Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)


28 JANUARY 2008

  Q220  Mr Love: Can I ask you about the trade-off, to come back to my original question? There is obviously to some extent a trade-off—and I know you can do it with layout, making it simple—between length and the return that you will get. How are you trying to deal with that?

  Ms Dunnell: Actually, in the test that we did in 2007 we found that there was very little difference in response between a third page and a fourth page because we did test the different lengths. We are pretty confident that the four-page one will work. The temptation of course—and this goes back to an earlier answer I gave you—is to cram all the questions on to the pages regardless. That would still cost extra money because it is extra processing, but it does not increase things like printing and postal costs and so on. Our evidence suggests that it is not a good idea to cram all the questions on to these three pages because we then get lots of what we call question non-response; people will skip questions or misread instructions, and that is no good either.

  Q221  Mr Love: I have just tried to fill in a bank form and that was bad enough, I can tell you. You do need to keep it simple. If you cannot get the fourth page and you do not want to cram, what criteria are you going to use as to what is in and what is out? What will be the most important features for you?

  Ms Dunnell: The most important thing about the census is to actually get our count of the population right. Maybe, Jil, you can talk a bit about the other criteria. That is our key one.

  Ms Matheson: We have had lots and lots of public consultation about this and set out a set of criteria that we will use to judge what we will recommend is in and out. The first one, as Karen says, is does it contribute to understanding and counting the population. That is priority number one. The other criteria are, are there alternative sources? Are there other places, either from surveys or administrative data or wherever, where that information can be provided? Is the information required at very small geographic levels? That is what the census does that no other source can do. Is it required in order to understand something in relation to other things that are on the census, i.e., is it a freestanding piece of information that could be collected in another way or is it integral to the census itself? There is a whole set of criteria. Acceptability: will people answer?

  Q222  Mr Love: Let me ask you two questions on that list of criteria. You talked about the small area of statistics that are not available anywhere else and we have talked to others about the importance of that. I represent a London constituency where turnover of population is very high, so the statistics you are talking about are out of date within two years. You have hardly published them before they are out of date. What use is that to the people that would normally use the statistics when they get five, six or seven years out? Whereas they can use those statistics, they do not have any confidence that they are now accurate.

  Ms Dunnell: That is one of the reasons we believe why the census is such an important baseline to do, at the moment, every ten years and that is why increasing the effort that we put into population estimation in between, particularly capturing all this information about people coming into the country, is so important.

  Q223  Mr Love: But you do not think there is another way of capturing those small areas?

  Ms Dunnell: Again, if we had really good administrative data which registered people's changes of addresses, that would be very helpful but that is exactly what we do not have. For example, at the moment we use the National Health Service registers to determine movements within the country. That is, after many years of research into different registers, the best possible source that we have at the moment but it is dependent on people registering their change of address and re-registering with a doctor when they move and, as we know, there are certain groups of people who do not bother to do it until they get ill maybe ten years down the line. This is why our programme of looking into administrative records is so important and why we are of the view which we have expressed that until we have much better mechanisms for recording change of address in these big registers, they are not helpful for even internal migration.

  Q224  Mr Love: The other question we keep asking people is what is the most important thing and overwhelmingly they say they want to get population accurate. Is that the overwhelming priority?

  Ms Dunnell: Absolutely.

  Q225  Mr Love: If so, should we really be dispensing with some of the complexity of the form?

  Ms Matheson: I think there are two things. It is the overwhelming priority and one of the reasons that we think we need a fourth page is because we need extra questions in the three pages in order to reflect that new complexity: second homes, citizenship and all of those other things that we really need in order to be able to understand the population, some of which we did not include in 2001. The other part—and this goes back to your earlier question about the potential trade-off between response and length—we carried out a postal test last year of 10,000 households, so it was a good size, and showed no difference between response where there were three pages per person and four pages. That mirrors international experience. One of the things that is important that a fourth page would allow us to do is to do something which I think will help with response, which is relevance, making sure that in there there are questions that are really important and really valued and that you can explain why they are there, such as carers, and that are relevant to those groups in society is a benefit of having a fourth page.

  Q226  Mr Love: This is coming back to a question that Mr Ainger asked earlier on, and that is about public confidence, not for the reasons he suggested but you will know that there have been large-scale leaks of confidential information from government over the last few months. Do you think that calls into question public confidence? Will people be prepared to give you what is in effect quite confidential information based on their experience so far with these leaks? Perhaps I can also ask Ms Dunnell first and perhaps Sir Michael would like to respond as well.

  Ms Dunnell: Obviously, we are extremely concerned about the loss of data from government departments and of course we have all been charged by Sir Gus O'Donnell to put our house in order and it is very reassuring when we have done a very extensive emergency audit to find that in fact we are in the clear there. That is very reassuring. The other thing that we were very concerned about, because of course we have nearly 1,500 interviewers out in the community all over the UK every day, collecting information on things like the Labour Force Survey and the General Household Survey, that actually our response rates were not affected by these losses, which we thought they might be. That is, of course, largely down to the skills of our interviewers in explaining the confidentiality of the information that they provide. Of course, that is much harder to do on something like a census, although of course you do have that opportunity to have a really big national campaign about it. It obviously is a major concern and making sure that everybody understands the confidentiality with which we hold census data is a very important part of that big public relations exercise. We are not under-estimating how difficult it is but hopefully time will be on our side and we will not have a crisis like we have had just recently in 2011.

  Q227  Mr Love: You mean we will have all forgotten about it by then. Can I ask Sir Michael about security? Is there a need for greater security to reassure the public and is that something you will look at?

  Sir Michael Scholar: I think the maintenance of public trust in the confidentiality which the ONS and statisticians generally in government treat the information they get from the public is of vital importance. The events in the last few months have no doubt dealt a blow to that confidence and I very much hope that the Government can recover from that and regain the confidence which is so necessary.

  Q228  Ms Keeble: I want to ask a bit about confidence. Sir Michael, you implied just now that it was down to the Government to regain confidence but in terms of the census, is it not down to yourself to be able to ensure that the public and also your customers have confidence in the census results?

  Sir Michael Scholar: Yes.

  Q229  Ms Keeble: How do you intend to achieve that?

  Sir Michael Scholar: You are absolutely right. After 1 April it will be the responsibility of my Board to secure that confidence and maintain it. At the moment, of course, it is the responsibility of government because the ONS reports to Ministers and through Ministers to Parliament but I am quite sure that my Board will take this very seriously. I certainly do.

  Q230  Ms Keeble: Can I just ask, Karen, just now you set out quite a comprehensive work programme in terms of what had to happen—it is pretty basic stuff, whether it is a three or four-page questionnaire—how you engage with different authorities and so on to get the hard-to-reach groups. Do you have a critical path programmed out for that? Is that formally mapped out and set out?

  Ms Dunnell: Our whole strategy for ensuring response? Yes, it is.

  Q231  Ms Keeble: No, I mean for actually delivering the census.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes, it is all part of the very detailed planning. Jil, can you say a little bit more about that?

  Ms Matheson: The census planning is being done under normal project management arrangements and there is a critical path and a set of deliverables between now and 2013, when the results finally ...

  Q232  Ms Keeble: With the kind of traffic lights?

  Ms Matheson: Yes, we use the traffic light system.

  Q233  Ms Keeble: Who is in charge of that? Who formally heads up that particular process?

  Ms Matheson: There is a senior responsible owner, supported by a project director and the normal techniques of project management.

  Q234  Ms Keeble: Has there been a change in staff there recently?

  Ms Matheson: Yes, there has.

  Q235  Ms Keeble: The director in charge of it? When was that?

  Ms Matheson: About two weeks ago.

  Q236  Ms Keeble: But the new person presumably is going to carry it through?

  Ms Matheson: That is the intention. Indeed, that is the commitment, that he will be there until the census is delivered.

  Q237  Ms Keeble: Are you satisfied with that process? You are satisfied you have the personnel, and the experience and the skills there now to deliver it?

  Ms Matheson: Absolutely, yes.

  Ms Dunnell: That is one of the things that we recognized early on in our planning, that we would need a Director-level post to lead that work and that person is in place and is now on our Management Board.

  Q238  Ms Keeble: So you did not have somebody before?

  Ms Dunnell: We did not have somebody at that level. We had Jil at that level before she got her recent promotion but she did the census plus a lot of other things and we now have a Director level person whose sole job is the census, which was always the plan.

  Q239  Ms Keeble: This is no comment on Jil's work, clearly, but do you think that you had enough attention, if you had one person doing this and quite a lot of other things at the early stage of the delivery of the 2011 census? With hindsight, do you think she was overloaded?

  Ms Dunnell: She is a very capable person. I do not think she was particularly overloaded and we had always planned to have a person at that level when the time came. The time came and we found that person.

  Ms Matheson: Can I just add to that? I will not say whether I was overloaded or not but it was also, again, looking back to 2001, and the full-time Director-level post is now in place a lot earlier than it had been before the 2001 census.

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