Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)


28 JANUARY 2008

  Q200  John McFall: Do you agree with the Statistics Commission argument that the debate about the future of population counts should not be limited to professional statisticians because of the major political and financial considerations involved?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, I do. At the end of the day, I think government departments and other users will want to depend on National Statistics which has the stamp of quality but, as with all our work, we work very widely with other producers and users and academics and local authorities and so on, and they are a very important part of developing the best methods that we can possibly have. So yes, we are very comfortable with that.

  John McFall: What a magnanimous approach!

  Q201  Nick Ainger: Ms Dunnell, the European Commission carried out a survey in all 27 EU countries in spring of last year about the level of public support for official statistics. The Scandinavian countries seemed to come top. We were 27th out of 27. Does that concern you?

  Ms Dunnell: It does, indeed. Yes, it does.

  Q202  Nick Ainger: Bearing in mind the answers you have just given to our Chairman, John McFall, surely the lesson to be learned from that is that the Scandinavian system seems to have the confidence of the people who want to use the statistics. Should you not be moving rapidly to using their method of counting the population rather than persisting with a system which seems to be getting more and more difficult to be effective because of changes in population, changing housing arrangements, all that sort of thing? Should we now actually accept that the census has had its day and we should now be looking at different systems of counting the population?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, we are looking at different systems. What you are talking about, I think, is the method that some Scandinavian countries use of using their population register instead of a census. They use it for their census and also for their population estimates. We are 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. For example, in Scandinavian countries the population are legally bound to report changes of address every time they leave, and we do not have any administrative systems in this country which require that as a matter of law. It really would be a question of having a new kind of legislative framework for this but also, of course, changing the culture of our population. So yes, if a population register could be made to work properly, we would be the first people to be accessing it.

  Q203  Nick Ainger: If you are going to wait for legislation to come along to do that, surely you should be making the case in order to have statistics which we can have confidence in, that are accurate and, for example, local government and our health service is confident that the information on which they receive their resources is accurate, or we are not going to get anywhere. We will just be having this debate going round and round. Surely a decision should be taken that the traditional census has had its day and we should now be moving on to something quite different.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, except that we have done an awful lot of work with colleagues across government in the last few years. We had a major part to play in a project called the Citizen Information Project. This was done in preparation for the introduction of the national identity card scheme, and the conclusion of that work, which was a very large piece of work, was that the national identity card scheme should go ahead on a voluntary basis and create a register and use existing registers, in particular the one that is used for National Insurance purposes. That is the situation that we are in in relation to that. It would be quite difficult, I think, for the ONS to make a case to Parliament on its own that something like this was necessary. Maybe that will change in the future but until we have something which is actually there and we have a requirement that people change their address and notify somebody when they leave the country, we are not very confident that a register will be suitable for the kinds of purposes that we need to measure the population every year and have a benchmark every ten years.

  Q204  Nick Ainger: Sir Michael, do you think this should be the first thing which the Statistics Board should be looking at? At the end of the day, because of changes in society, because of migration, we have a far more fluid population than we have had in the past, we have homes in multiple occupation and so on, and it is very difficult to track population but because those statistics are so important to the delivery of modern government, surely a decision needs to be taken that the traditional census needs to be replaced now with something quite different. Would that be a priority issue for the Board?

  Sir Michael Scholar: I am sure the Board will want to think very carefully about that. As the Committee knows very well, to run a census is a very expensive thing to do and if it is not effective, it is very far from being a value-for-money exercise. Listening to your questions and Ms Dunnell's answers, what occurred to me was that you want the best means of measuring, counting the population which is available. If it is necessary, if this can be achieved by a Scandinavian type system and if that requires introducing a mandatory notification of change of address, it may be that the Statistics Board would want to grasp this nettle and propose it to Parliament. Whether the Government of the day would be prepared to introduce such a measure or ask Parliament to vote for such a measure you will know better than I, I guess, but until a system which is a clear improvement on the system we have can be envisaged, I would be most reluctant to give up the traditional census because, as I understand it, it is a vital part of the arrangements for making the best estimate that we are able to make of the size of the population and its distribution.

  Q205  Nick Ainger: Can we move on to some of the problems which do exist in having a successful census. The work that was done prior to the 2001 census did not really flag up any particular problems. I can tell you there was one that was not flagged up and that was the Welsh tick box, which did cause very serious problems and I think had a detrimental effect on the final outcome. You have done some tests in 2007. Has anything come out of that work, that pilot study, in 2007?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, I think we have learned a lot from it. Would you mind if I ask Jil Matheson to answer?

  Ms Matheson: We carried out, as you know, a test in five local authority areas in 2007 and there will be a dress rehearsal next year and so on before the census itself. It was an extremely valuable exercise because what it showed us was several things. One was that the co-operation and collaboration between ONS and local authorities is vital to a successful census. That was one of the lessons from 2001 and we used the test almost to develop case studies of how this co-operation works. We and the local authorities involved I think have learned a lot about that and have confirmed the importance of that relationship. That was one aspect. The second aspect was about some of the process in that we did, for example, an address check in the five areas using available address registers plus ourselves checking. That confirmed that none of the available address registers are up to the standard that we need for census purposes and that we will need to build into our planning our own enhancement of the address base. That was number two. Number three was that actually you can post out census forms and people will post them back, which was an important part of the test and will inform the strategy that we have for 2011. Then, number four, the other aim of the test was to look in particular at the impact of including a question on income: did it impact on response rates to the census test? The answer to that was that response was lower where there was an income question—not hugely lower but slightly lower where there was an income question.

  Q206  Nick Ainger: You mentioned one of the issues which was highlighted was the accuracy of the address register. We have had evidence suggesting that those organisations which have responsibility for different types of register need to have their heads banged together to actually produce an accurate register because otherwise the post-out which you intend to do is going to be very difficult. We are going to have problems there. Which are the organisations that need their heads banging together?

  Ms Matheson: There are currently three organisations, who we are talking to directly about what we are finding and about the evidence about the quality of address registers. One of course is Ordnance Survey. The second is Royal Mail and their postcode address file. The third is the Improvement and Development Agency of local government. Each of them produce an address register, each of which has for census taking purposes and population statistics purposes some deficiencies and so we published last year a report on what we had found in the test and engaged with them about some of the difficulties. The overall policy responsibility for banging heads together, to use your phrase, is with DCLG.

  Q207  Nick Ainger: Do you know what action they are taking? Obviously, unless it is addressed quickly, we are going to have a major problem in 2011.

  Ms Dunnell: They are not taking any further action. We work with them very closely and last year they concluded that they could not go any further with it, and I have confirmed with them prior to this hearing that they have no further plans to do anything at the moment. So we are moving ahead, as Jil explained, with our 2011 plans on the basis that we will check the three available ones with our people on the ground ahead of the post-out part of the census and we have built that into our plans. Frankly, it now is too late, I think, for the census. That is our plan now.

  Q208  Nick Ainger: What estimate have you made that the post-out is going to miss households? Is there a percentage that you have worked out? Are there going to be some people, because there is not a really accurate address register, that are not going to receive a census form?

  Ms Dunnell: Our objective of course is not to have people missing out. Our strategy with the post-out is to limit post-out to those types of areas where we are confident it will work and we will not be posting out to areas which we anticipate will be problematic and of course, our work on the ground, which we will do as close to census date as we possibly can, will help us to refine that information. We plan to go into the census with a complete address register, compiled from the existing ones and our own work on the ground.

  Ms Matheson: If I may just add, an important part of that is, as I mentioned earlier, the work with local authorities. An important part of the approach is, in advance of the census actually sitting down with address lists with local authorities and getting their local knowledge of particular things like multiple occupation or new build, which is where some of the difficulties with the current address products is, so that we have their local intelligence built into the process before we actually start posting out or, where we need to, hand delivering the forms.

  Q209  Nick Ainger: Are you not concerned at being dependent upon the efficiency of local government? I am sure every Member of Parliament can tell you that every time they go round knocking on doors with the electoral roll they are amazed at the number of gaps there are in there. If that is the basis of the information which is being provided to you, I would not put too much confidence in that. You have identified that things are more difficult than they were in the past in terms of homes in multiple occupation, large new build and so on, significant proportion in certain areas of a migrant population, and yet you are proposing to cut the number of enumerators from 71,000 down to between 45,000 and 50,000 for the 2011 census. Is that based on budget problems or is it based on some different policy that you are pursuing?

  Ms Dunnell: It is based on a very detailed analysis of where we think we can actually utilise the resources that we have for the census in the most value-for-money way. Jil can describe in a bit more detail how we have come to this and how we are going to make it work.

  Ms Matheson: Part of this was that in 2001 one of the real difficulties was actually recruiting all of those enumerators; having people there, ready and willing to do that kind of work in a concentrated period was a real risk. That made us think hard about enumerators, what people we need, and how we effectively use them. Part of the evidence was that actually enumerators in many cases did not make any contact with households anyway. They were actually themselves just posting the forms through letterboxes and, if you remember, in 2001 we had a post back system so that households completed their forms—a very successful system—and households posted them back. So there was not actually that personal contact in many cases. That plus one of the other things, because for all the reasons that you have said, we are anticipating that there will be some areas where enumeration is going to be difficult and there are going to be some groups where we are going to have to work very hard to get forms back. We wanted to in a very cost-effective way be able to use the enumerators that we have, pay them better than we did in 2001, train them better than we did in 2001 and use them much more flexibly, together with, depending on the kind of management information system that we are also developing, if we do find, almost in real time, pockets of difficulty, we can send enumerators there. One of the difficulties in 2001 was that sometimes we did not know there were difficulties until some time afterwards. That is why the strategy is developing as it is.

  Q210  Nick Ainger: Does that mean, for example, that in rural areas you are not going to have any enumerators and that you will be concentrating your resources in urban areas where there is greater population movement or more houses in multiple occupation? Is that the way it will work, that there will be areas that will not have any enumerators or that there will be but they will be covering far greater numbers? Is that the way it would work?

  Ms Matheson: Probably the latter, although I am not sure it will always match that it will be urban versus rural. It is not altogether that simple. For example, one of the groups that you missed out when you were talking earlier about difficulties are some of the gated communities that are growing up. It is actually harder for an enumerator to make contact than it is for a postal worker to be able to deliver a form. The other part of it is that there will be contact centres and anybody who wants an enumerator or needs some help in filling in the form will be able to either get that help or ask for a visit.

  Q211  Nick Ainger: Coming back to what happened in 2001 and the Welsh tick box, where there was a campaign for people not to complete the form, there appears to be a growing issue around the possibility of Lockheed Martin, an American company, obviously, having links with the intelligence services there. There appears to be a groundswell around, if they were successful in having the contract, not to complete the census form. Have you any comments on that?

  Ms Dunnell: It is obviously something that we are spending quite a lot of time thinking about. Lockheed Martin of course did play quite a considerable role in the census of 2001, very, very successfully. They also carry out the US census or large parts of it and also had a contract to do a lot of work on the Canadian census. We do have to be very sensitive, as you say, because the census becomes a very public issue around the time of it. We do have to be very sensitive to that but at the moment the procurement process is still under way and we have not made any final decisions about who we will award the contract to.

  Q212  Nick Ainger: I think the worry is that there is now new legislation in the United States, the Patriot Act, which would possibly require Lockheed Martin to actually provide information which they have gained through the UK census to the United States authorities. I think that is where people are now getting concerned, because it is a different legislative framework.

  Ms Dunnell: We are having lots of legal discussions. Would you like to say a bit more about that, Jil, where we are on the Patriot Act.

  Ms Matheson: Yes, we are aware of the Patriot Act of course and have discussed the Patriot Act with both the potential suppliers. We are in a procurement phase at the moment so I do not want to say too much more about that but we have had discussions with them and we are taking legal advice with a view to making sure that the commitment we give to census form fillers is one that we can abide by, that is, that the data are kept confidential and secure for 100 years.

  Q213  Mr Love: There is growing evidence from electoral registration surveys of an increasing resistance among some groups, particularly in deprived urban areas, to respond to the questions, the very simple questions, that are asked. How do we make the census user-friendly for hard-to-reach groups?

  Ms Dunnell: This is a very important question. One of the things that we are spending a lot of time on at the moment, as we have already emphasised, is working closely with local authorities and that means identifying particular groups within local areas who have organisations that we can work with, because those types of organisations tend to be very helpful in promoting the importance of the census, providing help with form filling, and will help us, I think, in our planning at local level. That is one thing. The other thing of course is to make the form as easy to fill in as it possibly can be, and one of the factors that I am sure will determine which areas we decide not to use post-out will be areas where we know there are quite a lot of people who would maybe have a problem with a big, long, English form dropping through the letterbox. That I am sure is one of the factors that we will take into account so that we will have people on the doorstep offering to help with form filling. Also, we are paying a lot of attention to the design of the form because experience shows that it is the design and layout of the form and the accessibility of the language which is in some senses more important than the length of it. The other thing we are doing, of course, is planning a very large publicity campaign around the census which will address all the kinds of issues about why it is so important, how confidential the information is, and this will obviously be targeted at groups which we know are less likely to respond. Then, of course, on the ground we will have quite intensive follow-up of people who do not send the form back, because we are planning to have a much better real-time management system which will tell us who has not sent the form back after a week, two weeks and so on, and we will also have call centres which are able to help people who have particular problems. That is, I think, most of it.

  Q214  Mr Love: You are going to need it all.

  Ms Dunnell: We are indeed.

  Q215  Mr Love: Can I come on to the length, because you touched upon that? In a recent parliamentary answer you gave you indicated that you had enough finance for three pages for the census form but that there may be some priority questions that you might not be able to include. Have you resolved that issue and which way will it go? Are you going to get all the priority questions into three pages or are you going to be financed to stretch into four?

  Ms Dunnell: Again, it is rather like the question I was asked at the beginning about the extra money for migration. We do need an extra £25 million to have a fourth page and this is something that we are working very closely with departments and the Treasury on finding a way round.

  Q216  Mr Love: Do you consider that a priority?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q217  Mr Love: In other words, you need more than three pages to ask all the questions?

  Ms Dunnell: We believe that actually we do need more than three pages, partly for the reasons that your colleague raised, that at the last minute, if you get a group of people jumping up and down about something like a tick box, which I think might happen about the carers question, for example, which you are all getting many letters about, it compromises the whole thing. As a team, we are pretty convinced that we need the four pages and we are engaged in the final stages now.

  Q218  Mr Love: When will you get an answer to that?

  Ms Dunnell: In the near future, I hope.

  Q219  Mr Love: What does that mean? Three months? Six months?

  Ms Dunnell: Less than that. We need the answer sooner than that and everybody knows that we do.

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