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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 John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I am delighted to speak in the debate. As members might know, I was the deputy convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee when we did this work, but I have now been promoted to the Finance and Constitution Committee.

There is a lot more openness throughout society than there used to be. Freedom of information is now much more widespread, and we have added organisations such as housing associations to rules on FOI, and we might add more organisations in the future. Scotland has been good at openness, and we want to be seen as being at the forefront among open and transparent countries.

Therefore, it was not surprising that the committee questioned some of the conventions of the past, whereby certain people had access to certain statistics a considerable time before others got them. Public trust is a key component in this debate. No one is questioning the trustworthiness of statisticians or of the figures that they produce. However, trust in politicians has reduced, and what they might be doing during five days of PRA is the challenge that we face here.

We need to accept that public expectations have changed over the years; people expect more transparency nowadays. That point came to a head with the publication, in 2018, of the committee’s report on economic statistics. Paragraph 230 recommended that PRA should end, with the Government setting out how it would end it. That was the majority view of the committee. I held the minority view, which agreed that

“there should be a presumption against pre-release access”,

but left room for exceptions for specific statistics.

Although I do not want us always to compare ourselves with the neighbours, the reality is that there have been changes down south. The Office for National Statistics ended all PRA in 2017, at the recommendation of the UK Statistics Authority. On the other hand, UK Government departments that produce statistics still give themselves PRA, so there is immediately a problem with comparisons. Should we compare Scottish statistics that are produced here with those from the ONS, and so abolish PRA, or should we compare them with those from UK Government departments, and so keep some PRA? The situation is further complicated by the fact that some figures that are produced by the ONS for England and the rest of the UK are produced by the Scottish Government for Scotland.

I suppose my expectation was that the Government would probably be willing to move a bit in the direction of more openness and less pre-release access, and I suspect the committee might have accepted that, but at that point both sides dug in. The Government refused to budge and the committee considered whether to up the ante by threatening a committee bill. That was the situation on 14 May 2019, when the committee voted by four to two to move towards a bill, with Tom Mason, Angela Constance and me abstaining.

I add that I think this is a good example of the committee system working well. We all looked at the evidence and weighed up the arguments: we did not just vote along party lines.

However, things changed. On 20 May 2019, the Government belatedly agreed to move in the right direction—I see that Derek Mackay has just walked in; that is good timing—and offered to cut the maximum five days PRA to one day. I felt that that was what the committee had been looking for all along. Page 14 of the proposal report notes that I moved that the committee amend the main report to take account of the Government’s changed position, which seemed to be a reasonable course of action, but the committee decided to press ahead with publication by a majority of five to four, so we now have the report.

Overall, I think that the committee was right to use the threat of the bill to encourage the Government to compromise, and that the Government could have compromised earlier. Now that it has compromised, there seems to be much less disagreement between the two sides, so I wonder whether we really need a bill.

I accept that PRA, as others have said, might appear to be not the most urgent issue that we face, in comparison with budgets, life-saving drugs and all the other important issues that we deal with. However, trust in politics and politicians is hugely important, so anything that we can do to improve that trust has to be worth while and of long-term benefit.

The Opposition parties should remember that the rules would apply to them if they were ever to get into government. I accept that it is hugely unlikely that the Lib Dems will ever get into government—they are not even in the chamber—but the rest might think that they have an opportunity, so they should consider that point if they intend to support such a bill.