'˜Scotland's statisticians less independent since devolution'

Scotland's statisticians have become less independent since devolution, experts have warned.

The discussion came at a meeting of Holyroods Economy Committee. Picture: TSPL
The discussion came at a meeting of Holyroods Economy Committee. Picture: TSPL

Economists said they questioned whether Scotland’s chief statistician could speak out if figures were being misused.

The discussion at a meeting of Holyrood’s Economy Committee follows the UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir David Norgrove publicly rebuking Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over his revival of the discredited claim that Brexit would allow the UK to take back control of £350 million a week.

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Green MSP Andy Wightman suggested that could not be done in Scotland “because there is nobody of that nature commenting, at least on Scottish statistics”.

Economist Margaret Cuthbert said: “We actually did have much more independence on the chief statistician speaking out in Scotland prior to devolution.

“That particular time he or she ... could always go directly to the head of ONS (Office for National Statistics) and stand up for the quality of statistics. That went with devolution.”

Richard Marsh, director of 4-Consulting, said the national accounts team should be “more independent” of government, adding: “It hasn’t been independent since devolution.”

He said it was “very worrying” that last year’s Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures, were “preempted” by the publication of a government paper on the cost of Brexit to Scotland.

“Unlike the situation over the weekend, the statistics regulator didn’t say anything, it wasn’t called up as a potential breach of the code of conduct, and perhaps more importantly, Scotland’s chief statistician didn’t say anything,” he said.

“So if you have an independent statistics body covering the UK saying they are disappointing and surprised at someone confusing a gross and net figure, the chief statistician you’d suspect would be furious, or as close to furious as a statistician can get, that someone’s tried to preempt - that someone within his own organisation - has sought to preempt a kite-mark publication.”

Meanwhile Professor Richard Murphy, director of Tax Research UK, told the committee some British overseas territories had better statistics than Scotland.

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He said: “I think there will be some statistics they produce, not many, that will be better than Scotland and I think in the case of Jersey many of the statistics will be substantially better than Scotland.

“If that island can produce better data which is more decision useful probably than that which is available to many Scottish politicians, I think it’s something that needs to be thought about seriously.”