Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001

MR LEN COOK AND MR JOHN PULLINGER

  40. Will you in due course be able to quantify the complaints? Are you going to report on that to somebody?
  (Mr Cook) We will report on the significance of concerns but we may not have exact counts of every one, simply because there were radio interviews, television interviews, letters to the editor.

  41. No, I do not mean those. You had a call centre and a contact number.
  (Mr Cook) We had that as well.

  42. Are you telling me that you have not logged the calls?
  (Mr Cook) No, we have logged those.

  43. But you have not counted them.
  (Mr Cook) What I am saying is that that is not complete in the sense of there being a lot of other information we would want to take into account in assessing whether an individual question was well accepted or not.

  44. I am asking specifically about complaints.
  (Mr Cook) Yes, we can answer that.

  45. My specific question is: have you not yet counted the complaints? You do not know what people complained about yet; you do not know how many complaints.
  (Mr Cook) We have not formally analysed that yet.

  46. You have not done that yet.
  (Mr Cook) We do have some very good information which we are building up about the way in which individual questions were received.

  47. I received a number of calls to my office in the constituency from people who had made many efforts to contact you on your contact number without any success at all. They wanted to ask a question or wanted some help to complete the form or were not sure what to do with part of it. As a last resort they started asking me so we tried contacting your helpline number and we could not get through to it either. Did you underestimate the extent to which people would need help with completing this form?
  (Mr Cook) Monday 23 April was a day when we were completely swamped. It was the Monday before the Census and we answered 53 per cent of the phone calls which came in. The next day we took action to increase the number of people dealing with calls and we increased it from 370 to 1,300 phone lines. From the time that happened, which was late on 25 April—or it may have been 26 April—we actually got somewhat over 99 per cent response rate to all calls. We had a three-day period when we were swamped by the number of people who wanted to follow up what was happening to their form. We believe that came about in a sense because until 22 April our enumerators had been trying to make contact with households before they provided them with Census forms. In the week before the Census, they were leaving Census forms at all households where they had made no contact. Because of a large number of people being away, a huge number of people early on in that week, responding to the overall communications programme, were saying they did not have a Census form and they wanted one. We were completely swamped in that time.

Chairman

  48. Was that not predictable?
  (Mr Cook) We can analyse what probably happened, but we certainly did not predict it.

Mr Plaskitt

  49. You yourself said in the introduction that you knew you were compiling a large and complex Census. Should that not have led you to anticipate that there would be rather a lot of queries when this landed on people's doormats.
  (Mr Cook) That was why we set up the helpline as we did.

  50. But you had to increase it fourfold.
  (Mr Cook) Yes, but we increased it once. The fact we had to increase it is also symptomatic of the very huge shift in the willingness or wish of people to communicate by telephone which we underestimated.

  51. How did you increase it in practice? What did you have to do to increase that ability to respond to the queries?
  (Mr Cook) We had a period of discussion with the company to which we outsourced the telephone network, Cable & Wireless, over a 24-hour period. After we had internally come to a judgement about what we needed to do in terms of the scale of response, they then came back to us with a range of things they could do to deliver that. Part of it was a two-phase response where we set up a line which was directly handling simple questions on the forms and a line which could handle more complex inquiries which carried on with the basic advertised phone number. That two-level response was the one which was developed by Cable & Wireless in consultation with us and put in place within that time period.

  52. What did it cost?
  (Mr Pullinger) The total cost of the contract for the helpline is £1.5 million. I do not have the number in front of me for the cost of that specific addition. The scale of the helpline within the overall Census is that sort of amount.

  53. The total helpline cost was £1.5 million.
  (Mr Pullinger) Yes, that is right.

  54. Has it closed now?
  (Mr Pullinger) The formal helpline has closed but we still have helplines which we are operating ourselves. Questions are still coming up.

  55. When did the formal helpline close?
  (Mr Pullinger) There were different stages of it. The key one was 1 October for the main helpline.

Chairman

  56. How many forms were posted out because people were missed out in the first place? People said they had no form and you had to send them one or deliver them one. How many did you miss the first time round?
  (Mr Pullinger) The people who would have had forms posted to them would have been people who telephoned the helpline to say they had no form and could we send them one.

  57. Yes. How many of those were there?
  (Mr Pullinger) Seventy-five thousand.[2]

Dr Palmer

  58. I understand you had extensive and prolonged consultations with the RNIB in advance of the Census but they then launched a campaign for a Braille Census form which from the outside appeared to catch the Census office somewhat by surprise. Were you ambushed? What was the problem?
  (Mr Cook) We had a very very large amount of consultation. We had videos, we even had lists of questions in Braille and a lot of our Census documentation was in Braille. Certainly where we felt really quite surprised and disappointed was the assertion by that group that we had actually done nothing in the intervening ten years since the last Census when in fact we had a huge amount of material. We even had every question in Braille and instructions in Braille and a whole lot of other things which were done: videos, large-sized print, forms. We did not receive answers in Braille but we actually provided questions. We did a huge amount and had people available to support our enumerators. We recognise we can go further and continue to go further to improve the way we are able to relate to all groups in the community which have some form of disability. We were disappointed at the extreme nature of their criticism and responded to it accordingly.

  59. Would you expect to have a Braille Census form in a future census?
  (Mr Cook) We should like to move to a way of receiving answers in Braille in some way and I am not quite sure whether that would have the same legal status as a Census form. We still have more work to do. We would be very much guided by what other countries do. Members of the statistics community generally learn from each other and this is an issue which countries make breakthroughs on. Certainly what we did in this Census is as good as anyone else we know of.


2   Correction by witness: One hundred and sixty thousand. Back


 
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