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Pre-release Access to Economic Statistics (Committee Bill Proposal)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th September 2019.

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Photo of Dean Lockhart Dean Lockhart Conservative

Parliament’s ability to have equal access to information in order to hold the Scottish Government to account is an important component of what needs to be looked at.

The committee heard compelling evidence from a range of witnesses. I will not repeat everything that the convener set out, but a witness from the UK Statistics Authority made it clear that the issue is important. He said:

“why do we care so much about this? It is because, at the heart of what statistics are about, they are a public asset.”—[

Official Report

,

Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee

, 7 November 2017; c 23.]

He said that pre-release runs against that principle.

As Gordon Lindhurst highlighted, a Royal Statistical Society witness commented that five-day pre-release access to data

“is very much an anomaly relative to almost the whole developed world.”—[

Official Report

,

Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee

, 26 September 2017; c 9.]

In written evidence, the committee was told:

“We believe that ... privileged access undermines public trust in official statistics”,

which

“creates opportunities for figures to be ‘spun’ to the media or ‘buried’ beneath other announcements.”

Despite that evidence, the cabinet secretary refuses to recognise that the Scottish Government is out of line with international best practice. In response to his refusal to listen to that evidence, the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee has set forth proposals that are straightforward and represent a compromise.

There are three strands to the proposed bill. First, it proposes the entire removal of pre-release access for two categories of economic data—GDP and the retail sales index—as neither of them are covered by pre-release access at the United Kingdom level. Secondly, it proposes a phased approach to the removal of PRA and an independent review of its impact. Our idea, which we discussed at committee, is that the gradual approach and review will offer accountability in relation to the changes that we propose. Thirdly, we seek reduce to one working day the pre-release access to the economic statistics to which the Scottish Government currently has five working days’ access. Those include statistics on exports, productivity and non-domestic rates. The committee proposals will go some way to bring Scotland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

The minister mentioned that, when giving evidence to the committee, the Scottish Government argued that the ONS approach is an outlier, in that no other UK Government department has ended pre-release access. That misses the point, which is that the ONS is the gatekeeper to key economic statistics, and it gave up the right to grant pre-release access. The scope of the bill is limited to vital economic statistics, and does not make any stipulations on sets of data other than the economic figures that I have mentioned.

The experts are clear that the Scottish Government’s approach to pre-release access is out of step with best practice and the policies that are followed in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. In the interests of transparent government and democratic fairness, it is time to put an end to pre-release access. I support the committee bill to that end.