In these “post-truth” days of fake news and “alternative facts”, you could be forgiven for thinking facts and figures don’t stand much chance against the power of politicised misinformation. It can all get very depressing – so I’m pleased to be able to report a small but very important step forward in the fight for truth.
Starting on July 1, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) will no longer give ministers and officials a sneak peek at its statistics before they are made public. Known as “pre-release access”, this pernicious practice gives the government the chance to spin the numbers before anyone else has even seen them. Once a minister appears on the Today programme and sets the narrative about what the numbers supposedly say, it’s very hard for anyone else to shift the frame of that story.
It should not be this way. In a democracy, the government should never be allowed to get a first run at official statistics on the economy, education, the health service and so on. All that pre-release access does is put opposition parties, journalists and the public on the back foot while the government’s spin machine cranks into action. Sadly, this is not uncommon. One of my favourite examples came in 2012 from Grant Shapps, then a housing minister:
Far from the predictions of the doom merchants, today’s figures show work has started on over 15,000 new affordable homes since last September – a massive increase on the previous six-month period. This is clear evidence that our efforts to get Britain building are starting to yield impressive results.
What Shapps failed to point out was that house building starts are seasonal, so it’s natural to see the numbers go up between October and March each year. The right comparison would have been with October-March the previous year. Mark Easton from the BBC made this comparison and it showed a 68% drop in house building starts. But it wasn’t a fair fight, as Shapps had an extra 24 hours to get his story together.
As long as they have the chance, governments will never be able to resist the incentive to spin numbers. And tellingly, the public doesn’t think they should get the chance: research by NatCen indicates that a majority (67%) support official statistics being made available to everyone at the same time with no pre-release access.
The Royal Statistical Society, of which I am executive director, has long campaigned for an end to pre-release access. In the run-up to the election, we tried to raise awareness of the issue in a letter to The Times with 114 signatories – precisely the same absurdly high number of people with pre-release access to that day’s labour market statistics.
Our campaign was something of a success. Shortly after the election, the UK’s National Statistician, John Pullinger, announced that he would stop giving pre-release access to ONS numbers, citing our Times letter as a factor in his thinking.
This is a major breakthrough – but the job is not yet done. While the ONS will no longer give ministers sneak peeks at its figures, many official statistics are produced by government departments rather than the ONS, and they still offer pre-release access. The Scottish and Welsh governments can be even worse, allowing up to five days of access.
So the fight is far from over – but at least there’s some cause for celebration. The ONS’s decision shows that while we can feel increasingly overwhelmed by spin and obfuscation, there are still ways to improve the quality of data in public debate. This is a small and incomplete victory, but it’s a heartening one indeed.