Alleged breaches of pre-release
126. The Government has identified three categories
of early access to statistics that currently exist within the
- access to administrative and
management data, which may be circulating amongst officials and
Ministers in advance of their release as National Statistics,
because they form part of the department's daily business;
- access to statistics by officials, as part of
the compilation and quality assurance process; and
- access by Ministers and officials to the final
data in advance of publication, to enable Ministers to account
for the policy implications of statistics at the time of publication
and, in certain circumstances, be in a position to announce policy
decisions immediately after the release of data.
127. Several witnesses suggested that this third
category of pre-release access officials raised the prospect of
political interference in the presentation of official statistics.
The Statistics Commission's Annual Report 2005-06 detailed
nine suspected instances of abuse of pre-release access by ministers
and government officials. Of the nine, the Commission concluded
that one had been a full breach of the Code of Practice, one had
been a minor breach, one had been an accidental breach and one
had not been a breach. In one instance the Commission said that
it was "concerned about the amount of pre-release access
given within policy departments" and in another case the
Commission questioned the Home Office's interpretation of the
Code. In addition, the Commission reported on two non-National
Statistics releases by the Department of Health (DH) which could
were not covered by the Code of Practice, but which had breached
the DH Code compliance statement.
128. The Commission told us, however, that the procedure
for investigating breaches was not sufficiently robust. When investigating
breaches, it had experienced "some difficulty" in obtaining
responses from departments.
The Commission commented that, if it did not receive the required
information from a department, it was difficult to be certain
about whether a breach had occurred, "especially in this
highly ambiguous situation of whether something is a breach of
an ambiguous Code".
The Commission felt that there were "many cases" where
there had been "representations of the statistics saying
one thingand often before the statistics have come out
in the public domain".
129. Simon Briscoe argued that weaknesses in the
current method of investigating supposed breaches by ministers
of the Code of Practice meant that the official number of confirmed
breaches underestimated the true extent of the problem:
if an individual raises the suspicion of a leak with
the National Statistician or
the Statistics Commission,
they will write a letter to the department, which normally promises
to conduct an internal review and comes back and says, surprisingly,
that there is no evidence that there was a leak.
He provided an example of what he saw as an abuse:
one [example] from last year, was on animal testing
where the Government had set itself targets to reduce year on
year the number of animals involved in testing. The annual figures
which came out last year showed a second successive year of increase.
The figures were released during the day, but
Today programme [on BBC Radio 4] had a very nice story about how
there were very many good reasons why animal testing was a good
this was a story which, according to the journalist
involved, was prompted by the department. So I think there is
an awful lot of softening up that goes on.
130. In 2004, the independent Phillis review of government
communications concluded that there was "no need for the
40 hours of advance notice of National Statistics that Ministers
The review found that while there was no evidence that this right
had been abused, it was "open to the perception of abuse",
and was "far longer than the period of notice that the executive
in the United States receives of such key economic data".
Options for reform
131. The Government' consultation paper states that
"the principle of early access to data for Ministers is widely
accepted internationally, with many countriesincluding
Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand and the UShaving
in place some form of pre-release regime".
In evidence to us, however, the RSS said that pre-release access
in these countries was much more limited than in the UK, and that
there was no pre-release access at all in Austria, Denmark, Finland,
Norway or Poland.
Box 9 summarises the position in some of those countries which
9: International practice on pre-release access to statistics