MPs to probe pre-release of official statistics

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MPs are to examine the "highly questionable" practice of allowing ministers advance sight of official statistics after the Conservatives dropped plans to reform the system, it emerged today.

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin said the matter would be the subject of an inquiry by the influential cross-party public administration select committee, which he chairs.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has ruled out any changes to the pre-release rules, which means ministers and key advisers get a 24-hour head start in preparing their response.

The UK Statistics Authority watchdog called in March for that to be dropped to no more than three hours to deny "too many dark hours" for political interference and spin.

It said ministers should be barred from commenting for an hour after official publication to allow the numbers to speak for themselves.

Their recommendations came after Labour faced a string of accusations of presenting the figures in a misleading way in a bid to divert public attention from less favourable aspects.

It included what UKSA deemed the "premature, irregular and selective" release of figures on knife crime injuries by then home secretary Jacqui Smith.

Responding to the UKSA report while in opposition, Mr Maude said: "It is vital that we rebuild trust in our statistics. The UK Statistics Authority plays a very important role in restoring public confidence and we support its recommendations."

Less than two months after taking power however - in coalition with the Liberal Democrats - Mr Maude told UKSA chairman Sir Michael Scholar that he had decided to keep the 24-hour rule.

Earlier this month, Sir Michael wrote to the minister urging a rethink but Mr Maude confirmed his decision in answer to a written question from Mr Jenkin.

The committee chairman said: "I am not surprised that, once in office, ministers change their mind about this sort of thing.

"The case for warning ministers about good or bad statistics in advance is highly questionable.

"It is something the public administration committee will be looking at and when we make our recommendations we will expect the Government to accept them."