Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Going back to the beginning when you were deciding on the Census form, how did you decide what topics were most needed by the various potential users of the Census data? How did you decide what to put into the Census form?
  (Mr Pullinger) We had a whole series of consultation groups with the different types of organisations who have an interest in the Census results: central government, local government, health authorities, the academic community and the business community in particular. We ran a whole series of consultations with them to see what they wanted. They inevitably came up with a huge wish list.

  21. How much did those lists conflict?
  (Mr Pullinger) Different people were interested in different things. They rarely conflicted, they just added to create a very long list. The first thing we did against that was to see whether there was another way of getting this information. Anything where there was another way of getting it we struck it off. Then we looked at whether it was going to be acceptable. There was a huge demand for a question on income, for example, only our testing took us to the conclusion that for a significant minority of the population it would not be acceptable to have that question on a census form which was compulsory. We concluded that we could not put that on the form.

  22. What was that going to be used for?
  (Mr Pullinger) The main argument for that was amongst Government departments with an interest in social exclusion, to be able to identify accurately those people who had a poor level of income. You cannot really get that from any of the other variables on the Census.

  23. Might it not still have been useful even if it were only 95 per cent accurate?
  (Mr Pullinger) There you have a trade-off. If it is less accurate you have these alternative sources. You can go to the Department for Work and Pensions and get statistics from the benefits records which give you some help. You can go to the sample surveys and polls which exist which give you information on income. The unique benefits of the Census is that because you do get decent results from everybody you can look at these smaller groups.

  24. Were Government departments who were pressing for this satisfied that they could obtain the information they wanted that way?
  (Mr Pullinger) We came up with a strategy of delivering results at the same time as the Census by putting all these other sources together. Time will tell whether we are satisfied with that but we came up with a strategy they were happy to accept.

Mr Tyrie

  25. For the first time there was a question on the Census form on religion and it was a voluntary question. It was marked beside the question that it was voluntary. Can you give us some indication what the response rate was?
  (Mr Pullinger) We are only just getting to the stage where we have completed sets of information coming through our processing system. I would be unwise to go too far as to what the final results will be. The first set of results we have from going all the way through about half a million people, a reasonable sized sample —

  26. A huge sample.
  (Mr Pullinger) As against trying to work our way through 50 million it feels like a small amount so far done and a lot yet to do. All right, it is a huge sample. From that the answer is that somewhere between 85 and 90 per cent answered that question. I can write to you confirming that but it is that order of magnitude. It is not up in the 95 to 99 per cent we would expect for most questions, but it is not right down at the bottom.

  27. Since there is no penalty for not filling in the question, there was obviously no penalty for filling it in incorrectly. Is there concern that unlike the other questions there might be a higher inaccuracy rate?
  (Mr Pullinger) People will respond in the way they feel is right for them. We had speculation during the Census period that people were going to record Jedi on the form and maybe some people did. We do believe that we will get from the main religions those people who wish to record themselves as belonging to those religions. It is particularly true of religions such as the Muslim and Sikh religions which were very keen to have this on the form that we will get accurate information from them, which is where it will matter most. Then it can be used in combination with others. In a sense, where there are people who are treating the figure frivolously or not filling it in, those are the people we would be less worried about anyway.
  (Mr Cook) We have no reason to believe that having asked the question people will answer the question less well than they will answer any other question.

  28. The question was marked as non-compulsory, but the statute which governs the Census says that one is obliged to fill it in, therefore there is some contradiction between what is marked on the form and what forms the basis for the Act. Do you think that it is practicable or feasible for some future government to decide to drop the accompanying statement that the question is voluntary?
  (Mr Cook) My experience in countries which have a question on religion and have had it for a long time is that it is more likely to be singled out as a question which is voluntary. What we have done is not all that unusual. Will the Government make it compulsory in future? I would not have a view on that. I would not know what the Government will do, but you can rest assured that the advisers to Government on statistical matters will not seek to have such a question compulsory.

Dr Palmer

  29. You are probably anticipating this question. Why did your consultation procedures and rehearsals not identify the Welsh identity issue? Do you draw any conclusions from this for future censuses?
  (Mr Cook) The consultations identified the considerable significance of the Welsh interest which was expressed most significantly by having a bilingual questionnaire, having a separate question on language in the Welsh Census; in addition to that the very strong Welsh management of the Census in Wales and all the consultations which occurred. They were the things which were given considerable pre-eminence. It would be fair to say that the moves beyond the time in which devolution was introduced have undoubtedly been associated with an evolution of thinking about ethnicity. The fact that in the Scottish Parliament, the decision to shift the way the ethnic question was asked in the Scottish Census was quite a last minute action and the Welsh interest was stimulated by that action as a reaction. In some ways it simply recognised that this is a very difficult question, these are issues which are still evolving, ethnicity is not a subject on which we have all the wisdom we need to create Census questions which are going to last for all time.

  30. Turning it round the other way I believe that Welsh is by no means the largest group in Britain of people speaking another first language. Was the Census form available in other languages apart from English and Welsh?
  (Mr Cook) We had Census questions available in some 24 languages.

  31. How do you choose those languages? Just the 24 largest population groups?
  (Mr Pullinger) In effect yes; the ones we thought from the consultations were most going to be needed. We started off with 24 but as we were going through we found pockets of people speaking Tamil and Korean and added those in and had them translated while we were out there. In a sense the Census operation gives us the chance to respond to a need we see.

  32. That is admirably flexible. Did you find in general that there was quite a lot of interest in the ethnic groups in getting such forms in their own language?
  (Mr Cook) Very much so. The existence of the forms and the many language materials we had was a very important way of gaining the confidence in the different ethnic communities that we were actually carrying out a census that was important to them as well. One of the successes of the Census in a sense is that we probably reduced the differential response rates amongst the different communities to the Census.

Mr Plaskitt

  33. How many pages was the 1991 Census form?
  (Mr Pullinger) I cannot answer the question of pages. There were about 30 questions; I say "about" because some of them were in parts. Thirty questions in 1991 and 41 questions on the English form in 2001, which is the nearest I can get to an answer for you.

  34. Perhaps when you are sending us some of the other bits of information you could include that.
  (Mr Pullinger) Just the number of pages on the forms.

  35. Yes. For a family with four or five people this is a 20-page form, although for a single person it was in effect an eight-page form. Did you get any complaints about the size of the form?
  (Mr Pullinger) I honestly do not recall any. We did have a vast amount of correspondence but there were no complaints about that which came to my desk; there were many others on different aspects. One thing I should say about the size of the form is that in designing the form we were quite clear that cramming a huge amount of information on a small number of pages was more likely to cause people difficulty than spacing the form out and in doing it in a way people could easily understand. Our testing of forms' design was designed to work with how people actually assimilate forms when they see them.

  36. Did you have any complaints about the number of questions on the form?
  (Mr Pullinger) Yes; some people felt there were too many. More people thought there were too many than too few. Some people did think there were too few because they did not give them the chance to recognise a particular situation they were in. Elderly people who wanted to be able to record their occupation, which we asked them not to do, is just one which springs to mind. Yes, people were saying this.

  37. Did a significant number of people complain about the number of questions?
  (Mr Pullinger) The complaints were not very loud ones.

  38. Can you tell us how many people? You must have monitored complaints to see what they were. How many does it show on your log complained about how many questions there were?
  (Mr Pullinger) We shall see what we can find for you. I do not have the number in front of me.

  39. Are you still counting the complaints as well as the answers?
  (Mr Pullinger) Yes.
  (Mr Cook) What we can tell you is the questions which generated interest from the time the form came out. For example, the question on work generated an interest amongst people over 75 because they were excluded from it as a result of the pilot testing. The response after the pilot testing was that the sensible thing was that they should be excluded from the question. Once the Census went out into the field, when you started dealing with the whole population, there was clearly a strong pocket of people who felt that they should not be excluded from such a question because they got another message from that. What we have is a good body of information which we are building up which we will then be able to relate to the quality of response to the Census forms at the end of the processing to get a sense of what influence their interest and concern had on the actual quality of the Census. The ethnic question generated some responses by some groups. The Cornish had an interest. In each of the questions we can identify the issues. We are not necessarily always able to give you a volume measure of the number of times that was expressed because sometimes the significance of the concern may be more important than the number of times.

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