Select Committee on Treasury Tenth Report

7  Pre-release of statistics

The Protocol on Release Practices

124. The Framework for National Statistics states that it must be "clearly apparent to users" that National Statistics have been produced and are presented without political interference.[177] The National Statistics Code of Practice Statement of Principles sets out the principles which should be observed in presenting National Statistics. These are detailed in Box 8.

Box 8: Code of Practice principles for presenting National Statistics
  • National Statistics will promote equality of access.

  • Final responsibility for the content, format and timing of release of National Statistics will rest with Heads of Profession (in devolved administrations, the Chief Statistician) acting in consultation with the National Statistician.

  • National Statistics will be released separately from statements by Ministers about the figures. Ministerial statements will not be released before the statistics.

  • Where privileged early access is determined by Ministers, details will be documented and publicly available.

  • Release arrangements will be open and pre-announced. Release will be orderly and as early as possible after compilation.

  • Timing will not be influenced by the content of the release or set in such a way as to create a presumed advantage to any particular group or individual.

  • As much detail as is reliable and practicable will be made available, subject to legal and confidentiality constraints.

Source: Office for National Statistics National Statistics Code of Practice: Statement of Principles, September 2002, Principles 2(h), 4(a), (c) (d) (e) (f) (g)

125. The broad principles set out in the National Statistics Code of Practice are supported by a series of protocols which describe how these principles are to be implemented in practice. The Protocol on Release Practices specifies that:

  • For statistics that are not market-sensitive, privileged early access will be no longer than five working days before release.
  • Where privileged early access is provided for market-sensitive statistics, it will begin 40.5 hours (and not more than 40.5 hours) before release, that is at 5 pm on day one in advance of release at 9.30 am on day three.[178]

Alleged breaches of pre-release of statistics

126. The Government has identified three categories of early access to statistics that currently exist within the UK system:

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.[180]

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.[181] 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".[182] The Commission felt that there were "many cases" where there had been "representations of the statistics saying one thing—and often before the statistics have come out in the public domain".[183]

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.[184]

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 … that morning's 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 idea … 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.[185]

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 receive".[186] 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".[187]

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 countries—including Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand and the US—having in place some form of pre-release regime".[188] 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.[189] Box 9 summarises the position in some of those countries which have pre-release.

Box 9: International practice on pre-release access to statistics
  • Australia: Ministers and supporting officials are allowed pre-embargo access to statistics where it is expected that they would need to make public comment soon after release. This practice is limited to a relatively small number of publications. Pre-release access is limited to 3 hours prior to embargo time.
  • France: Some ministers are given pre-release access to the most important key economic statistics (for example, inflation, trade, unemployment) up to (but not exceeding) one hour in advance.

  • Ireland: Ministers are given pre-release access of one hour to the most important statistical series, and 48 hours for the Annual National Accounts.

  • United States: The President, through the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, has pre-release access of 30 minutes. Civil servants may not comment publicly on data until at least one hour after release.

Source: Royal Statistical Society, Pre-Release Access to National Statistics: International Perspective

132. The Chief Statistician of Canada explained to us that pre-release practices in Canada were "extremely restricted" to:

those statistical series where there is a very strong and powerful reason for pre-release to exist … essentially … key economic indicators which can move markets and which might require early intervention in the markets and therefore preparedness to counter some bad news or particularly strong news … social data are totally excluded … pre-release is given to bureaucrats at two o'clock the previous day, in the afternoon, and our releases come out the next morning to everyone at 8.30, so it is less than 24 hours, and ministers are only given those data at five o'clock in the afternoon after the markets are closed.[190]


133. The ONS considered that three aspects of pre-release were capable of reform:

[First] there is a whole raft of series where you could argue there is no justification for having pre-release access. The second area is cutting back enormously the number of people who actually get it. Thirdly, reducing the time. And I think associated with those measures is a much more coherent and consistent approach to this across government.[191]

134. Simon Briscoe told us that he favoured "relevant ministers" seeing the data "maybe half an hour or an hour before it is being released".[192] Lord Moser argued for a similar restriction:

Pre-release should basically be abolished … I think perhaps something over one hour, so that the minister can be prepared to answer questions about the figures; but that would be the maximum in my view … I would leave it to the new board to decide whether there should be any exceptions. My own view is to start from no exceptions.[193]

135. The Statistics Commission also supported the abolition of pre-release. In its annual report, the Commission argued that abolition of pre-release was of "more fundamental importance than whether the [ONS] is made into a non-ministerial department".[194] As an alternative to abolition, Professor Rhind proposed to us the release of data to opposition spokespeople at the same time as it is released to ministers:

Our preference would be to have no pre-release, but we could envisage various different models, where, for example, statistics might be embargoed for a number of hours beforehand but made available not only to ministers but perhaps also to opposition spokesmen … what is critical, I think, is how long they are released in advance and how they are embargoed and what the penalties are.[195]

136. The RSS argued that abuse and the perception of abuse could best be overcome by directing all releases through a specific press office within the new independent statistics office. It said that, currently, press officers working in government departments were being asked to carry out two different functions in relation to statistical releases: first, they were required to produce the statistical release and explain the statistics in a quasi-objective manner; and secondly, they were being asked to promote the policy objectives of the minister. The RSS argued that it would be much better for all National Statistics to be released "through some central physically separated location" where the statisticians from the various government departments could come and make themselves accessible to journalists.[196] The RSS said that the statisticians would then be

accountable for the statistical production … accountable for the methods and definitions which are used, and … accountable for explaining the significance of the statistics and what could be drawn from them [but that they] would not have responsibility for interpreting the implications of that policy.[197]

137. In addition to undertaking this proactive role of interpretation, the RSS called for the National Statistician to be empowered to have a reactive role, allowing her to "comment on the interpretation of statistics and comment on gross misinterpretation of statistics" by others, offering her own "proper interpretation", where necessary.[198]


138. The Chief Statistician of Canada, Dr Fellegi, addressed the first category of pre-release access identified by the Government, that of access to administrative and management data, which are, by definition, available outside of the statistical system. In these cases, Dr Fellegi recommended strong discouragement of pre-publication comments, "if possible via a legislated code of behaviour applicable to all government personnel".[199]


139. In addition to ministers and government officials, pre-release access to some market sensitive data is provided for the Governor of the Bank of England. The current Governor, Mr Mervyn King, recently explained to the Treasury Committee that, under "formal arrangements" with the ONS, he sees official statistics on the economy 36 hours before their release, but that no one else on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has such access, except where, within that 36 hour period, a meeting of the MPC is due or an emergency meeting of the MPC is called.[200]


140. The Minister told us that he accepted that pre-release arrangements contributed to "the perception of interference in statistics".[201] He argued, however, that actual cases of abuse were "very few and far between".[202] He defended the principle of pre-release, commenting that ministers were "required" and "expected" to be accountable for the decisions they made and able to "understand and respond immediately to challenges that might come from the production of statistics".[203] He said that the principle of pre-release was "quite widely accepted internationally", once again citing the examples of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Ireland and France, although he acknowledged that the details of the pre-release access might differ in those countries.[204] He concluded that the practice of pre-release was "important" but said that the Government would be "prepared to look at" the detail of the pre-release arrangements.[205]


141. We have received evidence from a number of witnesses questioning the appropriateness of the existing arrangements for pre-release access to statistics in the UK. Witnesses have questioned the number of statistics available for pre-release, the number of people receiving pre-release access and the length of the advance access provided. Pre-release access to statistics is currently managed by the Protocol on Release Practices which supports the National Statistics Code of Practice. We expect the new statutory code of practice proposed by the Government to be similarly supported by a new statutory protocol on release practices.

142. We understand the Minister's concern that ministers should have pre-release access to official statistics, in order to allow them to give a substantive and considered response to statistics upon release. However, we have heard nothing to convince us that it is necessary for ministers to have access to statistics 40 hours prior to their release. We consider that ministers would still be in a position to respond meaningfully to statistics given a considerably shorter period of pre-release. We note that our conclusions match those of the 2004 Phillis Review in this respect, and that the time provided for pre-release access is much shorter in countries such as Australia, France and the United States than it is in the UK. We therefore recommend that the Government ensure that the statutory successor to the Protocol on Release Practices is drafted so that ministers receive pre-release access to all data other than market-sensitive data no more than three hours prior to release. In the case of market-sensitive data, we recommend that ministers receive pre-release access on the day prior to release, after the markets have closed.

143. In addition to ministerial access, it seems to us that it may also be in the interests of a properly functioning democracy to give the relevant opposition spokespeople a degree of pre-release access. We recommend that the Government ensure that the statutory successor to the Protocol on Release Practices is drafted so that opposition spokespeople receive pre-release access on a similar basis to ministers, but no more than one hour prior to release, rather than three hours. This would place opposition spokespeople on a similar footing to ministers at the time of release, and should enable a broader political debate to take place on any given dataset. We recommend that the Government consider incorporating this point in the statutory successor to the Protocol on Release Practices.

144. In addition to changes to ministers' pre-release access, we consider further reform is needed in respect of civil servants' pre-release access to statistics. We consider that the statutory successor to the Protocol on Release Practices should cover the use of data prior to official release by all government personnel. Such a protocol should serve to discourage abuse of pre-release and, in particular, to ensure that non-statisticians do not comment on administrative data prior to release.

145. Finally, in the interests of improving public confidence in official statistics, we recommend that the independent statistics office release alongside National Statistics its own considered and non-partisan interpretation. Any implications for Government policy could then be subsequently explained by the relevant minister or government department. In order to discourage misrepresentation of National Statistics by ministers and government departments and, more widely, the media and other groups, we recommend that the National Statistician should continue to have the authority to monitor and police those who misuse and misrepresent statistics.

177   Office for National Statistics, Framework for National Statistics, operational from June 2000, p 12 Back

178   Office for National Statistics, National Statistics Code of Practice: Protocol on release practices, September 2002, p 13 Back

179   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, Box 4, p 25 Back

180   Statistics Commission, Annual Report 2005-06, Cm 6857, July 2006, Annex D Back

181   Q 137 Back

182   Ibid. Back

183   Q 141 Back

184   Q 21 Back

185   Q 22 Back

186   The Phillis Review, An Independent Review of Government Communications, January 2004, p 25 Back

187   Ibid. Back

188   Independence for statistics: A consultation document, Box 4, p 25 Back

189   Ev 103 Back

190   Q 106 Back

191   Q 189 Back

192   Q 15 Back

193   Qq 222-223 Back

194   Statistics Commission, Annual Report 2005-06, Cm 6857, July 2006, p 7 Back

195   Q 138 Back

196   Q 62 Back

197   Ibid. Back

198   Q 63 Back

199   Ev 84 Back

200   Oral evidence given to the Treasury Committee by Mr Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England and MPC member, HC 1185-ii, 29 June 2006, Q 114 Back

201   Q 287 Back

202   Ibid. Back

203   Ibid. Back

204   Ibid. Back

205   Ibid. Back

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