Official Statistics: 2011 Census Questions - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 57-128)


19 NOVEMBER 2009

  Ms Matheson: If I could start by describing the process by which we got to the recommendations which we have, which was four years of very detailed consultation with a range of users: users in central government, local government, voluntary sector, business—we have heard about some of that—plus extensive testing with thousands of members of the public. The balance that we have to make depends on a whole set of criteria about what is the need for this information—not just what is the desire, but what is the need for it—what is unique about the census that means information that is collected from people at the same point in time, so providing information about small areas and about the national picture, are there any alternative sources, could the information be provided in any other ways, how good is the quality of the information that people can provide. That is on the demand side. It is important to balance that with what is the ability and acceptability of that with members of the public. All of the parts of the proposed questionnaire have been tested, they have been discussed with users and also tested with members of the public. What we have come up with is the professional judgment on where that balance lies so that it provides information that is needed by everybody in society but also matches the ability and willingness of the public to provide that information. There were some tough judgments. We could have had a form much longer than the one that is proposed. You will have heard that certain people are disappointed, and that is because it matters. There have been requests for additional questions which we are not recommending. Some people have said they would like the questionnaire shortened, but there is no agreement on how you would shorten it. What we have got before us is the basis of four years' work and our professional judgment on the right balance.

  Q57  Chairman: That is all very interesting but not quite the answer to the question, which was how open are you to further change?

  Ms Matheson: If you are asking about the process, this is our professional judgment on what the best balance is. It is for Parliament to decide on what the final content will be between now and whenever the Order and then the regulations are passed. This is our advice and our recommendations.

  Q58  Chairman: When you produced this, as you did recently, and you read the headlines about "A Snooper's Charter" and all that, you must have groaned, because you did all these years of testing and research and then some idiot politician comes out with remarks like that.

  Ms Matheson: I did groan. Because there is a decade's worth of decisions that are made by all sectors that impact on everybody then it is important that we get the population estimate right, that is the core of what the census is about, that we maximise response, we make it easy for people to fill in and we explain the information they give us is secure and safe, it is held confidential for 100 years and has been since the census was begun in 1801. Being able to explain that to people is the essence of the census operation, which is why in response I did write to newspapers to say I thought the reporting of that was unfortunate because we have to get those messages over to people: it matters; the information is confidential; and it is safe and secure.

  Q59  Chairman: If we leave that response aside, it is the case, is it not, given the last session, it is these areas of sexual orientation, religion and income which are the ones that have been most testing for you?

  Ms Matheson: Each of them separately has been tested almost to destruction. We have been absolutely determined to have a whole series of tests, which have included postal tests, which are voluntary, looking at the difference in response rates whether you include or exclude an income question, for example. Plus face-to-face interviews with large numbers of people, talking to them about the form and what their attitude is to particular questions. We can pick up on the individual ones and what we found out about those. That has been the process that we have been through.

  Q60  Chairman: The voices that we were just listening to are authoritative figures, they know about censuses, questions and data. They are voices that need to be attended to, are they not?

  Ms Matheson: Indeed, and they are very much part of the process that we have been going through. We have had extensive conversations with the people you have spoken to, and many others. We get expertise from academics and users, and also from census offices in other countries. There is a network of census offices so that we can learn from each other, draw experience from each other and make sure that our developments are in line with experience that we can draw from elsewhere.

  Q61  Chairman: I am sure colleagues will want to ask about the different areas we asked about just now. Glen, do you want to add anything before we start?

  Mr Watson: No, not at this stage. Thank you.

  Q62  Kelvin Hopkins: If I may pursue the question about religion once again. I have concerns that the question is not formulated in the right way and that for many people the question would be uncomfortable or difficult to answer. You have had representations from the British Humanist Association and some of their suggestions raise their own complexities and difficulties. As I said to the previous group of interviewees, what about if you just put in front of that, "If you have a religion, what is it?" That would overcome many of the problems. It seems to me to be a compromise that would go some way towards satisfying the criticisms.

  Ms Matheson: Glen can probably give you more detail about this. One of the things that we did do in the last year was to test an alternative question. It was not that one. It was an even more open question, which was simply to say, "Which of these groups best describes you" because of the difficulties you were discussing earlier that if you used the word "religion" or "faith" or "belief" it confuses. We did test another version which was even more neutral. What we found from that was even that more neutral question was not one that significant proportions of people felt able to answer, they did not quite know how to answer it. It did not make much difference either to the proportions who said they were Christian or Muslim or the major groups. On the basis of that, despite the discussion that I know has been had previously that the question there is potentially leading, we found it was also one that people understood. We have not found an alternative which performs better and also does what an awful lot of users have said they want, which is continuity, time series. Being able to say how things have changed over time is one of the core elements of the census. I know from previous experience that whenever we present census results, one of the first questions people ask is, "And how has it changed?" There would have to be very good reason and an alternative tested that was better and we were able to understand what it was measuring in a better way, and we have not found that which is why we are recommending it staying on the grounds of continuity.

  Q63  Kelvin Hopkins: As someone with an interest in statistics it is important to have consistent time series so that they become meaningful. The BHA has said it overstates religiosity. Taking my suggestion further, if you had a series of religions and "other", and then "no response", the "no response" would be the easy way out for those people who do not want to say very much about their beliefs, but you would get a very positive response from all those people who did have religious beliefs. A simple question: "If you have a religion, what is it?", a series of religions, "other" and then "no response". That would seem to me to be a way of overcoming the problem.

  Ms Matheson: We have not tested that but can I give you an instant reaction, which is that I am always wary of questions where you are interpreting a blank, ie if you do not have a religion you do not fill anything in. At the moment, the very first option is to say "no religion". That is the very first item that appears in the list. If somebody simply does not fill the question in I am not quite sure how we would interpret that.

  Q64  Kelvin Hopkins: Your predecessor, Karen Dunnell, seemed to suggest that the question was still open on religion and even at this stage there might be a possibility of adjustment, and I just hope that my suggestions might be considered. There is the other question about people who have religious heritage, not just Jews or Sikhs but I know many people who are proud of their Catholic heritage, for example, an Irish Catholic identity, but are not actually religious. If you included in the ethnicity, "Ethnicity or cultural heritage", you could shift that complication out of the religious area and put it into the cultural heritage/ ethnicity area. Would that not solve the problem?

  Ms Matheson: I am going to ask Glen. Because of the issues that have been raised he has been responsible for the detailed testing that has been done over the last year.

  Mr Watson: Can I first of all comment on what Jil was saying about the testing of the different religion wording. We have tested six or seven different possibilities over the last three or four years and the version that we tested that was completely open-ended, "Which of these best describes you?", showed less than a two percentage point difference between those saying "Christian" under that question and under the "What is your religion?" question and showed no difference at all in the proportion of people saying "No religion". That was enough to satisfy me and our people that, although grammatically it might look like a leading question, in terms of the way people answer and interpret it, it is not and there is no evidence to support that. That satisfied us that it was the right construct given that we wanted to have continuity with 2001. On the Sikh, Jew and ethnic and cultural heritage question, we do keep the Sikh and Jew as tick boxes within the religion question and our research has shown that we get better counts of people who consider themselves Jewish or Sikhs in this way. For example, when we introduced the Sikh tick box into the ethnic group question with our testing it caused confusion, particularly for some Indian people who were thinking, "I'm Sikh in religious terms but I'm Indian in ethnicity terms" and we found the count of Sikhs went down. Our judgment is that it is a better way of getting a good count of Sikhs and Jews to keep these things within the religion question.

  Q65  Kelvin Hopkins: Where I live the last census threw up a population of 183,000, something like that, and the local authority with other measures came up with a figure for the population of the town of well over 200,000, ten per cent more at least. It is very worrying that there are so many people not being identified. I know we have a high proportion of ethnic minority people from abroad and so on, so that is going to cause a problem, but if that was repeated across the country we would seriously be getting our population very badly wrong. Would you like to comment on that?

  Ms Matheson: This is at the heart of what we are trying to do in the population estimates on which local authorities in part are basing their expectations, and this is the point Professor Rees was making earlier about expectations. The population estimates that are produced every year are part of that expectation and then there is the census estimate which provides the benchmark. Getting the census estimate right in 2011 is the test that we have applied to all the bits that have come in to us: can people answer and is it going to help us make sure that we get the population estimate as good as it can be? Part of that is also matching the work that is going on elsewhere, which we are not here to talk about, about improving the population estimates so that the gap in reality in expectation is not there. Also, working with local authorities in advance of the census so that they understand what the census estimate is. If I can just go on to talk about that very briefly. One of the issues about the population estimate which I think is not widely understood is that the population estimate is based on the definition of the "usual resident", people who are living in an area or in the country for 12 months or more. That is a UN definition. Of course, there are people living at any one point in time in an area with lots of turnover, lots of churn, people coming and going. That does not mean people are not there, just that they were not counted in the mid-year estimate. Explaining what that is and trying, as we have done for the first time this year, to produce estimates of short-term population, both estimates of churn, how many people come and go from an area, and what are the estimates of the number of people who are here for less than 12 months as being part of the work on population estimates, the census provides an important benchmark.

  Mr Watson: Quite a few of the new questions proposed in 2011 are precisely to try and get this count of the population right and to help us reconcile differences in perception between the census results and what local authorities tell us by reference to other sources. This is partly why we are asking about second residencies and making sure that we collect information about visitors overnight. This is why we are asking about the short-term migration questions that have already been discussed. It is to allow us to be in a much better position to reconcile these different views of the world and to explain those differences.

  Q66  Chairman: Just on second residencies, what precisely is the question going to be?

  Mr Watson: The question is, "Do you spend more than 30 days in another address during the year" and the second question, "If so, what type of address is that? Is that a place where you go and work? Is it an Armed Forces' base? Is it a student's term-time address?" et cetera.

  Q67  Chairman: If you go and stay with granny for 30 days or more a year, that confuses that with someone who has got a villa in Spain, does it not, which is what we want to know about?

  Mr Watson: It is helpful for many purposes, for local authorities and other planners to have an idea of how many people are staying in their patch rather than usually resident there. They are using services, using street collection, local transport routes, health services, et cetera.

  Q68  Chairman: We do not know at the moment how many people do have a genuinely second home and we do not know how many of those are abroad. That is big stuff in terms of changes happening in society. I do not see that this 30-day question will help. Why not ask the question directly, "Do you own a second property? Is it in this country or is it abroad?"

  Mr Watson: It is not just necessarily about owning or renting, it might be about temporarily staying there. The reason we picked 30 days was because we wanted to separate out those very short-term visits where somebody is just going on holiday, somebody is staying with a friend for a couple of weeks. We want to pick out more substantive stays at other times of the year.

  Q69  Mr Walker: Is it 30 continuous days?

  Ms Matheson: No. I have got the question here.

  Q70  Mr Walker: What happens if you go and spend two weeks with a friend at Christmas and two and a half weeks in the summer, does that get caught?

  Mr Watson: If it was over 30 days potentially, yes, if people follow the instructions correctly.

  Q71  Chairman: I would urge you to look at this again. I have discovered it has been frustrating in wanting to know various things—not to get data—on how many people own a second property either in this country or abroad. That has been a huge social change and not to be able to log it through a census and I do not think you are going to do it, as Charles' question reveals, through this 30-day question, why not just ask them?

  Mr Watson: Because there has not been a particularly strong user demand for that information. What there has been is a strong user demand for us to be able to make sure that we have a method of counting the population on different bases. We have the usual resident population base, which is what the primary census results will be based upon, but using this visitor information, second residence information, it will be possible for us to construct estimates of how many people are there during the working week, how many people are there potentially at different times of the year. Analysts and policymakers will have quite a lot more information that they can draw on.

  Q72  Mr Walker: Quite a lot of people go on holiday in August. Why do we need a survey to tell us that?

  Mr Watson: We do not, and that is not what this is trying to do.

  Q73  Mr Walker: Can I ask some questions? There has been an exchange of views between Nicholas Hurd MP and Sir Michael Scholar regarding the question about the number of bedrooms. According to Sir Michael Scholar that is "to help local councils establish whether and where accommodation in their areas is overcrowded". I used to be a local councillor in Wandsworth and I am well aware of Broxbourne Council, I represent Broxbourne, and they have a very able planning department, very able building control teams who have a pretty sharp idea as to the amount of accommodation in their area. In fact, most councils have a pretty sharp idea about this. Can you just persuade me that there is an absolute overriding demand for this information? What I have heard from yourselves and other witnesses is this stock answer, "That information would be very interesting to some people". You can argue that on any question. Give us an overriding reason why this must be included in the census when—I am sorry, this is a long question—the former Chairman of the Statistics Commission in a letter to Nick Hurd said: "I was Chairman of the Statistics Commission at the time of the 2001 census and I saw in operation a ratchet mechanism by which every ten years the census form becomes more and more complicated and less fit for purpose". There we have it, gosh!

  Ms Matheson: I will start with the first part, bedrooms. I said right at the beginning that part of the test for this is not do people want it, it is do they need it. Part of what we have been doing is testing with all of those who said, "Yes, we'd like to have", and asking, "Tell us how that is going to be used? What decisions are impacted by that information?" On the bedrooms, I do not know whether it was Wandsworth and Broxbourne but the response came back from local authorities about the bedroom standard, which is the measure of overcrowding. What they may have is an indication of some kind, and I suspect it may be variable across the country, about the stock of housing. What they also need is to understand about the population who are regularly living in different kinds of housing. It is an aggregate level. You may know that in Wandsworth there are a certain number of bedrooms and a certain number of people, but what you do not know is how those things go together in particular buildings. It is about where are the pockets, and again this was the test for the census, "Do you need to know it at a small area level?" The case was very strongly made by CLG and local government that in order for them to be able to understand and act on overcrowding, as measured by the bedroom standard, knowing about bedrooms was an essential part of it.

  Q74  Mr Walker: What do you say to the view of the former chairman of the Statistics Commission[2] that the census form becomes "more and more complicated and less fit for purpose"? Indeed, he goes on to say: "The only people who are not consulted are the ordinary men and women who are required to complete the form". Then he says that there is a danger of frivolous answers while other people would just put the form behind the clock on the mantelpiece and not be bothered with it at all.

  Ms Matheson: I disagree with him for several reasons. One is the argument about the need, not just the need but the use. The importance at the heart of this is the population estimate and the fact that we have to reflect all societal and demographic changes that are happening in order to be able to capture the population. Kids do spend time with more than one parent, people do have more than one address and there is much more mobility, so being able to capture that is essential. What is also essential is that we make it easy for people to fill in. One of the changes in the proposals for 2011 is a redesign of the form. You were discussing earlier the increase from three to four pages per person. That is partly because we have simplified the layout. You will remember from when you completed your 2001 form that on each page you were asked to fill in three columns of questions. Professor Rees was talking earlier about people not answering some questions and that was because we have some evidence that particularly questions in that middle column got missed out, it was hard work for people to fill it in. What we have done is taken the opportunity to redesign it using research evidence from academics and elsewhere, and our own testing procedures, to say, "Let's make this easy for people to fill in". The layout has changed, the ordering has changed, and the internet will help with that as well, of course. That is the reason for some of the increase in length. It is about getting the population right and making it easy for people to fill in.

  Q75  Mr Walker: Final questions on the bedroom. If you decided you did not want to fill in the bedroom question, for example, you felt uncomfortable with it, could you just leave it blank?

  Ms Matheson: You have an obligation to fill in the census form. The only question that is voluntary is religion.

  Q76  Mr Walker: You feel uncomfortable about filling in the number of bedrooms, so on the day you fill in the form you move out the bed, you stick a kitchen table in there and call it your dining room, then you have only got a three-bedroom house or a four-bedroom house or a two-bedroom house. You cannot legislate against that, can you?

  Ms Matheson: No, you cannot.

  Q77  Mr Walker: It is actually how people determine the use of their rooms that counts.

  Ms Matheson: It is.

  Q78  Mr Walker: For anybody who felt uncomfortable about doing that, move in an air-conditioning unit and call it a utility room for a day or move in a table and call it a dining room for a day.

  Ms Matheson: Or call it a study rather than a bedroom. You cannot legislate for that, which is why there is testing. The other point that was in that letter that it has not been tested with members of the public is simply not right, it has been tested with thousands.

  Q79  Mr Walker: If politicians wanted to assuage the concerns of their constituents, what we should do is say, "Look, if you are concerned about these questions there are a number of methods you can deploy on the day you answer them that allows you not to answer them in reality". We could say that to our constituents, we could help them overcome their concerns without them feeling if they did not answer these questions honestly they would get an enormous fine from you or whoever does the fining.

  Ms Matheson: Glen is desperate to get in here.

  Mr Watson: One of the things that we do in our testing is we ask people whether or not they feel comfortable or have any objections to answering these questions. That has been tested for all of these. People are not uncomfortable with this. The newspapers choose to make something of it, but generally the population are quite happy to say how many bedrooms there are in their property.

  Q80  Mr Walker: I can see a website, "How to dodge the census without actually being in jeopardy of getting a fine" springing up. I can see some civil rights group getting frightfully excited about this.

  Mr Watson: I can imagine all sorts of websites springing up between now and 2011 around the census. You might well be right. One of our challenges is to try and get the right public message out first of all that this information is valuable, secondly that there is an obligation to fill in the form and, thirdly, that it is confidential.

  Q81  Mr Walker: You might be losing that battle. The problem is there is huge distrust about government at the moment, and it will always be there for a variety of reasons which I will not rehearse again, and unfortunately you are seen as part of government and yet another part of government taking a look under people's duvets and inside their bedrooms. You cannot escape that because perception is reality. If The Telegraph calls me a crook, I am a crook, there is nothing I can do about that. If The Telegraphs says you are snooping, you are snooping and, guess what, there is probably nothing you can do about that. The battle has probably already been lost.

  Ms Matheson: I am nowhere near as pessimistic as that. The battle is not lost.

  Chairman: Just check the results for Broxbourne when they come in!

  Q82  David Heyes: I would like to go back to income. We have heard from leading academics, from representatives of the business and commercial sectors and we know that local authorities, I guess government departments, would want to see income data collected as part of the census. Certainly MPs would want it. I think I would like to have better quality income information as part of my argument that I make for resources for the most deprived parts of my constituency. There is that huge weight of opinion that says you should do it. Why have you resisted it again?

  Ms Matheson: I will start and, again, Glen can provide some of the detail. I recognise the case that has been made. There is no doubt a lot of people have said that they would like to have an income question on the census and a lot of people have said they would like other questions as well, but income in particular, so we recognise that need. I mentioned earlier that among the criteria for deciding how much of a priority this is, and it does come down to priorities, is are there alternative sources and how good is the information that could be collected. Again, there was extensive testing on an income question. There was a difference in response rates. I think it was, and Glen can correct me, about a three-percentage point difference in response on the postal test when we had a split sample, households sent a form with an income question and households sent a form without an income question. Given what I said about what the core aim of the census is and what our key determination is, which is the population estimate, then anything that is a three percentage point difference immediately raises some concerns. In addition to that, there has been testing with interviewing and talking to members of the public about how they felt following the 2007 test and what do they think about each of the questions. Of those who objected to a testing, income was the single biggest complaint that they had. Of those who objected to any question at all, more than half of them said it was the income question that was causing them difficulties. There is a third element which is about the kind of work that we have been doing since 2001—it was not included in 2001 where there was also a demand—which is about producing the kind of thing Professor Rees was talking about, small area estimates modelled and so on, and looking to see what administrative data either in DWP or in HMRC could be made available. It was all of those things combined, plus some concern about the quality of the income information given that this is a householder who is responsible for collecting information. Imagine lots of students living together and having to go round saying, "What is your income? What is your income" in order to add it up to give a very broad income band. All of those things combined convinced us that we did not want to propose the income question.

  Mr Watson: I would add a couple of things. One is that for those people in the test where there was an income question, so half of the sample, of those people who did return their questionnaire there was a higher level of non-response to that particular income question than there was for the other questions. People might be willing to give us the form back but with a lot of blanks on the income question. As part of our post-2007 test evaluation survey asked the question again to a number of people. We went back to 400 households and we asked for a second time, "What is your income?" and something like a third of those people gave a different answer the second time round. This is a hard question for people to get right. This was when there was a sources of income question attached to it as well giving them a reminder to include all the different types of income, whether from benefits, pensions, salary, share dividends, investments, whatever it was. The two questions added together takes up quite a lot of space. There is a lot of non-response. There is a lot of objection to it. It is not particularly good quality information and, as Jil said, the key thing was it suggested a 2.7 percentage point drop in response. Can we afford to take that risk? This was in a voluntary survey when only half the people responded anyway. What would that level of non-response have been for the 50 % less compliant half of the population?

  Q83  David Heyes: I follow the logic of what you are saying. You would be right to be concerned about the weight of objections that you get, concerns about the quality and the availability of alternative sources of information, those are all good arguments and were exactly the arguments that were overridden when you included a migration question in the census. Why do those arguments weigh so heavily against including income and yet they are not such a problem when it comes to looking at whether or not to include questions on migration?

  Mr Watson: We do not have evidence that suggests the response rate would be affected by—

  Q84  David Heyes: The discussion earlier suggested that there were very similar objections from the same community of academics, the business community and so on, whose arguments you rejected in relation to income.

  Mr Watson: There are an awful lot of opinions on this subject, so what we have to do is try and complement those opinions with some hard evidence. That is why we do tests and all of this research. In the research that we have done with these migration questions there is not evidence that it would materially affect response rates. For example, we have done a postal test running to tens of thousands of people, half of the questions included migration questions and half of the questions did not, and there was no discernible difference in overall response rates, whereas for income there was a clear difference. That is why we have taken a different position.

  Q85  David Heyes: Jil mentioned earlier that she meets regularly with her counterparts internationally and they do not have the same problem with it. Why is this easy in Australia, Scotland and various other places around the world?

  Ms Matheson: It is fascinating, is it not?

  Q86  David Heyes: It is not a problem for them. Why is that?

  Ms Matheson: It is interesting. The results that we found about the depression impact on response rate before the 2011 census, ie the tests we have done this time, mirror the picture we got before 2001. One of the things we do know is that there is an anecdote in statistical circles about what are the questions that it is difficult to ask in different countries, and certainly in the UK even on our household surveys income is seen as one of the most difficult areas for us to investigate. There are lower response rates to income questions on surveys in the UK than in some other countries. I do not know whether that answers it but it is part of the picture.

  Q87  David Heyes: Just one final question on this. We have heard several times this morning that there are potentially good alternative sources of income data available that would serve this purpose and you used the phrase "could be made available". From the broader concerns of the ONS I would have thought this would be extremely important information for you to have. What action is taking place to substitute for the fact that you are not collecting it through the census?

  Ms Matheson: There are detailed income questions on household surveys. In fact, there are a couple of surveys that are dedicated to exploring that in detail, which is what you need to do to get good quality income information. That is being used to model. What that does not do is provide detailed local information.

  Q88  David Heyes: You cannot drill down to the individual district.

  Ms Matheson: Exactly. What has happened with that is we have used the information from higher geographic areas about incomes from surveys alongside information from other sources to estimate what the average income is likely to be in different areas across the country. That is one of the innovations since 2001 because we did not have the income question in 2001. Alongside that there has been a big increase in the amount of administrative data that is available for small areas. For example, on a neighbourhood statistics website there is information for small areas about benefit recipients and there is some information from HMRC, but it is not complete because they do not have a complete picture, at certainly smaller areas than was there in 2001.

  Q89  David Heyes: The way you describe it feels patchy. It certainly is not doing what you were suggesting might be a good alternative, which is to acquire the total data in a different way, maybe from HMRC or wherever. Are there any movements being made towards achieving that volume data?

  Ms Matheson: It certainly is an objective of National Statistics as a whole. What it will not do is what Keith Dugmore was saying, being able to understand how that then relates to some of the other questions that are in the census, relating at the household level, if you like, what is the relationship between income and the other characteristics that are collected. It will only do it at the area level, whatever the smallest geographic area is that the aggregate data can be provided for while protecting confidentiality.

  Q90  Mr Prentice: Why did they go ahead in Scotland then? You have given us all the reasons why it is impossible or very difficult to collect data which is meaningful in England and Wales, why did they go ahead in Scotland?

  Ms Matheson: There is also an issue of prioritisation. We decided that what we really needed to do was focus on the population estimate and those questions in England and Wales we need for population, so there is a certain element of choice. There is also the question about what is the evidence that you are basing the judgments about quality on. The evidence in England and Wales is as we have described; in Scotland their test was different.

  Q91  Mr Prentice: Prioritisation is a red herring really, it is whether the data that is collected is accurate and meaningful, and you have told us about a 50 % response rate when you ask people to give details of their income, and despite all that the people in Scotland are going to press ahead.

  Ms Matheson: I think that was a different point that Glen was making actually.

  Mr Watson: Scotland are pressing ahead with a household income question rather than an individual income question. Amongst a large number of people we have tested reactions and difficulties with answering a question about household income as well and the feedback we have got, which Jil has already alluded to, is that it is difficult to know what others in the household earn, it is difficult to ask that question.

  Q92  Mr Prentice: I understand that you are talking about household income, but you speak to the people in Scotland and you will have expressed all the reservations you have about getting accurate data, so why are they going ahead? Are they saying to you, "No, we disagree with you, Mr Watson. We think that we will get accurate data at a household level and that is why we are asking the question"?

  Mr Watson: They think they will get something meaningful and accurate. Our research for England and Wales, and I think some of our testing has been on larger samples of the population, suggests otherwise.

  Q93  Mr Prentice: How strange.

  Mr Watson: Ultimately we have to both make our own recommendations to our own separate legislatures.

  Q94  Mr Prentice: Is there a problem about Scotland going one way and England and Wales going the other? We have two censuses asking different questions. That must create headaches.

  Ms Matheson: In fact, we have got three census offices because Northern Ireland is a separate census office as well. One of the things that my predecessor and now me, with the heads of the census offices in Scotland and Northern Ireland, do is talk to each other very regularly, and we have a UK Census Committee with a view to harmonising wherever possible, so the core of the questions are the same, the census day will be the same and so on. There are users and, indeed, some international obligations to provide UK level data.

  Q95  Mr Prentice: But harmonisation is going out the window, is it not, because you have got this income question that everyone is very exercised about.

  Ms Matheson: There are some differences because of different user needs in different parts of the UK. That is what happens when you have different census offices, they are responding to their user needs and we are responding to ours, and also to our circumstances. For example, some of the questions about why we are so focused on the population estimate, some of the questions about mobility, numbers of languages spoken and all of that is a stronger imperative in England and Wales than in Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example.

  Q96  Mr Prentice: I know Kelvin is desperate to get in. He is straining at the leash!

  Mr Watson: I would just add one point on your question. The feeling in England and Wales is we really cannot afford to take the risks with response rates. I am not saying Scotland can, but Scotland did not suffer the same difficulties with response rates being too low in some areas and challenges and studies after the census from many local authorities challenging the results. Their evidence suggests that they have not got a problem and are prepared to take the risk, and we just cannot really afford to take the risk.

  Q97  Mr Prentice: On this issue of testing, you tested in Newham, am I right?

  Ms Matheson: No.

  Q98  Mr Prentice: You tested some questions in Newham. I read that somewhere.

  Ms Matheson: No.

  Mr Watson: We are currently doing a rehearsal in Newham. The 2007 test was in five local authorities, but not Newham. The testing we have done in various postal tests, various cognitive tests, has been countrywide over the last four years.

  Q99  Mr Prentice: In those five areas is there one with a high non-white population?

  Mr Watson: Camden.

  Q100  Mr Prentice: What is the percentage of the non-white population in Camden? Just take a guess. There are only five, you must know.

  Mr Watson: I do not know. I would be guessing a number.

  Q101  Mr Prentice: A gentle guess then.

  Mr Watson: I am not sure I want to.

  Q102  Chairman: I think it is a little unfair even to ask a statistician.

  Ms Matheson: I have to say there is a risk as National Statistician being asked a question like that and giving the wrong number.

  Chairman: Of course there is.

  Q103  Mr Prentice: It was just that we had a big debate earlier about intended length of stay and whether it was meaningful to put that question in the census. I am interested in you saying that all of these questions are tested to destruction. You take a sample and you test them and look at the response rate. I just wonder what the people in Camden said about this question on intended length of stay where you thought it was worth including.

  Mr Watson: If my memory serves me correctly, the question on intended length of stay was not in the 2007 test.

  Q104  Mr Prentice: So it has never been tested?

  Mr Watson: It was a question that was added later and it was tested thoroughly in postal tests to 10,000 or 20,000 households at the start of last year after the 2007 tests.

  Q105  Mr Prentice: In a postal test, but in a question like this you really want to test it in an area with a large non-white population. There is no point sending it to Tunbridge Wells or somewhere like that.

  Mr Watson: We picked an area that did have a relatively high level of immigration in the last decade or so.

  Q106  Mr Prentice: Which area was that?

  Mr Watson: I think we went for somewhere in the East Midlands. I think we went for Northampton where there has been quite a lot of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe.

  Q107  Mr Prentice: And people filled in that question, there was no problem?

  Mr Watson: There was no difference in response rates in terms of those who returned the questionnaires with those questions and those without the questions. There were some people who returned the questionnaires who did not fill in that question. We have done cognitive testing as well with a number of people from different backgrounds, recent immigrants, more settled immigrants, and generally the feedback from the cognitive testing was that people would be willing to fill in the questions and give us that information.

  Q108  Chairman: When you were talking about second homes you said that there was no pressure to put those questions in, so obviously the pressure to have questions in is a big contributor to whether they get in or not after you do the testing. Where did the pressure come from to ask the intention to stay question?

  Ms Matheson: It came from ourselves. It came from our experience in the 2001 census, and the experience following the 2001 census in discussing with some local authorities the difference between what they thought their population was and our estimate of the population from the census, this difference between the usual long-term resident and people who were there relatively short-term. It came from the massive amount of work that has been done since then on looking at the improvements to migration statistics. It is a combination of getting the census population estimate right and making it easy by, "If you are going to be here for three months or more, tell us". That is a very simple instruction. It also came from the increasing desire to produce estimates about short-term migration. There is an intention to stay question included in surveys which are used in migration estimation. It is not dreamt up out of "this would be a good idea".

  Q109  Kelvin Hopkins: Following from Gordon's questions—I am fascinated by this—you said earlier that Britain was very different from other countries in their willingness to say what their income is, or household income, but it seems it is more England and Wales because in Scotland they are quite prepared to let it hang out and boldly say what their income is, like Gordon would I am sure, but it is the precious upright English, like me, who have a problem with this. Is there a cultural or psychological problem which needs to be addressed?

  Ms Matheson: I do not know is the answer. All I know is what the evidence is.

  Q110  Mr Prentice: Britain is changing very rapidly. Is there a case for a five-year census? There are countries, like Canada, which have these snapshots every five years and we have heard people say that so much has changed in ten years the census gets out of date very rapidly. Is there a case for a five-year census?

  Ms Matheson: Certainly it is changing very rapidly. One of the projects that we have started is to look at—we have called it "Beyond 2011"—the 2011 census as vital and a benchmark, but then what we have to do is say what happens after that and how rapidly are things changing, what are the areas where we need more regular benchmarks. That may or may not be through a census, it may be through better use of administrative data, through big surveys, a whole range of possibilities.

  Q111  Mr Prentice: The Government estimated that 13,000 people from Eastern Europe would come into the United Kingdom and the reality was 600,000. If change is going to be that rapid then you have got to get the picture.

  Ms Matheson: The census is not the only source that we have already, of course. The population estimates and migration estimates are captured through other sources intercensally. The reason the census is important is that it provides that benchmark, that point in time, everybody on the same day, the same questions. It is then supplemented annually, or more or less frequently, with other sources. The question is, what do we need to do for the next decade by way of providing the rapid information that is needed to measure the changes that are happening.

  Q112  Mr Prentice: You think about these things all the time and you must have a view as to whether it would be a good idea to have a five year census, like Canada, or whether you should stick with the ten year census and all this other information that can be collected from other sources.

  Ms Matheson: There is nothing magical about five years at the moment. What I would like to see is the 2011 census as the core, high quality benchmark that we can then supplement with administrative information increasingly, and surveys, so that you have got a much more rapid view of how things are changing. Whether as part of that you need some kind of exercise in the intercensal period after five years, six years or whatever it is, to benchmark is an open question.

  Q113  Chairman: Just tell us why we cannot have a sexual orientation question?

  Ms Matheson: For the reasons I said at the beginning. Partly this is about balancing the user need and the user case, relevancy of other sources and public acceptability. Evidence of the testing is that it does depress response rates. We have to be able to explain to people why it is there. This is the essence of it: people need to be able to understand why the question is there, how the information is going to be used and that it is going to be kept secure. There were some concerns in a household form about the householder being responsible for collecting information on sexual identity from other household members, or those household members then having to say, "I don't want to tell you, can I have my own separate form, please". There were concerns about the quality and concerns from some of the copies of interviews that it would have an impact on response, in a nutshell.

  Q114  Mr Prentice: You have got a new question on the type of central heating.

  Ms Matheson: Yes.

  Q115  Mr Prentice: Why is it necessary to have a question on the type of central heating?

  Ms Matheson: Can you remember what the case was for the question on what type of central heating?

  Mr Watson: The question in previous censuses has been, "Do you have central heating or not?" It was no longer a good way of distinguishing between different levels of poverty, deprivation, housing standards, because 99 point something, a very high percentage of places, now have some form of central heating. There was an opportunity to ask something that was more relevant and useful in today's society. Given the interest in fuel poverty, in sustainability and different forms of heating, a case was made by central government, and I think by local government as well, to use this space to ask a question about the type of central heating.

  Q116  Mr Prentice: So whether it is gas or coal-fired?

  Mr Watson: Whether it is gas or coal-fired, exactly.

  Mr Prentice: How strange.

  Mr Walker: Can you have electric central heating? I think you can, can you not?

  Chairman: You can.

  Q117  Mr Walker: If you have electric central heating, do you have to get in touch with your supplier and say, "Do you supply me with electricity from nuclear power, coal power or gas power?", because all those things produce electricity?

  Mr Watson: Let me tell you the six options: no central heating; gas; electric, including storage heaters; oil; solid fuel, for example wood, coal; and other central heating. That has been worked on in consultation with the central government policy departments who have requested this information.

  Q118  Mr Walker: You do not like getting rid of questions, do you?

  Ms Matheson: We have got rid of some from 2001.

  Q119  Mr Walker: Have you? Gosh. It seems when they become redundant you find a new way of making them relevant.

  Ms Matheson: There are some that have gone from 2001. For example, there was a question on—

  Q120  Mr Walker: "Do you have a horse?"

  Ms Matheson: Lowest floor level of accommodation. People who are living in blocks, "What is the lowest floor level of accommodation?" That has gone completely. There are some other examples.

  Q121  Mr Walker: Are you going to start asking people what type of car they have, electric or diesel?

  Ms Matheson: No plans to do so.

  Mr Walker: But we could make a good case for its inclusion!

  Mr Prentice: What percentage of households in England and Wales do not have central heating? In my constituency quite a lot of people do not have central heating. What is the figure in England and Wales?

  Q122  Chairman: That is one of those unfair questions again.

  Mr Watson: I would prefer to let the Committee know afterwards.

  Q123  Mr Prentice: It is not unfair because this is a new question and you would know we were going to ask you about the new questions in the census. You just explained you wanted to know about the type of central heating because so many households now have central heating. My question, I think, is a fair one, which is how many households in England and Wales do not have central heating?

  Mr Watson: I make no comment on whether it is a fair question or not, but either way the answer is the same, I am afraid I do not know and would prefer to write to the Committee.

  Q124  Chairman: That is why I say it is an unfair question, because you are expected to give a statistical answer and you do not know necessarily what it is and if you gave it unreliably you would be mocked. I think you are well protected there. So we do not end on central heating—nothing wrong with central heating, we have gas—can I ask you about national identity. This is another one that is coming in fresh. I do not know the detail of the question but my slight worry here would be that if people have got to choose a national identity we know from other sources that many people see themselves as having multiple identities, and if people are asked to describe themselves as Welsh, Scottish, British, many people would want to say, "I'm Welsh and I'm British" or "I'm Scottish and I'm British". Is that possible?

  Ms Matheson: You can do that. We have got the advantage of having the dress rehearsal form in front of us. The question says, "Tick all that apply".

  Q125  Chairman: So you can do the permutations, okay. How catastrophic would it be if politicians started playing about with this in the next period and started suggesting that questions should go and some should come?

  Ms Matheson: We have got a timetable. Census day is 27 March 2011. We need the regulations in place in order that we can print the questionnaire, set up the systems, finalise the arrangements and have the authority to recruit and train the 30,000-odd people that we will need in order to carry the census out. Any changes after spring of next year are going to introduce both cost and risk and, therefore, are likely to be very serious. Up until that time it is for Parliament to decide.

  Q126  Chairman: If Parliament, for whatever reason, said, "We would like an income question" or "We would like a sexual orientation question", you would just groan, grit your teeth and get on with it?

  Ms Matheson: I think there is a procedural point, which Glen was going to remind me about, which is that this is a strange Order in that it is partly subject to affirmative resolution and partly to negative resolution, so the only way of adding would be to reject the Order and then to start again. The bit that is prescribed by the 1920 Census Act is the negative resolution and the bit that is new or additional, or not covered there, is affirmative[3].

  Q127  Chairman: My understanding is it would be possible for a government, and it can only be a government that can do it, to put down an amendment.

  Ms Matheson: Exactly.

  Q128  Chairman: If Government was prevailed upon that there ought to be an income question or a sexual orientation question they could put down an amendment and then you would have to put up with it, would you not?

  Ms Matheson: Yes.

  Mr Watson: Can I add one point of clarification. Some people have made the case for a sexual identity question, for example, to be voluntary in the way that the religion question is. If that were to be the decision of Parliament then that would require an amendment to the primary legislation, the 1920 Census Act would have to be amended.

  Chairman: That sounds like a shot across the bows to me. Helpful information, as we said. That has been interesting. Thank you for coming along and talking through this again. Thank you very much indeed.

2   Sir John Kingman Back

3   Ev 27 Back

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