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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 Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

I am glad that Andy Wightman agrees that the bill should not go any further and is not necessary. At the last meeting that he appeared at to discuss this matter, the cabinet secretary highlighted what he thought was a way forward that we could all agree with.

Strand 1 is the removal of pre-release access for two specific categories of economic statistics. Much has been made of the decision of the ONS in 2017, and the report states:

“ONS ended all 24-hour PRA for its official statistics.”

However, is that really the case? The Bank of England immediately applied for pre-release access for specific ONS economic statistics, and that was granted. That PRA access has been renewed every year since, including to the end of this year. The letter from the Bank of England to the ONS dated 10 June 2019 asks that the pre-release access period be increased in order that statistics scheduled for release on 18 June be pre-released to it on 14 June—four days early. The letter then requests further brought-forward pre-release dates in September and December 2019.

The committee report points out that

“the ONS approach is unusual in that no other UK Government Departments have followed its example.”

Indeed, a review paper that was produced by the UK Government Cabinet Office at the time of the last review highlighted that

“There was almost universal rejection of the idea of removing pre-release access altogether, and of reducing it to a maximum of three hours. Over 90% of ministerial private offices, over 80% of press offices, over 90% of senior officials and about three quarters of officials who produce briefs had strong objections to the idea of eliminating pre-release access altogether.”

As it pointed out, pre-release access is important for good government, for avoiding misreporting in the media and for helping to spot mistakes. That view is backed up by the fact that, since the ONS removed PRA in 2017, not one of the 30 Government departments or agencies operating across the UK have followed its example—not one of them has removed PRA from its own publications, and they continue to issue in excess of 1,000 statistical releases each year. Further, the UK Government has passed no new legislation in this area since 2008.

I will come back to strand 2 in a moment, but strand 3 suggests that PRA should be reduced from five days to 24 hours for those economic statistics where five working days is currently the maximum. In a letter to the committee dated 20 May, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work stated, in a spirit of compromise, that he would accept a reduction from five working days to one day

“for those economic statistics where five working days is currently the maximum.”

In a further letter to the committee, on 24 May, Derek Mackay pointed out that the committee would be aware that the chief statistician had

“already taken the decision to restrict pre-release access to a maximum of 24 hours for key economic statistics.”

Strand 2 suggests that there should be a review to assess the impact of the reduction. In his letter to the committee of 24 May, Derek Mackay said:

“The Chief Statistician will review the impact of my proposed changes once they have bedded in. If he is content with how things are operating then he can ensure that changes are permanent.”

One area that the committee report fails to tackle is the independence of the chief statistician. Pre-release access in Scotland comes under the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008. The Scottish ministers decided to place the decision making around PRA in the hands of the statisticians and to formalise the framework in which they work, which includes appropriate safeguards to reduce the risks associated with PRA. By proposing a committee bill, are we as politicians introducing an element of political interference in an area that is the preserve of civil servants? I would have thought that Parliament would agree that pre-release access is a matter for the chief statistician and that the independence of his role is crucial.

Scotland is facing a cliff-edge Brexit, which, according to the UK Government’s own papers, will mean increased energy prices, food shortages, price hikes, medicine shortages, impacts on employment, and the potential loss of markets for our fishing industry because of delays at ports, to name but a few areas. I am dismayed that, given the crisis that we face with Brexit, the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee wants to tie up parliamentary time legislating in order that a couple of stats are not released 24 hours early. The chief statistician has already limited PRA for all economic statistics to 24 hours, which the committee asked for, and the cabinet secretary has agreed that a review should take place, which the committee asked for. That leaves the remains of a proposed bill that would be so narrow in focus that it would not be a good use of parliamentary time.

As I said at the beginning, I am yet to be convinced that a committee bill is either necessary or required.