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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 Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I have looked at the evidence, which is valuable and valid. I repeat the point that, since the ONS ended PRA to its statistics more than a year ago, only the Bank of England has followed suit. Whitehall departments still operate with 24-hour PRA as per the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008.

It is important that members see pre-release access in the context of the whole Scottish official statistics system and the unique role that statistics play in ensuring that we make the most of Scotland’s rich data sources and tap into the valuable information that is contained in our official statistics.

Of much more importance is having the statisticians with the right professional skills, the right processes and—critically—the independence to produce those statistics. If the committee legislates, it will end the independence that the chief statistician currently enjoys. I understand that the UK Government has not legislated on PRA: a decision was taken by the ONS, which is an arm’s-length organisation, to change the way in which it operates.

On ethical and trustworthy government, I am a strong believer in the ethical use and handling of data. This Government has demonstrated such an approach and continues to put that principle at the forefront of our work. In the recent programme for government, we set out clearly our commitment to the ethical use of data.

It is important that we reassure people—the public as well as members of the Scottish Parliament—that we take our responsibilities with data very seriously and that our actions need to be principled and ethical if we are to make the most of data, for the benefit of all. We are clear about our responsibilities on data and statistics.

Our long-standing position is that decision making on and responsibility for statistical matters, including pre-release access, is fundamentally for the professionals—in this case, Scotland’s chief statistician. We are not legally obliged to take that position, but we have made that call. The advice of the professionals who produce official statistics, based on their professional experience, is to have tightly controlled pre-release access, as per the legislation.

In other words, having PRA is an important part of the official statistics system. We recognise that that comes with responsibility.

A myth that I want to dispel, which the convener pursued in his speech, is the idea that pre-release access to GDP statistics, for example, gives the Scottish ministers a first-mover advantage. That is simply not the case, and to believe that is entirely to miss the point that others—the Scotland Office is one example—also get early access to GDP statistics.

We think that people who are in authority or who have responsibility for a policy area that is of national importance should be able to talk about new information with understanding, depth and accuracy when they are asked to do so, as they always will be when statistics are published.