Perception and independence of economic statistics

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This afternoon, the Scottish Parliament will debate a proposal by the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee for a Committee Bill on Pre-release Access.

This is unusual. Most bills are put forward by government rather than Committees. So this is an important event and covers an crucial aspect of the economic landscape in Scotland.

Back in 2017 & 2018, the Committee undertook an inquiry into economic statistics in Scotland

One of their recommendations (by split decision), was that the practice of pre-release access – where Ministers and certain political appointees are briefed about the content of ‘market sensitive’ statistics in advance of the public release of the figures – should be stopped.

So far, the Scottish Government has resisted such calls.

Pre-release access for economic statistics

Pre-release access (PRA) concerns granting a select number of civil servants, Special Advisors and Ministers access to official statistics in advance of their publication. For the Scottish Government this includes things like GERS and yesterday’s Scottish GDP figures.

An excellent summary of the arguments for and against PRA is provided in the committee bill proposal to be debated today.

The justification for Ministerial PRA is that it is preferable for these individuals to be carefully briefed on the statistics in advance so that they can make sensible and informed comments at the time of publication. In addition, many government statisticians have a responsibility to offer advice to Ministers on the implications of the statistics for policy and decision-making.

But PRA is controversial.

Many (such as the UK Statistics Authority, the Royal Statistical Society and the Office for National Statistics  argue that “equality of access to official statistics is a fundamental principle of statistical good practice”

The existence of PRA puts Ministers – from whatever party is in power – in a privileged position relative to others.

Some also argue that it might undermine the trust that some people have in official statistics.

Not because the numbers themselves are capable of being interfered with by politicians, but instead that there is the perception that the government will have the opportunity to ‘spin’ the interpretation of the numbers in advance of anyone else.

In the current climate, trust in statistics – and how they are used – is ever more important. In recent months we have seen that trust challenged from a number of angles.

Just last month we had the UK Statistics Authority writing to the UK Government challenging them over their response to new income tax data for Scotland.  Shortly after, we had the GERS publication with the usual attacks on its credibility and independence – with little attempt to call-out such misuse.

PRA in the UK

In 2017, ONS ended all PRA to its official statistics – including UK GDP, public finance and labour market data – for all governments in the UK. The Bank of England has also stopped PRA.

Other Whitehall departments retain PRA for statistics produced by UK Government departments. Although their conditions tend to be less generous than in Scotland. And, either way, the main economic statistics are produced by the ONS anyway.

The Scottish Government has – in the past – argued that abolishing PRA for their equivalent statistics is not necessary as Scottish statistics are not ‘market-sensitive’.

But as many of the Committee’s witnesses argued, the issue is perception. And the underlying principle that high profile economic statistics are a public ‘asset’ valued by everyone. Those in favour of abolishing PRA argue that what is relevant is whether or not these statistics are deemed to be of national importance, and the commitment to ensuring trust in economic statistics.

The case in favour of abolishing PRA is supported by the UK Statistical Authority – the guardians of the independence of official statistics in the UK – the Royal Statistical Society and many other academics and commentators.

The Scottish Government have made outstanding progress in recent years in improving the quality and coverage of economic statistics in Scotland. On balance, and as it continues to take on economic and fiscal responsibilities, we think that abolishing PRA is an important step in Scotland’s move to become a leader in economic statistics development.

September 19, 2019