Scottish ministers shouldn't see official stats early, say MSPs

Scottish ministers should no longer be given early sight of official statistics to stop independent analysis being drawn into partisan political debate, a parliamentary report has recommended.

MSPs say that, while there is no suggestion that Nicola Sturgeon and ministers tried to influence statistics ahead of publication, they should no longer have an early view. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP

A majority of opposition MSPs on Holyrood’s economy committee called for an end to the practice which allows ministers and officials access to official figures before they are released.

Their report said there was the potential for confusion, highlighted by debates sparked during the independence campaign over the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (Gers) figures.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

“While there is no evidence of the statistics being subject to ‘influence’ prior to their publication, the greater concern is around the opportunity to ‘spin’ the numbers in a positive way in advance of any other commentator or political party being able to respond,” the report said.

Last year the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Bank of England scrapped pre-release access for ministers.

The committee report said the prevailing view of its six Labour, Tory and Green MSPs was that early access to market sensitive statistics, including Scottish GDP and Gers, should end.

However, four SNP members instead backed a “presumption” against early access following the committee’s inquiry on economic data in Scotland.

The report highlighted the importance of high-quality economic statistics in Scotland given the parliament’s new fiscal powers and ongoing debates around constitutional reform.

Research commissioned by the parliament suggested the pace of devolution was beginning to “expose cracks” in the UK’s system of producing economic statistics.

It urged ministers and the ONS to prioritise improving the quality of data on earnings, trade, Scottish prices and regional economic statistics.

The inquiry found no evidence of a problem with the independence of the production of statistics but recommended ministers carry out a review which could consider the possibility of setting up a new agency

Committee convener Gordon Lindhurst said: “Now is a crucial time for the Scottish Government to consider greater independence for the production of economic statistics in Scotland, and a robust and independent analysis of the kind of data Scotland needs for a strong, thriving and sustainable economy to benefit all.”