Plans to limit ministers’ early access to statistics have been backed by MSPs despite the Government claiming it makes them “more transparent”.
Currently, government ministers are given official statistics up to five days before they are published and can be seen by the public or other political parties.
A Bill has been introduced that would only allow ministers advanced sight of new statistic one day ahead of publication.
Holyrood’s Economy Committee proposed the Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill and its convener Gordon Lindhurst argued: “Data should be available on an equal and not a privileged basis.”
Referencing Scottish ministers having up to five days of early access to data, Mr Lindhurst quoted the Royal Statistical Society who said: “Scotland is very much an anomaly relative to almost the whole developed world.”
In Scotland, official statistics are available to ministers five days ahead of publication except for market-sensitive data such as GDP statistics, retail sales and Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures, which can be seen one day in advance.
The Bill would change the law so that all economic statistics can only be shared with ministers one day before they are published, with early access for GDP and retail sales stopped after two years.
Mr Lindhurst added: “The data of the pandemic has revealed something important, it has shown us that numbers matter and they matter too much to permit early peeks for some and not others.
“This 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’s about trust. It’s also about the nature and quality of public debate.”
The Scottish Government’s public finance minister Ben Macpherson insisted there was “nothing inappropriate about pre-release access to official statistics.”
He said: “The current, carefully-controlled use of pre-release access to statistics confers benefits which outweigh the risks, as government prides itself on operating in an open and transparent way.
“Some argue that pre-release access is at odds with this.
“Contrary to this, my view is that pre-release access actually improves transparency, as it means that ministers are able to effectively explain how data and statistics have shaped policy decisions.”
Mr Macpherson acknowledged that ministers get an “advantage” under existing rules, but said: “At the point of data and statistics being 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 that point of publication, then there is a risk of misinterpretation which could have significant damaging impact on public trust.”
Conservative MSP Maurice Golden said the changes would be welcomed by all those “committed to statistical integrity”.
He argued the current system, by giving ministers early sight of key economic data, sees “SNP ministers given a level of access above and beyond what is necessary”.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie said organisations such as the Office for National Statistics and the Bank of England had already ended the practice of giving ministers early access to their data.
She told MSPs: “The ONS and the Bank of England, they have been doing it for three years and the sky hasn’t fallen in. So I really don’t understand why the Scottish Government won’t do it.
“It’s best practice, the gold standard in the statistics world, about trust and transparency. Facts free of spin, what is there not to like about that.”
The Bill passed stage one with 60 votes in favour, two against and 54 abstentions.
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