Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questins 320-339)



  Q320  Mr Todd: Let me just test a hypothesis which is that the Ordnance Survey are being extremely protective of their intellectual property and may be extremely protective of how their part of compiling any address register used by ONS is actually developed and then used subsequently. If this is some one off exercise, perhaps the Ordnance Survey may say that that is for them but obviously if there is an ongoing use for the Ordnance Survey data as part of its component one can imagine they may have an interest in this matter. Is someone going to be ensuring that that interest is pursued constructively?

  Angela Eagle: I certainly hope so. I would say that the 2009 rehearsal or pilot which will take account of hard to enumerate areas as well as easy to enumerate areas might give us some more information about that and lead us into ensuring that we take account of any difficulties that the Ordnance Survey or any other owners of the data that is used for post out might present us with. Practical issues, that is.

  Q321  Mr Todd: Based on what we have seen today with some of the difficulties you have conceded, surely some clear direction in this area should be applied now rather than waiting for us to encounter the problem at some stage later on?

  Angela Eagle: I do not disagree that it is an issue that we need to ensure is properly taken account of in the census. If ONS had come to me and said they were worried about any of this, I would have taken appropriate action. I have to say they have not to date.

  Q322  Nick Ainger: The European Union last spring conducted a survey in all 27 member countries on the confidence that the public had in official statistics. We came 27th out of 27. What can the government and ONS do to improve our league table position and public confidence in official statistics?

  Angela Eagle: I hope that the move to independence will certainly assist. I think it is obviously not helpful when you come 27th out of 27. I do not think it is a reasonable reflection on the standard and quality of the work that ONS do, as it happens. I note that there is a draft report on the peer review of the UK and how it has implemented the European statistics code of practice just published, which is extremely complimentary about the standards that ONS reach. I think there is a perception issue and then there is the practical reality which is actually that ONS is a pretty good national statistic office that does a great deal of work to an extremely high standard. I hope the move to independence and the changes that Parliament approved in the Statistics Act which comes into force in April will assist us in changing what I think is an unfair perception.

  Q323  Nick Ainger: Coming back to Mr Viggers's questions and the problem that Slough and many other local authorities have where you have local government questioning the official statistics as well, do you recognise the extent of the problem in terms of the actual statistics which are being questioned and who are questioning them?

  Angela Eagle: Yes. That is why we have put in train the very important work stream on improving migration statistics particularly and why it is now also going to be led by a ministerial group, as John Healey announced during the local government settlements debate a couple of days ago. At the same time—we had many discussions about this in the passage of the Statistics Act itself—statistics are not utterly perfect. They cannot tell us in a completely timely way, with absolute 100% certainty, absolutely everything we want to know. Surveys can be extremely accurate and still not 100%. I think there has to be an understanding on both sides that statistics have their limitations as well as their inaccuracies. I would like to see there being a more informed debate about how accurate and timely statistics can be, even in an almost perfect world. They can assist us but they cannot always give us 100% of the information that we need in a timely fashion. The methodologies have their limits or their biases which the statisticians are trained to try to deal with and explain to us. We should understand that perhaps a bit more than we do.

  Q324  Nick Ainger: Developing that theme, Camden Council told us that their experience of the 2007 Census Test was that publicity was a very important factor in that; and that they felt, whatever publicity campaign starts in the lead up to the 2011 Census, the first thing that should be done is a clear explanation of why the census is important, why statistics are important to ordinary people, not just to local government or whoever. Would you accept that that is the first thing that really has to be done, bearing in mind this serious problem that we have in terms of people's confidence in statistics and their experience of these significant losses of data and obviously their reluctance now to participate in providing personal statistics?

  Angela Eagle: I think that is really important. I hope that the Statistics Board and the independence of that will help us deal with that. The whole process of having the census, the engagement that we have with stakeholder groups at the beginning, the way that the design works, the way that that changes as a result of the engagement, the pilot studies we have, the fact that parliamentarians then get a chance after the White Paper, which is also an important part of having this debate, is published in the summer, onto the pilots and then the real thing when it happens in 2011 are important processes, during which we can try to do exactly what you have suggested, which is to have a debate about why it is important to fill in the census forms accurately and how important it is that the data that is derived from those is accurate. If we do not have accuracy, we have misallocation of resources and policy development which is informed by statistics that are wrong. We do need to have a publicity campaign that speaks to ordinary people as well as those who are usual users of statistics and seriously, I hope, communicate how important this process is in 2011.

  Q325  Nick Ainger: I do not know what discussions you have had in terms of that with ONS and perhaps when it is formed the Statistics Board but clearly there needs to be a serious publicity campaign, bearing in mind the background of issues over privacy, over security of data and this general distrust, if you like, of official statistics.

  Angela Eagle: I agree. I think we have enough time and the processes and the time line in place to do a successful job of that.

  Q326  Mr Dunne: I would like to turn to some of the value for money aspects of conducting a census which the Chairman touched on at the beginning. We were told last week by Sir Michael Scholar that he regards the census as far from being a value for money exercise if it does not provide effective answers. Have you looked at the balance of the equation about this issue of extending the number of pages of the census and the cost of that against the overall effectiveness of the census?

  Angela Eagle: Yes. I think it is important to say, whatever the outcome of the trawl to see if we can get enough money to have a fourth page, we will have an effective census with three or four pages. It would be desirable, in my view, if we could have a fourth page. However, it is also important to remember that if questions are not included on the census form we can still get a pretty good idea of the information that we are after by using some of the larger, general surveys which happen more regularly. The issue is not always between having information by asking every single person in the country and adding it up or having no information. It is the difference between having survey information, very regular survey information or information which is gathered from everybody every ten years. Yes, I think it is important that we try to get a fourth page but at the same time I do not think all is lost if we do not.

  Q327  Mr Dunne: The ONS told us that they had put in a bid for £25 million to provide the extra page. Have you given them an answer on that? If so, what is it?

  Angela Eagle: I wish I could tell you, but the process by which we are attempting to gather the money is not finished yet. I have three hats here. I am here as a Treasury Minister trying to keep public expenditure and drifting off CSR settlements down. I am here as the ONS Minister who does want to see a fourth page. I am also trying to marshal the arguments throughout Whitehall to see if we can find the money for a fourth page. I will tell you in due course. You will find out whether there is a fourth page. I am hopeful that we will be able to make progress but that process is not completed yet.

  Q328  Mr Dunne: I take that as quite an encouraging signal. It is obviously an uncomfortable position to be in as judge and jury on the situation.

  Angela Eagle: It is an interesting position. Treasury Ministers do not often go round Whitehall asking people for more money.

  Q329  Mr Dunne: Has the ONS done research into the cost effectiveness of population registers as opposed to a traditional census?

  Angela Eagle: You would have to ask them that. I have not seen any research that they have produced on that.

  Q330  Mr Dunne: When will the contract to provide outsourced data collection of storage services for the 2011 Census be awarded?

  Angela Eagle: My understanding is that the procurement process is ongoing and they expect it to be completed in the ONS, they have told me, by May of this year.

  Q331  Mr Dunne: Can you confirm whether Lockheed Martin is one of the bidders?

  Angela Eagle: I can confirm that they are one of the bidders.

  Q332  Mr Dunne: If they were to succeed in the bid, there has been some suggestion made that because they are a US incorporated company the data on British citizens will be passed to the US and therefore become subject to the US Patriot Act, which may have some implications for people's willingness to complete the census form. What legal advice have you received about that?

  Angela Eagle: We have received legal advice that there is no risk that that would happen. Some of the arrangements that would be made would ensure that the data was owned and kept in the UK. There has been no instance of the US Patriot Act being used to subpoena or deal with companies that are not US based. The company that would do the contract under Lockheed Martin's suggestions would not be US based. We are pretty confident that there would be robust defences against any such thing happening. You also have to remember that under the 1920 Census Act by which we do these things in the first place there is absolute confidentiality when it comes to these issues. The ONS has always been extremely robust on that and we would certainly be the same. If there was such an issue, then it would affect the procurement.

  Q333  Mr Dunne: In light of the recent track record on data management and retention in government agencies, can you recognise the potential public concern about this issue if in particular Lockheed Martin were to win the contract?

  Angela Eagle: I can but I think it is misplaced in this instance.

  Q334  Mr Dunne: What will you be doing to reassure the public?

  Angela Eagle: I would not expect there to be a procurement process where there was a risk of that kind. I am reluctant to talk too much, in the middle of a procurement process where there are two bidders, about one in public but I can reassure you that we are on top of these issues and that the public would have no practical cause to worry. If they did have, then the procurement would not proceed if there was such a risk.

  Q335  Mr Dunne: Could you give the public and us today reassurance that there would be some bar placed in the contract on any of this data being taken out of the UK, whether electronically or by means of a CD or the post?

  Angela Eagle: I would like to write to you about that but I emphasise once more the absolute confidentiality requirements that have always applied to the census, that have been kept for 200 years without too much of a problem. I think there were a couple of bin bags on one occasion but it is a pretty robust record and we are extremely anxious from the Minister on down to ensure that that remains the case.[1]

  Q336 Mr Brady: Briefly, picking up on one of Mr Dunne's questions, regarding Lockheed Martin, if there were a prospect of the contract being awarded there, would it be the government's policy not just to take legal advice but also to seek assurances from the United States Government?

  Angela Eagle: It is absolutely clear that no contract would be let if there were risks of that kind.

  Q337  Mr Brady: Would assurances be sought from the United States Government?

  Angela Eagle: I can certainly tell you that we would ensure that the requirement for absolute confidentiality under the 1920 Census Act was fulfilled in full.

  Q338  Ms Keeble: I wanted to ask a bit about the mid-year population estimates. Karen Dunnell told us that there had recently been indicators of churn in communities which highlights that in some local authorities more than a quarter of their populations are changing each year. For some local authorities that might be their own estimation of what is happening, but to have some solid figures is obviously very important and helpful. Is your Department using these indicators?

  Angela Eagle: The recommendations of the interdepartmental task force on migration statistics which are attempting to reform and make more sophisticated the way that we collect this information are looking at precisely those things. They are not only looking at how to change the way the port survey is done; it is looking at how to survey people living in communal establishments, to ask questions about not only their usual place of address but perhaps if they have second addresses, to try to establish outflows and inflows from one region to another. It is continuing to look at what can be done to try to capture what Karen Dunnell called the churn.

  Q339  Ms Keeble: How are they proposing to use it? Have they a timescale for it?

  Angela Eagle: Some of the task force recommendations are being put into effect now and will help to inform subsequent estimates. Clearly, obviously births and deaths which are the other two things that are taken account of in the mid-population estimates, are fairly easy to get a handle on. Migration is the main thing, so that is why they are focusing so much on how they can try to capture what you call the churn, but movements once people are in and living in the community.

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