MPs torpedo appointment to statistics watchdog

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MPs have effectively vetoed the Government's choice as head of the UK Statistics Authority, the watchdog that oversees the work of the Office for National Statistics. Dame Janet Finch, a former vice-chancellor of Keele University, was recruited by the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, and her appointment was expected to be nodded through. However, after a bruising encounter with MPs on the powerful Public Accounts Committee, Dame Janet decided to withdrew her application, for fear that she was about to be rejected. MPs had questioned whether she would be a "stooge" for the Government.

The MPs' unease centres on the "24-hour rule" whereby ministers, civil servants and the Bank of England receive advance notice of important releases such as inflation and growth figures. The pre-release, it is argued, gives ministers an unfair advantage over the opposition, and adds to the danger that market-sensitive data is leaked. There have been rumours of leaks of the inflation figures in recent months.

There is growing assertiveness by Parliament over official appointments. Recently, the Treasury Select Committee in effect vetoed the appointment of Alastair Clarke as an external member the Bank of England's new Financial Policy Committee, because of perceived lack of independence.