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I have only just joined the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, but I am wondering whether I have made the right decision.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this committee debate on the pre-release access to statistics bill proposal. A key element of producing official statistics is ensuring that they are properly understood by stakeholders and the public. Pre-release access is clearly an integral part of the Scottish statistics system and best supports that aim.
As members know, pre-release access is the practice of making official statistics available in advance of publication to specific individuals who are not involved in their production. That allows ministers and others to make informed comments at the time that the figures are published. So what is the problem? I do not see a problem.
PRA in Scotland comes under the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008. The order sets out the rules and principles relating to the granting of pre-release access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication. The order was made using powers in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which allows the Scottish ministers to set rules on PRA for devolved Scottish statistics.
PRA is a longstanding practice—it has been around since before the 2008 order. The “National statistics—Code of practice and protocol on release practices”, which is non-statutory and was superseded by the order, set a maximum of 40.5 hours for market-sensitive statistics and five working days for non-market-sensitive statistics.
The Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee carried out an inquiry into economic data and published its findings in a report, “How To Make Data Count: Improving The Quality And Coverage Of Our Economic Statistics”, on 12 February last year. The report set out the prevailing view and recommendation of the committee that PRA should stop completely for four specific areas of Scottish economic statistics.
The Scottish Government accepted a number of recommendations that were made by the committee in the report, but did not agree with the committee’s recommendation for the Government to end
“PRA to economic statistics which are market sensitive—including Scottish GDP, the Retail Sales Index for Scotland (RSIS), Quarterly National Accounts Scotland (QNAS) and Government Expenditure and Revenues (GERS)” and to set out how it would do so.
In spite of on-going and extended correspondence with the convener, Gordon Lindhurst, on behalf of the committee, it was not possible for the Scottish Government and the committee to reach a compromise over that recommendation, and here we are.
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work wrote again on 20 May, seeking a compromise whereby Scottish ministers would receive 24 hours’ PRA to economic statistics. PRA is still granted for statistics produced by other UK Government departments.
PRA is important for statistical integrity. One of the key policy objectives of PRA is to enable statisticians to manage the release of statistical publications effectively. The PRA period is used by statisticians to ensure that those who need to comment on the statistics at the time that they are released can do so on an informed basis without misinterpretation. It is better for ministers and others to be involved in the orderly release of official statistics than to be commenting on out-of-date or incorrect figures near the publication of the statistical publication, as that would be confusing for the public and could damage confidence in official statistics.
The public, Parliament and the media expect ministers to be able to respond to statistics when they are released, so ministers need to be clued up. I would expect nothing else. We all expect ministers to be aware of what is happening in the public services for which they are ultimately responsible.