Public trust and pre-release access of statistics

Influencing Change

This is one of a series of notes to support our policy positions as summarised in the RSS Data Manifesto, and was published in May 2015. You can download the PDF version at this link . To discuss the policies we are advocating, please contact our Policy and Research Manager, Olivia Varley-Winter.

Summary

'End the practice of pre-release access whereby some people in government see statistics before the public.'

The RSS Data Manifesto calls on government to help build public trust in statistics. Statistics are one of the key building blocks to create the evidence base for policy making and for public and media use. Impartial, independent and high quality statistics are therefore essential for a high-quality democratic debate. One of our key requests in this regard is for the government to end the practice of pre-release access whereby ministers and officials in government have access to statistics before they are released to the public.

Internationally comparative surveys of public trust in statistics suggest that in the UK, official statistics are not as widely trusted by the general public as is the case in many other countries1. The 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey has also found that while the majority of the public (73%) agreed that official statistics are generally accurate, only 28% agreed that the government presents official figures honestly when talking about its policies2.

In order to improve trust, the public needs to be reassured that statistics are not being misused to suit political or media agendas. Decisive action against pre-release access is one of the actions needed to respect the impartial nature of official statistics, and that all should have equal access to them. We also emphasise the need for some legislative changes to support public trust in research and statistics. This should include legal underpinning of the UK Statistics Authority’s responsibility for designation of official statistics. Amendment to legislation will also be needed to empower the independent Information Commissioner to audit compliance with the Data Protection Act.

A clear case for the abolition of the current practice of pre-release access

'Legislation should be changed to empower the UK Statistics Authority to keep pre-release access to a minimum across all four UK administrations.'

Currently, ministers and key officials responsible for a policy area have access to statistical releases and publications in that area 24 hours before they are made available to Parliament or the general public. This is in direct contravention of the principle of equal access which is enshrined in international good practice3.

It is sometimes argued that access to statistics at the earliest opportunity is necessary for Ministers to manage the affairs of their department4. It is however the case that where statistics are derived from administrative data and management information, managers and Ministers can access those data directly. There is no justification, in our view, for pre-release access to the statistical outputs of government other than those that are market sensitive. At most this should be just two hours ahead of release.

The arguments for pre-release access (as attested, for example, in the Cabinet Office review of the arrangements) also rest on the alleged necessity for ministerial comment or a departmental press release being issued at or around the same time as the statistics5. In our view the practice of issuing such commentary to coincide with statistical releases is pernicious. It skews debate over the figures and perpetuates the impression that Ministers control the data. Evidence from surveys of public attitudes toward official statistics suggests that lack of confidence in statistics is in large part due to perceptions of political control or misrepresentation6. Pre-release access is likely to strengthen that perception, so is a major obstacle to improving public confidence. Straightforward abuse of statistics to exert political control is rare, but access 24 hours in advance of release (as is the case in England and Northern Ireland) allows the possibility for media management, and the suspicion that this could be taking place. The situation in Scotland and Wales is worse in that up to five days pre-release access is allowed. In most circumstances there should be no case for pre-release access. For market-sensitive statistics, a two hour limit on pre-release access could and should apply across all the UK administrations, as the issues of principle are exactly the same.

The latest round of peer reviews of statistical standards across Europe has highlighted pre-release access as “an area of weakness” in the UK. Reviewers concluded that the current situation of pre-release in the UK is “excessive” and recommended that it ultimately be abolished7. The key principle underlying this position is that of equal access to statistics for all users, as defined in the United Nations Principles Governing International Statistical Activities. These principles also state that good practice involves impartial compilation and dissemination of international statistics, and requires there to be a clear distinction, in statistical publications, between statistical and analytical comments on one hand and policy-prescriptive and advocacy comments on the other8.

To address this area of weakness, the relevant legislation should be changed at the earliest opportunity to empower the UK Statistics Authority to keep pre-release access to a minimum in line with international best practice, across all four UK administrations. The UK Statistics Authority should also ensure that the Office for National Statistics serves as a model of good practice.

Ministers and public officials should handle data with integrity

All too often statistics are being misrepresented in the public debate. Ministers, MPs and other public officials are guided by the Ministerial Code to follow the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice9. The Code states that at all stages in the production, management and dissemination of official statistics, the public interest should prevail over organisational, political or personal interests, and that no statement or comment is issued to the press or published ahead of the publication of the statistics10. In recent years there has been a much closer scrutiny of the misuse of statistics in public debate by the UK Statistics Authority and by fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact. The Authority in 2008 highlighted the need for the statistics code of practice to apply much more widely, following the production of a Home Office fact sheet on knife crime which published administrative ‘hospital episode statistics’ data that had been accessed before ONS processing and official release11,12. Subsequent interventions have addressed issues such as misreporting by the Prime Minister and others of new jobs figures in relation to foreign workers, which is an issue that Full Fact has also campaigned on13,14. Examples such as these continue to show that good practice must be applied more widely in future.

The independent UK Statistics Authority should continue to play a key role in public policy

'Ministers should not be the arbiter of whether data are accepted as an official statistic.'

Since its inception in 2007, the UK Statistics Authority has established itself as a key independent player in the UK statistical landscape. Its statutory role is to be the prime guardian of the correct use of statistics in public debate, and its interventions, we believe, have informed both politicians and the media. We would encourage the government and other policy makers to continue to seek the Authority’s advice, and to follow its guidance to prevent recurrent cases of misuse. The government should be widely committed to improving how information, as a basis for policy making, is communicated in public. Standards in the communication of statistics, adjudicated by the Authority, have a major part in this. It is also the case that a great many statistics are produced, of variable quality, some providing a better standard of evidence than others. We are of the view that Ministers should not be the arbiter of whether data are accepted as an official statistic and their categorisation as such. That responsibility should be transferred in law to the UK Statistics Authority.

The independent Information Commissioner's Office should have greater powers

'The Information Commissioner’s Office should be better resourced, with greater powers to audit compliance and punish bad practices.'

In addition to addressing ministers’ use of statistics, one of the key ways of building trust in statistics among the general public is to have strong safeguards in place to protect individuals’ personal data. Research commissioned by ourselves and others has shown the public lack trust in the use of data by organisations across the public and private sector. There are a range of safeguards that, when applied and discussed, help to reassure the public15,16,17. Sufficient privacy safeguards should therefore be built into any sharing of personal data at the outset. We would also like to emphasise that there is a need for independent oversight and governance to better assure the safeguarding of information and to improve trust. The Data Protection Act provides for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to have certain powers, such as monetary penalty notices and prosecutions. However we believe the ICO should have a sustainable funding base and greater powers to audit compliance and punish bad practices. Data protection provisions should also be written in to the government’s contractual arrangements, and penalties for data theft should be strengthened, to encourage greater attention to the ICO’s remit.

Endnotes

1. P. 13 in European Commission (2007) Special Eurobarometer: Europeans knowledge on economical indicators [PDF]. Available from: http://www.oecd.org/site/worldforum06/39562127.pdf [accessed: April 2015]
2. NatCEN social research (2014) Public confidence in official statistics [PDF]. Available from: http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/833802/public-confidence-in-official-statistics_-final.pdf [accessed: April 2015]
3. United Nations Statistics Division (2006) Principles governing international statistical activities [html]. Available at: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/methods/statorg/Principles_stat_activities/principles_stat_activities.htm [Accessed: April 2015]
4. UK Statistics Authority (2010) Pre-release access to official statistics: a review of the statutory arrangements, March 2010. London: Crown Copyright
5. Cabinet Office (2010) Pre-release access to official statistics policy [PDF]. London: Cabinet Office. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/62084/pre-release-stats.pdf [Accessed: 9 February 2015]
6. Bailey, R. Rofique, J. & Humphrey, A. (2010) Public confidence in Official Statistics 2009 [PDF]. London: NatCen Social Research. Available at: http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/25384/public-confidence-official-statistics-2009.pdf [Accessed: February 2015]
7. Snorrason, H. Byfuglien, J. & Vihavainen, H. (2015) Peer review report on compliance with the Code of Practice and the coordination role of the National Statistical Institute: United Kingdom [PDF]. Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/64157/4372828/2015-UK-report/d44f7d3f-64c1-4450-8a37-bfadb8542607 [Accessed: April 2015]
8. United Nations Statistics Division (2006) Principles governing international statistical activities [html]. Available at: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/methods/statorg/Principles_stat_activities/principles_stat_activities.htm [Accessed: April 2015]
9. Cabinet Office (2010) Ministerial Code [pdf]. London: Cabinet Office. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61402/ministerial-code-may-2010.pdf [Accessed: February 2015]
10. UK Statistics Authority (2009) Code of Practice for Official Statistics: Edition 1.0 [PDF]. London: UK Statistics Authority, Available at: http://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/assessment/code-of-practice/code-of-practice-for-official-statistics.pdf [Accessed: February 2015]
11. House of Commons (2009) ‘Minutes of evidence taken before public administration committee: Official Statistics; publication of statistics relating to knife crime’ [html], 5 February 2009. Available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/c229-i/c22902.htm [Accessed: April 2015]
12. ‘Publication of statistics related to knife crime’ [PDF], Letter from Sir Gus O’Donnell to Tony Wright MP, 16 January 2009. Available from: http://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/reports---correspondence/correspondence/publication-of-statistics-relating-to-knife-crime.pdf [Accessed: April 2015]
13. ‘Statistics on new jobs’ [PDF], Letter from Sir Andrew Dilnot to Jonathan Portes, 18 August 2014. Available from: http://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/reports---correspondence/correspondence/letter-from-sir-andrew-dilnot-to-jonathan-portes-18082014.pdf [Accessed: April 2015]
14. ‘ONS moves to end misreporting of foreign worker job statistics’ [online article], Full Fact, 12 July 2011. Available at: https://fullfact.org/blog/foreign_worker_statistics_ons_clarification-2815 [Accessed: April 2015]
15. Cameron, D. Pope, S. & Clemence, M. (2014) Dialogue on Data: Exploring the public’s views on using linked administrative data for research purposes [PDF]. London: Ipsos MORI. Available from: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/publications/1652/Dialogue-on-Data.aspx [Accessed: 9 February 2015]
16. Royal Statistical Society (2014). Research on trust in data and attitudes toward data use / data sharing [PDF]. London: Royal Statistical Society. Available from: http://www.statslife.org.uk/images/pdf/rss-data-trust-data-sharing-attitudes-research-note.pdf [Accessed: 9 February 2015]
17. Sciencewise (2014) Big Data: Public views on the collection, sharing and use of personal data by government and companies [PDF]. Didcot: Sciencewise. Available at: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/SocialIntelligenceBigData.pdf [Accessed: 9 February 2015]