December 19, 2011 • 6:30 pm

The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority has written to the Secretary of State for Business following an “unauthorised disclosure” incident.

Last week a senior official accidentally sent market-sensitive economic data around the Department before it was due to be made public.

The Department has apologised to the national statistician and the official responsible will have no further access to privileged material from the Office for National Statistics.

Sir Michael Scholar took the opportunity once again to press for “a prinicpled decision to ban or severely limit pre-release access” to official statistics.

Pre-release access gives Ministers and their advisers up to 24 hours to analyse official statistics before they are released to the public.

The Authority believes that such mistakes are inevitable under the current rules and damage public confidence in official statistics.

But Sir Michael has a surprising ally in this particular battle: the Secretary of State himself.

He quotes a speech made by Dr Cable when in opposition, in which he says it is “seriously bad practice for the UK to have long periods of pre-release.”

Dr Cable warned of the dangers of both real and perceived “political mischief” as well as of leaks.

There is some evidence to support his concern about the public perceiving the system as open to abuse. IPSOS-MORI research for the Authority’s predecessor body found back in 2005:

“Prior Ministerial access is seen by many, most commonly those outside Parliament, as being a perceived invitation for official statistics to be manipulated so that they tell the ‘correct’ story.”

That remains the case and Sir Michael’s letter is a timely call to action.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the letter is his final challenge: “will you unilaterally ban or severely limit pre-release access in your own Department (nothing, I believe, prevents you from doing so)?”

We look forward to seeing Dr Cable’s response.

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