Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I apologise for this debate being something of a repeat. Members will think of it, perhaps, as the
BBC Four of parliamentary debates. We were here last November, discussing the twin topics of data and economic performance, and it was clear at that point that the Scottish Government had not altered its position.
With respect to the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, I note that her predecessors, Keith Brown and Derek Mackay, were nothing if not consistent. Whatever it was, they were against it—or, at least, such was their stance regarding changes to pre-release access. I hope that the minister will be more willing to engage with the committee and will consider why we have been pursuing the issue for almost two years now, although there have been times when I have wondered that, too. As the playwright said,
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Why, then, do we propose a bill addressing the topic? I will outline what we propose to do and why. First, I will address the “why”. Pre-release access, or PRA, is rather a niche topic and we did not envisage that it would occupy the time that it has occupied. What is PRA and why does it matter? It is the practice of making statistics available to ministers and their advisers prior to publication. The Office for National Statistics stopped doing that in July 2017, and the Bank of England followed suit.
In our economic data report, which was published in February 2018, we called for an end to PRA for four sets of statistics that are of national importance, including those on gross domestic product and “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland”. That was the majority view of the committee. The minority opinion, although more cautious, still sought a presumption against pre-release. I add that the recommendation was just one of the 29 that we set out in our report, the majority of which were accepted by the Scottish Government and others, including the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the ONS.
Why was our call for an end to PRA not agreed to? The chief statistician suggested that the issue had been overplayed. By some curious logic, it was right for the ONS to end PRA but, in our case, it was “not necessarily straightforward”. We pressed the Scottish Government on the matter in further correspondence and meetings, and the lengthy discourse can possibly be distilled into five words: ministerial benefit versus statistical integrity. I will elaborate on that a little, after which I will come to the matter of there being two views among committee members.
The standard argument for PRA is that it is preferable for ministers to be briefed in advance. Those who are in favour say that that allows ministers to make sensible and informed comments at the time of publication, so the practice has public merit. So far, so plausible. The counter view is that it puts ministers—whichever party is in power—in a privileged position and allows the figures to be framed in a particular way, or even to be spun.