NEWS14 September 2011

Watchdog criticises Osborne’s stance on stats access

Government UK

UK— The UK Statistics Authority has hit out at Chancellor George Osborne for resisting calls to reduce the advance access that ministers get to official figures.

The Authority wants to cut ministers’ pre-release access to new statistics from 24 hours to just three – or fewer.

When in opposition, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported limiting pre-release access and giving the Statistics Authority the power to set the rules. But once in power the coalition decided to leave the rules unchanged.

Osborne says he wants to keep pre-release access to an “absolute minimum” but that the public expects ministers to be able to respond to figures as soon as they are released, and reducing the time to less than 24 hours would not allow them to do this.

But Statistics Authority chair Michael Scholar said public expectations “could, and should, be changed, in the interests of improving trust”.

In an open letter to Osborne, Scholar pointed to surveys in which five out of six people said they believed that ministers and their advisers manipulate official statistics.

He said early access also creates a risk that statistics will be leaked – as in May when the Treasury released inflation figures early to around 400 people without authorisation.

Scholar said he was disappointed by Osborne’s response, in particular because his views on the issue seemed to have been influenced by special advisers for whom the loss of pre-release access would be “inconvenient”.