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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 Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I regret that we are having the debate. The committee’s economic data inquiry focused on a wide range of matters. The only contentious recommendation was around pre-release access to statistics.

It is frustrating, because it is not a new issue. In August 2008, the then Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, Jim Mather, was in correspondence with the chair of the UK Statistics Authority over the draft Pre-Release Access to Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority was critical of the draft and the policy that lies behind it. I quote from Sir Michael Scholar’s letter of 2008:

“The Statistics Authority would wish to see a commitment both to a progressive reduction in the length of time for which privileged access is granted, as well as in the number of officials and Ministers seeing statistics prior to their publication. We would encourage the Scottish Government to adopt statistical policies that promote equal access, the earliest possible publication, and minimise the opportunity to make policy proposals and comments from advance sight of the unpublished statistics.”

The same statistics authority carried out a review of pre-release in 2010 and it clearly stated that it would be in the public interest, as Rhoda Grant said, if all UK Administrations amended their secondary legislation to adopt a maximum period of pre-release of three hours, with a shorter period as the norm. As we have heard, since then, the ONS has ended all 24-hour pre-release access, as has the Bank of England.

The committee’s inquiry revealed that the outdated 2008 order is still the governing statute for pre-release. Our convener cited some of the expert witnesses who said that pre-release must end, hence our recommendation. Those witnesses included the Royal Statistical Society, the director general of the UKSA and Professor Sir Charles Bean.

However, successive cabinet secretaries have stuck their heads in the sand. First, in response to the committee’s report, Keith Brown, the then cabinet secretary, dodged the recommendation completely in his response, passing the buck to the chief statistician to respond on the question of pre-release. That was spectacularly inappropriate, given that the chief statistician is the person to whom power is given by the 2008 order to authorise pre-release access.

Keith Brown’s successor, Derek Mackay, maintained his distance in a letter dated 10 July 2018, claiming that the question remained under the purview of the chief statistician and that he did not feel that it was appropriate for him to add anything further. In October 2018, Mr Mackay repeated the assertion that

“Fundamentally this is an issue for the Chief Statistician.”

That is misconceived. The issue before us, then and now, is whether it is right or appropriate as a matter of law that the chief statistician be given such powers to authorise pre-release of up to five working days. Our argument with the Government is about what the law should say.

In response to the committee’s direct proposals, Derek Mackay then took an entirely contradictory position in his 20 May 2019 letter to the convener. He maintained that it

“is a matter for the Chief Statistician” but in the next breath, he went on to suggest that he would tell the chief statistician that ministers would

“require PRA of only one working day for those economic statistics”.

If the independence of the chief statistician is so important—the minister for public finance has referred to it on at least two occasions this afternoon—that it prevented ministers from even responding to the committee’s pre-release proposals, what on earth makes the finance secretary suddenly feel able to tell the chief statistician that he requires certain actions to be taken? That is precisely why we need an updated order.

This proposal is not about this Government; it is not about the last Government; it is not about Keith Brown or Derek Mackay or the chief statistician; it is about the statutory framework for pre-release—specifically, should there be pre-release at all? If so, how much and for what purpose? Who should authorise such pre-release and in what circumstances?

Those are precisely the matters that are set out in the 2008 order and they are precisely the matters that the committee has been concerned with. They are precisely the matters that all those giving evidence to the committee have suggested should be dealt with by ending pre-release. They are the matters that this debate is about. They are the matters that ministers should pay far closer attention to and they are the matters that members who are here this afternoon should pay careful attention to.

A government spokesman is quoted in

The Herald newspaper today as follows:

“Pre-release access is consistent with the Code of Practice for Statistics which states that it should be in line with the rules and principles set out in legislation.”

That is a statement of nothing. The Government is basically saying, “We need to abide by the law.” Of course it does. The spokesman is quoted further as saying:

“Indeed, UK Government Departments provide pre-release access to their statistics in a similar way to the Scottish Government.”

That is nonsense—that is rubbish. The UK pre-release order grants PRA for a maximum of 24 hours, not five days. The spokesman continues:

“Pre-release access is a matter for the Chief Statistician and the independence of his role is crucial. Any proposal to curtail access would cut across his ability to ensure the key figures about Scotland are properly communicated and understood.”

That is another meaningless and completely erroneous statement because the minister is telling the chief statistician what to do in response to our report in order to avoid the need to introduce other secondary legislation.

The committee’s proposal does not even go as far as the recommendations of experts. It does not even go as far as the committee’s own recommendations in its economic data report. This is such a modest proposal that no member—far less a Government minister—should have any difficulty supporting it if they believe in good governance and transparency. The way to ensure that is for the minister to introduce a statutory instrument that would amend, in a modest way, the 2008 order. The instrument would fly through the committee. I cannot speak for other committee members but I am pretty sure that if the instrument satisfied the committee’s recommendations, the committee would have no problem with it.

Ministers are fond of coming to the chamber to tell us that this or that policy is world leading, but this one certainly is not. The most sensible thing for the minister to do is to concede that pre-release access is not best practice, follow the advice and recommendations of the country’s leading statistics experts and commit to ending pre-release access.