Select Committee on Treasury First Report


On the need for a Census

    (a)  The Office for National Statistics (ONS) were unable to supply us with robust evidence to justify expenditure of over £250 million on the Census. We recommend that a rigorous cost-benefit analysis should be carried out of the 2001 Census and published in time to inform the need for, and timing of, any future Census. We consider that any future Census should also be justified in cost-benefit terms. (Paragraph 10)

    (b)  We also recommend that ONS publish estimated income to be received from all sources for the use of 2001 Census data. We recommend that their charging policy be published and regularly reviewed. (Paragraph 11)

    (c)  We consider that in evaluating the benefits of any future Census all alternatives should be considered, including doing without a Census altogether and reverting to a simple headcount. Any evaluation will also need to take account of the likely acceptability to the general public of drawing on other data sources, such as tax and benefit records, for Census purposes. The Committee would wish to be informed of the results of these evaluations, which will need to be completed before a decision is taken on whether to hold a mid-term Census in 2006. (Paragraph 15)

On the preparations for the Census

    (d)  We believe the legislative procedure for the Census provides a valuable opportunity for Parliament to make a more measured input to proposed legislation than when, as is usually the case, the enabling legislation permits only approval or rejection of proposed subordinate legislation. (Paragraph 19)

    (e)  It is clear that a question on income would have been found useful by many users of Census data. The ONS decision not to include such a question appears to be based, at least in part, on judgements on the public's willingness to provide such information in the context of a Census. The information on the response rate to the question on religion suggests that compulsion is not necessarily an essential element in securing a high level of responses to specific questions. We therefore recommend that, in the light of the response rate for the question on religion, ONS should consult further on whether a question on income should be included in any future Census, and whether it should be voluntary or compulsory. (Paragraph 23)

    (f)  We note that ONS's preparations for the 2001 Census did not reveal the latent concerns in Wales over how Welsh identity was to be recorded on the Census form. We recommend, in the light of this, that ONS look further at the way in which they rehearse any future Census, to ensure the most accurate picture possible is obtained of both how the census is likely to be received and proceed. We endorse the proposal that the National Assembly for Wales have a more formal role in agreeing future Census forms for Wales. (Paragraph 27)

    (g)  We welcome ONS's recognition that more needs to be done for blind and partially-sighted people for the next Census. We believe that this should mean that blind and partially-sighted people are able to take part in any future Census independently. More generally, we recommend that ONS review carefully, in consultation with relevant organisations, problems experienced by disabled people in relation to the conduct of the 2001 Census and adopt a best practice approach to meeting the needs of all disabled people. (Paragraph 31)

On the conduct of the Census

    (h)  In view of the difficulties experienced with the return of Census forms, we recommend that for any future Census ONS evaluate the benefits of postal return versus enumerator or other means of returning forms. If a future Census is to be based on postal return, ONS should conclude a service level agreement with the service provider aimed at ensuring that the conduct of the Census is not impeded by the quality of service received. (Paragraph 36)

    (i)  ONS seriously underestimated the volume of calls to the Census helpline and the service was initially overwhelmed. As a result, the service provided to the public, particularly in the week preceding Census Day, was inadequate and unsatisfactory. We note the significant number of calls for help received by ONS, but also recognise the context that, at some 2.6 million over three months, the number of calls received was under 10 per cent of those being enumerated. We recommend that helpline capacity for future censuses be carefully evaluated, and that there are discussions with service providers to seek to minimise technical constraints on call volumes and handling peak loads as these factors clearly contributed to the difficulties faced by some callers. (Paragraph 40)

    (j)  We consider that the number of calls received on the helpline suggests a need to make the Census process as simple as possible and for improvements in the way the public are informed of the Census and how to complete the form. We recommend that ONS review their communications campaign and the nature and volume of the calls received on the helpline to determine what can be done to reduce the level of help sought by the public in future. (Paragraph 41)

    (k)  We note that the available evidence suggests that the quality of the Census data collected in the countryside has not suffered as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic. We congratulate ONS on reacting sensibly and pragmatically to an unexpected but very serious problem and the field staff on their sensitivity to the special requirements of the farming community. (Paragraph 44)

    (l)  We note the very low number of cases that have been referred for prosecution for failing to complete and return a Census form and we question what message this sends regarding the seriousness with which this offence is regarded. We recommend that ONS review the reasons for the very low prosecution rate. We also recommend that, in undertaking such a review, ONS research public attitudes to participation in the context of a mixture of compulsory and voluntary questions, as was used in the 2001 Census. (Paragraph 46)

On the results of the Census

    (m)  We recommend that in their evaluation of the 2001 Census, ONS review the balance of resources devoted to enumeration in the best performing areas and those devoted to the worst and consider what changes may be necessary to the Census in the light of the response rates to individual questions. In view of the comments of the Market Research Society, ONS might also usefully evaluate whether returning forms by post, rather than through enumerators, had any impact on the response rate to particular questions. (Paragraph 53)

    (n)  We note that the first results from the 2001 Census will not be available until August 2002 and that the main results will not be available until the first half of 2003, when data on which local authority spending assessments are based will be 12 years old. We recommend that ONS review the trade-off in cost benefit terms of the Census results being available earlier for users and public resource planning against the additional cost of doing so, and publish the results of this exercise. In undertaking this work, ONS should take account of the requirements of all data users, and not just the resource allocation round for local government, which seems at present to be the primary determinant of the timetable. (Paragraph 57)

    (o)  We recognise the conflict between confidentiality and precision in outputs containing small numbers. We recommend that ONS reconsider their decisions on rounding and the minimum threshold for individual output tables in the light of concerns expressed by data users and others in the evidence submitted to the Sub-committee. (Paragraph 59)

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