Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-59)


21 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q40  Jim Cousins: What resources are you going to put into this integrated household survey, the rolling survey, which can, to some degree, adjust and compensate for whatever deficiencies there might be in the census itself?

  Ms Dunnell: At the moment, we have four continuous household surveys, which are largely financed by ONS but also subscribed to by other government departments, and I think they cost a total of something like £20 million. Basically we are rolling them altogether into one sample and then the core part of the questionnaire is very similar to a census questionnaire. At the moment, that is all there, but we cannot add them together because they all have different kinds of samples. That will bring enormous benefits of estimation, at local authority level anyway, in between censuses. That is the purpose of that, but it is actually using money that we already spend on those four surveys.

  Q41  Jim Cousins: There are no new resources going into that?

  Ms Dunnell: No, there is no new resource.

  Q42  Jim Cousins: And you are not bidding for new resources.

  Ms Dunnell: Not for that, no.

  Jim Cousins: Thank you.

  Q43  Mr Gauke: You have nine key mission critical aims for the 2011 census. How will you measure whether those have been successfully achieved?

  Ms Dunnell: The most important thing, as we have just been talking about, is getting the population estimates right. Jil, would you like to comment on this?

  Ms Matheson: It was interesting to hear Professor Rhind's comment on this. We absolutely agree with him. The ultimate measure of success will be the accuracy with which we can estimate the population in 2011 and we have talked about some of the challenges to do that. That is the key test and that is what is driving our strategy and our design for 2011. In 2001 we had set out what we expected to be the level of accuracy to which we measured the 2001 population. At a national level, we did very well. The problem was that there were some pockets of local authorities—and we have heard that Derby was one of them—where, for various reasons (the enumeration problems, the address register problems, the management information and the way we handled it), the estimates at that level were a lot worse than in other parts of the country. As well as setting the target of the national level estimate, we are also setting the target of achieving the minimum level of acceptability in every area—which we achieved in something like 93% of areas last time.

  Q44  Mr Gauke: I can see how that applies with issues such as population size, but how do you measure whether you can ensure that key minority groups have been well defined? What is the measurement for that?

  Ms Matheson: There are several ways of doing that. Part of that is in the census results themselves. In order that you get the kind of level of accuracy and the population estimate that I am describing, that means by definition you have to have made it a census for everybody, including all the different groups, some of whom were harder to count in 2001. The strategy, again, is about understanding who are the users and what is the population we are trying to measure. We have a whole programme in place of engagement with community groups, with representatives of different groups, both to understand their needs as census users and also how they can help us achieve the highest levels for participation from every group.

  Q45  Mr Gauke: We have touched upon some of the problems that the last census had. Do you think some of the publicity about that has in any way damaged the overall reputation of government and official statistics?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, I think in part it has. I think that is why I agree with David Rhind that one of the most important things we will have to do in the next census is sell the benefits of it to everybody in the UK in order to get the highest response possible. I am very hopeful of course that we have a whole programme of work aimed at improving trust in government statistics, through independence and all the other things that are going on. The census will be very much a focus of that.

  Q46  Mr Gauke: One area that got a lot of publicity last time around, not surprisingly, was the issue of religion, and particularly the Jedi religion. As things are moving, Internet campaigns, email campaigns, as we have been seeing this week, are increasing all the time. What preparations are you making as a consequence of the Jedi point to ensure this is going to be addressed next time around?

  Ms Dunnell: Of course these are things which come at you at the very last minute for which it is very difficult to have strategies. We had that one last time and we had the Welsh tick-box one last time, and we are now, as Jil said, engaging with absolutely everybody who is in touch with us about wanting some kind of representation on the census and there are very large numbers of them. Taking them all as seriously as one possibly can at the time and trying either to include whatever it is in the census and that becomes increasingly impossible of course as the form gets more and more complex, but engaging with people in advance I think is very, very important.

  Mr Gauke: May the force be with you!

  Q47  Ms Keeble: How satisfied are you with the preparation for the test in May? In particular, you said people would have confidence in what was happening, but what you have you actively done to make sure it does work and that it deals with the kind of problems that have arisen in previous censuses?

  Ms Dunnell: We are carrying out the test in May in five areas. In fact the plans for this are going very well and in some censuses we are ahead of time. Could I ask my colleague Ian to tell you a little bit more about the test?

  Mr Cope: The test is in five local authorities that are spread across the country and designed and chosen to be representative of the country as whole. We started our procurement process very much earlier than last time. We started it in September 2005, so we have already selected two companies that are working with u s in the test for the data capture. All the questionnaires for the test are printed and all addressed and they are in a secure warehouse waiting to be dispatched. We have a recruitment agency that are doing the recruitment training and pay for the test for us, Hayes. That is an innovation we are testing through the test. We did an address check exercise in September and October last year. For 100,000 households, we had people walking around the doors to make sure we had the addresses correct. Hayes recruited those people. They have recruited our team leaders and they started the training for that last week. They will be recruiting the enumerators. We have been working with the five local authorities, the Camden, Stoke, Liverpool, Bath and North East Somerset, and Carmarthenshire representatives, and they have been giving us helpful information about their local areas, what are the local community groups, where are the difficult areas where we might need to send staff out in pairs and those kinds of things. They are also going to provide some support around communication and publicity because we can never replicate the kind of communication messages that take place at the time of the census in a small localised area. There are lots and lots of innovations. The key purposes of the test are to test a couple of new changes that we wanted to introduce. One is posting out of the forms and the other is an income question. We are dividing those test households into four areas. Half of them will get an income question and half will not. Likewise, half will have their forms posted out to them and half will have a traditional hand delivery. There is lots and lots of work and I think on some aspects we are ahead of schedule.

  Q48  Ms Keeble: I was leader of the council Brooks was describing at the time of the 1991 census. Even if people go out in pairs, I remember the discussions with ONS because, however many who went out, they could not find anyone, and that was for a whole variety of reasons. Partly because of the points Jim Cousins was mentioning, because local government spending and other allocations rely on it, there is a real issue about making sure you can find people. What you have set out is very thorough in terms of the methodology but it is not going to find the people, necessarily, particularly if, as often happens in inner cities, they do not want to be found. How are you going to crack that problem? Have you looked at issues around data sharing? Because of course local authorities have lists of council tenants which would at least help a bit. What are you going to be doing about the communities you particularly know are going to be undercounted, which is basically young, single men?

  Ms Dunnell: You have raised many, many points there which we are planning to overcome. One of the benefits of post out, of course, may well be that it reaches people who are never in—apart from very early in the morning when they come home from clubs or night work or whatever. That is one of the points of testing that. With regard to the young men issue, we are this time going to be using an internet approach and it may well be that the internet is particularly attractive to some of the groups who are hard to find in. For each one of the points you make, we have some attempt to do that. The other point, of course, is that at the end of the day, even if we do really well, we will still get something like 5% of households who do not respond—that is what happens each time—and then we have the estimation procedure which we do after the census, which involves a very large survey very soon after the census, so we get a very good handle on who did and who did not respond and we use that to estimate the non-response.

  Q49  Ms Keeble: If you look at the form, this will do fine in some areas but in the areas which are hard to find, nobody is going to fill the form in. It is not because they do not want to, it is because it is quite a difficult form to fill in. People will have difficulty in doing it. I think I would have difficulty in sitting down and ploughing my way through this, I must be honest. One of the reasons why so many people in Peckham, on the estates, could not be found is because a number of them were involved in criminal activities. It is a fact that one in four young men have a criminal record now of involvement with the police. They are hardly going to log on to the Internet to let you know where they are. I am not trying to be funny about it but the scale of it is massive. There is a lot that relies on being able to find where people are. Presumably you have agreements now with local authorities about getting lists of council tenants, so that you can just take all of that data over.

  Ms Dunnell: We are working much more closely with local authorities. Ian, you can say a bit more about that.

  Mr Cope: As I have said, we are working with these five areas.

  Q50  Ms Keeble: I am sorry, but I know people are pressed for time. It is not about getting the addresses; it is about getting the names of the people living there.

  Mr Cope: We are working with these test areas in trying to get the authorities to share information with us. We have found that different authorities have different attitudes on whether the law allows them to share with us. Some of them have given us a lot of information.

  Q51  Ms Keeble: That needs to be sorted out, does it not?

  Mr Cope: Yes. We are working with the Local Government Association, which represents most local authorities, to see whether they can take the lead and get some consistency on this issue. Also, the new Statistics Bill will probably help as well because it provides some data sharing access.

  Ms Dunnell: We hope to investigate whether or not we can do this. It is quite tricky though because one of the basic principles of statistics is that you do not ever identify individuals, so we have to be very careful about all these kinds of things. As Ian has said, we are pursuing very methodically with local authorities the potential for doing all kinds of quality checks on what we get at the end of the day and we will be doing that very much more thoroughly at local level than we did before.

  Q52  Ms Keeble: How were these five areas chosen? You have only one of the low response areas. I wondered about the patchiness of them. I thought most of the mining in Stoke-on-Trent had shut down now, but I could be wrong. I also do not see any of the growth areas included—except possibly Bath, but they have restrictions because of the countryside. There are real issues about the way in which the census, and therefore the spending that goes with it, deals with areas with an increasing population and how you manage that process. Certainly, thinking of Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire, my own area, and the whole of the Thames Gateway, where you have a growing population it poses whole different issues, and I wonder if you have given any thought to that.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, we have taken all kinds of things into account. Ian would you like to explain how we chose the five.

  Mr Cope: We chose the local authorities to be representative of inner London, old industrial, prospering Britain, coastal and rural, et cetera. Within that we were looking for a mixture of population within those areas; so a mixture of elderly, students and ethnic minority communities. That is how we chose those five authorities. Liverpool, with the City of Culture in 2008, is undergoing lots of regeneration. Liverpool as a whole may not be growing but there are big changes on the ground, so we are using the 2001 enumeration districts which had, on average, 250 households, and one of those has only four households left now and another one has 465. We are tackling and understanding some of the difficulties of areas which are undergoing rapid change which are not the Milton Keynes of this world at the moment.

  Q53  Ms Keeble: Why did you not look at a growth area? Regeneration of an inner city area is quite different from a growth area where everyone is in work, everyone owns their own home.

  Mr Cope: That is something we can take into account when we are choosing our areas for the rehearsal in 2009.

  Ms Keeble: Thank you.

  Q54  Mr Todd: Could I pursue the relationship with local authorities for a moment. The 2001 census outcome produced a rather confrontational period with a number of local authorities, in which ONS were robust initially in rejecting the arguments of local authorities, however well-founded they were on the basis of alternative evidence of population, and gradually were ground down into submission of conceding error. It did not give a very attractive picture of the relationship of ONS with arguably key partners in this exercise. What are you doing to remedy that?

  Ms Dunnell: Quite a lot in fact. I agree with you that it was a very difficult time for us. In recognising that, that is why we are now putting such a huge amount of effort into it. In fact, the work that we did with local authorities after the 2001 census, which Jil led, has proved to be a very, very useful exercise, first of all, in regaining the confidence of local authorities.

  Q55  Mr Todd: I seem to remember it took at least a year before ONS was prepared to concede any ground in this matter at all.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. It was a very, very difficult time, but I do believe the work we did and the people we had engaged in that work have enabled us to turn a corner. We are now getting a lot of support from the Association of Chief Executives of Local Authorities, from the Local Government Association and so on, and we are taking, as I hope we have explained, an entirely different approach to local authorities in this census than has ever been done before actually.

  Q56  Mr Todd: There appeared to be an attitudinal problem in ONS.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q57  Mr Todd: To say, "We are experts on this subject. It does not matter what information you provide, we do not believe it. We do not accept it. We are right."

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. We have turned around. I think part of that is the work we did on the census but part of it also has been very close working that we have done with local authorities on neighbourhood statistics which has made a big difference too.

  Q58  Mr Todd: It seemed from either an economic perspective or a number of other angles, one of the issues on which this census will probably focus in the public eye is migration and the effects of migration in this country and enumerating its impact on its different parts. First of all, you will have noted the Governor of the Bank of England commenting on the miserable lack of evidence in this area to date. Are you taking particular efforts to try to provide more robust information than the rather anecdotal stuff we tend to have now?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. In fact just before Christmas I published the results of my taskforce on migration, which has made several recommendations to improve things in the short term—in other words, before we get to the census—so that we have a much better idea at the time of the census about the position on migration than we have at the moment. We have put in bids for that work in our spending review and some of the things we are managing to put in now—but, again, one of the clear focuses of the questionnaire, which I see some of you have in front of you—is to ask additional questions which will help us to identify who is a migrant.

  Q59  Mr Todd: Have you specifically identified that item in your spending bid?

  Ms Dunnell: Migration?

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