ourselves and the remainder of the EC countries, but I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House and the country, apart from the economists, traders and businessmen, would wish to continue to know how our trade on balance with the EC is going. I should like the Minister to give the House an assurance as to whether he considers the measures proposed by the Commission will meet that objective. In the meantime, I believe that it can be agreed by us all that what is required is a statistical service completely independent of the whole machinery of government.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for bringing the subject before the House, but I must instantly disclaim any expertise in discussing it. I discuss it as a worried layman, sometimes rather surprised by the figures that I see before me. In choosing the phrase "Government statistics", the noble Lord chose a phrase which is capable of more than one interpretation. First, it might mean statistics offered by Ministers; secondly, it might mean statistics compiled ad hoc in departments in Whitehall; and, thirdly, it might mean what I believe was his principal intention—a majestic series of official statistics resulting from the work of the Government Statistical Service.
The standards of integrity one might require of those three types of statistics are not identical. One must in fairness allow that Ministers are engaged in the work of advocacy: advocacy of course is subject to its own restrictions. The one which perhaps applies here is the ruling of Lord Justice Darling on the misrepresentation of goods:The vendor of rotten fish need not cry 'stinking fish, stinking fish', but he may not cry, 'fresh fish', even though he knows his prospective purchaser cannot smell".The products of the Government Statistical Service (the official statistics) are a different business. They —if I may be allowed the phrase—should be Caesar's harem: they should be above suspicion. I agree with everything said about integrity by the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Manchester.
A question closely resembling that on our Order Paper was discussed by the fellows of the Royal Statistical Society on 6th December 1989. That discussion is printed in the society's journal for 1990. I read it with considerable interest. I found a deep and 244 widespread, but not universal, concern. Concern about this subject has been going on for some time. It was many years ago when Harry Campion was in charge of the Government Statistical Service, when he is said to have received a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying,The figures you have sent me on the balance of payments are not compatible with Government policy. Recalculate".Fortunately, in those days the Government Statistical Service was not subject to the Treasury. So there is nothing new about there being concern. The question that the Royal Statistical Society was addressing was whether that concern was growing, and whether there was reason for it to grow. That meeting revealed a widespread, deep, but, as I say, not universal, unease. I read that division of opinion, and unlike the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I felt that I must be deterred from partisanship. I turned to the Englishman's instinctive urge to look for an umpire. I therefore decided to give particular weight to contributions made by fellows of the society who lived outside the British Isles. I found among them a widespread anxiety that there was less confidence in British official statistics than there had been previously. The representative of the International Statistical Institute, for example, observed:In my work at the International Statistical Institute (ISI) I come into contact with statisticians throughout the world, and I have been concerned to note a growing unease about British official statistics. This unease focuses on two issues: a lack of independence of the British government statisticians, and a restrictive—even narrow—definition of their role and responsibilities by the statisticians themselves".I took that for an umpire's verdict.
The other anxiety which was universal among foreign statisticians was over the need for greater autonomy in the British service. It is something that Ministers might find in their own interests to take on board, because at present the final decisions about which statistics are collected are the responsibility of Ministers. Inevitably, Ministers occasionally change statistics in ways which, no doubt coincidentally, happen to be to their own advantage. On such an occasion, because they have acted as judge and party in their own cause, they cannot clear themselves from suspicion, which may well be unjustified. If they allowed a greater degree of autonomy to the service, they would find that they might be able to have changes in the statistics, where there is sometimes a good case for it, without incurring the same lack of confidence.
The other matter which seemed to be causing general concern, which has been mentioned several times tonight, is the Rayner Report, and, in particular, its insistence that statistics should be collected for the benefit of the Government. The interaction between the Rayner principle—that statistics are collected for the benefit of the Government—and the service's lack of autonomy (giving Ministers choice over what statistics are collected) has created a multiplier effect which has compounded the lack of confidence in Government statistics, especially when that has been combined with cuts, described by Sir John Boreham, 245 recently in charge of the service, as cuts of 25 per cent. in six years. They must inevitably have served to diminish efficiency by my definition.
We have heard a great deal tonight about the retail prices index. There are two views on it and I was interested to note those which the CBI circulated this month, for example, that there is a case for excluding mortgage interest. The problem here is that we may want two series of statistics. Which are the right statistics depends on the question to which one wishes to know the answer. If we wish to know the underlying rate of inflation, the inclusion of mortgage interest probably does not help. If we wish to know what the old cost of living index was designed to show—what it actually costs to live—then the inclusion of mortgage interest is clearly vital. Here is a case for two series. However, if the Government are left to change the method of calculation in a way which makes the retail prices index look as though it were increasing more slowly than it appeared to before, then they will have again laid themselves open to a suspicion which may be unjustified.
The same point applies to the unemployment figures on which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. dwelt. My figures differ from those of the noble Lord because, as he correctly pointed out, he used the headline figures and I am using the seasonally adjusted figures. The seasonally adjusted figures for January 1991 are 1,188,500—that is 6.6 per cent. On the figures calculated by the unemployment unit using the old basis of calculation, the figure came out tentatively at 2,890,800. That is 9.9 per cent. The figure is uncertain, but if I look at a Written Answer given to me by my noble kinsman Lord Henley last October, I can cross-check the figure through the income support figures. The Written Answer showed 1,216,000 people on income support who were not of pensionable age, not in receipt of a disability premium, and not registered unemployed. It seems plausible to suppose that a large number of those were out of work.
Here again, in this case we wish to know two different things. The link between unemployment figures and benefit has been explained. It is a perfectly legitimate link and the changes in detail are set out in the research note prepared by the Library of another place. They are not necessarily iniquitous, in fact some of them even look quite sensible. However, in addition to wishing to know who is eligible for benefit, some of us wish to know how many people are out of work. It is relevant that the Rayner Report, in saying that statistics should be collected for the benefit of government, entirely forgot to include the possibility of their being collected for the benefit of Parliament. After all, we are, at least in theory, still the sovereign body and like to be informed. There is also a vital case for informing members of the public. That case is known in other places as glasnost. I do not believe that I need develop the argument.
Other figures cause a certain amount of surprise when one considers them. For example, I believe that I am able to say without much fear of contradiction that in many places in the public services—and here I must declare my interest as a university teacher—there 246 is a sense of loss of money, of complete shortage of money where it is desperately needed. Such a sense of loss has never been encountered before in living memory. At the same time, we are told over and over again of large increases in real terms. So far as I can see from listening to friends, it is the same for those who work for the health service or in schools. My eyes tell me that it is the same when I travel on London Transport.
The Secretary of State for Education recently observed, as quoted in a newspaper on 7th March that today's schools are the best resourced we have ever had. One wonders how such figures are calculated. There is more cause for concern if these figures are true than if they are false. If increases in real terms lead to such a shortage, we have a serious problem which urgently needs to be addressed and debated in this House.
To take one point where the course is clear, in the debate on 27th February to which the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, has referred, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, gave triumphant figures for increases in real terms in sums spent on school books. However, every noble Lord knows that the price of books has increased a great deal faster than the retail prices index. So an increase in real terms in the sums spent on books may also be a drop in real terms in the number of books bought. Thus quoting these real terms figures diverts us from the need to address a problem which we must on all hands allow to be serious of a cost which is increasing a great deal faster than the retail prices index. We all ought to address this problem.
Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer of the Universities Funding Council wrote only a few days ago to a university principal saying, "As a mathematician, I think I may say without fear of contradiction that there are many ways of calculating an increase in real terms". If the way were chosen by an autonomous service it would command the confidence which, so long as the decision is taken by Ministers, I fear it cannot.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I shall have to be slightly briefer and more disjointed than I hope I would normally be. Some noble Lords feel able to pontificate on statistics but counting up to 14 seems to be beyond them. In thanking my noble friend Lord Donoughue for introducing the debate, I feel it is particularly appropriate to discuss the subject today because we have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the CSO. Although we may criticise it a little today, it has been and is one of the great departments of state and one which has contributed a great deal to the public life of the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said or implied that he was not qualified to speak in the debate, but he spoke extremely well. He was perhaps speaking partly as a matter of filial duty because it was to his father, who was Sir Edward Bridges at the time, that Sir Winston Churchill wrote the letter which led to the setting up of a proper and, let me add, independent Central Statistical Office. Sir Winston Churchill said that it was essential to consolidate and make sure that 247 agreed figures only were used. The utmost confusion was caused when people argued on different statistical data. He wished all statistics to be concentrated in his own branch. In other words, the original dictum that was laid down then was precisely the point made by my noble friend Lord Donoughue that the decentralisation of the statistical service may not be entirely appropriate for the needs of the Government or Parliament, as has been rightly pointed out, or of the community.
Perhaps I may also echo the remarks made about the Rayner Report. I thought at the time that it was deplorable, but chickens come home to roost. To say that we should collect statistics solely for the needs of the Government is to assume that the Government immediately know what are their needs. What happens is that they discover their needs later on for which they wish they had had statistics, but because of the idiocies I use the word advisedly—of a report like the Rayner Report, they end up without the statistics they wanted, let alone those that the rest of us wanted.
The essential point was made by several noble Lords, certainly my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington. It is that in a parliamentary democracy it is vital that we all have a proper factual basis for the debates in which we take part. In my view, that is to the advantage of the Government as well as the rest of us. I believe the Rayner Report was misguided. We have suffered considerable costs in our public life as a result of that report.
I am rushing through as rapidly as I can. We are referring to the quality of government statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred to the history of statistics in this country. We can go back to Sir William Petty and look through the whole history of statistics. Almost all the initiatives have come from the private sector. As regards social statistics, one has only to think of the Webbs, Rowntree and others. The original statistics of national income, on which people such as I have based almost all our work, were collected by such people as Bowley, Colin Clarke, and Maynard Keynes himself. It was only later that James Mead and Richard Stern produced the first official statistics. In saying how important government statistics are, I do not wish to underestimate the contribution which the private sector has made and which it continues to make today.
The best figures on expectations and intentions are CBI figures. If I really had time to launch an attack, I should launch it on the statistical service of the Department of Education and Science. Many of the best education statistics come from the National Foundation for Educational Research. Many of the best wages and salaries statistics come from Incomes Data Services Limited. We are not just talking about public statistics, but nonetheless those statistics are enormously important.
I wish to put this matter into perspective. I have prepared an enormous number of examples of statistical fallacies concerning the balance of payments, the way national income is calculated and the way government expenditure is calculated. 248 However, most of the good points have already been made and I am short of time. I hope that my following point will not be misunderstood. I do not believe that statistics are the only facts that should concern us. In my view excessive respect for quantitative measures can on occasion divert us from qualitative measures. In arguing the importance of quantitative measures, I hope noble Lords do not make the mistake of assuming that qualitative or other more impressionistic data are not important. There is also a danger—I have observed this often in your Lordships' House on the part of inexperienced speakers—of placing excessive reliance on the accuracy of statistics.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that it is vital to read all the notes in connection with statistics. I realise that it is boring to turn to the back of a book and read the notes. However, my advice to almost everyone who works in the area of statistics is to read the notes rather than just concentrate on the tables.
Wearing my educational hat, I should add that statistical education is not irrelevant to this matter. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the Royal Statistical Society. In 1990 Professor Peter Moore stated in his presidential address to the society:For those whose vocation is statistics and statistical methods, it is not enough to concentrate on communicating with others in terms of coded messages. It is essential that statisticians play a more positive and open role in championing basic numeracy wherever the opportunity occurs, arguing that it provides a powerful means of reinforcing communication and understanding … concern for numeracy and the concept of probability has to be accepted as part and parcel of a liberal education".I am sure we all agree with that latter point.
I now wish to make a semi-interpretative point as it is often easy to misunderstand this matter. We should try to ascertain whether figures purport to measure what they measure. I refer to the unemployment figures that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington mentioned. Do those figures measure the number of claimants? They probably do, but the problem is whether the figures, as measured, correspond to the concepts and ideas that they purport to reflect. One could argue that the unemployment figures do not correspond to those concepts. There is nothing wrong with the unemployment figures except that they do not measure unemployment in the sense in which one would like them to measure it. That is true of a great many other figures.
It is so easy to counter one lot of figures with another lot of figures which give a different impression. My favourite example of this practice occurred last year. My noble friend Lord Bruce asked a question about the ratio of exports to gross domestic product. He claimed that the ratio had gone down. However, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh—he is a master of this art—produced another set of figures which claimed the ratio had gone up. The point is that both noble Lords were entirely right. My noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington measured the ratio in terms of current prices. I would have done exactly the same. However, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh—I emphasise he is no mean player of this game—measured the ratio at constant prices. As the relative price of exports to the GDP deflator had changed in the period referred to, the two sets of figures gave entirely 249 different impressions. There was nothing wrong with the figures. Both were entirely accurate statistically, but they gave different impressions. One should not, therefore, put one's faith just in figures. One can master figures by all means, but one should look carefully at their background and how they are to be interpreted.
According to my calculations—I hope noble Lords notice that word—I have two minutes left. There are many areas where we could benefit from an improvement in statistics. The area I most wish to emphasise is the prices index to which my noble friend Lord Donoughue and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred. I believe the noble Earl, Lord Russell, made a slight mistake as he said there are two views on the prices index. But I hold at least three views. However, the key point is how a method of measurement can distort a policy.
One could argue—I do not claim this is necessarily right—that one way of controlling an excess of consumer expenditure is to raise VAT. However, someone then says that cannot be done, not because of the efficacy of the policy but because VAT goes straight into the retail prices index as measured, and, therefore, in the short term at least, it appears to be inflationary even though according to fundamental economics it is deflationary. That is an example of how a consideration of the index alone can distort policy. I could give many other examples of that. I for one do not believe that good statistics or improved statistics necessarily lead to rational debate. However, I believe that without good statistics rational debate is impossible.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for initiating today's debate on the quality of government statistics. Later in my speech I shall endeavour to reply to the contributions made by other noble Lords. The closing remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, filled me with a certain sense of trepidation. If the noble Lord has three views on the RPI I fear I shall find it very difficult to satisfy noble Lords if that position is shared broadly across the Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, seeks to draw attention to the problems that have occurred with government statistics in recent years. Inevitably there have been problems. I wish to deal with the reasons for the problems, and the Government's response to them, later. I suggest with great respect that the problems are not as serious as the noble Lord implies. Attention might also be drawn to the lavish tapestry of official statistics produced and published by this Government which are of the highest quality yet receive little publicity.
Attention has been drawn to Social Trends by noble Lords on all sides of the House. I have always felt that that publication is the best read in government. The collection and use of statistics by government in this country has a long and rich history dating back to the Domesday Book of William the Conqueror. In one respect the problem that faces us today is the same as that which faced him: what information is needed to 250 enable government to make sensible and effective decisions? Some 900 years later we can also pose the question: how can we collect information in a way that does not impose great burdens on those who have to provide the basic data?
The need for statistics by government has changed dramatically in direct response to social changes in the nation and to the role of government. Government statistics should never be collected simply because it is interesting to do so. There should always be a real need on the part of government for the information.
Governments of all parties in this country have favoured a decentralised statistical organisation with statisticians working in departments alongside their policy and administrative colleagues. We have all recognised the advantages that that brings; for example, being able to predict and respond rapidly to changing policy needs. It also enables cost-effective use of administrative and other information available within the department with which statisticians in a large central bureau would not be familiar. It also avoids the duplication between the central bureau and departments to which highly centralised systems are prone.
Some assume, I believe wrongly, that the United Kingdom is alone in adopting a decentralised statistical system. It is perfectly true that some countries such as the Netherlands and Canada have one single large office which is responsible for all the statistics within that country. However, the Germans have a regional organisation with a central office piecing together the statistics received from regional statistical offices. The United States, like the United Kingdom, has a largely decentralised statistical system. There is no one system which is right for all countries and just because others organise their statistical work in one way does not mean to say that we in the United Kingdom should slavishly follow their example. We believe that the decentralised system provides an extraordinarily cost-effective statistical service for government.
In a decentralised system we have to ensure that departments communicate effectively with one another and to prevent inconsistencies in the figures from different departments. The Central Statistical Office celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. I should like to add to the praise which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, expressed on this its 50th anniversary. It was founded by Winston Churchill to overcome just those problems and to ensure that Ministers had a suitable statistical service to meet their needs.
As always, some will call on the Government to spend more money and to increase the detail and quality of official statistics. The Government, however, have to balance the need for statistics of a given quality against the direct costs to the taxpayer and the indirect costs imposed on those providing the data. It is right to collect high quality statistics when the expense of such quality is justified. It would, however, be a waste of money to collect vast amounts of detailed information when more approximate results would suffice. There will he occasions, such as 251 the population census, when a Rolls-Royce service is required, but at other times the statistical equivalent of a Ford Escort is quite satisfactory.
Most statistics used by government are collected, analysed and published by the professional statisticians who, between them, have many years of practical experience. They have strong connections with the wider statistical community, through bodies such as the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute of Statisticians, and are held in high regard by their colleagues outside government. There is regular contact with statisticians from our European Community partners through the Statistical Office of the European Communities, plus active involvement in the work of the United Nations and Commonwealth statistical organisations. That provides a valuable forum for sharing experience and best practice with people who face similar issues and problems.
Despite that body of expertise and experience, statisticians still come in for criticism. That is not new. Albany Fonblanque, who was the head of the statistical division of the Board of Trade in 1847, was also a journalist who ran a newspaper called the Examiner in which it seems he was not always complimentary about the politicians of the day. Disraeli, in a letter to the Lord Derby of the day, wrote:The office of the chief of the statistical department held by Fonblanque, an imbecile as a man of business and who passes his official hours in writing libels against us, should be suppressed. It would be a delightful arrangement turning him out. We would save £800 per annum and when we read his abuse about us in the Examiner we would have the satisfaction of knowing that we had done something for the distinction".I am happy to say that the quality of Government statisticians is much higher today and members of the Government Statistical Service do not need to worry about being turned out of their jobs.
The Government Statistical Service takes seriously the need to produce quality statistics which are reliable and impartial. The Central Statistical Office, as part of its published aims, has a duty:to promote public confidence in the integrity and validity of official statistics".Sir Jack Hibbert, the CSO's director and the head of the Government Statistical Service, also has a general responsibility for the integrity of official statistics throughout government.
Government statistics are collected for a particular purpose but are often of use in other areas both inside and outside government. The Government Statistical Service has never sought a monopoly on the interpretation of the data it collects and is happy for others to take that data and carry out further analyses. The Government Statistical Service is completely open about its methods and aims to provide Parliament and the public with ready access to the same statistical information as is available to the government. In fact, the Government Statistical Service positively encourages academics, for instance, to use its data by providing them to the Economic and Social Research Council data archive at Essex University.
252 There are, of course, some constraints in publishing detailed information. It is, for example, important to protect the confidentiality of individuals, companies, and other bodies which provide information. The Government Statistical Service code of practice on the handling of data obtained from statistical inquiries provides guidance on what can and cannot be published in those circumstances.
The Government Statistical Service also adopts the principles set out in a 1985 guidance note from the then head of the Government Statistical Service on practices to safeguard the integrity of the Government Statistical Service. This recommends, for instance, that the publication of statistical information should be clearly separated from policy comment on those statistics. Comments and interpretation from elsewhere should not be passed off as originating from the Government Statistical Service. Often the criticism that the Government Statistical Service receives is about analyses done by others, for which it is not responsible.
Another accusation sometimes made is that the basis of the figures is constantly changed. In the real world we rarely have the luxury of convenient data sources which directly and unequivocally measure the information in which we are interested. The unemployment figures are a good example of that. In those cases associated administrative sources can be a rich source of information which we can use instead. The monthly count of the numbers claiming unemployment-related benefits, for example, is used as the indicator of unemployment trends and provides information on the geographical distribution of unemployment. The unemployment benefit system is primarily concerned, of course, with paying people their benefits. By deriving information from that system very detailed figures are regularly and quickly made available at little extra cost to the taxpayer.
A problem with that approach, however, is that that administrative system, like all administrative systems, is liable to change. To prevent such changes because they are inconvenient for statisticians and users of statistics is simply not realistic. We have to deal with the change and still ensure that the figures produced are not misleading, so two approaches are adopted. First, whenever there is a major change in the administrative system the existing series of figures is recalculated back to 1971 to show what the figures would have been under the current rules. That means that sensible comparisons over time can be made.
The second method is a labour force survey of households, which provides information on those working, the unemployed, and much else besides. The International Labour Organisation's internationally agreed definition of unemployment is used and the survey method is independent of changes to the unemployment benefit system. In March 1990 the Secretary of State for Employment announced the development of the labour force survey to deliver its comprehensive and consistent results quarterly rather than annually as at present. The first results from the enhanced labour force survey are expected in 1992.
Statistical systems need to respond to our rapidly changing world. A problem that will soon face us is 253 the collection of European Community trade statistics with the introduction of the European single market after 1992; though I am not sure from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, concerning the problems that he saw ahead that he was entirely sure whether that would occur. At present, the Customs regulation system is used to providing detailed, high quality statistics. The introduction of the single market will mean the loss of that data source. The Government Statistical Service has played a leading role in the development of an alternative information source linked with the future VAT system which concentrates on information from the significant traders. It may not be quite as accurate as the present system but will still provide the statistics needed by government. I believe the advantages which flow from the single market more than compensate for the small reduction in the quality of the trade statistics.
Developments in the British economy during the 1980's led to well-known difficulties in the national accounts. The Government recognised those problems and initiated an efficiency review of economic statistics, the results of which were published in April 1989. In addition to about 30 detailed statistical recommendations, the report also recommended the re-organisation of the Central Statistical Office, to add parts of DTI statistics, and the retail prices index and Family Expenditure Survey statistical work from the Department of Employment. That re-organisation took place in July 1989 to form an enlarged CSO which now has management control over most of the inputs to the national accounts and has started a significant programme of improvements.
In May 1990 the Chancellor of the Exchequer felt extra developments were needed and gave additional resources to the CSO for improvements to economic statistics. This initiative aims to produce better statistics on the service sector of our economy, to improve the quality of statistics in the company sector and to provide better estimates of the balance of payments. The first fruits of this initiative are already being incorporated in the national accounts and further improvements will be made as they come on stream. The CSO aims to reduce the discrepancies between the three estimates of gross domestic product and to produce better quality early estimates, thereby reducing subsequent revisions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, drew your Lordships' attention to problems with regard to gender. The fact is that we expand the social survey and figures concerning gender are constantly in it, but there are also pressures from other groups and interests as to what also should be represented throughout. However, her point is well made and I shall certainly draw it to the attention of the CSO.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester also quoted Social Trends and went on to say that tables had been dropped over the years. Tables have been discontinued but others introduced. I can say to the right reverend Prelate, as I said to the noble Baroness, that it may not be entirely satisfactory 254 but there are pressures from every direction for changes in terms of what should be included and what should not.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, for his interesting explanation of the history of the provision of judicial matrimonial information. I suppose this is one of the occasions when we cannot expect everything to be collated on every subject.
The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, questioned the way in which trade flows are measured. I hope he was not suggesting that exports should be piled up at the ports waiting to be counted, but I can assure him that the trade figures relating to goods are very accurate. However, as he and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, made clear, data on capital payments are more difficult to collate.
The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, referred to a devastating critique, but I feel that is a slightly selective interpretation of the document which he held in his hand. He also asked about agency and referred to April. I can assure the noble Lord that April was the original date, but I believe it has slipped slightly in order to ensure that the proper disciplines and freedoms will be afforded and will be in place when agency is achieved.
The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, also referred to what he called the Rayner cut-backs. I think it is worth remembering that the professional statistical input of the Government Statistical Service has increased over the period from 566 persons in April 1979 to 599 in April 1988. The noble Lord referred to the influence of the Treasury. Of course, the Treasury has an interest in ascertaining the correct figures so that I am able to answer accurately questions put to me in your Lordships' House.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, expressed concern about the lack of impartial advice to the Government about the RPI. It is important to remember that the Index Advisory Committee is made up of many groups, including the CBI and TUC, and it was that group which recommended that both a community charge and mortgage interest relief should be included in the RPI figures.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, asked about employment measures which might be announced in the Budget speech. I am sure he will not be surprised when I advise him that he will have to wait until the Chancellor rises to his feet next week. With regard to the noble Lord's remarks about unemployment figures and the census, I assure him that the Department of Employment will indicate the effect of the numbers if the impact is as large as the noble Lord suggested.
I have every confidence that the Government Statistical Service will continue to provide quality statistics as it faces the challenge of the 1990s in the same tradition of high integrity and standards with which it has confronted those challenges in the past.
§ Earl Russell
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he can give a fuller reply to my noble friend Lord McGregor of Durris. Tomorrow we are debating matters arising from the report which he mentioned. 255 The information in that report published in The Times to which my noble friend refers is sharply different on some points from any previous information available to us. Should not this information have been made available to the House before the Committee stage of the Bill?
§ Lord Hesketh
My Lords, the confines within which I operate are the same as those applying to the rest of your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, has to wind up and he has only one minute in which to do it. I had no choice but to go rather quicker than my normal practice due to the constraints of the clock.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I wish to thank all noble Lords who have participated in what I believe has been a very satisfactory debate. Inevitably, my introduction was one of skating rather generally round the statistical landscape, but all noble Lords made useful contributions, especially in the sense that they spoke from individual expertise and experience in a whole range of fields: unemployment, poverty, housing, balance of payments, the legal base and social policy. Taken together, the contributions constituted a powerful critique of the present situation in government statistics.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)
My Lords, the time allotted for this debate has now elapsed. Does the noble Lord wish to withdraw his Motion?
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.