The Cabinet Office has been reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for using unpublished and unverifiable data to refute RHA’s claims last month that export volumes plummeted by 68% in January, after the UK’s exit from the European Single Market.

The reprimand follows an investigation into the Cabinet Office data used to publicly refute the findings of an RHA survey of its members which showed the volume of exports going via British ports to the EU plummeted by 68% in January and that 65%-75% of trailers from the EU were going back empty in the same period.

The survey was sent in a letter to Gove on 1 February, to alert him to the high numbers of lorries returning to the continent empty as UK exporters struggled with post-Brexit rules and regulations.

The Cabinet Office posted a strong rebuttal of the claims following reports in the national press.

Referring to RHA’s claim of a 68% fall in exports it said: “We do not recognise this figure and further details from the survey have not been shared” and insisted flows were “close to normal, at 95% outbound and 96% inbound”.

However, last week, following an investigation, Ed Humpherson, the Statistics Authority’s director general for regulation wrote to Richard Laux, chief statistician at the Cabinet Office, expressing serious concerns at the way the department had used data to rebut the RHA’s information.

The letter said the Cabinet Office’s strong rebuttal contained “claims based on unpublished data, and as such these figures cannot be verified. It is our expectation that any data used publicly by government should be published in an accessible form, with appropriate explanations of context and sources".

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Humpherson acknowledged that the Cabinet Office has pledged to provide more detail on the source of its data, but he added: “The Cabinet Office should consider how, in future, it can be more transparent through the release of data.

“For example, it should ensure that where there is a significant reason to use unpublished management information in a public statement, the underlying data is published before or at the same time as the public statement. If there is continued or anticipated public interest in the data, it should consider whether there is need for a new ad hoc or regular statistical release.”

The authority, which is independent of ministers, has a brief to intervene if “official statistics in a document or statement are presented in such a way that, in the authority’s opinion, they are liable to mislead the public or undermine the integrity of official statistics,” according to its terms of reference.

The RHA declined to comment, but in a LinkedIn post, Rod McKenzie, RHA MD of policy and public affairs said: “This is a significant vindication for the RHA’s stand on the problematic start of the new Brexit arrangements which simply can’t be dismissed as mere “teething troubles” - the truth, as exporters and importers know, is that there are serious issues baked into the Brexit deal which need to be addressed by ministers.

“Truth is lorry volumes are down on normal (but improving) but many lorries heading to the EU are empty. Probably twice as much as is usual: that means we are exporting less. Coming soon in April and July - more red-tape for imports too, rumours of easements on that...but putting things off without addressing the cause is a pressing issue for Lord Frost.”

Rachel Reeves, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “Our British businesses are under huge strain from the pandemic and reams of costly new red tape as a result of the government’s deal with the EU – the government should spend less time arguing with our businesses and spinning against them, and more time working with them to help.”

Industry sources say that there was evidence that the number of lorries returning empty to the EU had fallen but it was still around 50%.