Home Office statisticians are considering trimming down the list of people with pre-release access to official data following a leaked report on international students overstaying their visas, Amber Rudd has confirmed.
The home secretary said the practice of allowing some ministers and officials an early look at statistics before they are published is “essential”, but that her department was looking into whether there are too many people currently on the access list.
Responding to a letter from Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, urging her to review this practice, Rudd said she shared his concerns about the leak.
Excluding the Home Office analysts who compiled the data, 51 people were given access to the figures on experimental statistics collected under a new exit checks programme, a day ahead of their official publication date on 24 August.
These included 23 people from inside the Home Office, and 28 in other government departments, including the Cabinet Office, Foreign Office and No 10.
Information was then leaked to a national newspaper, leading to “seriously misleading” reports, which were particularly “damaging in view of the sensitivity of migration data”, Norgrove said.
The reports claimed that 97% of non-EU students leave Britain after their studies and that there are tens of thousands fewer immigrants in the country than previously thought.
Rudd said part of the reason for the embargo on the statistics was to ensure that they were “not released in isolation”, but presented alongside ONS research on international student migration that added more context to the findings.
She added that "some degree of pre-release access is essential", particularly in this case given the volume and breadth of migration-related documents due to be released on the same day.
“It is important that myself, my ministers and my department are fully briefed on matters that we have policy responsibility for,” she said.
“However, my statisticians will consider whether in light of this breach the list of people with pre-release access should be reduced.”
The ONS scrapped its system of allowing certain people to preview its own data earlier this year.
The Home Office said it had strictly followed government rules around pre-release access to official statistics, and has initiated an inquiry into how the breach occurred.