Government departments to lose pre-release access to ONS official data

Updated: 

Government departments will be barred from accessing pre-released data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) amid concerns that privileged information could be used for political or financial gain.

The UK's National Statistician John Pullinger said he made the decision after "noting a trend for increasing instances of access and the damage to trust in official statistics" that followed.

It comes after failed attempts to strengthen control around pre-released access, which saw a smaller number of Government ministers and officials receive early data over a shorter period of time, he said. 

Government departments currently have access to sensitive ONS data - which includes statistics like Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation, retail sales, economic growth and trade - 21 hours before it is made public.

Mr Pullinger said that it was clear that "the changes are not successfully dealing with the risks the review sought to mitigate".

Those privileges will be revoked effective July 1.

Pressure came from the Royal Statistical Society, which submitted a letter with 114 experts to The Times last month urging the Government to "increase confidence in official statistics and prevent any potential abuse of privileged information for political or financial gain."

"In short, we call on the next government, whatever its political complexion, to end the situation in which dozens of ministers, advisers and others enjoy pre-release access to a wide range of official statistics," the Society said. 

An analysis undertaken by West Virginia University for the Wall Street Journal in March showed that UK government bond futures were moving suspiciously before the release of official data.

It sparked fears that people were trading on leaked numbers.

The Royal Statistical Society's letter condemned the practice of pre-releasing data to Government officials, calling it "outdated and unnecessary" and "detrimental to public trust".

"It can (and does) result in serving Government ministers having access, in parliamentary and election debates, to information which is unavailable to their Opposition counterparts.

"In addition, the higher the number of people with pre-release access, the greater the risk that information, including market-moving data, might leak."

Journalists will still have access to data in a controlled lock-in one hour ahead of the release of ONS statistics, the ONS said.