Select Committee on Treasury Eleventh Report

7  Beyond 2011

Population registers

127. Population registers rely on administrative records as the primary source of census-type statistics. The Sub-Committee took evidence that suggested the development of a population register within the United Kingdom could be used to provide a snapshot of the population at any time.[147] Professor Rhind suggested that there was

probably no better solution than to actually run something based primarily upon administrative statistics, administrative data sources, with information coming from ports about emigration and immigration, and a whole variety of other administrative data sources used to triangulate where people are and where they are moving to. [148]

128. He pointed out that such a method had worked extremely effectively within the Scandinavian context. It was inexpensive and provided "the linkage between population data, households, properties and also businesses gives a range of outputs that we cannot possibly match".[149] The Statistics Commission suggested that the 2011 Census should be used as an opportunity to compare existing administrative data sources in parallel with the census, "an experiment to see just how the two would stack up". [150]

129. The Statistics Commission noted that both statisticians and commentators within the UK had aspirations to have systems more like those in the Nordic countries; and the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 may facilitate some steps in that direction. The fundamentals of the Nordic model typically included:

  • A long established statistical office whose public service role and independence is formally recognised in legislation.
  • A reliance on registers—of population, households, addresses, businesses etc—rather than sample surveys as the basis for most of the key social and economic statistics.
  • A positive relationship with the media in which the statistical office is regarded as a trusted source. The offices are mindful to avoid being the subject of news stories themselves.
  • Well-developed arrangements for engagement with users of statistics and other stakeholder groups.
  • Practical dominance in the field of official statistics, in the sense that few other official bodies seek to produce statistics separately from, or without the formal endorsement of, the national statistical office.
  • Well developed ethical and professional codes.[151]

130. Mr Kelly, Head of Macroeconomic Prospects Team, HM Treasury, recognised that population registers operated effectively within Sweden but cautioned that "Sweden is quite a pliant society". He argued that creating a population register provided no guarantee it would be accurate as it depended "on how people react to that, whether they comply with the arrangements that are in place. You cannot necessarily just transplant a population register from one country to another and expect it to produce the same degree of reliability". He also pointed out that the United Kingdom did have a variety of registers that measured the population "albeit not comprehensive ones". Mr Kelly concluded that "the ONS is very keen to exploit this data ... but there clearly is quite a long way to go in developing the equivalent of a population register for the UK".[152]

131. A European Commission survey in Spring 2007 asked, in each of the 27 EU member states, whether the public trust official statistics.[153] The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden were in the top five. The UK came an uncomfortable 27th. The Statistics Commission noted that there could be "little doubt that the Nordic countries have something to which we should properly aspire". [154] Professor Rhind acknowledged that "data-sharing culture in British government departments is perhaps not as good as we need it; clearly there are some confidentiality constraints, especially in the view of recent events, which we would need to get over".[155]

132. The UK statistical system faces a far greater challenge in changing the methods by which it counts the population than a country such as Sweden as there is clearly a far greater requirement within the UK to build up public trust. The Statistics Commission explained that there were "numerous encampments of statistical expertise spread through central government and the devolved administrations and, until now, little central authority. Whilst we now have a statutory framework, it is looser, lighter and less easily understood than in the Nordic countries". The Commission hoped that the new Statistics Authority would be able to exercise much greater central authority than was possible previously. The Statistics Commission recognised that the new Authority's "statutory assessment function is a potentially stronger and more structured way to ensure standards than we have seen elsewhere".[156]


133. The Statistics Commission noted that there were many benefits of linked population registers. Most dramatically, periodic Censuses could be replaced by a flow of continuously updated, and generally reliable, information about people, households and businesses, saving a great deal of money in the process. This could be supplemented where necessary with sample survey information. [157]

134. The National Statistician acknowledged that some Scandinavian countries used population registers instead of a census. She told the Sub-Committee that the ONS was "pursuing ideas around whether we can create registers for statistics from the existing registers that we have but the first thing to say is that there are several registers in the UK, none of them actually do the job adequately, and also we believe that to have a really reliable register for this purpose you need to have some legal backing to it". She pointed out that in Scandinavian countries the population was legally bound to report changes of address every time they leave, and the UK did not have any administrative systems which required that as a matter of law.[158]

135. The Statistics Commission identified two reasons as to why the United Kingdom was not making more rapid progress towards adopting a similar approach to that used in the Nordic Countries: "One is that the task of establishing reliable population and other registers in large countries, with significant migration in and out, is likely to prove more difficult and expensive. Another is that public opinion is much less ready to accept that such registers will be in the public interest and used only in the public interest." [159]

136. Professor Coleman also proposed "that existing systems should be brought together and connected with, or replaced by, a compulsory continuous population register for all UK citizens and non-UK citizen residents incorporating a unique person-number".[160] Professor Coleman argued that some elements of such a system were already in place. All births in the UK (and legal immigrants) have had a birth number assigned to them through the NHS system which tracks all their medical records and follows them as they move house around the country through the computerised NHS Central Register at Southport. The National Insurance Number was a near-universal number increasingly used as a general identifier for persons over age 16, for tax and other purposes, well beyond the scope of its original intended function.[161]

137. The ONS has carried out research directly with some Local Authorities to evaluate local population estimates using various local and national sources of information and recently published a review of the potential use of some administrative sources in relation to making population estimates. However, the Statistics Commission suggested that more local area research, particularly to evaluate official estimates against several administrative sources of information in the most problematic areas, should be carried out and published by government. The Commission argued that such estimates should all be produced in the same systematic way. The aim would instead be to get a better understanding of the scale, geographical variability and distribution of the problems with population and migration estimates. [162]

138. Professor David Martin told the Sub-Committee that "there is a clear window of opportunity surrounding the 2011 Census for cleaning and testing administrative sources and investigating their exact relationship with the census methodology for obtaining small area demographic information".[163]

139. 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 has established a framework for conditions 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 set out in response to this Report the action that the Authority will take under the powers in the Statistics and Registration Service Act to develop the Government's administrative databases to provide a more accurate and cost effective method of monitoring the population.

140. 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.


141. Manchester City Council told the Sub-Committee that:

There are problems with the NHSCR data, as it is more robust for children and elderly people, as they are more likely to register with a GP. It is poor on young adults and men generally who are less likely to register with a GP, and it suffers a level of list "inflation" as a result. Also, as the data is rounded to the nearest 100 for age groups, small variations are not shown and sub-totals do not add up to totals.[164]

142. The City of London Corporation noted that the National Health Service Central Register (NHSCR) provided useful internal migration information but it could provide better information on the movements of international migrants within the UK. The current Register was unable to track international migrants once they had registered within the UK and subsequently moved to a different GP. The City of London Corporation stressed that "as the NHSCR in England is to be replaced with a new system in the near future, it is imperative that the Department of Health and ONS work together to ensure the opportunities offered by a new system are not lost. The retention of an international migrant registration flag in the register for a fixed period of time would prove very useful".[165]

143. The ONS explained that information from patient registers was not currently used in estimating international migration. Although the first registration of those allocated a new NHS number on arrival in the country was separately identifiable, such identification was not retained when the patient registered with a second or subsequent GP. Therefore, by the time an annual snapshot was obtained, many new migrants would not be identified which would result in a systematic undercount. The ONS further argued that NHS registers were not appropriate for measuring international emigration because there was currently no incentive to de-register when leaving the country and therefore very few people did so.[166]

144. Professor Martin told the Sub-Committee that:

Health service data derived from GP registrations are the nearest available to whole population administrative data, and an important source of internal migration data. …The principal difficulties identified in relation to all administrative databases are the conflict between operational and statistical requirements and the fact that the demographic information obtainable is usually very basic. This means that sources such as the GP registration lists do not currently hold any of the more useful applied (and sensitive) data which might help to address the deficiencies of existing methods."[167]

145. 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.

The future of the Census

146. Professor Rhind told the Sub-Committee that "Given that we know that migration data and, indeed, population census data in certain respects is not fit for all the purposes we require, it is appropriate to look around to see what other people are doing. The Statistics Commission...concluded that the traditional census, of which in some ways the British one is the most traditional of all...has almost had its day." [168]

147. The ONS has argued that "there is an ongoing need for high quality census information, and that it can only be provided by a traditional census in 2011. No alternative source would provide the quality of data required… beyond 2011, if a national identity register were to be developed this might form the basis for a future Integrated Population Statistics System, which could remove the need for a census at some point".[169] The ONS reported that it would be initiating a project to review the alternatives to a census for 2021.[170]

148. The Economic and Social Research Council noted that "some very relevant comparator countries (e.g. US, France, Netherlands, Scandinavia) have moved away from conventional census enumeration while those with more frequent censuses (e.g. Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand) have not yet experienced the level of enumeration difficulty seen in the UK in 2001".[171] The Demographics User Group argued that "many changes in society—more migration, daily commuting, weekly commuting, and more entry phones—make it increasingly difficult to assemble reliable and current statistics about the population using traditional methods such as voluntary sample surveys and the decennial Census ... Government should … pursue potential new sources".[172] The Statistics Commission concluded that "whatever future path is determined by Government for the UK, we believe 2011 should be the final Census of its traditional kind and planning for the longer term, at the top level of government, should start now".[173]

149. 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.

147   Ev 30  Back

148   Q 15 Back

149   Ibid. Back

150   Ibid. Back

151   See, and  Back

152   Q 107 Back

153   Special Eurobarometer: Europeans knowledge on economical indicators, European Commission Back

154   The Nordic Contrast: a paper by the Statistics Commission, September 2007 Back

155   Q 15 Back

156   The Nordic Contrast: a paper by the Statistics Commission, September 2007 Back

157   The Nordic Contrast: a paper by the Statistics Commission, September 2007 Back

158   Q 202 Back

159   The Nordic Contrast: a paper by the Statistics Commission, September 2007 Back

160   Ev 185 Back

161   Ev 291 Back

162   Ev 35-36 Back

163   Ev 27 Back

164   Ev 181 Back

165   Ev 1 Back

166   Ev 208 Back

167   Ev 27 Back

168   Q 15 Back

169   The case for the 2011 Census, National Statistics, Back

170   Ev 219 Back

171   Ev 140 Back

172   Ev 21 Back

173   Ev 34-35 Back

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