Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

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 estimates—the whole very purpose of having the census. That leads into other areas. Clearly we would want to have no grounds for audit criticism—that goes without saying, given how large sums of public money are being spent on this—but 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 not?

  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 it.

  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 census—and it might if it turned off people filling in the census forms—could undermine trust in the results that came out thereafter.

  Q12  Mr Newmark: To what extent are the ONS's existing controls—statistical controls, financial and regulatory controls and statutory requirements—adequate 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 such—how 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 review—or 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 parties.

  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 satisfactory standard?

  Professor Rhind: The challenges that face ONS in aggregate, not just the census one, are very considerable indeed—I 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.

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