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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 Lindhurst Gordon Lindhurst Conservative

The point is that the Scottish ministers get access before other politicians or commentators do.

It is said that PRA enables ministers to provide a positive slant before anyone else can respond, thereby risking the public’s trust in the veracity of official statistics. The majority view of the committee sides with that side of the argument, on statistical integrity. Some colleagues take a different view, and I shall let them speak for themselves, but I think that it is only fair to say that they, too, would like to see a shift in the approach to PRA.

Such is the context of our bill proposal. I will now outline what the proposed bill would do. There are three strands to that: first, the removal of PRA for two specific categories of economic data; secondly, a phased approach to that removal and review of its impact; and, thirdly, the reduction to one working day of the PRA for those statistics for which five days is currently the norm. I will share the thinking behind each of those strands.

First, the bill would end PRA for two of the four categories of economic data that we identified in our original inquiry—the GDP and retail sales data. Neither of those categories of data is subject to PRA at a United Kingdom level. The Scottish Government would not lose anything that is retained by the UK Government.

The second strand of the bill would stipulate that the removal of PRA be phased: one day would be cut to 12 hours after one year and then removed entirely after two years, and there would be an independent review of the impact after three years. That review would be laid before the Parliament, and ministers would be obliged to respond to its findings.

The third strand of the bill would reduce from the current five days to one day the PRA for other economic statistics. As the Royal Statistical Society remarked of the five-day scenario during our inquiry,

“Scotland is very much an anomaly relative to almost the whole developed world.”—[

Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee

, 26 September 2017; c 9.]

In fairness to the Scottish Government, it wrote to us, in May, with a compromise suggestion. Mr Mackay said that ministers would seek a period of one day where a period of five days now applies. That sounded promising. However, when pressed, the cabinet secretary told us that he favoured a “pragmatic approach” and did not wish to make what he regarded as “unnecessary amendments to legislation”. We, on the other hand, would rather that a five-days-to-one reform be given legislative underpinning.

At this point, it might be helpful to say what our bill would not do. It would not put the Scottish ministers at a disadvantage compared with their UK counterparts or Whitehall departments, because the statistics that we focus on—the GDP and retail sales data—are in the gift of the ONS and, hence, are not subject to PRA. The bill would not legislate on any data other than the categories of economic statistics that are specified—for example, it would not cover health or education stats.

The bill would not question—nor, indeed, do we question—the integrity of Scottish statisticians. As a representative of the UK Statistics Authority—the guardian of the independence of official statistics—told us,

“They are genuinely highly professional statisticians who do an excellent job. I just think that pre-release access makes their work harder.”—[

Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee

, 7 November 2017; c 23.]

How is PRA viewed by the wider statistical community? The Royal Statistical Society supports ending it, the ONS supports ending it and the UK Statistics Authority supports ending it. Professor Sir Charles Bean, who led the 2016 independent review of economic data, supports ending it. John Pullinger, the recently retired UK national statistician, supports ending it. The list goes on. His successor, the former principal of the University of Aberdeen, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, supports ending it. In fact, in May 2017, he co-signed a letter to

The Times that described PRA as “outdated and unnecessary” and “detrimental to public trust”. The letter argued that its abolition

“would cost nothing but have the very welcome effects of reducing the opportunities for media spinning, improving the health of our political system and safeguarding public confidence in official statistics.”

There were 114 signatories to that letter, among them senior academics and statisticians as well as the directors of think tanks as diverse as the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Adam Smith Institute.

Nine years earlier, in another letter, the UK Statistics Authority had argued for

“a progressive reduction in the length of time for which privileged access is granted”.

It added:

“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 or comments from the advance sight of the unpublished statistics.”

More than a decade on, the direction of travel has moved even further away from PRA, and the Scottish Government finds itself on the wrong side of the argument. It can, of course, always change that.

The American poet Ogden Nash said:

“People who have what they want are fond of telling people who haven’t what they want that they really don’t want it.”

I can repeat that. [

Laughter

.] That might be helpful for members who are not fans of Ogden Nash or familiar with his works. He said:

“People who have what they want are fond of telling people who haven’t what they want that they really don’t want it.”

Members can call me an optimist if they want, because, after 19 months of trying and failing, I remain hopeful that we can make some progress today. Our premise is simple: we believe that statistics are a public asset and that they should be an aid to understanding the political and macroeconomic decisions that affect us all. As such, the numbers should be available on an equal and not a privileged basis, which is the purpose of our proposed bill.

I look forward to hearing from the minister, committee colleagues and the former deputy convener, John Mason—I nearly said “John Major”, but I caught myself.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees under Rule 9.15 to the proposal for a Committee Bill contained in the 7th report (2019) of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, Pre-release Access - Committee Bill proposal report (SP Paper 553).