Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Telford and Wrekin Council


  1.1  The success of the 2001 Census undertaken by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was blighted by two high profile problems:

    —  Significantly undercounting the population of 15 local authorities, with the most high profile example being Westminster. The initial 2001 Census results published in September 2002 undercounted the population of Westminster by some 22,000 (11%) people. A revised population estimate was not published by ONS until September 2004.

    —  The disclosure control techniques developed and applied by ONS to protect individual's anonymity resulted in inconsistent and sometimes meaningless small area statistics.

  1.2  As well as a need to ensure these problems are not repeated by the 2011 Census, ONS must prepare to ensure that the Census accurately counts new migrant streams, including those from new EU accession states, into the UK and, importantly, migrant streams within the UK.

  1.3  These requirements are challenging and how well ONS overcomes them will be a benchmark against which the success of the next Census will be measured. The consequences of the 2011 Census not producing accurate figures include:

    —  Ongoing shortfall in and misallocation of revenue support grants to local authorities.

    —  Inability to accurately measure local economic and health indicators, such as Gross Value Added (GVA) per head, and ensure economic and health policy, locally, regionally and nationally are based on robust data.

    —  Inadequate assessment of new migrant and ethnic communities' needs.

    —  Failure to target capital spend at growth areas to deliver sustainable economic and population growth.

  1.4  Telford & Wrekin Council believes that one fundamental way in which ONS can begin to prepare to overcome these challenges is to plan the 2011 Census as a partnership exercise with local authorities rather than a top-down government project. Such an arrangement will allow ONS to access the considerable wealth of knowledge local authorities have about their areas to ensure survey resources are most effectively targeted to maximise the Census response rate from all sections of our communities.

  1.5  In adopting a partnership approach to the Census, ONS should work much more closely with local authorities and ensure that all the results and outputs of the 2011 Census are fit for purpose and meet the needs of local authorities and other key stakeholders.


  2.1  The results of the 2011 Census will provide central and local government with key data to inform the development of policy, services and resource allocation for the following decade. For the full value and benefit to be gained from this Census, it is critical that the ONS preparations focus on ensuring that the results are robust, fit for purpose and reflect the information needs of both local and central government.

  2.2  To achieve these objectives, Telford & Wrekin Council believes ONS must undertake the 2011 Census in partnership with local authorities and not as a top-down government project. There are three core areas we believe ONS preparations for the 2011 Census would benefit from partnership working with local authorities:

    1.  Planning and undertaking the Census fieldwork.

    2.  Effectively measuring population and migration.

    3.  Ensuring all Census output adds value.


  3.1  The 2001 Census significantly undercounted the population of 15 local authorities. Subsequent inquiries into why this happened have suggested that if ONS had worked in partnership with local authorities these errors were more likely to have been avoided. Specific problems in the 2001 Census included:

    —  Significant differences between the address database used by ONS to administer the Census forms and databases held by local authorities.

    —  Problems identifying neighbourhoods which were more likely to produce low response rates and provide problems of "access" for enumerators.

    —  Where the Census results for a local authority were significantly out of step with pre-existing ONS data, there was no consultation or discussion with relevant local authorities prior to finalising and publishing results.

  3.2  As a result of these problems confidence in the Census "product" was undermined. To avoid a repeat of this for the 2011 Census, we believe that ONS should work much more closely with local authorities and harness their local expertise and knowledge. If there are significant discrepancies between the results of the Census and pre-existing data, ONS should engage with local authorities to understand why this might be the case before finalising and publishing results.

  3.3  To achieve this, we are calling for the 2011 Census to be planned for and carried out in partnership with local authorities. Because of the importance of Census results to service and policy development, we believe that local authorities would welcome and support such a step.


  4.1  The area of population and migration is a specific example of how a partnership between ONS and local government could be expected to add value to the 2011 Census process.

  4.2  The decennial Census continues to provide the only benchmark of the national population. In the years between, annual population estimates for the UK and local authority areas are calculated by ONS using a "components of change" model which uses birth, deaths and migration data. Towards the end of each inter-censul period, these estimates at the local authority level become increasingly inaccurate. By 2001, the gap between the ONS population estimate for Telford & Wrekin and estimates independently produced by Prof Worrall at the University of Wolverhampton was some 6,000 people.

  4.3  Although this undercount was corrected by the 2001 Census, there is already evidence that the current series of ONS annual population estimates is undercounting Telford & Wrekin's population. More recent research by Prof Worrall has suggested that the ONS estimate for 2005 undercounted the borough's population by some 2,000 people. Based on evidence from the previous two decades, this undercount will only increase.

  4.4  The reason why ONS annual population estimates are unreliable is the quality of the migration data. The failure of ONS to accurately estimate the number of migrants into and out of the UK has been highlighted in a number of high profile debates. As well as failing to accurately estimate people entering and leaving the UK, ONS has failed to effectively estimate the distribution of migrants into and out of local authorities. This has resulted in authorities, such as Telford & Wrekin, which have a high rate of population growth and relatively low skill economies which are attractive to highly mobile migrants, receiving annual population estimates from ONS which significantly undercount their population.

  4.5  Because of the importance of population data to the Government's calculation of the revenue support grants for local authorities, affected councils have received grants which do not reflect the size of the population to which they must provide services. We estimate that since becoming a unitary authority in 1998, Telford & Wrekin Council has lost in excess of £12.5 million in lost grant because of population undercount by ONS. This shortfall in funding has put at risk the ability of these local authorities to continue to deliver the Government's sustainable growth agenda.

  4.6  The 2011 Census provides ONS with a unique opportunity to quantify and profile the level of migration into the UK over the previous decade and importantly, provide a benchmark for measuring and modelling migration for the forthcoming decade. With this data, ONS should be better able to produce more accurate annual population estimates.

  4.7  ONS must specifically prepare for this challenge and consider:

    —  how to effectively engage migrants in the Census process;

    —  where to target Census survey resources at new migrants.

  4.8  Telford & Wrekin Council believes that ONS can most effectively address these two issues by working in partnership with local authorities. At present there is no national dataset in the UK which has effectively tracked the estimated 500,000 new migrants from EU accession states. Many local authorities, however, through their own local research and front-line community development and outreach workers are aware of the neighbourhoods where these migrants are living. It is imperative that ONS harnesses this local expertise to target survey resources and ensure that the 2011 Census successfully counts both new and highly mobile migrants.


  5.1  Part of the strength of the Census is that it collects data about even the smallest communities across the UK. We recognise that in planning the output and analysis of this data ONS has to balance access to this detailed data against data protection legislation and other appropriate safeguards around individual privacy. However, a number of concerns were raised over the way in which ONS managed the output of the 2001 Census.

  5.2  The original ONS output plan for the 2001 Census was for a "one number" Census. In developing this, ONS committed to ensuring that for any variable, all sub-authority output tables (for example local authority wards) would sum to separately published local authority level tables. With regret this did not happen.

  5.3  ONS developed their output strategy for the 2001 Census very late in the process and relied on maintaining anonymity of respondents by adjusting all table cells of value 3 or less to either a 0 or 3. As a result, data in sub-authority level tables would not sum to the area total and different output tables gave different results for apparently the same variable.

  5.4  For larger groups of the population this was less critical as the differences were proportionately small, but for smaller communities the impact of this was much greater and the value of the Census as a means to understand micro local conditions was lost.

  5.5  Telford & Wrekin Council believes that the 2011 Census output strategy should be developed by ONS as soon as possible and with the specific objective of ensuring clarity. Anything other will significantly undermine the value of this unique social survey.

  5.6  In developing this strategy, we believe that ONS should consider producing specific sets of output tables for local authorities which are based on actual counts/estimates and are not "distorted" in any way. Doing this would require a very different relationship between ONS and local government, however, it would ensure that the maximum value from the Census would be achieved and that public resources could be targeted at areas of greatest need.


  6.1  Because of the uniquely detailed picture the results will paint of local communities, the 2011 Census is fundamental to policy development by both local and national government. However, the 2011 Census will be a costly and challenging exercise for ONS to undertake, particularly the need to maximise the response rate from all sections of society and produce output of relevant quality and consistency. If the 2011 Census does not meet these objectives, the capacity of local and central government for the following decade to develop effective social and economic policy and target resources at areas of greatest need will be significantly curtailed.

  6.2  To ensure its success, we believe ONS must avoid planning the 2011 Census as a top-down government project and develop an approach which is based on partnership with key stakeholders including local authorities. ONS will require and should seek the local knowledge and expertise of local authorities who are well placed to provide insight and understanding of their local areas to ensure Census resources are appropriately targeted.

  6.3  To achieve this, ONS should be planning now to ensure that the appropriate local authority liaison networks are in place and well embedded prior to the 2011 Census to ensure both the fieldwork and output are of the highest possible standard. Such a network would also provide the means by which ONS could engage with local authorities if the 2011 Census results are out of line with pre-existing data for local authority areas.

February 2007

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