Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Statistics Commission


  1.  This memorandum describes the Statistics Commission's remit in relation to the 2001 Population Census in England and Wales and how it plans to fulfil that remit.

  2.  The Commission expects the National Statistician and Registrar General to undertake a rigorous review of the Census himself, and understands his current plans are to do this in stages. It will be monitoring and reviewing the outputs of the staged reviews and will decide in the light of these whether it needs to undertake independent studies of its own. It will offer advice in the light of these reviews and studies to help ensure that any lessons for future Censuses or for other work are fully learned.


  3.  The Statistics Commission was set up in June 2000 to advise on the quality, quality assurance and priority-setting for National Statistics, and on the procedures designed to deliver statistical integrity, to help ensure National Statistics are trustworthy and responsive to public needs. It is independent both of Ministers and of the producers of National Statistics. It operates in a transparent way with the minutes of its meetings, correspondence and evidence it receives, and advice it gives, all normally publicly available for scrutiny.

  4.  It does not collect or disseminate data itself, but acts as a watchdog for the way the Office for National Statistics and statisticians in other government departments do so. Similarly its role is to check that the National Statistician's quality assurance and stakeholder consultation arrangements are working effectively, not to usurp his role by undertaking these tasks for him.


  5.  The population Censuses are very important to the Commission. They represent a major and expensive exercise of crucial importance to a very large and diverse range of users. They are particularly important for the planning of public services in a wide variety of areas but also an important source of information to business and academic users too.

  6.  The rest of this note focuses on the England and Wales Census, reflecting both the terms of reference of the Sub-committee's inquiry and the emphasis of the Commission's initial considerations so far. The Commission has however a remit in respect of National Statistics in the devolved administrations and will be taking a UK wide approach as far as practicable.


  7.  The Commission expects the National Statistician to undertake a rigorous post hoc review of the operation of the Census, complementing the development work leading up to it.

  8.  The National Statistician has scheduled a programme of reviews to ensure that each stage of the process is evaluated and that appropriate information on data quality can be made available to users.

  9.  The Commission will be monitoring the reports of the reviews and looks forward to seeing the first batch focusing mainly on operational aspects between December 2001 and March 2002. It will decide in the light of consideration of these reports and of issues arising, whether it needs to undertake independent studies of its own.

  10.  Regardless of whether it decides to undertake further substantive studies the Commission will assess the outcome of these reviews. It will offer advice on what needs to be done to ensure that any lessons are fully learnt, including whether the issues arising need to be discussed more widely before firm decisions for the future can be made.


  11.  The main task will therefore come after the ONS reviews are made public. The Commission is however preparing for this task in a number of ways.

  12.  The Commission's secretariat has had a number of helpful discussions with the Office for National Statistics (and will also be approaching other Census Offices) to ensure that it fully understands the plans for review and will be ready to examine reports promptly.

  13.  It has consulted and will continue to consult various statistics user groups and other informed contacts within and outside government to establish what issues they see as important. Issues raised so far have been wide ranging, covering aspects of the consultation process through to the dissemination of the Census results. Whilst some of the points may be very specific to the group/individual concerned, many are of broad relevance.

  14.  There is one area where the Commission felt it right to launch a small study of its own in advance of ONS reviews—to explore public perceptions of the burden of completing the Census forms


  15.  Some of the key issues emerging from the Commission's initial consideration and consultation with users are:

    (a)  the success of the one number census (ONC) approach;

    (b)  issues relating to nationality and language;

    (c)  how well the needs of different types of users (such as local authorities, businesses etc) are met by the Census. This relates both to the questions and to the dissemination arrangements;

    (d)  the overall costs and benefits of the Census, including the balance between data collected directly in the Census and those areas for which the Census should provide a baseline or sampling frame for more detailed work.

  This list is not of course comprehensive. Many other issues have been raised by users and others will no doubt emerge, particularly as Census results become available.


  16.  The Commission regards the population Census as one of the key areas of National Statistics and is already committed to reviewing it. It would not be appropriate for it to duplicate the National Statistician's own work, but it is important that the Commission scrutinises this work carefully and that it plans to ensure that it is well placed to respond promptly but with due consideration to the National Statistician's reviews as they become available.

Statistics Commission

November 2001

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