Dominic Raab has been admonished by the UK’s statistics watchdog after figures about transgender prisoners were leaked to the press before being officially published.
UK Statistics Authority chair Sir David Norgrove wrote to the justice secretary after The Telegraph reported that the number of transgender inmates in prisons in England and Wales had risen by a fifth in two years.
The figures – contained in HM Prisons and Probation Service’s annual report – are classified as official statistics. As such, they are regulated by the statutory Code of Practice for Statistics, which requires that “statistics must be equally available to all, and not be released partially or to selected audiences”.
“For data on a sensitive topic to be published first in a newspaper alongside commentary from campaigning organisations is the opposite of what the code expects and what the public deserve,” Norgrove wrote.
“Such leaks risk both misinforming the public and undermining trust in official statistics, giving the impression of special access for favoured groups. I am sure you would agree on the importance of trustworthy statistics, equally accessible to all.”
Norgrove also took issue with the statistical bulletin for the release, which showed 80 people were given access to the figures ahead of publication.
The stats code mandates that only people involved in producing and releasing official statistics, and for assuring their quality, should have access to them ahead of time.
“Eighty people cannot be needed for this,” Norgrove said.
Ministry of Justice statisticians are now preparing a report on this breach of the stats code, and Norgrove urged Raab to also review the department’s practices on pre-release access to statistics. He said Raab needed to ensure the pre-release list is “reviewed and minimised” to reduce the risk of future leaks.
Ministers and officials are not allowed to see figures produced by the Office for National Statistics ahead of publication, and Norgrove said it was UKSA’s view that this should also be the case with official statistics published by departments.
He said it would send a “strong signal” if Raab could agree that civil servants and ministers must wait until publication to see MoJ stats.
“Equality of access to official statistics is a fundamental principle of statistical good practice, and the existence of pre-release access undermines trust in our official statistics system,” he said.
Stian Westlake, chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society, echoed Norgrove's call for the MoJ to follow the ONS's example and stop pre-releasing stats. The RSS has campaigned against the practice for years, saying it damages trust in public statistics.
Westlake said it was "staggering" that 80 people had access to the prison figures. "And it is wrong that they were briefed in advance of publication to a newspaper, accompanied by commentary from a campaigning group," he added.
“I hope the Ministry of Justice learns from this," he said.