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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 Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I add my thanks to our committee clerks for their always-diligent efforts. From the outset of our inquiry into economic data and throughout the committee’s consideration of pre-release access, their input and advice, and that of SPICe, has been immensely valuable.

Our convener, Gordon Lindhurst, provided a comprehensive account of the committee’s work in the area so far. We have looked in significant detail at the whole range of economic figures that are produced in Scotland, and the question of pre-release access has been a common thread across that work.

The committee decided to take a further look into the issue in order to highlight what is to most of us an example of a clear anomaly. Today, we are reporting back to the Parliament with some sensible proposals for change, because the question at the heart of today’s debate is one of fairness and good practice.

In his introduction to the report of the 2010 review of pre-release access, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority commented that equality of access is

“a central principle of good statistical practice”.

At a time when economic statistics often cause significant political ripples, the issue of fairness arises, too. In several cases, pre-release access provides what is obviously an advantage to ministers, allowing them to formulate responses well in advance of release. Where the matters under discussion are controversial, that advantage also acts as a disadvantage for others.

Some have suggested that ministers are in a unique position in that they are expected to give informed comment quickly, but in practice that amounts to saying that ministers—and possibly, in some limited circumstances, the 24-hour news media—will be inconvenienced by a reduction in the scope of pre-release access. I would have more sympathy with that position if those considerations were applied equally to others. In giving evidence in support of a no-change position, Keith Brown commented that pre-release access ensures that,

“when ministers are called upon to respond quickly to stats at the time of publication, they can do so in an informed way”.—[

Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee

, 14 November 2017; c 32.]

I see that that concern does not extend to other parties that are involved, and I do not just mean Opposition parties in this Parliament—I am referring to the wide range of organisations beyond the Parliament that can be greatly affected by such releases.