Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
21 FEBRUARY 2007
Q1 Chairman: Professor Rhind, welcome
back to the Sub-Committee. Could I ask you to introduce yourselves
and your colleagues.
Professor Rhind: Thank you, Chairman.
I am David Rhind, the Chairman of the Statistics Commission. Martin
Weale is one of the Commissioners and Richard Alldritt is the
Chief Executive of the Commission.
Q2 Chairman: The National Statistician
told us last summer that there was no need for all the methods
and questionnaires used in the 2011 census to be exactly the same
for each part of the United Kingdom because there were different
sensitivities. What work do you think needs to be done to make
sure we have a consistent set of results for the UK as a whole?
Professor Rhind: I think it is
clear, Chairman, that there are different results required for
some different parts of the UK and that relates to the fact that
those countries are different in some respects or another. The
housing tenure in Scotland has long been rather different from
that in other parts of the UK, and so you asked in the past questions
about flats and houses in a way which you do not need to ask in
England. That said, at an aggregate level it seems to us that
it is very important that the results must be comparable across
the whole of the UK. We welcome the concordat between the census
offices which says that they are going to work together to ensure
that. Last time the disclosure agreements about detailed data
were different in the different countries and this time we hope
very much that as much consistency as possible will be achieved.
Q3 Chairman: One of the things you
have brought out in your submissions which perhaps was not clearly
established last time is how we judge the success of the entire
census, which is a very expensive operation. You have set out
a number of indicators of success. Which of the seven you have
proposed do you think is the key one?
Professor Rhind: You are absolutely
correct, Chairman, that it seems to us that if you do not go into
this without some agreement on what would be success you are inevitably
going to have lots of angst and criticism thereafter. Of those
seven criteria, very much the first one has to be robust population
estimatesthe whole very purpose of having the census. That
leads into other areas. Clearly we would want to have no grounds
for audit criticismthat goes without saying, given how
large sums of public money are being spent on thisbut first,
on any count, would be robust population estimates.
Q4 Chairman: What more do you think
the ONS could be doing to establish a framework against which
we can all measure success at the end of the census?
Professor Rhind: If I may say
so, Chairman, I do not think it is just for ONS. Many of the elements
of this also apply to the other countries, to the General Register
Office for Scotland and the Northern Ireland equivalent, but,
in particular, it is not something which ONS and the census offices
can do on their own. A variety of other players have a part to
make sure that this is a success and to agree the criteria. Local
government, for example, is a major beneficiary but also involved
in a major way in all of this. The media and, in particular, Parliament
are organisations or individuals or collections which can play
a good role, an important role, in defining what is success.
Q5 Chairman: We did look at it last
time but of course we did not have the criteria really to measure
the whole operation against.
Professor Rhind: We have made
some suggestions. We do not doubt that there may be some changes
needed for those but we were seeking to be helpful.
Q6 John McFall: Professor Rhind,
from your perspective are the census 2011 preparations on track?
Which particular areas are in need of attention?
Professor Rhind: Sir, in so far
as we can see at this moment in time, preparations seem to be
somewhat further advanced than they were in the corresponding
period last time. The things which concern us and which we do
not know much about yet are the two issues which bear on the census
above all others: the funding for the census, because until such
time as that has been agreed we do not know whether it is going
to be adequately resourced, and, secondly, the management challenges
for ONS, in particular, but also for the other census offices.
ONS, in particular, because over the next three or four years
they are going to be moving their headquarters and reducing staff
significantly, and they are still in the throes of major changes
to their computer systems. We are a bit concerned at the confluence
of risk, all of this coming at the same sort of time period. There
are other things of course but those seem to us to be the really
big imponderables at the moment.
Q7 John McFall: We will take note
of your comments on funding. Hopefully, there will be something
in our report on that. On the management challenges and the other
issues, you say in your document that taking a census is, in varying
degrees, the responsibility of all four UK administrations but
the position is different in each; for example, consultation began
at different times and the census test in Scotland occurred one
year before the test in England and Wales and Northern Ireland.
That has to present you with problems of coordination, does it
Professor Rhind: Up to a point,
sir. You could see that as rather helpful, in that Scotland had
been a guinea pig for a number of other things, and, assuming
that there is good coordination and collaboration between the
census offices, I think that is a perfectly feasible way of viewing
Q8 John McFall: Were there any other
implications of the different timetables, do you think?
Professor Rhind: Perhaps I can
turn to my colleague, Richard.
Mr Alldritt: I think it is important
here that the three White Papers will all be at about the same
time, at the end of 2008, and therefore the parliamentary process
aligns at about that point.
Q9 John McFall: You mentioned the
concordat and the constituent elements there. You are quite happy
with that now. That is a big step forward.
Professor Rhind: As always, the
proof is in the eating, but we are certainly a step forward from
where we were in 2001.
John McFall: Good. Thank you.
Q10 Mr Newmark: In your interim report
on the preparation of the 2001 census, you set out a taxonomy
of risks. What are the most serious threats to the completion
of a successful census in 2011?
Professor Rhind: I think the ones
I have already responded to Mr McFall. Money and the management
challenges are undoubtedly
Q11 Mr Newmark: You do not see sort
of political eye, media interference and things like that?
Professor Rhind: Absolutely. Last
time there were some rather helpful media interventions, if I
remember correctly. I think it was the Sun which ran a
series of articles pushing the merits of the census. But there
is absolutely no doubt that political infighting or media fun
with the census, even if it did not undermine the taking of the
censusand it might if it turned off people filling in the
census formscould undermine trust in the results that came
Q12 Mr Newmark: To what extent are
the ONS's existing controlsstatistical controls, financial
and regulatory controls and statutory requirementsadequate
to manage any of these threats?
Professor Rhind: We have been
in discussion with ONS staff about this. We certainly have information
which helps us to believe that things are better than they were
in 2001. I think the ONS risk register, which has, as I understand
it, some confidential elements, has not yet been made available
to us, so we have to put a caveat on that particular element.
Q13 Mr Newmark: Other than the general
point of trying to make some sort of political consensus amongst
parties to try to prevent some of the hyperbole that goes on in
the media -and I know that last time there were people concerned
that it would be used as a form of subterfuge, that ID would be
used to chase people up for council tax, that they should become
council tax payers and suchhow should we, as politicians,
perhaps work with the media in trying to allay those sorts of
concerns that happened last time around?
Professor Rhind: That is very
constructive, if I may say so. The advocacy from politicians that
this had a benefit to the populace, both in confirming what we
already believed but, secondly, in finding out new things about
society and would therefore allow government to target resources,
government at all levels, national and local
Q14 Mr Newmark: You are dealing with
the positive things. I completely agree with those but it is addressing
some of the negative fears that people have. I lived in south
London at the time and I know a lot of people there, particularly
people from the very poor families, would not fill in those forms
because they believed it would be used as a mechanism to chase
them up for their council taxes.
Professor Rhind: That is a difficulty.
It only requires a few people to say something to newspapers to
run stories on that basis and we are all old enough to realise
that 100% unanimity is unlikely. In all honesty, the only way
out of all that is a series of positive stories coming from multiple
sources to make it clear that this is a good thing. The information
is held in complete confidence and individual information is not
shared with any other government department.
Q15 Jim Cousins: One of the things
which gave concern at the time of the last census was the under-recording
of populations. You very rightly, Professor Rhind, said the heart
of the matter is robust population estimates. There was a feeling,
which I think led to a recount in some cases, that there was an
under-recording of transient populations, particularly in areas
like inner London and the cores of the big northern cities. Do
you think those problems have been addressed on this occasion?
Professor Rhind: It was mostly
in inner London and related areas where these issues came forth.
I do not think ONS did a recount as such but they looked at the
methodology again and did a number of checks. As a consequence
of that, in a number of areas, mostly the hard to count ones,
the figures were revised upwards. All the evidence we have is
that this census is going to be more difficult to take than last
time because there is much more population mobility. On the very
concept of what is a migrant now, thanks to cheap flights and
so on, people are coming in and out much more frequently than
they ever did before, and gated communities and a whole variety
of factors mean it really is going to be very difficult to count.
It seems inevitable that especially ONS, but it will apply elsewhere,
will need to differentiate the resources they put into different
sorts of area to a greater extent than they did last time. Huge
attention will have to be paid to the difficult to access areas.
That is a management matter of some importance for ONS.
Q16 Mr Todd: You referred earlier
to the risks of under-funding of this exercise as being one of
the major ones you face or that the Statistics Commission will
face. What degree of comfort do you have so far? One recognises
this is going to be clarified in the spending reviewor
at least one will assume it will be. What degree of comfort do
you have so far?
Professor Rhind: I do not know,
other than general statements, that the importance of the census
is recognised; that, on the basis of census counts, large sums
of public money are allocated at local government level or NHS
level and within the local authorities and elsewhere. There is
certainly general agreement that the census is the best single
vehicle for doing all that but I do not have any assurances from
HM Treasury or anywhere else that the thing will be funded at
a level which would make us all very happy.
Q17 Mr Todd: Do you feel it has been
properly understood that this will be a more complex exercise
than last time? As Jim's questions indicated, there was some degree
of dissatisfaction with the accuracy. I represent a part of the
City of Derby which certainly had its population increased following
a clarification in the methodology. Do you think that level of
complexity is understood by those making judgments about the amount
of money that may need to be allocated?
Professor Rhind: I do not know
how to answer that because I have not had a yes or no from the
people to whom we have been speaking. I do know the Commission
has been pressing this repeatedly since 2003, our last interim
report, and we will be continuing to do so to all the relevant
Q18 Jim Cousins: This more turns
on the abilities of ONS itself to manage this exercise. Do you
feel, again bearing in mind the additional levels of complexity
that you have identified, that they are organisationally capable
of contracting this activity and ensuring it is completed to a
Professor Rhind: The challenges
that face ONS in aggregate, not just the census one, are very
considerable indeedI think rather more than ONS faced in
the last census by virtue of all these other matters that are
coming along. It would be an extraordinary achievement if ONS
managed to pull off all the things that have been set for them
and they have set themselves. That is why we have made this study
of risk and why we have tried to highlight the areas where early
action can be taken.
Q19 Mr Todd: From what you have said,
you would not imagine it is going to be easy for ONS to absorb,
say, Gershon savings in this exercise and maintain a standard
of performance that is to be expected.
Professor Rhind: That is a matter
of real concern.
Chairman: Thank you very much. We will
leave it there and move on now to the Office for National Statistics.