The head of the Government Statistical Service has called time on the widespread practice of “pre-releasing” official data sets produced by the Office for National Statistics to department staff and ministers with an interest in the figures.
John Pullinger said that from the beginning of next month the system of allowing selected individuals to see new releases 24-hours before they are made public would be scrapped and replaced by a system in which previews would only be available in “exceptional” circumstances that would be “fully transparent”.
Pullinger, who is also the UK’s chief statistician and chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority, said there was “a trend for increasing instances of access” to data that was damaging trust in official statistics, and which changes introduced in March had failed to address.
Royal Statistical Society executive director Hetan Shah said he expected the move to limit the ability of ministers to deflect attention from core elements of official data releases by using their early access to the data to spin favourable figures.
He added that there the current system carried an inherent risk of market-sensitive data being released because of the numbers of people who had advance access to figures.
“The Royal Statistical Society has been running a campaign on this for a long time,” he said.
“At the moment, a minister can go on the Today programme and set the agenda because they’ve seen the statistics before everyone else. Everybody should see the numbers at the same time."
Shah said the RSS knew that 114 people currently had the right to access official labour market statistics – with the expectation that many more people would have access to the data in reality, but there were no comprehensive figures on exactly how many individuals had the right to previews of all ONS releases.
He added that it was too early to say how the proposed “exceptional” releases would pan out, but that the end of routine pre-releases for official ONS was a step forward and heralded the potential of other government data being released routinely.
Will Moy, director of the Full Fact campaign group, also welcomed the move, which he said followed an incident in last year in which a Department for Work and Pensions staff member shared new jobs figures they were not entitled to see with 300 people on a social network.
“We all pay for these statistics so they belong to us all,” he said. “It’s the right decision to make them equally available to everyone at the same time.”
UKSA chair Sir David Norgrove said equality of access to official statistics was “a fundamental principle” of good practice and that the existence of pre-release access undermined trust in the current system.