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Select Committee on Treasury Thirteenth Special Report


Appendix 3: Government response


The Government is committed to helping to improve the accuracy of the population estimates produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), particularly at a local level. The National Statistician is leading the cross-departmental Improving Migration and Population Statistics Programme that includes improving the sharing of administrative data across government. The programme is being supported and monitored by a Ministerial Group, jointly chaired by John Healey (Minister for Local Government) and Liam Byrne (Minister for Borders and Immigration). The senior programme board, set up to steer the extensive work programme, comprises senior officials from the Office for National Statistics, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Communities and Local Government (CLG), Home Office (HO), Department of Health (DH), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), devolved administrations and the Local Government Association (LGA). The UK Statistics Authority will ensure the quality of the statistics that are produced.

The Government welcomes the Committee's report and their support for the UK Statistics Authority in improving population statistics. The Government shares the Committee's recognition that accurate local population statistics are vital to the successful funding and delivery of public services.

While many of the Committee's recommendations are for the UK Statistics Authority to respond to, it is appropriate for the Government to maintain an overview of this important area of work. The Government's response to the conclusions and recommendations in the Committee's report is set out below. The UK Statistics Authority will respond separately.

Introduction

The Statistics Authority, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office

1. Therefore this report presents our final consideration of the work of the Office for National Statistics and its effectiveness in counting the population, except insofar as they relate to our scrutiny of economic indicators. (Paragraph 7)

The Government notes that responsibility for scrutinising the UK Statistics Authority and its executive office, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), has passed to the Public Administration Select Committee.

How the population is counted

Meeting the needs of the user

2. We recognise that in a period of significant population change and individual mobility meeting the requirements of users has become more complex for the Statistics Authority. The amount of population turnover, both nationally and locally, has made it increasingly difficult for the current methods of counting the population to estimate the numbers of people in an area and on what basis they are there. (Paragraph 48)

The Government notes and agrees with this observation.

Why accurate population statistics matter

Implications for economic uses

3. It is accepted that population estimates are central to every national system of official statistics. They are used in statistical formulae that allocate vast sums of public money to the devolved administrations, to local government, the health service and public services. It is therefore a matter of social responsibility to ensure that population statistics are calculated accurately. (Paragraph 53)

The Government notes and agrees with this observation.

Difficulties in counting the population

Counting a migrating population

4. The provision of accurate information about how many people are present within the country and where they are located is essential to effective policy-making and the effective delivery of services. Society is becoming more mobile and the information held electronically about events, persons and services by government agencies and other bodies has substantially increased. We require the Statistics Authority in response to this Report to set out the steps it will take to utilise and better link data held by the Government and by local government in order to provide a more accurate picture of the population within this country. (Paragraph 62)

A good deal of work is going on across government to improve the sharing of administrative data to improve migration and population statistics. This programme of work is being monitored and supported by a Ministerial Group chaired by the Minister for Local Government and the Minister for Borders and Immigration. In addition, the Government is keen to use the data sharing provisions in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 to improve the use of administrative data for statistical purposes by removing legal barriers to such sharing where it is in the public interest to do so.

Estimating international migration

5. The International Passenger Survey was designed to provide data primarily for tourism and business travel purposes. It is now called upon to play a central role in estimating international migration. It is clear from the evidence we have received that the Survey is not fit for this new purpose. We recommend that the Statistics Authority replace the International Passenger Survey with a new more comprehensive survey that is more suited to the accurate measurement of international movements affecting the size of the resident population in the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 67)

The Government has noted the UK Statistics Authority's plans for improvement. It regards these as an appropriate way forward for enhancing the IPS' contribution to improved migration statistics and has been reassured that other statistics that are currently derived from the International Passenger Survey, such as those for balance of payments and tourism, will continue to be produced to the same standard as now.

Estimating international migration between Local Authorities

6. Based on the evidence we have received, it is evident that there are substantial problems in generating accurate population estimates in some Local Authority areas. The current methods of estimating internal migration are unsatisfactory and lead to decisions on the allocating of funding to Local Authorities being based on inadequate information. The Statistics Authority should establish as an immediate priority the provision of local population statistics that more accurately reflect the full range of information available about local populations and the effects of internal migration. (Paragraph 71)

The Government has recognised the need to improve migration and population statistics. A cross-Government programme to improve migration and population statistics was announced to Parliament on 4 February 2008. A ministerial group is working to support and monitor the National Statistician's implementation of a progressive programme of improvements planned for 2008-12.

7. Official mid-year population estimates, based on the 'usually resident' definition of population, do not include short-term migrants. Such estimates do not fully meet the needs of Local Authorities and commercial users who are also interested in, for example, short-term migrants as well as day-time and week-day populations. We recommend that the Statistics Authority investigate the feasibility of producing population estimates based on different measures of population, such as estimates which include short-term migrants and estimates which include the day-time population of Local Authorities. (Paragraph 83)

The Government notes the UK Statistics Authority's response and is working with it to deliver the planned improvements.

8. We are seriously concerned about the reliability and validity of ONS estimates of short-term international migrants. Evidence from administrative data sources such as the National Insurance Number register suggests that ONS estimates do not reflect the scale of short-term migration in England and Wales. We recommend that the Statistics Authority examine the feasibility of producing estimates of short-term migration at sub-national level, using the successor to the International Passenger Survey that we recommended earlier and a greater range of administrative data. (Paragraph 84)

We are working with the UK Statistics Authority to assess the potential for administrative data sources, such as the National Insurance number register, GP lists, other health service lists, council tax records and other registers on children and schools, to improve estimates of population and migration, and to develop arrangements for data sharing. Each source has strengths and limitations and none of the sources provides a perfect measure of population or migration in its own right.  However, the ONS-led, cross-government, Improving Migration and Population Statistics Programme will consider how they might collectively be used to produce better estimates of migration and population.

9. We further recommend that the Statistics Authority continue the ONS's work with Local Authorities and carries out a series of case studies to identify alternative administrative data sources. These include the National Insurance Number register, GP lists, other health service lists, council tax records, and various registers on children and school children. Although we recognise that different areas have different problems associated with counting the population and administrative registers, we recommend that the Statistics Authority produce a best practice guide. (Paragraph 85)

We are working with the UK Statistics Authority to assess the potential for these administrative data sources to improve estimates of population and migration, and to develop arrangements for data sharing. Each source has strengths and limitations and none of the sources provides a perfect measure of population or migration in its own right.  However, the ONS-led, cross-government Improving Migration and Population Statistics Programme will consider how they might collectively be used to produce better estimates of migration and population.

The Government is already developing measures under the data sharing provisions in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 to improve the use of administrative data for statistical purposes by removing legal barriers to such sharing where it is in the public interest to do so.

The Government notes the recommendation for a best practice guide and the UK Statistics Authority's response.

Preparing for the 2011 Census

Length of census questionnaire

10. The evidence we received highlighted the importance of funding a fourth page for the Census. Following our inquiry it was announced the extra £25 million needed to finance this page would be provided through cross-government funding and we welcome this development. (Paragraph 89)

The Government agrees that it was important to provide funding for a fourth page.

11. We note that the Government has failed to make any progress in establishing an address register for the 2011 Census. We heard repeated references to the necessity of establishing the register yet were surprised to hear that no business case had been published. We recommend that such a case is prepared engaging all potential beneficiaries. It is unclear whether leadership weakness, lack of legislative means or the financial obligations of the trading fund status have contributed most to the failure. We recommend that the Government consult the Statistics Authority and others to remove any outstanding obstacles to the production of an address register. (Paragraph 95)

As made clear in the UKSA response, ONS is developing a national single address register for use on the 2011 Census using sources from Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail and the Improvement and Development Agency (ie the National Land and Property Gazetteer) to produce a single coherent address list.

ONS intends to share the address intelligence gained prior to the Census with address product suppliers (where consistent with legislation) to help improve the quality of their address lists.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has noted in its statement on 1 June 2007 that there have continued to be improvements in the main address products produced by the Ordnance Survey and the Improvement and Development Agency and it expects these to continue. We also noted that, although there are still challenges posed by addressing, local authorities are able to deliver efficiencies and government departments are able to deliver their business without a single national address register.

The Government will follow closely the work ONS is doing to create a single address register for the 2011 Census, and will consider as part of its Transformational Government strategy the possible wider use of this register and the process and responsibilities for maintaining the data once collected.

A review of the trading funds' business model was announced in Budget 2008. One of the aims is to ensure that information required by Government for public policy is available as widely as possible in order to maximise the benefits to the wider UK economy, at a price that balances the provision of such access with the need for users to make a fair contribution to the cost of collecting the information in the long term.

Census delivery contract

12. We remain concerned that the personal information gathered through the 2011 Census could be subject to the United States Patriot Act and therefore we ask the Government to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this Report. (Paragraph 106)

The Government places the highest priority on keeping personal information gathered in the Census confidential. Under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 it would be a criminal offence for anyone with access to Census data to disclose it without legal authority.

In the contract that was announced on 28 August with Lockheed Martin UK, ONS has put in place additional contractual and operational arrangements to reassure the public that US authorities will not be able to gain access to census data through the Patriot Act.

As the ONS has set out, those arrangements include the following:

  • All Census data will be owned by ONS;
  • All data will remain in and be processed in the UK;
    • All legal undertakings about the confidentiality of personal Census information will apply to both ONS and any contractors;
  • Contractual arrangements with Lockheed Martin UK ensure that only sub-contractors registered and based in the UK and either UK or EU owned will have access to personal Census data;
  • No US companies or their employees will have any access to Census data;
  • No Lockheed Martin staff (from either the US parent or UK company) will have access to any personal Census data;
  • All census employees and contractors working on the Census will sign a declaration of confidentiality to guarantee their understanding of, and obligations under, the law;
  • Staff with access to the full Census data set or substantial parts of it will have to be security cleared to a high level, equivalent to that required to handle material classified as 'Secret' under the UK Government's classifications; and
  • All staff who have access to the full Census data set in the operational data centre will be ONS employees.

The Government is satisfied that the safeguards that the ONS has put in place are sufficient to provide the necessary reassurance to the public about the confidentiality of their data. It is established practice not to publish legal advice obtained for the purpose of public procurement contracts. The Government does not consider it necessary or appropriate to consult the US authorities on this issue.

Beyond 2011

The international use of population registers

13. The highly developed statistical systems within the Nordic Countries provide important examples for the UK statistical system. The development of computerised administrative records in the UK has moved on rapidly in recent years and that development looks set to continue. The Department for Work and Pensions already has an extremely powerful register of personal information. The Statistics and Registration Service Act (SRSA) has established a framework under which such information could be used for statistical purposes.We recommend that the Government work with the Statistics Authority to ensure that strong ethical safeguards are put in place to protect the personal information held by Government departments. We further recommend that the Statistics Authority to set out in response to this report the action that the Authority will take under the powers of the SRSA to develop the Government's administrative databases to provide a more accurate and cost effective method of monitoring the population. (Paragraph 139)

The Government's Data Handling Review published on 25 June 2008 announced four major categories of change that aim to strengthen existing data security policies. These are: 

  • Core measures - A series of mandatory minimum measures, including encryption and compulsory testing by independent experts of the resilience of systems, is being put in place across government.
  • Cultural change - All civil servants dealing with personal data are to undergo mandatory annual training.
  • Stronger accountability - Data security roles within departments are being standardised and enhanced to ensure clear lines of responsibility. 
  • Increased scrutiny - Departments will report on their performance, the National Audit Office will look at what they say, and the Information Commissioner is already planning his first spot checks.

The Thomas-Walport Review of Data Sharing, published on 11 July 2008, concludes that greater use could be made of the ability to share personal data safely, particularly in the field of research and statistical analysis. The aim is to develop mechanisms that will enable population-based research and statistical analysis for public benefit, whilst safeguarding the privacy of individuals.

The Government will consider on their merits any requests from the National Statistician for improvements to administrative databases. The Government is already, in association with the UK Statistics Authority, developing measures under the data sharing provisions in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 to improve the use of administrative data for statistical purposes by removing legal barriers to such sharing where it is in the public interest to do so. The Minister for the Cabinet Office will lay proposals before Parliament as soon as the statistical, legal and policy preparations are completed.

14. We recommend that the Statistics Authority establish a pilot project enabling a population register to be operated alongside the 2011 Census in order to compare the effectiveness of such a system with that of the Census. (Paragraph 140)

The Government notes the recommendation and the UK Statistics Authority's response. It looks forward to seeing the results of the ONS study into the best way of developing a more integrated system to improve population estimates.

NHS registers

15. NHS registers provide useful but limited data on population movements. We recommend that the Statistics Authority liaise with the Department of Health on the project to replace the current National Health Service Central Register to ensure that opportunities offered by a new system for improvements in the contribution of such data to population statistics are not lost. (Paragraph 145)

The Department of Health is one of the Government departments involved in the cross-government programme to improve migration and population statistics. The department has been in discussion with the ONS about the population statistics uses of the new NHS system. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 explicitly allows the sharing of patient data for this purpose (Section 43).

The future of the census

16. We recommend that the Statistics Authority set strategic objectives to ensure that the data gathered throughout the UK can be used to produce annual population statistics that are of a quality that will enable the 2011 Census to be the last census in the UK where the population is counted through the collection of census forms. (Paragraph 149)

The Government notes the recommendation and the UK Statistic Authority's response. It looks forward to seeing the results of the ONS study into the best way of developing a more integrated system to improve population estimates. It agrees with the UK Statistics Authority that it is too early to make a firm commitment beyond 2011.



 
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