David Prosser: The battle for independent statistics

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Outlook Those who wonder whether backbench MPs have any real power these days should be reassured by an announcement quietly made by the Cabinet Office on Wednesday evening (when most people were more focused on the phone hacking furore). Its publication of aletter from Dame Janet Finch, withdrawing from the selection process for the head of the UK Statistics Agency (UKSA), represents something of a triumph for parliamentary scrutiny.

For while Dame Janet was the Government's preferred candidate for the job, MPs on the Public Administration Committee, who held a confirmation hearing for her last week, were unimpressed. She left them with the impression she wasn't prepared to make a stand for the independence of the UKSA.

Whether or not that impression was correct, Dame Janet was right to stand down, having failed to convince the PAC that she had the stomach for a fight. And the committee's members were right to insist on having a candidate who wants to make this a priority.

The row reflects widespread concern about the way in which the Government (both this one and its predecessors) abuses privileged advanced access to the UKSA's work for nakedly political reasons – and the inability of the agency in recent times to improve public confidence in official statistics. The next candidate to appear in front of the PAC will now have to address those anxieties.

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