Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


21 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q20 Chairman: Welcome back to the Sub-Committee. Could you introduce yourself and your colleagues formally, please.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. I am Karen Dunnell, the National Statistician and Registrar General for England and Wales. This is Jil Matheson, the Executive Director in ONS for Census Demography and Regional Statistics, and this is Ian Cope who is the Director of the 2011 census.

  Q21  Chairman: The last census cost us a quarter of a billion pounds: £250 million. What is this one going to cost?

  Ms Dunnell: At the moment this is all part of our preparations and planning that we are putting forward for the next spending review. Until that process is gone through, we cannot say exactly what it is going to cost, because we do not know how much we are going to get, in effect, it is all up in the air.

  Q22  Chairman: But the Commission has estimated that it might cost around £500 million, twice as much as the last one. Is that a reasonable estimate?

  Ms Dunnell: It is very difficult to say. In our spending review proposal we have put forward our proposals to do the census in the way we believe we need to do it to get the right result. It may well cost much more than last time, yes, because of various reasons like improving the quality, the complexity to which the Commission has already referred today, the growth in the population, and inflation of course.

  Q23  Chairman: But is it going to cost double what the last one cost?

  Ms Dunnell: It is a bit difficult to say at the moment. The whole thing is in a process with the spending review team in the Treasury. We do not have the result of that and I do not think we are going to get it in the next couple of months.

  Q24  Chairman: You are not allowed to tell us what you have asked for.

  Ms Dunnell: I would rather not.

  Q25  Chairman: You would rather not. Okay. When we reported on the last census, one of the things we said was that there should be a rigorous cost-benefit analysis carried out in time to inform the new census. Have you done that?

  Ms Dunnell: We have done a lot of work on a cost-benefit basis and some of this was published in 2003. An enormous amount of the work we have done has, of course, gone into the spending review papers and plans and we know from all of the consultation we have done in preparation for the 2011 census that all government departments, local authorities, the Health Service, every other user out there sees enormous value in the census and is greatly supporting carrying out the next one.

  Q26  Chairman: But that was not our point. Everybody thinks it is valuable and everybody wants to see the results. Our point was that there should be some cost-benefit analysis done. Does the body of work to which you refer amount to a cost-benefit analysis?

  Ms Dunnell: I do not think it does in strictly business terms but we have set out an awful lot of information about, for example, the amount of money that is allocated on the basis of the census; the costs that would be incurred, for example, if money were misallocated to health authorities and local authorities; and in some senses the benefits to communities and business and so on.

  Q27  Chairman: In its response to our report, the Government said that the next census would be a combination of the traditional headcount as well as using data for administrative and survey sources. That is not in fact going to happen, is it?

  Ms Dunnell: No, because part of the work that we have already done has suggested very clearly that we need to do a proper traditional census. We do not believe that things like administrative records are going to be in the kind of state we need them to be for them to be an alternative to the census but we will be using administrative records and surveys. Could I ask Jil to say a bit more about that because it is a very important part of our ongoing work in preparation.

  Ms Matheson: One of the reports we did publish in 2003 was both looking ahead to 2011 and beyond and thinking about what are the alternatives, what are the ways in which the kinds of data that the census uniquely in this country can provide and are there any other ways in which that can be done. There were various elements that needed to be put in place in order for that to happen. One is the kind of information that some other countries have on a population register, so an up-to-date population register was one element and an up-to-date address register was another element, plus a whole series of survey data. We have made a lot of progress on developing a new integrated household survey but of course the population register and indeed the address register are not yet in place. The conclusion was that by 2011 all of those legs that are needed will not be there.

  Q28  Chairman: So we will end up with a traditional census, albeit a more complicated one than last time.

  Ms Matheson: A traditional census, in that it will be an exercise that involves everyone. It is an opportunity for every single person in the country to participate in the census. It will have forms or internet or telephones as a way of capturing information from people, so in that sense traditional. There are some innovations which are partly about looking ahead to the complexity. Professor Rhind talked about the kind of complexity that will be introduced in 2011 and the kind of society in which we will be conducting the census, plus some technical innovations to learn the lessons from 2001 and take advantage of the technology that will be there for 2011.

  Q29  Chairman: We will come to some of the details in a moment, but, in terms of procurement for the technology itself, has the Office for Government Commerce undertaken gateway reviews for the procurement you need for 2011?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, indeed. We have had regular gateway reviews of this project and will continue to work closely with OGC on this. In fact, we have had an OGC consultant helping us with our procurement strategy, which is now in place, and the first part of our procurement has happened in preparation for the test—so they are deeply involved, yes.

  Q30  Chairman: Have they given you these traffic lights: red, amber and green?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q31  Chairman: What are they?

  Ms Dunnell: The last two have been red.

  Q32  Chairman: So you have had to take remedial action.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. But on the last two, both of the reds were because we got a red on one thing. The first one was because we did not have secure funding through our office process—which we managed to get the week following the red—and the second was because of a particular risk which they did not feel we had properly covered—on which we have now of course done a lot of work. So we and they are reasonably happy that everything is on track, yes.

  Q33  Chairman: Can you supply the Committee with reports on these reviews?

  Ms Dunnell: We can do, yes.

  Q34  Chairman: You have supplied us.

  Ms Dunnell: No, we have not yet.

  Q35  Chairman: But you could as they go through.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes*.

*Not printed.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Q36  Jim Cousins: Could I bring you to what seems to me to be the heart of the matter and some slightly worrying things you have already told the Committee. I think you all agree that robust population estimates, which are a sound basis for the distribution of government money across the country to local government and to health authorities, is extremely important and that we now have a very complex problem of a large group of transient, highly mobile people who are not randomly distributed across the country but focused in particular areas like the one I represent. You have said you have made a bid to do the population census as you wish it to be done, but you are not going to tell us what that bid is. So we will have no knowledge of how you do in the comprehensive spending review. We will have no insight into whether we will have soundly based population figures in the years that come after the population review. That is quite a serious situation for this Committee to be in.

  Ms Dunnell: Getting the population estimates right at local authority and small area level is our absolute priority. As far as I know, and from the consultation and all the work we are doing with stakeholders, government departments, et cetera, that is the absolute agreed priority for the census and 90% of our efforts are focused on achieving that because if that fails then however many other questions we have about interesting topics become irrelevant. That is the absolute focus. The changes that we are proposing in the methodology, the changes we are proposing in the questionnaire to track migrants, the whole approach to defining who we want to count on census night is all pointing towards getting that estimate right.

  Q37  Jim Cousins: We still do not know what your bid is. We will not be able to compare it with what the outcome is and we will not be able to see, as a Committee, whether you in fact will be able to deliver what you have just set out to the Committee.

  Ms Dunnell: I think you will be able to see that we have delivered it when we deliver it. The proof will be in the eating.

  Q38  Jim Cousins: That is not really good enough, you see, because we know that there were problems with the 2001 census and the issues for 2011 are going to be a lot more difficult. You have already agreed on that.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q39  Jim Cousins: It is no good saying the proof will be in the eating because I represent a city which is undercounted by 13,000 in revenue support grant and in allocations to health trusts. Please do not tell me to wait until 2014—should I be fortunate enough to be sent back here by my constituents—and we will all have a nice intellectual discussion about it then. That is no good.

  Ms Dunnell: We will of course be making quite clear exactly what we are proposing to do on the census, and all the information and the kinds of approaches that we are doing we are going to be testing on May 13. All of that information and our whole approach to it is in the public domain through the test. That test will be very informative about whether or not the methods and so on that we are proposing will work. I do not think anybody is going to be in the dark about exactly how we are proposing to deliver.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 9 May 2007