Royal Statistical Society boss: End the undemocratic 'pre-release access' to stats to stop market abuse

Hetan Shah
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In the case of today’s labour market figures, for example, no fewer than 114 people will have enjoyed official pre-release access to these ONS statistics. (Source: Getty)

Just imagine that it’s about to strike midnight on 8 June. The polling stations have closed and, after weeks of political campaigning, millions of votes have been cast.

Councils are racing to count the ballot papers and declare their local results first. The initial declarations will then be analysed, immediately, to give everyone an early idea of which party will soon form the next government and which person will serve as Prime Minister.

It’s a system of openness, honesty and immediacy which is trusted throughout Britain and envied around the world. There are none of the delayed results which invariably arouse suspicion in some other countries with, for example, weaker democratic traditions. In fact, it is such a great approach that we should surely use it throughout the year, across the board, rather than save it only for our elections.

At the moment, though, hundreds of official UK figures get delayed, for no good reason, between being compiled and made public. For instance, the latest tranche of labour market data will be issued, this morning, by the Office for National Statistics.

I am confident that its calculations will have been characteristically robust and its figures can be trusted wholeheartedly. But I’m still wary about how they will have been handled between leaving the ONS and being put into the public domain.

The problem lies in a system called “pre-release access” which enables official statistics to be seen by dozens of ministers, special advisers and press officers (among others) before they're formally published.

At the Royal Statistical Society, we believe this practice is unfair, unnecessary and open to abuse; its abolition is long overdue.

In our view, there are three compelling reasons for reform. First, the current system is politically unfair. It can result in UK, Scottish and Welsh ministers enjoying advance access to information which is simply unavailable to their opposition counterparts - both during election campaigns and Parliamentary debates. Second, pre-release access creates an opportunity for figures to be either “spun” to the media or buried beneath other announcements which, alas, reduces public confidence in official statistics as a whole.

Finally, there is a risk of public information being exploited for personal or corporate gain. After all, many of the statistics compiled by the ONS are not merely economically significant but market-sensitive as well.

Recent new studies have made the accusation that UK markets are being manipulated, through analysis of the trading patterns in the 24 hours before figures are formally released. Regardless of whether or not these studies are well founded, functioning markets are based on trust. Pre-release access to statistics is beginning to undermine trust in UK financial markets, which we simply cannot afford.

In the case of today’s labour market figures, for example, no fewer than 114 people will have enjoyed official pre-release access to these ONS statistics. It is a total that is both inherently risky and extraordinarily high. And we’ve been told that, in practice, the number of people with advance access to official statistics is even higher than the formal figures suggest. After all, virtually every senior civil servant has a personal assistant who shares access to their inbox.

Such findings have redoubled the RSS’s determination to call on the next government, whatever its political complexion, to address pre-release access as a matter of urgency.

We don’t need ministers, spin doctors, or anyone else to see official figures before they’re put into the public domain. Let’s give them to everyone at exactly the same time. It works well enough when Britain goes to the polls, when the stakes could hardly be higher. It’s surely high time to try the same approach between elections as well.

It is a reform that lies at the heart of RSS’s Data Manifesto. Ours is perhaps the only manifesto at this election which properly reflects the challenges and opportunities being created by our increasingly data-driven economy. We believe that all future governments, from 9 June onwards, should be required to publish the data and the evidence on which their policies are based. It represents another relatively simple reform but, again, one which could improve our political system – as well as the quality of the public policy decisions which, ultimately, affect us all.

Hetan Shah is executive director at the Royal Statistical Society.

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