16 Nov 2011

Ministers failing to figure out new Stats Watchdog

Boris Johnson today called Sir Michael Scholar, the Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, a “Labour stooge”. 

Last month Scholar, who runs the government’s watchdog on the integrity of official statistics, accused the Mayor of London of giving misleading figures to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.
Poor Sir Michael.  He would actually have left the job months ago if the government hadn’t run into big problems finding his successor.

Last June the Cabinet Office announced that the government’s “preferred candidate” was Dame Janet Finch, the former Vice-Chancellor of Keele University.  But then Dame Janet should got a real mauling by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin.  

The row was about how independent Finch would be. 

At the heart of it was the issue of “pre-lease access”, the system whereby government departments get to see official statistics 24 hours before they are published.  Jenkin and his committee think this gives ministers an unfair advantage, and the time to put a favourable spin on bad figures, and that was the official Tory view in Opposition. 

Now in power – surprise, surprise – ministers prefer early sight of any new figures, and Dame Janet appeared to side with the government on this.  Some MPs on the committee felt she would be too much of a government stooge.
Bernard Jenkin concluded his hearing with a killer blow to Finch: “I have to ask you the absolute shocker of a question, which is that, if this committee were to recommend against your appointment, it is in fact still the government’s prerogative to appoint you anyway. Would you accept the appointment on that basis?” 

Finch did not reply.

A few days after the hostile committee hearing, Dame Janet wrote to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell and withdrew her name from the process.  The committee no longer needed to make a recommendation for a full vote by MPs, and didn’t bother publishing their conclusions.  It was one of the first examples of a Commons committee effectively blocking a government appointment.  

That was on 5 July.  More than four months later, ministers still haven’t come up with an alternative name.  I am told that one is due “in the not too distant future”, though the new name will have to undergo a similar grilling by Bernard Jenkin’s committee.

Jenkin thinks that good candidates are deterred from applying by the fact the intervewing panel is dominated by top government figures – Sir Gus O’Donnell himself; Robert Chote of the Office for Budgetary Reponsibility; and the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson.  

“I know for a fact that at least two people who would have been suitable candidates did not apply when they saw the lineup of the panel,” Jenkin told the Guardian in July.

“Whatever the reality, there was a perception it was the regulated choosing the regulator.  There has got to be a different selection process.  I hope the panel will be less permanent-secretary-heavy.”

In the meantime Sir Michael has valiantly been soldiering on, taking Boris Johnson’s taunts.  

Mind you, his jibes may have something to do with old Oxford college rivalries.  Sir Michael is President’s of St. John’s College, while Johnson went to Balliol next door.