Data chiefs call for end to politicians’ early access to statistics

Ministers and officials should receive information at the same time as the public, say senior figures from the ONS and Royal Statistical Society

Credit: David Schwarzenberg from Pixabay 

Leading statisticians have backed moves to end the practice of allowing politicians access to statistics up to five days before they are published, saying that the practice “undermines trust” and “encourages spin”.

Last week, opposition MSPs in the Scottish parliament voted in favour of a bill to end the practice of ministers and special advisers getting pre-release access (PRA) to economic statistics.

Ministers and their advisers can see market-sensitive data a day before it is published, and less sensitive data five days in advance. The bill proposes a complete end to PRA for GDP and retail sales, while reducing advance access from five working days to one working day for other economic data where five working days is currently the maximum.

Pre-release access of Office of National Statistics data for UK government ministers was removed in 2017 in all but exceptional circumstances.

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Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, has now written to Gordon Lindhurst, convener of the economy, energy and fair work committee, backing its plans.

He said: “As the committee are aware, we believe government ministers and officials should not have access to statistics before they are made available to parliament and the public. 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.”

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said he would like to see the bill go further.

He said: “Research shows the majority of the public supports everyone seeing statistics at the same time. Politicians having early access to statistics encourages spin. Scotland is now far out of line with good practice, with ministers being able to see the numbers five days before everyone else. We think this ‘pre-release access’ to statistics should end entirely. The proposed bill does not go nearly far enough but is a slow step in the right direction.”

A majority of MSPs on the economy, energy and fair work committee proposed the committee bill in June. They were opposed by SNP MSPs.

Opposition parties argue that pre-release access allows ministers time to put the best possible gloss on unwelcome statistics. Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said the work of statisticians was being “weaponised” by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government argues that pre-release access is a matter for the chief statistician, saying: “Any proposal to curtail access would cut across his ability to ensure the key figures about Scotland are properly communicated and understood.”


Sam Trendall

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