Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questins 340-359)



  Q340  Ms Keeble: There are two issues. One is the churn factor which I will take as general turnover. We all know anecdotally what approximately those are and some of the issues that are produced. The other factor is of course migration which you have already highlighted. I wonder what you are doing to encourage the ONS. You have talked about the importance of it but what are the specific measures to encourage their measurement of migration?

  Angela Eagle: For example, we are trying to get a handle on short term migrants to see if people have come in and then gone. We are trying to get a handle on this by increasing sampling. You could use the general household survey or some of the other fairly regular surveys and add questions to those to try to find out how long people have lived in a particular place, whether they have moved and, if so, where from. There is a range of questions that are being tested for their statistical relevance by this work at the moment. Clearly, there is ministerial buy-in to making these statistics more effective which is why the interministerial group was announced. The task force is working to look at how we could get a handle on the churn in a more effective way. Because you would want a handle faster perhaps than even the mid-term population estimates, that tends to suggest that the big quarterly surveys might be a place to do it. I know that ONS are looking at things like the general household survey to see whether there are things they can add there that would give some insight.

  Q341  Ms Keeble: You have talked about the importance of it and given a range of different examples of what can be done. Because obviously short term migration is probably the most important single statistic to understand for a whole variety of measures and it is probably the one that is most sensitive from the public point of view as well, how are you prioritising that amongst a range of different things that are being described? What sort of priority is it being given? When do you expect to come forward with some results?

  Angela Eagle: Some of the issues that have already been talked about, such as for example measuring communal establishments in a general household survey rather than non-communal ones, will give us a handle on some of this as the new results come in. I certainly would expect the ONS migration task force group to come up with a range of suggestions on top of that and put them into effect. Again, you would have to ask Karen when she thinks that the statistics will begin to be much more effective in terms of capturing this. It is not a matter for me particularly to know. I know the work is being done. I know they are considering how migration statistical collection can be captured more effectively. Some of the things they have decided they are already putting into effect. Others that for example might capture short term migration may take longer. Some of that is different: questions at the port survey, having a much larger sample at the port survey for example, thinking about embarkation controls which is an issue for Liam Byrne. All of these things are being done and being brought together. I anticipate that we will get a gradual improvement with some of these issues now and over time a significant improvement.

  Q342  Ms Keeble: There is a big debate, is there not, about how reliable survey information is? What is your view on that?

  Angela Eagle: I think you should talk to the statistics experts about it. I do not feel I am qualified.

  Q343  Ms Keeble: Presumably Liam is on this interministerial group, is he?

  Angela Eagle: He is.

  Q344  Ms Keeble: Is he actively looking at embarkation as one of the possibilities for tracking migration for statistical purposes, not just for management of migration purposes?

  Angela Eagle: I know all of those issues are being considered but obviously reintroducing embarkation collections, given that we had 90 million visitors to the UK last year, is not a small logistical exercise.

  Q345  Ms Keeble: Westminster Council said that they could lose up to £18 million in funding because of counting the population. What action is the government taking to look at the impact of the demand for counting the population has on local authority funding?

  Angela Eagle: I think John Healey dealt with that quite well in his statement a couple of days ago to the House.

  Q346  Ms Keeble: I was not here.

  Angela Eagle: He announced the interministerial group on migration statistics. There is this push to try to get a better handle on the churn, if we want to call it that. At the same time, even some of the adjustments that were made previously, after the 2001 Census, did not make huge differences to local authority allocations because of damping floors and ceilings, I think the phrase is. You would have to have a very, very large increase in population for it to have a significant effect on the money you would be allocated.

  Q347  Ms Keeble: In areas such as my own which are growth areas, factors about population growth are extremely important because they have a profound impact on funding allocation.

  Angela Eagle: I understand that. That is why I was so supportive of the work that ONS did with local authorities to try to get a handle on some of this after the 2001 Census. My understanding is also that the Local Government Association are involved in some way with the task force on migration statistics as an ongoing result of the work that was done to try to see whether local administrative figures might cast some newer, more up to date light on what was going on in particular areas.

  Q348  Ms Keeble: Michael Scholar when he came here said that the relocation exercise was one of a number of issues that would be revisited and did not rule out some changes to the decision to relocate. What is your view of the relocation of ONS? Do you see it as something that is going to happen or do you think it is up for grabs?

  Angela Eagle: I do not think it is up for grabs. Most of the central management of ONS now is in Newport. The relocation is going well. 100% of all national statistics and 99% of the rest of them have been done on time, even through the relocation. The fact is that when independence happens in April and I hand on the baton to whoever is going to do this job in the Cabinet Office the ONS becomes a non-ministerial department. That does not mean that it is completely independent of all of the financial constraints that other government departments are put under. It will be expected to achieve the targets that it signed up for in the spending review 2004 on the Gershon savings. It will be expected to achieve the figures that it signed up to for relocation in the Lyons Review up to 2010. It has a budget that has been set outwith the CSR period, this time a five year budget, a generous one. Within that budgeting, it can decide to do what it wishes. It cannot renege on agreements that were made in 2004 about the spending review and relocation or Gershon efficiency savings.

  Q349  Ms Keeble: If they can achieve the same financial targets without having to go through the same relocation exercise in exactly the way it was formulated, would you be happy to see the decision revisited and some alterations made within the spending guidelines?

  Angela Eagle: If after 2010 the Board believes that there are strong reasons for locating back to London, they would have to make the case and demonstrate that it was value for money. They would have to get the Chief Secretary of the Treasury's permission to reverse the Lyons relocation. It is too early to speculate on whether they would be able to make a case that they wish to do that, or in fact whether they would want to by 2010.

  Q350  Nick Ainger: Professor Rhind in his evidence to us last month told us that the Statistics Commission of which he is a member visited parts of Scandinavia and the USA. He told us, "I think we concluded that the traditional Census, of which in some ways the British one is the most traditional of all, now given what has been happening elsewhere, has almost had its day." Do you agree that the 2011 Census should be the last British traditional census and we should now move to the administrative registers which, certainly from the Statistics Commission point of view, are delivering a far better service than our traditional census?

  Angela Eagle: I am agnostic on that at the moment. First of all, I would have to see how the 2011 Census goes. I would also look at the development of national databases such as the NHS one, the administrative databases you are referring to, and consider whether considerable progress had or had not been made with the national ID card scheme and the register that accompanies that. It could be that by then we are in a situation where that might be the case but I think it is far too early to judge, at the beginning of 2008, where we will be then, which is why I think it is important to keep an open mind on these things and see what happens.

  Q351  Nick Ainger: Is not all the evidence, certainly as we gathered in Sweden, that the system of administrative registers is far more effective, far more accurate than what we have in this country? That is perhaps one of the reasons why we came 27th out of 27 in the trust that we have in official statistics. The Statistics Commission I do not think has a particular axe to grind. I think they are being quite objective in looking at other methods of collecting official statistics and they are saying that our one is not working any more and that we should move to a completely different system and that the planning for that and the action that is needed to develop these administrative registers needs to be taking place now.

  Angela Eagle: That might be their view. Clearly, the 2011 Census is not going to be cheap.

  Q352  Nick Ainger: Half a billion.

  Angela Eagle: It will cost us a lot of money. The information that we gather is, as you are well aware, extremely valuable to us and it is the basis upon which a lot of public policy, resource allocation etc., happens both at national and local government level. It is also the basis for a lot more research in the social sciences and all of those things. Before we moved away from the 200 year process of having a traditional census, I would want to look at the kinds of issues that I just raised with you to see whether we had robust enough alternatives that would deliver us data that was as useful as the data that we get from a traditional census. I think it is too early to have that view. If the ONS came to us and started saying that they were of that view and all statisticians came to us and started saying that they were of that view and they thought we should be moving this way, we would have to look at what the cost of that would be and whether it could be done. I think people in the UK are suspicious of anyone who tries to make lists. The issue with ID cards is not exactly non-controversial. It would not be non-controversial to have a national address register either, I will be bound, but I think we have to see how these things are evolving before I could have a view. I am agnostic. I want us to get the information in the best possible way we can to make the best use of it. If it became clear that there were other ways of doing it that were not about the census and there was general agreement about that in the statistical community, then I might well be persuaded, but I am not at that stage yet.

  Q353  Nick Ainger: I understand the ONS are going to look at this this year.

  Angela Eagle: It is quite right that they should consider and always ask those basic questions, yes, of course. I would look forward to their views on it with great interest.

  Q354  Nick Ainger: Professor Rhind also said that he felt there was a lack of a data sharing culture in British government departments. You are nodding your head at that.

  Angela Eagle: That is certainly true. That has always been my experience as a Minister and I have been in four departments now.

  Q355  Nick Ainger: What are you going to do about it?

  Angela Eagle: Some of the developments that are happening with the capacity to have databases, particularly for example the patient databases in the NHS and some of the databases that are being developed in other places, might give us a platform to change these things. If I had a magic wand, I would have waved it a long time ago.

  Q356  Nick Ainger: At the moment you are agnostic. You will await the outcome of the ONS study on whether the administrative registers can do a better job than a traditional census. That is your current position?

  Angela Eagle: That is my current position, yes.

  Q357  Nick Ainger: In terms of this data sharing between government departments and also agencies of government such as the Ordnance Survey and even the Post Office—I accept it is not an agency of government but obviously government still remains a significant player in the Post Office—I cannot remember who it was but one of our witnesses told us that heads need to be banged together. Do you not think it is your role to become a head banger, as it were?

  Angela Eagle: They were pretty well banged together in the attempt to get some agreement in this that happened a few years ago. I think there are some issues of intellectual property rights and value. It may be that the way of solving that is to look at the issue of intellectual property rights in these capacities more generally. I certainly know that the Treasury are looking at that. I do not want to spend my time in fruitless effort. I would rather put my effort into doing something that I think will work. There was an announcement in 2006 that this was not going forward in its current form and a view that perhaps the national identity card process would give us what we wanted. I think it is probably too early to revisit that.

  Q358  Peter Viggers: Following my earlier line of questions, I must say I remain unclear. The ONS does a careful and conscientious job in producing numbers?

  Angela Eagle: Yes.

  Q359  Peter Viggers: But, because of migration and other reasons, it is known that those figures are not completely accurate. The Treasury works with the ONS trying to help the ONS refine its numbers but, at the end of the day, you did use the word "revisions" and you said that the Treasury applies revisions to the ONS numbers.

  Angela Eagle: No. If you have the impression that we revise the ONS numbers, that is not what we do. We would never do that. The ONS figures are the figures we work from. I think I used the term "revision" in answer to Mr Brady about what we might do with public spending plans.

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