Meeting date: Thursday, November 12, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 November 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Rural Payments Strategy 2020-21, Environment Bill, Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Rural Payments Strategy 2020-21
- Environment Bill
- Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Medicines and Medical Devices Bill
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23289, in the name of Gordon Lindhurst, on the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill. I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons, please. I call on Gordon Lindhurst, on behalf of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, to speak to and move the motion.16:01
Why raise the same issue in November 2018, in September 2019 and again today? Why, given the no shortage of other problems in the world, persist with a focus on pre-release access? Why, with a majority of our members in favour and a minority not in favour, pursue a committee bill? Why this, of all the battles that we could have picked? Why, to be blunt, bang on about PRA?
The answer is simple and can be found in nature. I do not mean fauna and flora and David Attenborough documentaries, but the nature of policy, decision making and public debate, the language of which is increasingly reliant on numbers: the higher and national 5 results; the daily hospital admission figures; and the count of red and blue votes in Georgia and Pennsylvania—data that helps us understand events and determine their meaning.
In his book, “The Tiger That Isn’t”, Andrew Dilnot says:
“Quick and cool, numbers often seem to have conquered fact.”
He goes on to say:
“No science could be more necessary, and those who do it are often detectives of quiet ingenuity.”
We, as a committee, certainly share that respect for the work of statisticians. We also share the view that pre-release access makes their job harder, as the UK Statistics Authority said during our inquiry. Economic statistics are a public asset: a guide to follow the political and macroeconomic decisions that affect us all. We believe that data should be available on an equal and not a privileged basis. That is the premise of our bill.
We are not the only ones to reach that conclusion. The roll call—I trust that everyone has their pencils sharpened for this—includes: the Office for National Statistics; the Royal Statistical Society; the Bank of England; Professor Sir Charles Bean, the author of a 2016 independent review of economic data; Dame Jil Matheson, former United Kingdom national statistician; John Pullinger, retired UK national statistician; Professor Sir Ian Diamond, current UK national statistician; 114 senior academics and statisticians who signed a letter to The Times in May 2017; the Institute for Public Policy Research; the Adam Smith Institute; the House of Commons Public Administration Committee; Sir David Spiegelhalter, knighted in 2014 for his services to statistics; Michael Blastland, creator of Radio 4’s “More Or Less” programme; Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact; Graeme Roy, director of the Fraser of Allander institute; and the UK Statistics Authority, which I have already mentioned.
We have not arrived at our position lightly, nor without exploring other options. It has taken three years and three cabinet secretaries to get us here. The tigerlemma of the situation—to refer back to Andrew Dilnot’s book—is, why does the Scottish Government not accept the view of the roll call of honour that I have just read out?
So, what would the bill do? There are three strands to it: it removes PRA for two specific categories of economic data; it introduces a phased approach to that removal and a review of its impact; and it reduces to one working day the PRA for those statistics where five is currently the norm.
Let me share the thinking behind each. The first would end PRA for two of the four categories of economic data that we identified in our original inquiry, namely retail sales and gross domestic product. Neither category is subject to PRA at a United Kingdom level, so ministers would not be losing anything retained by the UK Government. The second strand would stipulate that the removal of PRA be phased. Thus, one day would be cut to half a day after a year and be removed entirely after two years, with an independent review of the impact after three years, the findings of which would be laid before the Parliament. The third strand would cut PRA from five days to one in cases where the longer duration applies.
Of the five-day period, the Royal Statistical Society says:
“Scotland is very much an anomaly relative to almost the whole developed world.”—[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, 26 September 2017; c 9.]
That is one table-topping plaudit that I suspect that we shall not be shouting about. However, in fairness, the Scottish Government wrote to us last May with a compromise. It said that ministers would be seeking one day where a five-day period now applies. That almost sounded promising but, when pressed, the then cabinet secretary said that he preferred a “pragmatic approach”, not “unnecessary amendments to legislation”.
The committee looked the gift horse in the mouth, and I am afraid that we found the dental work to be of a dubious quality, lacking the bite of effective legislation. To quote Democritus,
“Words are but the shadows of actions”,
and we require more than shadows.
However, some may ask what is so wrong with pre-release access. Should ministers not have the opportunity to be briefed before publication? Is there not merit in politicians of the governing party—whichever party that is—being fully informed? That is the cabinet secretary’s position, and that is where the Scottish Government is comfortable and, dare I suggest, complacent.
In 2017, when the ONS ended the practice, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was: “Controversial Early Peeks at Economic Stats to End”.
More recently, the Royal Statistical Society wrote to the First Minister and cabinet secretary, stating its support for the objectives of the bill by saying:
“In our view, it is not correct to claim that pre-release access in Scotland is being managed in line with the UKSA Code of Practice. While it is true that the Pre-Release Access Order gives the Scottish Government the responsibility to decide on this matter, the Code is also quite clear—in its section on accessibility—that statistics and data should be made available to everyone at the same time.”
It cited a
“compelling case for reform”
and recommended that the Scottish Government support the bill.
In a debate last year, the cabinet secretary herself agreed that data was a public asset. She said:
“We want to make data publicly available in an ethical and transparent way.”—[Official Report, 19 September 2019; c 94.]
Indeed. Such is the rationale of the bill, so agree to it.
David Spiegelhalter—whose name I dropped earlier—says:
“There is great damage done to the integrity and trustworthiness of statistics when they’re under the control of the spin doctors.”
He deplores what he calls “number theatre” and the co-option of numbers for political performance.
Let me be clear: the bill is about economic data. It is not about health or education statistics. It is about—to distil the debate in a mere five words—ministerial benefit versus statistical integrity. The data on the pandemic has revealed something important: it has shown us that numbers matter and that they matter too much to permit early peeks for some and not others. The bill is about openness and transparency; it is not about the conquering of facts. It is about fundamental principles. It is about equality of access. It is about trust. It is also about the nature and quality of public debate.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill.16:12
I am pleased to speak in the stage 1 debate on the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill, which is a committee bill.
The Government has always been clear that data, statistics and evidence are at the heart of policy decisions. As the convener alluded to, over the past nine months, the value of statistics and data has been demonstrated as policy has needed to adapt to the latest evidence in ways that have impacted all our lives.
At the outset, I will address something that the convener mentioned and which is a question that has been raised by some external commentators about the Scottish Government’s compliance with the code of practice.
I want to be clear that the Scottish Government fully complies with the code of practice for statistics. As highlighted by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance during a previous debate on the topic, there is nothing inappropriate about pre-release access to official statistics. It is in line with legislation and is carefully managed by professional statisticians who are overseen by Scotland’s chief statistician. That was recently acknowledged by the Office for Statistics Regulation, which regularly assesses the Government’s compliance with the code of practice and legislation on pre-release access. Scottish ministers respect the professional advice that we receive. We support the professional statisticians in their view that the current, carefully controlled use of pre-release access to statistics confers benefits that outweigh the risks.
The Government prides itself on operating in an open and transparent way, and some argue that pre-release access is at odds with that. My view is that, on the contrary, pre-release access improves transparency, as it means that ministers are able to explain effectively how data and statistics have shaped policy decisions. The clear rules and principles on managing pre-release access provide a framework for professional statisticians, such that the public are aware that ministers are receiving early access for a legitimate reason.
During the debate when the bill was first proposed, the committee focused on the idea that PRA gives a first-mover advantage, and the convener focused on that in his speech. I want to be clear, however, that pre-release access is not granted solely to Scottish ministers. There has been long-standing pre-release access to relevant official statistics for, among other organisations, the Scotland Office, HM Treasury, Scottish local authorities, Police Scotland and national health service boards.
I appreciate that there are differing views on the matter, and I respect them. I look forward to engaging with members across the chamber—both today and beyond, if the bill passes stage 1—on the way in which the Government considers pre-release access to be important for informed debate and policy decisions.
The minister has mentioned a series of bodies to which statistics are released in a pre-release form. In a sense, however, that does not get to the nub of the problem, which is that there are classes of people who have privileged access to statistics.
The minister said that he believes that the Scottish Government’s practices are in line with the UKSA code of practice. Does he therefore believe that there is an honest difference of opinion between the Scottish Government and the Royal Statistical Society, whose view is that it is not correct to claim that those practices are being managed in line with the UKSA code of practice?
There is time in hand, minister, so that intervention does not impact on your speaking time.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I thank Mr Wightman for his intervention. On the latter point, I have clearly stated our position, and I appreciate the nuance with which Mr Wightman articulates his point. The committee is examining the question of pre-release access in principle, but it is incumbent on me to emphasise that it is a fact that those bodies also have pre-release access.
It has been argued that giving everybody the same access to official statistics at the same time is a fundamental principle of statistical good practice, as we have just discussed. I do not deny that the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008 confers an advantage on ministers, in that ministers and specific officials have time to consider the implications before others, who do not receive pre-release access. However, ministers have a greater responsibility to consider the implications. In its bill proposal, the committee admitted that it has no evidence that Scottish ministers have used their pre-release access to influence statistical publication.
The people of Scotland are currently experiencing unprecedented challenges to their physical and mental health, as well as to their finances and way of life. That makes ministers even more accountable, as there is a justified expectation by the media, the public and other politicians that we will be on top of the issues and will be able to provide informed comment and clear messaging.
In these fast-moving and unpredictable times, the vital importance of good, relevant statistics, trusted professional statisticians and well-informed politicians has been clearly demonstrated. At the point at which data and statistics are published, ministers need to have a good understanding of what are sometimes complex statistical issues. If ministers are not able to have a good understanding at the point of publication, there is a risk of misinterpretation, which could have a significant and damaging impact on public trust.
Evidence and statistics have been at the heart of the Scottish Government’s response to Covid. That includes the First Minister speaking about the numbers each day, which has built public trust in the numbers. That has been possible due to carefully controlled pre-release access to statistics and accurate briefing by the professional statisticians. That is why public trust in the Scottish Government to act in the best interests of the country remains high.
We should follow and respect the advice that is provided to us by the professional statisticians. The existing legislation sets out the rules and principles for pre-release access. A key aspect of that is our position that responsibility for determining the appropriate arrangements for pre-release access in Scotland should lie with the chief statistician.
We are fortunate in Scotland, and in the Government in particular, to have a highly skilled statistical workforce, and the fact that people who have strong skills want to work for the Government is testimony to trust in the process. By putting the arrangements for pre-release access in the hands of those professional statisticians, we trust them to safeguard the integrity of the data and minimise the risk of the misinterpretation or misuse of evidence.
I am proud to say that the Scottish Government plays a leading role in improving how data and statistics are used to deliver real benefits for Scotland and beyond. That is done in a responsible and ethical way that honours the principles of transparency, trustworthiness, and value.
We are in the middle of a devastating pandemic, with a disorganised exit from the EU looming. Parliament needs to focus on what we can do to support Scotland’s people, industries and reputation. As my colleagues highlighted at earlier stages of this process, removing pre-release access from ministers is potentially removing a valuable, managed and well-functioning process. The bill could be considered to be a distraction at a time when any distraction from the main issues at hand is unhelpful, and I urge Parliament to consider that carefully. I look forward to a thoughtful debate this afternoon.16:21
In its written evidence to the committee, the Royal Statistical Society’s opinion was that reform
“would be warmly welcomed by all those committed to statistical integrity”.
The RSS could not have been clearer that the current model of pre-release access to data must change, and it is easy to see why.
Pre-release access allows ministers early sight of economic data, and it is right they have notice in certain cases; no one is arguing against that. However, the current system in Scotland means that Scottish National Party ministers are given a level of access above and beyond what is necessary. In fact, SNP ministers can see official data up to five days before it is published, which is an incredible level of privilege for SNP ministers. As Martin Weale of the Royal Statistical Society put it, that is
“an anomaly relative to almost the whole developed world”.—[Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, 26 September 2017; c 9.]
The UK Statistics Authority goes further, calling for PRA in Scotland to be significantly rolled back. Its view is that the five-day period is too long and it recommends that the norm should be three hours, which is enough time, it says, for ministers to understand the data but not so long as to allow it to be exploited for political purposes.
It is therefore unsurprising that the committee, in looking at the accuracy, quality and coverage of economic statistics in Scotland, recommended amending pre-release access, and now seeks to do so through the bill.
The PRA period for certain economic statistics would be restricted to a maximum of one working day, which is far more generous than the three hours that the UK Statistics Authority suggests. GDP and retail statistics would have PRA removed entirely. That would be done sensibly, taking a phased approach: early access would be reduced to one working day initially, going down to four hours after a year, before eventually being completely removed.
The committee has been clear that the bill is aimed at addressing the concerns raised by statisticians. It does not question the integrity of Scottish Government statisticians, nor does it seek to intrude upon statistics that lie outwith the committee’s portfolio, such as those on education. Furthermore, an independent review mechanism is built into the bill, so that the impact of removing PRA for GDP statistics can be examined. If it is found that ministers require PRA, no further legislation would be required for them to regain it. The bill is to be welcomed, both for taking that measured approach to reform and for recognising the need for ministers to have early access to data.
Of course, we would not need the bill to reform PRA at all if the Scottish Government had not rejected the committee’s initial recommendation, thus forcing the committee to introduce it through legislation. Even then, the Scottish Government fought to retain its privilege, with every SNP member on the committee opposing the bill.
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance has tried to defend that. In a letter to the Royal Statistical Society, she cited the SNP’s use of data as helping to build public trust. However, that trust is eroded when, as the director general of the UK Statistics Authority warned,
“There is a perception that one set of actors—ministers—gets a privileged access that others do not get.”—[Official Report, Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, 7 November 2017; c 23.]
That privileged access creates opportunities for SNP ministers to put their own political spin on figures or even to bury bad news entirely. An example was the jobs figures last year, when ministers tried to deflect attention from the fact that employment levels crashed by 43,000 with news that youth unemployment had decreased by 0.3 per cent.
Then there are the “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” figures. Last year, Derek Mackay tried to spin a £12.6 billion deficit as somehow showing how strong the Scottish economy was within the UK. Alongside this year’s GERS figures, Derek Mackay planned to produce an alternative nationalist economic plan—an effort that would no doubt have been helped by having early access to the figures. The plan was dropped when Mr Mackay had to resign, but the current finance secretary did not even acknowledge the ballooning fiscal deficit and tried instead to spin the figures as being supportive of SNP policy.
It is the concern that official statistics are being used for political ends that goes to the heart of why this reform is necessary. Those statistics are not just numbers on a page; they are a public asset, and the public must have trust in them. Eroding that trust ultimately erodes trust in Government, too. We have an opportunity now to help to restore some trust in politics. Every member of the Parliament, regardless of their politics, has a duty to do that.16:27
The convener started by reading out a list. I will do likewise to make the point that all the experts agree. The minister said that we should follow the advice, so why does he not do that?
The advice comes from the Office for National Statistics, because it does it, the Bank of England does it and even some of Whitehall does it. I feel a song coming on. The UK Statistics Authority recommends it, as do the Royal Statistical Society, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Fraser of Allander institute, Sir Charles Bean, who is a former member of the monetary committee of the Bank of England, John Pullinger, the former UK national statistician and, of course, the Parliament’s own Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee.
All of them—august bodies and experts in their field—agree that ending pre-release access to statistics is the right thing to do. But—of course—the Scottish Government knows better. The ONS and the Bank of England have been doing it for three years and the sky has not fallen in, so I do not understand why the Scottish Government will not do it. It is best practice and it is the gold standard in the statistics world. It is about trust and transparency—facts, free of spin. What is there not to like about that?
Do not believe me, but instead listen to the words of experts. Ed Humpherson, who is the director general for regulation in the UK Statistics Authority, said:
“I regard official statistics as a public asset that should be equally available to all.”
He went on to say that
“equality of access to official statistics is a key component of the trustworthiness in a statistical system.”
Under the UKSA code of practice, official statistics producers must commit to releasing statistics in an open and transparent manner.
I am not questioning the accuracy of the statistics; I believe that the chief statistician and his team try to do a good job. The problem is the privileged access that is enjoyed by ministers, which is not in keeping with being open and is not, therefore, in keeping with the code of practice.
John Pullinger had this observation to make when pre-release was being discussed three years ago. He said:
“the public benefit likely to result from pre-release access to ONS statistics is outweighed by the detriment to public trust in those statistics likely to result from such access.”
As Professor Deborah Ashby of the Royal Statistical Society said,
“Quite simply, allowing a government privileged access to official statistics risks undermining public trust in those statistics as, for example, it creates opportunities for figures to be ‘spun’ to the media or ‘buried’ beneath other announcements.”
Heaven forfend that the Scottish Government would do anything like that. All those people believe that there is a compelling case for reform, yet the Scottish Government continues to resist.
This is actually quite a timid bill; it is the result of compromise on the committee. I would have gone further, but I recognise the thoughtful comments that have been made by some SNP former members of the committee, acknowledging the need for reform. It is therefore disappointing that the Scottish Government wants to continue to have a head start so that it can spin its way out of bad news. It wants privileged access to continue, and it is content for us in Scotland to be second best. [Interruption.] I am not sure that I have time to give way.
But then, of course, the SNP Government has form; it has had its knuckles rapped several times before by the UK stats authority for its misuse of statistics. We also had the freedom of information scandal and withholding of information. Now, many members across the chamber see the daily deliberate obstruction and secrecy in the Government’s dealings with the Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.
The SNP Government has presided over a new level of secrecy in Scotland—a culture in which secrecy is the norm. It is time to throw open the doors and let the light shine in. This is not a distraction; this is about the machinery of Government and it is about all future Governments, whatever their political stripe. It is about doing things in an open and transparent way and building trust and confidence with the people of Scotland. Let us make progress and pass the bill at stage 1.
We move to the open debate, with speeches of four minutes, please. I have a little time in hand for interventions.16:32
I am grateful to take part in the debate, as I was involved in the topic as deputy convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee at that time, and it is nice to be back on the committee for a spell.
The background to much of the debate was the committee’s 2018 report on data and the quality and coverage of our economic statistics. I think that it was my colleague Gordon MacDonald who pushed for that inquiry. Good certainly came out of it, as we have seen a steady improvement in the data that is being made available to the Scottish Fiscal Commission in particular and, in fact, to all of us.
Access to relevant Scottish data from the likes of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has long been a problem because it and other UK agencies previously seemed to think only at UK level and did not think it necessary to produce disaggregated Scottish statistics.
On pre-release access, or PRA, I think that the whole committee accepted that there was room for improvement in relation to statistics being released more promptly. Society generally has become more transparent; even the UK—a country that is not known for open government—has moved in that direction.
In 2017, the ONS ended all 24-hour PRA for its official statistics. However, UK Government departments have not followed suit, and there is a particular difficulty in comparing Scotland with the UK because different bodies prepare the statistics in different ways in Scotland and the UK. However, from my perspective, having five-day PRA for some statistics seemed a bit excessive.
I think that most of us understand that there is an argument for both sides. On the one hand, statistics are a public asset and do not belong to any Government, so they should be released as soon as possible, but on the other hand there is a danger that when stats come out, the fastest and loudest media outlets churn out nonsense commentary on the figures, and more considered and balanced comments that come out later might be largely ignored.
Pages 53 and 54 of the 2018 report go into that in more detail. The point is made that no one is questioning the “integrity” of the figures or of the statisticians who prepared them. However, there can be the appearance of something strange going on if
“one set of actors—ministers—gets privileged access”.
I confess that, as a general rule, I am more interested in reality than in appearance, but I accept that bringing appearance into line with reality is probably a good thing.
There were certainly differences within the committee as to how far and how quickly we should try to go in restricting Scottish ministers’ access to statistics before the wider public gets to see them. My suggested compromise, as can be seen in the report, was that there should be a presumption against PRA, but it should be open to the Government to make a case for particular sets of statistics being treated differently.
I confess that it was a bit of a surprise to me that the then finance secretary refused to compromise at all. On the whole, this Government has been good at recognising that it is a minority Administration that needs to work with other parties. However, on this subject we were getting no movement at all. I think that, as a result, the committee dug its heels in, to some extent. Then, fairly late in the day, the Government did make concessions. I and colleagues very much welcomed that at the time, and we felt that that could have been an end to the matter and that legislation was not required. However, others clearly wanted to go further, so we now have the bill and this debate.
I certainly support the principles of increased openness and transparency, but I am not really convinced that the bill is necessary, because progress has, in fact, been made without it.16:36
I will immediately respond to one part of Jackie Baillie’s contribution. There is no “secrecy” about any of the statistics that are part of this debate. The issue is merely who gets access and when. All the statistics are published.
Is it a question of best practice to remove pre-release access to statistics? If so, why does it not apply to all four types of economic stats that are mentioned in the report? Indeed, why does it not apply right across Government? I understand what the committee convener said about the bill being a compromise position, and Jackie Baillie might be relatively correct in describing the bill as “timid”.
The bill will bring some aspects of statistics in Scotland into line with the UK. Is that by coincidence or design? I do not think that it matters much. I recognise that a variety of statistics authorities—we have heard an exhaustive list of them—believe that pre-release access should end, and they highlight trust. That is a perfectly valid point, but what impact would removing the Government’s pre-release access have on trust and leadership? That is a question that I will not try to answer, but there should be some reflection on the matter, because good government is important, as is good governance.
Ministers generally do not comment on one single aspect of a report—not least because Opposition parties and the media will be able to see the whole report too, and can comment on anything that they like to comment on. When Governments comment, it is often in relation to making a commitment. Opposition parties, on the other hand, make no such commitments. There are such distinctions between the Government and the Opposition.
The next point that I want to address is the process by which pre-release access was removed from the UK Government. That was done by the Office for National Statistics. The ONS is an arm’s-length agency that has discretion to do what it did independently. It was not prompted to do so by any action of Government or by legislation.
The situation in Scotland is a bit different, but the chief statistician is equally independent. Part of that independence is discretion relating to issues such as pre-release. What impact does legislating on actions that are within the remit of the chief statistician say about the chief statistician? Instead of bestowing powers on that position, it will put handcuffs on the chief statistician by making them do something that Parliament has dictated. That is hardly maintaining the independence of the chief statistician. It would be perfectly reasonable to draw their attention to the matter and to ask that they review their current practice. However, I think that we all agree that this is not about the integrity of the Scottish Government statistician.
As the convener did, I will use a bit of Latin. Facta, non verba—or deeds, not words. If we legislate, it is almost implicit that we are criticising the practice of the chief statistician in relation to powers that he already has. We should urge him to use them, but let us leave him wholly independent of Government and—equally—of Parliament. It is difficult to support the bill as it stands, but it might be possible to amend it in order to maintain the chief statistician’s proper independence.
Let me stand the argument on its head. If the argument is that the Government should not be handed an advantage, then rules whereby the Opposition gets access at the same time, but under embargo, and whereby it is not able to issue any press releases until the release of statistics, would be another way of doing it. I do not think that the Government will necessarily thank me for saying that, but there are other ways of dealing with what is a perceived problem, which statisticians share.
Finally, I note that Maurice Golden trotted out the old GERS shibboleth. If GERS figures tell us that Scotland is not doing well, that is not a great argument for the union. Maurice Golden should think again about that particular argument.16:41
Official statistics are important in all democracies, enabling us to hold our Governments to account, no matter what party we are in or who is in power. It is vital that the bill is passed so that those Governments that we seek to hold accountable are not given the opportunity to spin their way out of politically difficult publications. I therefore thank Gordon Lindhurst, on behalf of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, for introducing the bill.
It has been a long time coming. A decade ago, the UK Statistics Authority argued that there should not be a widespread expectation that ministers will comment on data as soon as it is made available publicly and that equality of access to statistics should be a central principle of good statistical practice. Specifically, it stated that the five-day pre-release access period in Scotland was far too long and recommended that a three-hour maximum period should be the norm, as that is long enough to allow ministers to understand what will be published but short enough to prevent the data from being influenced, exploited or—as we see so often in Scotland—spun for political advantage.
That is evident in the spin that we have seen from the SNP in recent years—as always, with one aim: its obsession, independence. In 2019, the former Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work tried to claim that a notional deficit of £12.6 billion was, in some way, a boost for independence. Although Derek Mackay has faded into history and become yet another statistic of SNP shame, the reality was very different—and it is still very much with us. Scotland’s deficit accounted for more than 50 per cent of the £23.5 billion difference between tax income and spending across the whole of the UK, despite Scotland having less than 10 per cent of the UK’s population.
Just a few months ago, the current Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, did not even acknowledge the increased fiscal deficit, instead claiming:
“An independent Scotland would have the power to make different choices, with different economic budgetary results.”
However, plans to produce the economic case for independence have been shelved, and the question from my colleague, Murdo Fraser, still stands: how much does that exercise in SNP spin cost the Scottish taxpayer?
It was no surprise that all SNP members of the committee opposed the introduction of the bill, as the SNP Government uses the pre-release of official statistics to give itself time to manipulate the information to its advantage—as it did when it turned a 43,000 drop in the employment figure into a 0.3 per cent reduction in youth unemployment. It has to stop. The bill is not to disadvantage the Scottish Government but simply to place it on an equal footing with the UK Government. It aims to take a moderate approach to resolving the issue while not taking away from the SNP Government any pre-release access privileges that the UK Government would retain—although SNP members may claim that ministers need to be able to comment on important statistics at the earliest opportunity—[Interruption.]
However far education standards have dropped and however incompetent SNP ministers are, that does not justify five days of analysis. Even the Royal Statistical Society has said so and that the current privilege is an anomaly to the whole developed world. A minister said earlier that “pre-release improves the information” as it allows ministers to explain figures to us—that line is simply patronising. The Government can be better than that, but whether the SNP chooses to be better remains to be seen.16:45
First, I have to say that I regret the personal attacks with which the Opposition came in today on members who are not here and who cannot defend themselves. Those attacks were outrageous.
The public, the Parliament and the media expect ministers to be able to respond to statistics. When those responses are released, they are a key element of the production of the official statistics that stakeholders and the public properly understand. The functions of the pre-release bill will therefore hinder an integral part of the Scottish statistics system.
PRA allows ministers and others to make informed commentary when the figures are published. It is a long-standing practice that has been around since before the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008, which sets out the rules and principles that relate to the granting of pre-release to officials of statistics in their final form prior to their publication.
The importance of pre-release access is not only about commentary, which I will comment on later, but about an integral statistical point of view. Statisticians use the pre-release access period to ensure that those who need to comment on the statistics at the time of their release can do so on an informed basis and without misinterpretation.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I will not. The member lost that right when he started personal attacks on people. He will not interrupt. It is better—
On a point of order, Deputy Presiding Officer. I urge the member to clarify his statement. He has just made the serious allegation that I have besmirched the character of a fellow member, and I do not believe that I have.
That is not a point of order. Would Mr Lyle like to respond before he moves on?
They can give it out but they cannot take it. My comment was not aimed at Daniel Johnson.
It is better that ministers are involved in the orderly release of official statistics, because to comment on out-of-date or incorrect figures near their publication time would be to confuse to the public and damage confidence in official statistics.
I reiterate in the strongest terms that the public, the Parliament and the media expect ministers to be able to respond to statistics when they are released, and they expect them to be aware of what is happening with public services, for which ministers are ultimately responsible.
These times are fast moving and unpredictable. Time and again, we see demands on ministers to be informed, accurate and totally on the ball, which make ministers more accountable. There are expectations that ministers will be on top of the issues and will be able to inform, comment and clearly message at the point of the publication of data, and PRA is key to that process.
Time and again, we have clearly seen that the statistical evidence has been at the heart of the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19. The First Minister has spoken about numbers and has built significant trust in them each day—pre-release access made that possible. Statisticians place considerable value in ensuring that ministers respond to statistics in an informed way that is based on a correct understanding of them.
The quality of our economic statistics is paramount. Let us be clear that the removal of PRA would mean that ministers would have to give their immediate reaction to statistics, but ministers need to ensure that they understand statistics properly and interpret them correctly so as not to be pushed into a policy position that is based on a misinterpretation of the figures.
Without early access, it is inevitable that ministers and advisers will want to anticipate what the statistics will say. Although they could do that at any time, it would be clear that they were doing so without the advice of the group of staff who would be in the best place to advise them on what the statistics meant.
There is then the real possibility that ministers would end up saying that they were unwilling to comment until such time as they had had a chance to consider the statistics and take advice on the policy implications. That would reduce the scope for discussion and debate. How can that be in the interests of good government?
In the past nine years, time and again, I have heard members of Opposition parties request specific detailed information. Murdo Fraser is always asking for it. Removing PRA would sincerely hinder ministers’ ability to deliver on those requests—and, frankly, that is what the Opposition wants. As far as I am concerned, we should not limit that potential.
It can be difficult when we are in a hybrid situation, because the system does not allow interventions when people are taking part remotely. Sometimes, that means that things spill into the following contributions from members who are in the chamber. I therefore remind members, whether they are in the chamber or contributing remotely, that they should think about being polite about other members of the Parliament.16:51
Ben Macpherson said that the debate is a distraction. I do not think that it is a distraction. It is an important debate because it gets to the heart of the way in which the SNP Government operates. It poses serious questions about power, accountability, openness and transparency.
I believe that equal access to data and statistics is important. I will cite the example that I used at First Minister’s question time today. The statistics that were produced by the Poverty and Inequality Commission in relation to the Scottish welfare fund care grants showed that, out of all the local authority areas, the Glasgow City Council area received the lowest payments, with an average grant of £146. The statistics also showed that only 36 per cent of grant applications in Glasgow were successful, compared with Fife’s 95 per cent success rate. That information is important not just because it allows me to read out those statistics but because it tells us that people who are vulnerable and living in areas of deprivation in Glasgow are not getting access to the welfare fund payments that they require. It also tells us that Fife has a successful application process. That example illustrates how important statistics are in contributing to a debate.
I take James Kelly’s point, but how would the PRA affect those figures about poverty in Glasgow?
It is a fair point, which I will address as I go through my speech.
I commend the committee for introducing the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill. Jackie Baillie said that it is a relatively “timid” bill—that is not an adjective that I would usually associate with Jackie Baillie.
To address John Mason’s point, publication of statistics allows better interrogations and proper analysis, which inform the debate. That can allow Opposition politicians to better hold the Government to account and address issues such as poverty in Glasgow.
Ben Macpherson said that he thinks that the Government is open and transparent. When I heard that, I thought that comedy hour had come to the Scottish Parliament. The rest of his speech was very defensive on that point and was all about the SNP retaining power and restricting accountability—[Interruption.] Mr Coffey may laugh, but the reality is that, with this SNP Government, there is a culture of secrecy. We see it in the non-publication of data on Barnett consequentials relating to the pandemic, in civil servants having to be dragged before the parliamentary inquiry on Alex Salmond on different occasions, and in the non-publication of legal advice on the key Burntisland Fabrications issue. It suits the SNP to restrict the debate and to restrict access to statistics.
As we enter the 22nd year of devolution, it is time to end the sham and the secrecy around the publication of statistics. If we are a properly open and accountable Parliament, the Government should have nothing to hide. It should ensure equal access for all interested parties and experts.16:55
We have heard some away-with-the-fairies speeches this afternoon.
It is strange that pre-release access to Government statistics was enjoyed for eight years by our predecessors, who are now sitting over there on the Labour benches, and still is by the Tories in another place, but it is only when the SNP Government has the same privilege that it becomes a problem. What has taken them so long to come up with that? I think that they have been exposed by their points of view on that today.
It has been interesting to hear the different perspectives on a subject that could have been sorted out some time ago with perhaps a little compromise. Whether to continue to grant pre-release access to Scottish ministers to certain classes of statistical data, or whether to alter that arrangement, is not exactly up there in the list of priorities of the Scottish people at the moment. My constituents in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley email me daily about plenty of issues, but I am fairly certain that this is not one of them. However, here we are.
I have read the committee’s report, and I am still a little confused as to what its members wanted. Three strands or alternatives were suggested, with varying adjustments to the current arrangements. Perhaps splitting them up like that did not help a great deal, and the committee then being further split did not exactly lend itself to providing a clean simple view on how to take all of this forward. The offer of a compromise from the Government at the time may have been too late in the day and it seems that it did not make much of a difference.
What is the stushie all about? It is about whether the Scottish ministers, and presumably those others who get the same access, should get pre-release access to certain classes of economic data and, if so, to what data and exactly how long in advance.
The chief statistician has made his position clear: that pre-release access is correct and appropriate in order to allow ministers to make informed comments about statistical data, and that it is important for good governance.
Will the member give way?
No, thank you.
The chief statistician also said that pre-release access has been working well since the 2008 order, and long before it; that the Scottish Government statisticians manage it successfully and in line with that order, and comply in full with the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice; and that the notion that was led by some members of the committee—that there was a first-mover advantage for Government ministers and it therefore had to stop—had no credibility.
Others are granted pre-release access to GDP statistics—for example the Scotland Office and HM Treasury, which I think the minister said earlier gets pre-release access to GERS data too. Scottish councils also get pre-release access to some statistics.
I would hope that all of us, no matter what party we support, expect our Government ministers, whatever party they might be from in the future, to be able to speak with some clarity and authority about what they are being asked. In my view, being provided with statistics in advance on the economic issues that affect the country should not be seen as benefiting from an unfair advantage of some kind.
Will the member give way?
No, I have hardly any time left—my apologies.
It is part of the day job that ministers do for the whole country. People expect them to get facts and figures correct when challenged. The risk is that hurried statements, made with little time to assess the significance of data or the messages that it contains, can lead to inaccurate interpretation and ultimately may bring into some disrepute the statistics themselves and the process by which they are derived and released.
As I understand it, the Scottish ministers offered a compromise of restricting their access to economic statistics to 24 hours, but that was not enough for the committee at the time. It might have been too late in the day to get that through, so the committee decided to introduce its own bill—and here we are.
We have heard the views of members who want all that to change, but in the time remaining in the debate I would like to hear why the advice of our chief statistician is not good enough for them.
Of what benefit would it be to the public whom we serve to alter the current pre-release access arrangements, which have been in place here for the past 12 years—and, as I have said, since before then—without causing any upset to them? I hope that there is substantial and worthy effort in pursuing that. However, I will always be happy to compromise if that is still possible this late in the day.
With that, Presiding Officer, I will draw my remarks to a close. I look forward to listening to the remaining contributions and the summing up, which I hope will bring the debate to a happy conclusion.17:00
I am not a member of the committee that has introduced the bill, and I defer to other members who clearly know far more about it than I do. Nevertheless, I am pleased to speak in this debate on pre-release access to official statistics. I have to admit that I am slightly out of my comfort zone. I have always had a bit of an aversion to the word “statistics”. However, this is an important issue that has wide-ranging implications.
Official statistics must be properly understood by stakeholders and the public. Pre-release access is central to the Scottish statistics system and best supports it by making official statistics available in advance of publication to specific individuals who have not been involved in their production. As we have heard, the practice allows ministers and others to make informed comments at the time when figures are published, to answer questions and to flesh out statistics in an informed manner.
I understand that there is opposition to the practice—we have heard that in the debate. However, the public, the Parliament and the media expect ministers to be able to respond to statistics when they are released. It is important to say that pre-release access is a matter decided by the chief statistician, the independence of whose role is crucial.
In addition, as other members have said, PRA is not granted solely to the Scottish ministers. There has been a long-standing practice of granting it to the Scotland Office on GDP statistics, and to HM Treasury on GERS figures. It has been a well-established practice in Scotland since 2008. Such access is made under powers in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which allows the Scottish ministers to set rules on PRA for Scottish devolved statistics.
Pre-release access is important from the point of view of statistical integrity. Statisticians need to know that questions can be answered in an informed way that adds worth to statistics and avoids misinterpretation of the work that they have carried out.
We know that evidence and statistics have been at the heart of the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19. Members’ inboxes fill daily with messages from people who want evidence on the various measures that are being introduced to keep everyone safe. That is why statistics are so important. The First Minister’s full and informed daily briefings on statistics during this terrible pandemic have built up significant trust in the numbers. That has been possible due to the figures being made available through pre-release access. The public and the Parliament expect ministers to comment not only on statistics themselves but on their policy implications.
The practice of granting pre-release access is not about the Scottish ministers using their legal powers to obtain a first-mover advantage; it is essential for good governance, and it covers all aspects of policy making in Scotland today. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that the Scottish Government should change its adopted position on PRA, and it is certainly not an issue that should be determined by party politics. What is important is ensuring that the public are aware that official statistics are being produced and published by professional statisticians and that, in line with the code of practice for statistics, there is no political interference in that process.
I believe that the Scottish Government’s position on PRA is sensible and necessary. Now is certainly not the time to start making changes to it.
We move to the closing speeches.17:04
I thank the committee, not just because I had the pleasure of taking part in one of its evidence sessions when I was a substitute member, but because the issue is an important one. That is so not only because of its substance; committee bills are important, but we have seen very few of them. The ability to introduce them is one of the unique and special powers of the Scottish Parliament, but it is one that is seldom used. It is welcome that the committee has decided to introduce such a bill, and on such an important matter.
I admire the committee’s candour in opening one of the sections of its proposal report with the line
“Why do we care so much about this?”
Gordon Lindhurst’s response to that question was very well put. It is about the nature of policy and discussion and of today’s world, which is increasingly data driven, meaning that timely publication of data is important.
That data was important before the Covid crisis, but one of the consequences of the crisis is that we now realise just how important it is. We have become familiar with terminology such as R numbers, and language around various rates and the reliability of tests, with which we were not familiar before the crisis. Those things are important because they allow us to understand not only the situation but the effectiveness of Government action, and timing matters.
We are all familiar with the phrase—which I will modify, Presiding Officer—“Lies, darned lies and statistics”. The point is this. The statistics and numbers, in and of themselves, do not lie, but the way in which they are presented and the context that is provided can alter the interpretation. Early access provides an opportunity to alter the context, and providing unbalanced access to the Government provides the opportunity for those in the party of Government to do just that. That is why openness is best practice.
It is somewhat curious that Ben Macpherson, in his opening speech, said that the Government’s position is in line with the UK Statistics Authority code of practice. The letter that was addressed to Kate Forbes from the UKSA on 19 October stated:
“In our view, it is not correct to claim that pre-release access in Scotland is being managed in line with the UKSA Code of Practice.”
That is plain and simple.
It was also quite remarkable, in some ways, to hear Maurice Golden stating plainly that we should move to the new position because, ultimately, it would simply bring things into line with the restrictions that are already placed on the UK Government, which has only 24 hours’ pre-release access in comparison with the five days afforded to Scottish ministers, and therefore the matter is straightforward. It is surprising—indeed, we should all note it—that Conservative members are able to defend the bill because it is simply defending what their colleagues down in Westminster do. That should be a wake-up call to SNP members, because we should strive for better in Scotland. This Parliament has prided itself in being a leader in such matters as transparency and openness in government, but on this matter, it is unfortunately a laggard.
Statistics are a public asset. However, if we were to listen to SNP members, including Ben Macpherson, today, we would hear that the only people who can undertake a balanced and honest interpretation of those statistics are Government ministers. That is clearly a nonsense.
Ultimately, we must remember that the Government exercises its powers at the behest of this Parliament and in the public interest. We cannot treat the operation of government as some discrete private enterprise—it is a public enterprise and a public institution, and it exercises those powers on behalf of us all. The information that the Government holds should be available as soon as possible to all those who can commentate on it.
Some members have argued that pre-release access is required so that the numbers can be interpreted. I agree: we all have to interpret those numbers, but they are ultimately interpreted through discourse, and if one side of that discourse has preferential access over other sides, the discussion is stilted and unfair.
I say to the Scottish Government that we should move the matter on. This is a modest set of principles that only bring things into line with practice elsewhere. Let me end with this: immediate access is good enough for the Bank of England, and if the Bank of England can do it, given the importance and complexity of the information that it provides, surely the Scottish Government can do it too.17:09
Who would have thought that a debate on the dry subject of the publication of statistics would end up being quite so lively and heated as it has been?
I will make a few remarks in summing up the debate. First, I commend the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for bringing the debate to the chamber. As Daniel Johnson fairly said, the promotion of a bill by a committee is relatively unusual in the chamber, and it is good to see a committee using its powers to bring something like this forward.
The bill had a long gestation period. It came out of a report back in 2018 looking into the accuracy, quality and coverage of economic statistics. If the Government had responded to that report, the bill would not have been necessary. The bill is necessary only because of the Government’s intransigence on the issue.
At the start of the debate, Gordon Lindhurst outlined the issues that the bill addresses. It would end PRA for two out of four categories of economic statistics and would reduce PRA from five days to one day for market-sensitive data. Why is that necessary? A number of members gave examples of why giving the Government alone access in advance to data can mean that it is misused. The Government puts a spin on the data to set its own agenda.
For example, we see that when the employment and unemployment statistics are published. We have seen Scottish Government ministers trying to put a spin on rising unemployment by focusing, for example, on a decrease in youth unemployment and trying to make it, rather than the headline figures, the story. We see that approach in the annual bunfight on the GERS figures, which a number of members referred to. The Scottish Government cherry picks parts of those figures to try to put a positive spin on them. Who can forget Derek Mackay claiming back in 2019 that a notional deficit of £12.6 billion revealed
“the strength of the Scottish economy”
within the United Kingdom? That is why the bill is necessary.
We heard about all those who are in favour of the bill from Gordon Lindhurst and others. They include the UK Statistics Authority, the Royal Statistical Society and many others who have said why the bill is necessary.
Mr Macpherson did a stalwart job of trying to defend the indefensible in relation to the Scottish National Party’s position. If I heard rightly, in essence, he put forward two arguments on behalf of the Government. The first was that, if the Government does not get early access to data, there is a risk of misinterpretation. In other words, only the Government is capable of presenting data and figures in an accurate way. Of course, we know that that is not the case. Frankly, it is rather patronising to suggest that all other parties will put a spin on data, but the Government alone will be objective and get it right.
Mr Macpherson’s second argument was even more bizarre. He said that the bill is a distraction and we should not get bogged down in it, because we are dealing with Covid and great economic issues. That comes from a Government that is focused on an independence referendum coming up next year—if anything is a distraction, surely it is that. [Interruption.]
Mr Lyle is chuntering at me. I was just coming to him. We learned from Mr Lyle’s contribution the real reason why the Government does not like the bill—he let the cat out of the bag. According to Mr Lyle, the bill would give too much information to the Opposition by letting us see data at the same time as the Government sees it. According to Mr Lyle, the pesky Opposition members are always asking too many questions. How dare we ask questions and challenge the Government? I say to Mr Lyle that that is what we are here for—we are here to challenge the Government, and it should not get the data all to itself.
The bill will bring us into line with best practice elsewhere. The case for it has been made during the debate. The defence of the current arrangements that we have heard is unconvincing and at best half-hearted. I look forward to the general principles of the bill being agreed to at decision time.17:13
I thank colleagues for what has been an important debate at a time when questions of governance have rarely been more pertinent, although there has perhaps been some hyperbole on all sides.
The reason for our position on the issue is that we believe that the governance and operation of the statistical system in Scotland are best left in the hands of the chief statistician, who is a civil servant bound by the civil service code and by the values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. In contrast, in introducing the debate, the convener undermined the chief statistician’s view that the current arrangements work well. The chief statistician has been clear on that and has emphasised it. His view is that the current arrangements strike the correct balance in carefully controlling access and ensuring that responses to questions and public statements are based on a correct understanding of the statistics.
Fundamentally, the message remains the same as it was when the current Cabinet Secretary for Finance took part in the debate on the bill proposal in September last year. Scottish Government statisticians continue to work to the highest of professional standards when granting pre-release access, and ministers are able to comment in an informed manner when important official figures are released. I do not think that anyone is undermining or questioning the integrity of Government statisticians in any way, but the position that is taken in the bill is in contrast to the chief statistician’s position.
Would the minister not accept that the chief statistician operates within a legislative framework, as does the Government, and that legislation does not inhibit but provides the parameters within which they work? Therefore, the bill that we are considering is no less justified than any other bit of legislation that they operate within.
I appreciate Mr Johnson’s view, but the chief statistician has emphasised that he believes that the current arrangements work well and strike the correct balance. That was his evidence to the committee.
For reasons of which we are all too aware, increased weight and value have been placed on the statistics that are produced and on the importance of the expectation that ministers should be well informed. Therefore, removing the ability of statisticians, who know the numbers best, to manage the release of statistics and brief ministers effectively poses risk. Throughout the pandemic crisis, the Scottish Government has been guided by advice from professional statisticians who follow the principles of the code of practice in producing and communicating high-quality statistics that provide real insight into the issues that we face.
The bill would not improve public trust in official figures. Pre-release access is an important part of the production process for official statistics, and one that operates well and appropriately. What the bill proposes would increase the risk of misinterpretation and confusion about the messages from complex and important data and statistics.
Will the minister take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I am pressed for time.
The bill’s intention to remove pre-release access, at least somewhat, seems political, and the bill fails to acknowledge and honour the statistical arrangements that the Scottish Government adheres to, whereby ministers accept professional advice on statistical matters from Scotland’s chief statistician.
Official statistics are crucial, and their standing is maintained by the work of highly skilled professional statisticians to realise the value that is inherent in the vast amounts of data that the Government holds and to make that publicly available in an ethical and transparent way. In these fast-moving and unpredictable times, the vital importance of good, relevant statistics, trusted professional statisticians and well-informed politicians has been clearly demonstrated. Just as the past few months have taught us the value of statistics, they have also shown us the dangers of their misuse and of the spread of misinformation.
I support the view of the chief statistician that pre-release access allows clear, accurate and well-informed messaging at the time of statistics being published. The Scottish Government cares deeply about the ethical use of data and statistics, and pre-release access is entirely compatible with the three pillars of the code of practice: trust, quality and value.
Pre-release access is important in reducing the risk of misinterpretation of the figures and the risk of confusion, and the risk of those harms must always be balanced against any criticism of pre-release access. Therefore, I urge Parliament to give careful consideration to the possible unintended consequences of the bill. However, if its general principles are agreed to at stage 1, I commit to working constructively with the committee at stage 2 of the process.
I call Andy Wightman to wind up the debate on behalf of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee.17:19
I am pleased to wind up the debate on behalf of the committee but, like others, I regret the fact that we are having this debate. Matters should not have come to this—indeed, I thought that the Government would see today’s proceedings as an opportunity to concede.
The committee’s recommendations following its economic data inquiry in relation to pre-release access, which was one small part of the inquiry, were informed by the most up-to-date professional standards in the management of statistics at the time. They were reasonable and proportionate and they have the support of professional bodies.
What followed the committee’s recommendations has been two years—indeed, almost three years, now—of obfuscation from, first, Keith Brown, then Derek Mackay, then Kate Forbes and now the minister. Keith Brown avoided the question entirely in his response to the committee’s inquiry, instead saying that it was a matter for the chief statistician to respond to. Derek Mackay continued with that approach and wrote in June 2018:
“As you are aware, this is the responsibility of the Chief Statistician and Mr Halliday has responded directly to the Committee on this particular recommendation.”
In October 2018, Mr Mackay continued the theme, saying:
“Fundamentally this is an issue for the chief statistician”.
At this point, we should pause and consider what the issue before us is. The Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008 was made by the Scottish ministers and signed by Jim Mather, and he moved that the order be approved at a meeting of the Finance Committee on 4 November 2008, almost exactly 12 years ago. It is for Parliament to decide whether and, if so, how many pre-release powers should be given, and to whom. That is what that order was about, and that is what the bill seeks to amend.
At the Finance Committee in 2008, the then chief statistician said:
“If statisticians cannot explain the real messages behind the numbers to ministers, there is a real risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation”.
He went on to say:
“That would be damaging to the democratic process”.—[Official Report, Finance Committee, 4 November 2008; c 753.]
However, even then, in 2008, that was not the prevailing view among the statistics profession, because the chair of the UK Statistics Authority had told the Government three months earlier, in August:
“The Statistics Authority would wish to see a commitment both to a progressive reduction in the length of time for which privileged access is granted, as well as in the number of officials and Ministers seeing statistics prior to their publication. 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 and comments from advance sight of the unpublished statistics.”
That was the view of the chair of the UK Statistics Authority 12 years ago.
Time has, of course, moved on. It is 12 years almost to the day since then, and giving ministers up to five days’ pre-release access is no longer best statistical practice, as was stated in evidence to the committee by the executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority board and others.
The minister said in his opening remarks:
“I want to be clear that the Scottish Government fully complies with the code of practice for statistics.”
He went on to say that that was recently acknowledged by the Office for Statistics Regulation. I should say that that is a matter of dispute, so, to assist the committee in its deliberations if the bill is voted through at stage 1, it would be helpful if the minister could share that recent acknowledgement with the committee.
Maurice Golden cited examples of ministers spinning statistics, and other members did that too, including Murdo Fraser. I want to be clear that, as far as the committee is concerned, we never alleged any such practices. What we did, based on the evidence that we had, was identify that as a risk. In his closing remarks, the minister cited the opinion of the chief statistician. We respect the view of the chief statistician and we make it very clear in our report on the bill that in no way does anything that we have done or recommended call into question the integrity of statisticians in the Scottish civil service. However, we do, with respect, take a different view from the chief statistician. It must be recalled that he has some power at his disposal, which is given to him by the 2008 order, and, as much for his own good as anything else, the committee believes that he should not have that degree of discretion.
A number of members made political points. It would not be appropriate for me to respond to those. However, I note that a number of members made some quite remarkable statements about the complexity of statistics and the importance of ministers being able to understand them. The only two sets of statistics to which the bill will completely end pre-release access are retail sales and GDP. I have just looked at the latest release on retail sales and it is a four-page PDF in about 28 or 36 point Arial font with a few diagrams. It is about whether more shoes and pies were sold in the latest quarter than in the previous one. That is not complicated. GDP is a percentage, and that is not terribly complex, either.
The Government has been all over the place on this matter. It has consistently said that pre-release is a matter for the chief statistician and that we should respect their independence. However, as I said, the issue is not about the integrity of the chief statistician—[Interruption.] I am afraid that I am in my final minute.
Willie Coffey made a fair point when reflecting on the debate that took place in the committee—that was an accurate reflection. The Government’s offer to the committee was that the minister would choose, and the minister said that he would instruct the chief statistician to reduce pre-release access from five days to one day. A couple of months earlier, he told the committee, when opposing our proposals, that the chief statistician’s independence should be respected, but his solution was to instruct the chief statistician to do something. That is an astonishing place for the Government to find itself in.
It is even more astonishing that we continue to find ourselves in this situation, and I commend the bill to Parliament.