UK Politics

Cameron 'growth hint' to be examined by statistics watchdog

David Cameron during prime minister's questions
Image caption Thursday's figures are expected to show that the economy has returned to growth

The statistics watchdog is to look into suggestions David Cameron may have broken an embargo on key growth data.

Ahead of the release of GDP figures on Thursday, the prime minister defended his economic policies to MPs, saying the "good news will keep coming".

Labour suggested the PM's "hint" was playing "fast and loose" with rules allowing certain ministers to see economic data 24 hours in advance.

No 10 said the PM was not referring to the data but general economic progress.

The publication of output figures for July to September is widely expected to show the UK has come out of recession, after the economy contracted in the previous three quarters.

The information, regarded as highly market sensitive, will be officially released by the Official for National Statistics at 09.30 BST.

'Political hole'

A select group of ministers and officials - including the prime minister, the chancellor, the deputy prime minister, the business secretary and the governor of the Bank of England - have access to the information and other economic indicators a day in advance.

The access, intended to enable ministers to respond to questions after the information is published and take any necessary action, is granted strictly on the basis they do not disclose it to anybody else.

Under rules approved in 2008, individuals are not allowed to reveal any statistic or "any suggestion of the size or direction of any trend indicated by that statistic" and must sign a declaration agreeing to comply with this.

Pressed by Labour leader Ed Miliband about the government's performance after recent controversies over household energy bills, the West Coast Mainline franchise and the resignation of former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, Mr Cameron said what mattered was that inflation and unemployment were falling while the number of people in work was rising.

"Every bit of good news sends that (Labour) team into a complete decline but I can tell him the good news will keep coming."

In response, Labour said it was "wrong for the prime minister to hint at growth figures before they are officially published".

"It is a sign of a desperately weak David Cameron that he has to play fast and loose with the rules on financial information to get him out of a political hole," a party source said.

'Right track'

The UK Statistics Authority, the body responsible for upholding the integrity of public statistics, said a "number of people" had asked them to look into the prime minister's comments and whether they represented a breach of the rules.

"Our attention has been drawn to it so we are going to look at it," a spokesman said. "Any suggestions that the rules on pre-release of financial information may not have been followed, we will look into."

Downing Street insisted the prime minister had not been alluding to the imminent growth figures but was reflecting on "progress being made and expected to be made" in the economy.

"The issue here is was he (the prime minister) talking about tomorrow's figures?" a spokesman said. "I'm telling you he wasn't.

"He was basically saying we are on the right track, the government has the right policies and the economy is healing and rebalancing. If you look at what the Bank of England governor was saying yesterday, he said that there are encouraging signs about the economy."

No 10 would not comment on whether Mr Cameron was actually aware of the details of Thursday's announcement.

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