Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Greater London Authority


  The Greater London Authority has, since its creation in April 2000, been involved in consultations on the 2001 Census. The staff involved on behalf of the GLA are the same staff who were involved in those consultation before the GLA was created, at that time representing the London Research Centre and the London Boroughs. These staff are nationally recognised experts in Census matters and are frequently called upon for advice by Census users in local authorities throughout the country. Independently of this staff were also employed as part of the Census field force.

1. The adequacy of the preparatory work and consultation undertaken prior to the Census

  1.1  There was plenty of consultation prior to the Census, much more so than for the previous Census, and it was generally welcomed. Nevertheless, it has not always been clear how much influence the consultations have had on subsequent decisions and how comments made by large groups of users have been weighted against comments made by one individual who may only use Census data sparingly.

  1.2  Our view of the consultation process has also been influenced very strongly by recent changes in policy by ONS which make a mockery of all the time and effort put into the consultations by users. The policy changes (detailed in Section 3 below) mean that many of the opinions and needs of local authorities expressed throughout the consultation process would have been totally different if based on ONS policy as it is now.

2.   The conduct of the Census

  2.1  Many areas of the Census operation were good and worked as well as in the previous Census. Among these we would include the staff recruitment, which required a bit more effort in London but was eventually successful. Publicity was generally good and many people were expecting the enumerator when they called.

  2.2  Some areas of the Census operation were disastrous—shortages of household and continuation forms were a complete surprise to field staff and caused enormous problems. Posting back of Census forms has been hailed a success by ONS but it did not seem this way to the field staff. Problems with the postal service in parts of London made the enumerators' jobs extremely difficult, if not impossible to carry out according to instructions. The follow up by enumerators to addresses was carried out very sketchily, if at all, in some areas because they had to wait so long before they could be sure there was no response. Forms were taking two weeks to get through the postal system in parts of London, and this meant that the very keen workforce had to be held back and the time allowed for follow up drastically reduced.

  2.3  Forms were not checked properly by the field staff, not through any fault of their own, but because they were instructed only to check three questions—age, sex and marital status. An additional problem with checking the forms was the estimate by ONS that a form could be checked in 1 minute. This was not the case in London where there were many language problems and difficulties in contacting people, and it took more than one minute to check forms which were filled in by respondents whose first language was not English.

  2.4  Outsourcing of parts of the operation appears to have caused major problems—in particular the payments to field staff were a complete embarrassment to all concerned and caused a lot of ill feeling.

3.   The utility of the planned outputs for prospective users—(Will the data be fit for purpose)

  3.1  It is not possible to comment definitively on table layouts and proposed outputs that are not finalised and which are still under discussion. It had looked as if the proposals might be acceptable. However, ONS have just announced that "All counts in all tables for England and Wales will be rounded either to zero or to numbers divisible by three". This makes all the data unfit for purpose and users are extremely angry that they have been misled by ONS for some considerable time. We have previously had categorical assurances from ONS that any adjustments necessary to preserve confidentiality would be made to the underlying database and not to individual cells within tables. If ONS carry out their latest proposals tables will not be internally consistent and different counts will be produced for the same variable depending on which table is used to produce it. As a result, the whole One Number Census project becomes complete nonsense.

  3.2  A further very late change in policy is that the minimum thresholds for release of data for output areas has been raised considerably, and this has very important implications for the earlier decisions on the average target size for output areas. If the thresholds had been clear from the start, and not increased at the last minute, then very different decisions would have been made about the preferred size of output areas. We would expect such radical changes in policy to result in a complete rethink in a number of areas—especially the target size for output areas which must be increased.

  3.3  Doubts have been raised in two other areas that are vitally important to Census users. One is in relation to the boundaries which are to be provided with the data. It had been expected that we would receive vector boundaries, as suggested in the consultation documents but we now hear that unusable raster boundaries may be provided instead. These are no use whatsoever for thematic mapping and would result in considerable extra expense and delays. This is unacceptable. The other area is related to boundary changes which are due to be implemented before the Census data is published. We want ONS to adopt the April 2002 boundaries as standard for the data, as do users in other parts of the country also affected by boundary changes. The boundaries will be provided in digital form to ONS by Ordnance Survey, but we have still been unable to get any commitment to use them out of ONS.

4.   Lessons for the next Census

  4.1  We had hoped that lessons from the 1991 Census would have influenced the 2001 Census but are very disappointed that some very important lessons have been ignored. One of the major concerns raised by local authorities throughout consultations on the 2001 Census output has been the internal consistency of the datasets. Basically we want to get the same answer to any query whichever table is interrogated. For example we would like the number of people aged under 5 in any area to be consistent and not differ between tables in the output. We want the figure for the number of under 5s in any ward to be the same as the number of under 5s in that same ward reached by adding up the corresponding figures for all the smaller constituent output areas. As a result of this we have no confidence in the ability of ONS to carry forward the lessons that should have been learnt from previous censuses.

  4.2  Very late changes in ONS policy have meant that our views and comments made over a number of years have been totally disregarded. We have no confidence in the decision making process that has led to this and would have to think very seriously in the future about feeding back information to ONS which is then totally disregarded.

5.   Conclusions

  5.1  We ask the Committee to seek assurances from ONS that any adjustments necessary to preserve confidentiality will be made to the database and not to individual tables.

  5.2  We ask the Committee to urge ONS to ensure that the Census data is fit for purpose, in particular by recognising the administrative boundaries that are current at the time of the release of the data.

  5.3  We ask the Committee to instruct ONS, in the light of the major changes to minimum thresholds at this very late stage, to consult further with users about the implications of this change so that user priorities under these altered circumstances can be determined.

  5.4  We ask the Committee to urge ONS to come to an agreement with Ordnance Survey about provision of digital vector boundaries with the Census data, and to ensure that local authorities are provided with the boundaries in a format that is fit for purpose and acceptable to them.

November 2001

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