ONS ‘unable to cope with data releases’

Sensitive economic data could be delayed after the body that regulates Britain’s national statistics office criticised it for failing to properly publish information on its website.

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has suggested that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) staggers publishing its figures, after technical problems meant that many were unable to access the ONS’s website when information was released, reports The Telegraph.

The UKSA said the ONS had failed to properly release data on a number of occasions, meaning that many did not have equal access to financially sensitive official statistics for economic growth, inflation, unemployment and other key indicators.

Earlier this year, the regulator identified 31 breaches of the ONS’s “equality of access” obligation, which requires that everyone can see the data at the same time, within an 11-month period.

The problem is exacerbated because news agencies such as Reuters and Bloomberg are given access to the numbers shortly before the official release, so that they can publish it on their own newswires at the same time. If regular access to the ONS website is delayed, those with access to newswires have privileged access.

The ONS typically publishes official statistics at 09.30 on weekday mornings, but under the UKSA’s recommendation, it would release the information in half-hourly intervals.

For example, it would publish a headline figure for GDP at 09.30, followed by an explanatory statement at 10.00 and detailed numbers such as regional data at 10.30.

“People waiting for the ONS website to load are likely to wait longer than those using specialist trading platforms linked to news analytics, since the latter can be transmitted almost instantaneously following the ‘lock-in’,” the UKSA said.

Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, said the recommendations “reflect badly on the ONS and the UK’s ability to publish statistics”.

“No-one else has this problem, and it seems like a bizarre way of getting around it,” he said. “Often you get a headline figure that looks good and once you probe the underlying data it’s not the case. It could lead to more [market] volatility because you could see the first figure and then start trading on that.”

An ONS spokesman insisted that the body had a programme in place to deal with the problem but said it “is considering staggering release times of datasets to further promote the principle of equal access”. The ONS is not bound by the recommendations of the UKSA.