* Stats agency to stop giving officials early access to data
* Move follows worries about erosion of trust, potential leaks (Adds comment from ONS, Royal Statistical Society)
By Andy Bruce
LONDON, June 15 (Reuters) - Britain’s statistics chief said on Thursday he would stop giving government officials early access to sensitive economic figures ahead of publication, a move that follows concern about possible abuse of market-sensitive data.
The change will be effective from July 1, said John Pullinger, Britain’s national statistician.
Statistics experts have long argued that “pre-release access” should end because it could give government officials an advantage over opposition lawmakers, eroding public trust in data. They have also pointed to the risk of leaks.
In March, Reuters published a report showing movements in the value of British sterling against the U.S. dollar often followed an unusual pattern before monthly releases of official retail sales data.
The Wall Street Journal published an analysis which showed similar movements in British government bond futures ahead of data releases.
Pullinger said he had become increasingly concerned about growing access to economic statistics by government officials and that he tightened Office for National Statistics’ procedures in March as a result.
“It is already clear to me that the changes are not successfully dealing with the risks the review sought to mitigate,” Pullinger said in a letter to the UK Statistics Authority watchdog, published on Thursday.
“I have therefore decided that pre-release access to ONS statistics will stop with effect from 1 July 2017.”
An ONS spokesman said there was no evidence that official data was being leaked. “It is important, however, that public trust in the statistical system is maintained and that ministers and officials are above suspicion,” he added.
The Royal Statistics Society, which had campaigned to end pre-release access for government officials, welcomed the move.
“It will reduce the opportunities for figures to be ‘spun’ and increase public confidence in official statistics,” said RSS executive director Hetan Shah. “It will also lower the risk of market-sensitive information being leaked or abused.”
Earlier on Thursday, sterling weakened against the dollar before the release of worse-than-expected retail sales numbers - a move that fitted with the trend observed in the Reuters analysis published in March.
In March the chair of parliament’s Treasury Committee urged Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority, which tackles financial market abuse, to investigate the media reports about unusual movements in financial markets ahead of official data releases.
Foreign exchange traders regularly post messages on Twitter saying they believe data is leaked ahead of publication, based on movements in the pound.
Editing by William Schomberg/Jeremy Gaunt