Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Mr Cook, welcome back to the Committee. Perhaps you could identify yourself and your colleagues for the benefit of the shorthand writer.
  (Mr Cook) I am Len Cook, Registrar General of England and Wales; John Pullinger, who is the Executive Director of Social Statistics in the Office for National Statistics, and Robin Lynch who is the Head of our National Accounts Division.

  2. The Treasury told the Committee during our inquiry into general parliamentary accountability that departments' spring reports would give a full picture of each department's organisation, aims and objectives, performance and use of resources. Are you satisfied that your spring 2002 departmental report can meet those criteria?

  (Mr Cook) I think it provides quite a comprehensive view much more of where we are going and I would expect it to have more detail in future years. We have put a lot of effort into basically changing the strategy of the Office and improving very significantly the Government's documents, for example, the National Statistics Plan, the second one this year, the business plan for the Office, and I suspect with the new service delivery agreement that we are negotiating with the spending review for 2002 there will be a much more comprehensive framework than I believe we have at the moment. This reflects the quality of the SAR 2000 service delivery agreement which I would not think embraces as much as I want the 2002 one to embrace. It is also important, just to conclude, to recognise that a huge part of our performance analysis of course comes through delivering on the basic statistics programme. We publish well over 500 reports a year and the actual delivery of those on time is a hugely significant share of the accountability we have to deliver the performance of the Office.

  3. Let us just stick with this report if we can for the moment, not the 500. Could you turn to page 33 where you list the various performance indicators in annex C? There you simply put alongside most of the performance indicators the comment "Monitored and reported quarterly". What does that mean? It does not tell us what happened.
  (Mr Cook) No. This could have more detail and I have got much more detail, for example, in the background material that we used to prepare this.

  4. What is the point of listing performance indicators with a commentary if it does not tell us what happened? What is the point of the commentary?
  (Mr Cook) When you come to our annual report, of course, it contains—

  5. Let us stick with this report. What is the point of the commentary if it does not tell us what happened?
  (Mr Cook) The body of the report has provided quite a comprehensive statement within it of the huge number of things that are going on in the Office but I certainly accept the criticism.

  6. In future years we would like to see some outturn properly reported here. Turning to your annual report, one of the key activities of course was the 2001 census and you devote some four pages to this. You do not refer to our report on the census. Why is that? This is your report, Mr Cook, pages 7-11. It does not make any reference to our own report or recommendations. Why is that?
  (Mr Cook) I was not aware that we had not, Mr Chairman.

  7. You are aware presumably of the Government's response to it.
  (Mr Cook) Very much so.

  8. You do not refer to that either. Are you not taking this Committee's report seriously?
  (Mr Cook) On the contrary, we do take it very seriously and we have regarded our response to you as a very serious piece of the direction of the work of the Office.

  9. But you do not refer to it at all.
  (Mr Cook) The contents of the report have played a very significant role in the business plan. I believe that we have properly taken account of your report much more in the prospective work of the Office than the reporting of the year 2001-2002. What I can promise is that the annual report for 2002-2003 will provide a clear distillation of what we have done in this year for that, which is in fact the year where most of the action on your recommendations will have taken place.

  10. Turning to the census results itself, your preliminary results show that the population was about a million less than you had previously forecast. Was the methodology wrong with the interim census? What went wrong here? Were you surprised about this? How did we lose a million people?
  (Mr Cook) We never had them in the first place because the population estimates that we produce in the intervening years, in the 10 years between the census, are based first on the previous census, in which we now believe we made an error in assuming was less correct than it was. We believe that we over-adjusted for missing people in the 1991 census, and I can come on to that, for the same reason that we believe we over-counted in the estimate for 2001, which is simply that whereas we can measure births and deaths in the United Kingdom with a high level of accuracy, because we believe we have a highly effective birth recording system and a highly effective death recording system, we can measure migrants into the UK with a level of precision that we believe we can improve somewhat on but which we believe is of a reasonable degree of accuracy but we have real difficulty in measuring the outflow from the United Kingdom. We believe that we are able to use a lot of administrative information to confirm the estimates that we are able to make of people coming into the United Kingdom from administrative sources and surveys such as our labour force survey. When people have left the United Kingdom we do not have information that can confirm whether they have gone or not and we have no way of validating estimates of the outflow of people from the United Kingdom. We have the disadvantage of being on the one hand an island state but we do not have the border documentation that smaller island states have and we do not have the registers that landlocked countries have to measure population flow in the United Kingdom, so it is very difficult to measure, with the level of precision that we need for these estimates, the migration flows in the UK. We estimated 250,000 departures a year between 1991 and 2001 and we now believe that there were just on 300,000 departures a year.

  11. You can count them all in but you cannot count them all out; is that right?
  (Mr Cook) We do not have the ability to do so. We do not have the methods for doing that and as migration has been more significant our ability to measure population change is less than it was, say, 20 years ago.

  12. Getting the forecast wrong by a million is not very good, is it?
  (Mr Cook) It is 0.1 per cent a year.

  13. It is a million people you were wrong by.
  (Mr Cook) When you accumulate 0.1 per cent a year for ten years it comes to just on a million, yes.

  14. Why do you think migration has been significantly under-counted?
  (Mr Cook) The process by which we measure migration is a survey of international passenger arrivals and departures at Heathrow and other airports and it is a sample which is designed and has been traditionally designed to measure with sufficient reliability the balance of payments flows of United Kingdom citizens and of people coming into the United Kingdom. We also use it for visitor arrivals and it is extending its effectiveness to use it as we do for migration flows. We currently have an investigation under way to look at alternatives.

  15. Are you going to get this better for the next census? Are you going to remedy these deficiencies in terms of migration?
  (Mr Cook) It is probably one of the most important things that we need to do in official statistics at the moment. It is a significant activity in my office at the moment, to look at alternative means. We had started to do that about a year ago but the significance of it obviously has changed.

Mr Mudie

  16. How are you going to get better if we do not record people coming into the country and whether they leave or not? Short of doing the American system where, when you come in, they take your name and they tie it up when you go back out so that they know who has come and who has gone, how are you going to do it? I do not see how it is possible to do it so the inaccuracies will remain.
  (Mr Cook) It is most likely that we will have to use some modelling methods and a series of approaches—

  17. So you will guess?
  (Mr Cook)—some of which mean that we look at other countries. For example, the problem that we face is not much different than exists in other European countries. One of the things that we have been discussing in the European Union Statistical Offices is, is there a common solution to this, just as you will be aware there is with foreign trade, where each of the countries in the European Union follows the Intrastat trade process where we can measure from either country the trade flows between countries, and so with an attempt to find a European-wide solution one of the things we know is that we can measure inflows into countries better than we can measure outflows. If we were able to measure the inflows of United Kingdom citizens into other countries with a degree of accuracy we could use that to compute part of the movement, for example, on outflows. That is not saying that that is the solution but there is a set of second order indirect approaches to measuring that we would look at using.

Mr Cousins

  18. Can I ask how these problems with the international passenger survey statistics affect our internal population figures? For example, if we have been losing 100,000 more people than we thought, and by that I do not mean that we have been losing 100,000 in that sense but they have been choosing to do whatever it is they want to do with their lives, where have they been coming from inside Britain? What knock-on effect does that have for population figures for various parts of Britain?
  (Mr Cook) We do have more means of measuring internal migration flows.

  19. I am not talking about internal migration flows. I am talking about the impact on urban regional populations of losing an additional 100,000 people a year. You are not attributing that loss, for example, of 100,000 a year to wherever in Britain Heathrow Airport happens to be recorded?
  (Mr Cook) No.

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