Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 185-199)


28 JANUARY 2008

  Q185 Chairman: Can I welcome the three of you back to the Sub-Committee. Could you formally introduce yourselves, starting with Jil Matheson.

  Ms Matheson: Jil Matheson. I am Director General for Statistics Delivery in the Office for National Statistics.

  Ms Dunnell: Karen Dunnell, National Statistician and Chief Executive of ONS.

  Sir Michael Scholar: Michael Scholar, Chair Designate of the Statistics Board.

  Q186  Chairman: Thank you very much. You will be aware, Ms Dunnell, of our report into the efficiency programme of the Chancellor's Departments last summer. Do you think, in the light of that report, the Office for National Statistics is sufficiently resourced financially to accurately count the population?

  Ms Dunnell: I think that in general terms the settlement we got under the CSR was very reasonable but, as you probably know, we have identified some areas where we feel we need extra funding, particularly for the census and for our plans for improving migration statistics, which we are actually at the moment negotiating with several other government departments. In that sense, no, we have recognised that in this particular area we do not have quite enough money.

  Q187  Chairman: Is this a bid subsequent to the CSR?

  Ms Dunnell: It is not a subsequent bid but it is something that we have been advised to do by our Minister and also by the Treasury to identify those departments who will be key beneficiaries of the extra data and to see whether they can contribute towards it.

  Q188  Chairman: This is like Statistics Canada charging departments for particular questions to be inserted in the census. Is that right?

  Ms Dunnell: It is similar to that and, of course, we do that already; for some of the survey and other work that we do we work on a repayment basis but, as you know, the census and migration statistics are statistics which are used very widely across government and we are in fact making quite good progress on these negotiations, getting some support from departments to top up our budget because it would be to great advantage to them of course in the future. We are also asking them to sign up to work in kind, working on their own administrative registers, for example, which we are also getting very positive feedback on.

  Q189  Chairman: Sir Michael, I appreciate Karen Dunnell does not report to you until after 1 April but what will you do if she comes to you after 1 April and says that this has not worked, that she does not have sufficient resources to count the population accurately?

  Sir Michael Scholar: The whole question of the budget for the ONS will be an early item on the agenda of the Board. My Board will be having its first meeting this coming Saturday, February 2, and the issue of the budgetary provision for the ONS generally is mentioned on the agenda. I do not think we are going to have time to have a full discussion of it on Saturday but I am quite sure that we will have an early discussion of it, and our consideration of that matter will include a consideration of the question you have just put to me.

  Q190  Chairman: What powers do you have, other than exhortation, if you decide as a Board that it does not look as if Karen Dunnell will have the resources she needs? What power do you have?

  Sir Michael Scholar: We have the power of representation, the power obviously to report to Parliament and to its Committees. I suppose we also have the power to say to customer departments "Yes, you want to have this information. I'm afraid we can't afford to give it to you." That would be one possible response to this situation. It is obviously one which I hope we would not be driven to.

  Q191  Chairman: You would say that publicly, would you?

  Sir Michael Scholar: Yes, absolutely. When the Treasury Committee interviewed me in July I gave a commitment to transparency in our dealings, and that is also something I will want to discuss with the Board on Saturday when we first meet.

  Q192  Chairman: Karen Dunnell, the ONS released new population projections in November stating that long-term assumptions of future fertility, life expectancy and migration are all higher than those made in previous projections. Why have the assumptions changed?

  Ms Dunnell: As you know, the population projections are not forecasts; they are projections based on a series of assumptions which we reassess every two years on the basis of the trends, the very recent trends that have happened. If we take fertility first, we have seen since 2001 a very obvious turn-around in our falling fertility rate, so it is very clear that the fertility rate has risen now for five subsequent years, having been falling for many, many years prior to that. Our assumption now about fertility is that the women in the population will have a higher number of children by the time they finish child bearing than we assumed when we last did the projections two years ago and that is based on a real trend that is happening at the moment. Similarly, with death rates, which is what we use to calculate life expectancy, death rates have been going down throughout the century and continue to go down every single year. This leads to an increase in life expectancy, which of course leads to increasing numbers of ever older people in the population. That is based on very clear evidence that we have from our birth and death registration systems. Our assumptions about migration are similarly based on what we have observed over the last few years and, as you know, what we have observed over the last few years is that immigration has increased, emigration has also increased but the net result of that has still increased a bit. So I think our assumption is about 50,000 a year higher for our 2007 projections than it was for the 2005 base projections.

  Q193  Chairman: How much confidence can we have in that when you told the House of Lords Committee back in October that, with something like 90 million passenger journeys per year in and out, the consequence of this is we really do not have adequate data on net migration.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. The situation on that—and, as you know, I have had a task force looking at migration data—is that we are dependent, particularly for reliable figures on emigration, from our survey that we carry out at ports and airports. We have already put in place some improvements to that, things like increasing the samples of people who are migrating that we interview by interviewing even more people to identify them, and will shortly be increasing the number of airports that we cover. So we have carried out some improvements on that already. The real problem is that we are confident about the national figures on the number of people entering and leaving the country but what we are not nearly so clear about is where they actually go after they have arrived, where they settle, so we have already put in place an improvement in our latest population estimates using information from our household surveys, because from that we get a much better idea about where people are distributed around the country. It is very difficult to use information that you collect either when people arrive or when they leave because on the whole they do not know where they are going, which is why we are now backing it up with information from household surveys.

  Q194  John McFall: Professor Rhind told us when he came before that inaccuracies in the statistics would impact on government in terms of financial allocations and, given the serious shortcomings in the migration statistics, what steps can you take to mitigate such inaccuracies?

  Ms Dunnell: I have mentioned the migration task force and that has a whole series of recommendations which we have published, some of which I have just mentioned that we have already put in place. Then we have plans to carry on improving the estimates by various means. One of the things that we have begun working on, for example, with other government departments and with local authorities is investigating the use of administrative data which exists in central government, things such as the National Insurance number register, the various registers that we have around children and schoolchildren.

  Q195  John McFall: My point is really the financial allocations and the mismatch element. What can you do to mitigate that when you have found adverse situations there and as a result of your task force have you changed policy?

  Ms Dunnell: The policy about who gets how much money is down to CLG and we work closely with them, obviously, on the statistics which they use in coming up with their formula. The formula does not only, of course, include information about the numbers in the population but it includes other things which we contribute to like the numbers of elderly or the numbers of children, the numbers of dependants, things like deprivation indices, which we contribute to and so on. It is not just a question of the numbers but obviously their concerns about whether they are making correct allocations is why we are working very closely with them at the moment on our improvement programme, which they are helping considerably with, particularly on helping us to engage better with local authorities.

  Q196  John McFall: How appropriate is the definition of the population based on the usually resident population in the context of the needs of the users?

  Ms Dunnell: Traditionally, of course, we have always based our population estimates on the international definition that somebody who is a resident is somebody who is here for 12 months or more. What we know since migration has become both at a higher level but has also changed enormously in the types of immigration and migration, mainly down to the ease of travelling and our very vibrant labour market, is that there are lots of different types of migrants, many of whom choose to stay only a short while, either for work or as students or just for gap years and so on. One of the things we have done there is develop what is at the moment an experimental statistic, which is a national measure of the number of short-term migrants. The difficulty with this at the moment is that we can only do a split between London and the rest of the country but, again, we are working on administrative data to see if we can get a better measure of that. We are aware, of course, through the user community and through all the consultation that we have done on the census, that there is a great interest in not only having the permanent residents who stay here for 12 months but a whole variety of other groups of people, whether they be students or workers or short-term visitors or whatever, and we are doing our best with the data that we have to develop new measures of that.

  Q197  John McFall: The Scottish Registrar General has consulted the Scottish Executive, who are happy to allow Scotland to move away from the combined census system with the ONS in England and Wales and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Does that concern you?

  Ms Dunnell: No, in a nutshell, because back in about 2003 myself and the Registrar, myself then on behalf of my predecessor, the Registrar General, and the Scottish Registrar General and the Northern Ireland one signed an agreement that we would work together throughout the whole period to deliver a UK Census which had comparable outputs, and that has built into it commitments around, for example, the timing and the design of the outputs but it did not necessarily tie us all down to doing the census in exactly the same way, as long as we could guarantee at the end of the day that the outputs were comparable and presented in a coherent way. So what Scotland have decided to do is to pursue their own procurement of some of the basic services for the census, which we do not believe is going to impact on the findings of the census.

  Q198  John McFall: So that is going along the lines that the Statistics Commission recommended by placing more emphasis on the UK comparability at aggregate level.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, exactly.

  Q199  John McFall: Will the 2011 census be the final traditional census?

  Ms Dunnell: My personal view is probably not. One of the things that we do as part of our census work is to look ahead at whether or not we will require censuses in the future, so that, for example, in 2001 we did a report on whether or not we would need a 2006 census. We are already now planning the work to see whether or not we will need a 2016 census and soon after we have done 2011 we will be looking at 2021 but, of course, as part of our population work we are also looking at the whole area of population estimation and whether or not we can find improved methods to produce estimates every year and it is part of an ongoing piece of work.

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