Stop ministers seeing official stats early – MPs

Ministers should no longer be allowed privileged early access to official statistics, a Commons Committee argues today.

A report by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee warns that the system whereby ministers are sent sensitive releases – including GPD figures – from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) 24 hours before they are made public risks undermining confidence in official statistics.

"It is not appropriate that ministers should have lengthy prior access to certain statistics but other interested parties do not," it says.

The Commons committee, which is chaired by the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, urges the Government to introduce legislation to scrap the pre-release system "at the earliest opportunity".

The recommendation will be welcomed by the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, who is charged with overseeing the work of the ONS. Mr Dilnot has argued on several occasions that pre-release is damaging and should be dismantled.

The night before the ONS's first estimate of GDP growth for the final quarter of 2012 were released last month, George Osborne and David Cameron were photographed in a restaurant in Davos, Switzerland, apparently in a good mood, leading some to the assumption that the pre-released figures must have been decent. In the event they showed that the UK economy declined by 0.3 per cent over the three months.

The committee also argues that there is a potential clash between the Statistics Authority's two functions of being responsible for the production of official statistics and also regulating their quality. It recommends that there should be a "greater physical separation" of the workplaces of the regulators and the producers.

One of the responsibilities of the head of the Statistics Authority, which was established by the 2007 Statistics Act, is to correct ministers when they make misleading claims regarding official figures. In December Mr Dilnot rebuked the Coalition for claiming that health spending had increased in real terms since 2010. Mr Dilnot, responding to a complaint by the Labour Party, concluded that there had been a small fall in real spending. And this month Mr Dilnot warned politicians to avoid mixing up debt with the deficit after the Prime Minister claimed, erroneously, in a party political broadcast that the Coalition was "paying down Britain's debts".

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