Chris Giles New dawn for UK statistics

What was that infamous “Jo Moore” phrase again?

Yesterday certainly was “a good day to bury bad news”. As all eyes were focused on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, the government slipped-out an announcement that its preferred candidate for the new chair of the UK Statistical Authority withdrew her candidacy.

MPs were not convinced Dame Janet Finch, a paid up member of the non-executive great-and-the-good, she was sufficiently independent to be an effective watchdog over official statistics and ministerial spinning of data. The good news for all those interested in clear official data and wider access to information held by government is that the next candidate put forward by government must know they are there to serve the public not the government.

This creates the possibility of a new dawn for UK statistics. all areas including monetary policy will be more transparent and, even if pre-release of data to ministers is curtailed, the Bank of England is unlikely to find its job of controlling inflation compromised.

What was wrong with Ms Finch? She gave a shocker of an interview to MPs last week. Follow the link to read the full car-crash transcript, but given her lack of suitability for the role, the subsequent events speak volumes about a flawed selection process, led by Sir Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary and Nick Macpherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury.

In short, Ms Finch thought she was qualified to be an independent watchdog over official statistics, but:

  • She could not outline specific steps necessary to improve public trust in statistics
  • She did not think it was a priority to cajole government to provide greater access to unpublished data
  • Was dimly aware of how to engage outsiders with the need to improve public engagement with statistics
  • She said she was not a details person – quite a statement for someone wishing to oversee statistics
  • She had no view on the number of days required to do the job
  • She saw no apparent weaknesses in the Office for National Statistics
  • She was unwilling to take on media misrepresentation of statistics
  • She thought the current pre-release of statistics 24 hours in advance to ministers and many officials was tolerable, though she preferred something shorter
  • She had not read the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, under which she was being appointed
  • She had little of note to say about problems with the census, including the severe under-counting of the population in 2001.

Just the sort of person – one MP called a “stooge” – who senior officials might want as a watchdog. Luckily, MPs have dug in their heels and forced her to withdraw. Let’s hope we have someone who really understands independence next.