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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 Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I thank the clerks and SPICe for their kind assistance in providing useful and important background on the topic. As a new member of the committee, I was not part of the build-up to this exciting debate. However, I have had a look at the issues that have arisen since the committee published its report, “How To Make Data Count: Improving The Quality And Coverage Of Our Economic Statistics”, in February 2018.

There are differences of opinion, as we heard today, which makes this debate a wee bit unusual. Committee bill proposals usually emerge from a united front. As I understand it, there have been only seven committee bills to date, and they dealt with regulatory matters or established commissioner posts. The proposal that we consider is quite different.

I commend members on both sides of the debate for their thoughtful and, at times, robust contributions. At the heart of the debate is whether the Government should continue to be afforded pre-release access to certain statistical information.

The committee’s view and proposals—agreed to by majority—are set out in its report of 6 June. The committee proposes that pre-release access to statistics be removed entirely for Scottish GDP and retail sales figures, with a subsequent review of the impact of the change, and that PRA be reduced from five days to one day for statistics for which a five-day PRA arrangement is currently in place.

The justification for the proposed approach is that all statistics are public assets—as many members said during today’s debate—which should be equally available to all people, rather than available to some and not others, which potentially gives first-mover advantage to the people who get them early and, ultimately, risks generating public scepticism about the credibility of the statistics.

The counterarguments are that PRA is a long-established practice, which is determined and controlled independently by the chief statistician; that PRA is an essential part of the support that is afforded to ministers, whatever Government is in power, to enable them to offer informed comment on statistics that are released; and that PRA is enjoyed by and will continue to be available to the Scotland Office and UK Whitehall departments.

The role of the chief statistician in helping to resolve the issue could be crucial. As I understand it, the 2008 order specifies the rules and principles that relate to the granting of PRA, including who gets access and when. It is the responsibility of the independent chief statistician to apply those rules and principles appropriately; he decides who gets advance sight of statistics.

The chief statistician gave his view at a meeting of the committee in November 2017. He said that

“There are much more important issues”,—[

Official Report

,

Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee

, 14 November 2017; c 33.]

and he gave examples, which included data handling, security and establishing a culture of independence for his function. However, the issues remain, and evidence of concerns was given in today’s debate.

I will give a flavour of one or two of the important contributions that members have made. Our convener, Gordon Lindhurst, opened the debate with a fairly comprehensive summary of how we got to where we are. He regretted that it is a repeat debate, in a sense, but said that it is still important to engage. He said that statistical integrity is crucial and outlined the pros and cons in the debate and, as many members did, the options that the committee has presented.

Like other members, he described Scotland as an “anomaly”. He said that compromise perhaps arrived a little late and argued that there is an external view that PRA should go, that many bodies support an end to it and that abolition costs nothing—I think that that was one of his final remarks. He described himself as an optimist and said that he knows what he wants, using a quotation in that regard.

The Government minister, Kate Forbes, opened with important comments about more pressing economic matters that the committee and other members of Parliament should perhaps face. She said that the cabinet secretary has offered a compromise solution. She made it clear in her opening remarks and in summing up that PRA is the norm and is retained by other UK departments. She pointed out that the critical independence of the chief statistician would end as a result of the committee’s proposal, and that view was shared by some members but not all. She said that there is no higher right of access for ministers and that ministers are expected to respond to the publication of statistics immediately. She said that Parliament needs to focus its energies on more pressing economic matters.

My colleague Dean Lockhart started off by telling us about FOI issues and the culture of secrecy that he feels is prevalent in some Government circles. He argued that PRA is contrary to the principle of equal access for all and said that statistics are a public asset—that is the nature of some of the statistics and the way it should be.

Andy Wightman made a passionate case for ending PRA. He regrets the need to have the debate, which started in 2008, when issues about pre-release and equality of access were raised. He said that successive Administrations passed the buck and that the issue is about what the law should say and whether the chief statistician is effectively independent of Government.

My colleague Gordon MacDonald gave a powerful defence of PRA. He is not convinced that the bill is necessary. He referred to the committee’s proposals and said that the Bank of England, which was mentioned several times, still has PRA, which is renewed every year. He told us that the Cabinet Office has rejected ending PRA and he argued that PRA is important for good Government, that none of the 30 UK departments supports ending it and that there has been no legislation on the issue since 2008.

We can see the ebb and flow of the debate. Jackie Baillie, speaking with her usual passion, said that the most recent committee bill was in 2003, some 16 years ago, and that the committees’ ability to introduce bills gives the Parliament more teeth.

Dick Lyle said that he almost immediately regretted joining the committee, as this has been his first opportunity to speak in the chamber as one of its members. He, too, spoke about the importance of PRA and of allowing Government ministers to do what he considers to be their job in representing their portfolios.

I am running out of time, so I will finish by thanking members and apologising to those whose comments I could not speak about. I thank members for highlighting the issue and for their tenacity in pursuing it since the report was issued.

Statistics offering economic data matter to us a great deal—we can tell that from today’s debate. It is clear that all members are keen that such statistics are handled sensitively, fairly and properly and in a manner that allows the Government to do its job, but does not disadvantage others who are entitled to question the Government and hold it to account.

From what I heard from the Government, it would be content to operate with a maximum of 24 hours’ pre-release access being applied to all statistics, which does not seem too far from the position that the committee set out in June.

There are some people who say that this type of debate is pointless, that the notion of replacing a clash of ideas and visions with a form of policy calculus was always dubious and that anyone still hankering for it should admit that their number is up. A statistician, or even a politician, can have his head in an oven and his feet in ice so that he can say that, on average, he feels fine.

I hope that I have given a fair summary of the committee’s views on the matter and of the important contributions made by its members. I sincerely hope that we can find a solution that will deliver a balanced approach to what is an important issue for the whole Parliament.