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I thank the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for its investigations into pre-release access. The Scottish Labour Party will support the committee’s bid to introduce a committee bill to address the anomalies regarding pre-release access to statistics.
It is clear that pre-release access puts the Government in a position to spin statistics to their best advantage, which can cause confusion and undermine public trust in the system. Often, on the day that statistics are released, we get a commentary from the Government that puts a gloss on them that is not reflected in the statistics themselves. The following day, after Opposition parties, the press and the rest of Scotland have had a look at the statistics, the garden is not quite so rosy.
Pre-release access happens with regard to statistics on both devolved and reserved issues. PRA on reserved issue statistics is not affected by the bill that the committee proposes, but it is worth noting that they are pre-released a maximum of 24 hours in advance, while some statistics on devolved issues are pre-released five or more days in advance.
For those who receive pre-released statistics, the benefits are clear. They know what is in the report in advance, allowing them time to either bury bad news or spin the findings. It allows them to accentuate good news and mitigate the bad. However, parliamentarians and the press are left behind trying to assess the data while the Government is already setting the scene.
If we follow press coverage of some data releases, we can see that, on the day that data is released, the media highlights what is good about the statistics—what the Government wants to be highlighted—and, the day after, the coverage is much less positive. The minister said that the Government is often asked to comment on statistics very quickly after they are released but, at the moment, the Government has its comment already prepared. That leads to mixed messages and public confusion, and undermines public confidence. How can the public believe what they are told when the same statistics give very different stories on different days? Ending PRA would mean that a more realistic analysis of the statistics was in the public domain. People would clearly see the pros and cons together and be much better informed as a result.
In 2017, the committee expressed a view that the Scottish Government’s pre-release access to economic statistics should end, but the Government made it clear that it would not act on that recommendation. That decision instigated a second committee report, which proposes a committee bill to end PRA.
The bill would not stop all PRA. A modest change is proposed. As stated by others, there would be three strands to the bill. First, PRA would be entirely removed for only two specific categories of statistics. Secondly, that removal would be phased in and be independently reviewed. Thirdly, for economic statistics, five working days’ PRA is currently the maximum; the proposed bill would reduce that to one working day. That would pull Scottish PRA into line with the rest of the UK. The Scottish Government does not dispute that part, but it disputes the fact that we need to legislate for it. I do not understand why that change cannot be enshrined in legislation.