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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 Bill Bowman Bill Bowman Conservative

I could make my speech very short by just agreeing with what Andy Wightman said. I think that I have never said that before in the Parliament.

To take up the minister’s point about first-mover advantage, I say that information has a time value, and anybody who has information before somebody else simply has an advantage in such a circumstance.

I will go on to the main part of my speech.

As my colleagues have mentioned, pre-release approval is the practice of making official statistics and the written commentary that accompanies them available in advance of publication to specific individuals who have not been involved in their production. Those who issue the statistics may grant pre-release to an eligible person. In most cases, that includes Government ministers and officials who advise them.

In the interests of clarity, it might be helpful to set out what the bill would not do. It would not remove anything from the Scottish Government or its ministers that the UK Government or specific Whitehall departments would retain. It would not make any stipulations on any sets of data other than categories of economic statistics that are specified, and it would not call into question the integrity or professionalism of Scottish Government statisticians or other civil servants who work in the field of economic data or other areas of data.

The reasons for restricting PRA are overwhelmingly laid out in the recent committee bill proposal report. My colleagues have already spoken about those reasons. Among them are a number of preliminary positions, including the adoption of a default position of no PRA except for in exceptional circumstances; removing it for statistics that are deemed to be of particular national significance; and seeking a definitive end to the practice for all Scottish economic statistics.

The remit of the committee in exploring the issue was

“to examine the accuracy, utility and comprehensibility of Scottish economic statistics; to consider what data is required for effective delivery and scrutiny of policy; and to recommend where any improvements might be made.”

In fulfilling its remit, the committee considered a number of arguments both for and against PRA. For example, positions in favour of pre-release access outlined concerns that ministers must be properly briefed ahead of having to make a comment at the time when the statistics are published. That is because ministers are formally accountable for the statistics that have been released, and the practice of pre-release allows ministers ample time to understand the statistics in question and their broader impacts on ministerial portfolios.

For example, “Pre-Release Access to Official Statistics: A review of the statutory arrangements” was published in March 2010 and made the case that there was a “widespread expectation” that ministers should comment immediately when statistics are published. It also commended

“a central principle of good statistical practice—equality of access.”

That includes market-sensitive statistics, for which the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008 recommends a PRA maximum of one working day before publication.

The review also recommended that

“it would be in the public interest if all UK administrations amended their secondary legislation to adopt a maximum period of pre-release access of 3 hours, with a shorter period as the norm.”

That position was supported by stakeholders including the Bank of England, the Royal Statistical Society, the UK Statistics Authority board and the Office for National Statistics, which ended all 24-hour pre-release access for its official statistics on 1 July 2017. The national statistician wrote to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority board, stating:

“On the basis of all the information now available to me I consider that the public benefit likely to result from pre-release access to ONS statistics is outweighed by the detriment to public trust in those statistics likely to result from such access”.

The ethical dilemma surrounding that decision demands that we in this chamber care about how statistics are treated, because they are for public consumption as information that enables the public to understand the nature of the world, the nature of policy and the nature of the decisions that are made.

Although there are arguments for and against PRA, I believe, as recommended by the committee, that the practice should end. That is at odds with the SNP’s position. The previous cabinet secretary stated that the current arrangements worked well, with the pre-release access to data allowing ministers to respond quickly to stats at the time of publication in an informed way. However, after an extensive inquiry and evidence sessions, the committee reached its recommendation to end PRA, so I urge the minister to reconsider the recommendation, and the Parliament to agree to the proposal.