Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-94)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001

MR LEN COOK AND MR JOHN PULLINGER

  80. Were the enumerators trained to interview under caution?
  (Mr Pullinger) Yes, they were.

Mr Beard

  81. In your memorandum you say, "... Census processing is taking longer than originally scheduled, although the Census offices, with the contractors, are invoking contingency options in order to meet the deadlines for output delivery within the overall Census budget". Why is the processing behind schedule? What are the contingency options?
  (Mr Pullinger) The first reason is that we extended the period for enumeration in a number of areas in order to make sure that we really did get into the most difficult places and knock them up. We had an issue of completing the enumeration so we were determined to get the job done as well as possible and there was an extension to the time period we had right up front. The information was then collected and sent to the processing centre at Widnes where processing began. We found at the early stages of that processing more need to fine tune the system than we had anticipated. We had gone through a significant test of the whole system in 1999. We started off with an initial batch of forms from one area and ran them through the system. It did take longer than expected. The first deliveries came later. We now have deliveries. We have now tuned the system. Our contractors have responsibility for this and we have been working very, very hard with them to develop a catch-up strategy, which we now have. We have a plan which takes us to final delivery on the right schedule and the efforts we have made with Lockheed Martin, the main contractor, and ICL, the contractor at Widnes, have created both a plan which enables us to catch up, which we have now shown to work for the first areas we have, and a series of contingency options to make sure that stays on track. We know it will deliver.

  82. How much is that going to take you over your original budget?
  (Mr Pullinger) That will not take us over our original budget at all, because of the nature of the contract we have with Lockheed Martin, which is for the delivery of information to a particular quality.

  83. You said earlier this system you are using for counting was already tested and tried in the United States.
  (Mr Pullinger) Yes.

  84. Why were the lessons you are now learning not learned then?
  (Mr Cook) What Lockheed Martin would say is that it has taken them until last month to achieve the keying rates in the United Kingdom that they achieved much earlier on in the United States. As a consequence what they have over the next six months is the need to catch up the unkeyed material because they took so much longer in the United Kingdom to get to the keying rates they had achieved from the start in the United States.

  85. Why was that?
  (Mr Cook) I can only report what happened. Presumably there are issues around the way in which expectations were formed, about what the performance of keyers would be. There may well be issues about how performance is recognised in the work force which are different here from the United States.

  86. My colleague has already mentioned that some of the times do seem inordinately long before people see these figures. The memorandum you have given us says that the centre piece of local government finance, the Standard Spending Authority, will not have necessary results available until 2003. People will be operating over the next couple of years with data which is 12 years old.
  (Mr Cook) Yes and these were targets which were accepted in 1999.

  87. They seem to be rather prolonged.
  (Mr Cook) Yes, but the trade-off which was preferred at that time was very much that people would rather have a final set of figures in early 2003 than a series of numbers in between which were subject to some revision.

  88. Are you sure you are not making the best the enemy of the good? In other words you are refining these statistics so much, thereby engendering a delay, when something which would have been useful sooner could have been produced.
  (Mr Cook) In all statistical work there is a trade-off between accuracy and timeliness and availability. For us that trade-off was made in a particular way during the 1999 period when all these decisions were made about the processing path which was to be followed. I am sure that users of statistics have a different view of the timescale they are prepared to accept four years before the results are available than when they are a year away.

Chairman

  89. What was the lowest response rate achieved? In which area was the lowest?
  (Mr Pullinger) The lowest areas were in the centre of London.

  90. What was that?
  (Mr Pullinger) The difficulty of estimating the response rate is that we only know who we have captured. Until we have completed the process we will not know what we do not have.

  91. How do you know it was the lowest then?
  (Mr Pullinger) Because we know the forms we sent out, we know the number of addresses we expected to find from our address lists, we know any additional addresses that enumerators have found and we can count the number of forms we got compared with the number of those addresses. When you add those up you get to the number of 98 per cent which has been quoted. The smaller the areas you go to with that, the more chance that the difficulties you have are going to be very substantial with understanding the addresses and understanding the people in those areas. We have a spread of different answers but they will not be authoritative. They will not give an indication of what the actual final response is. We believe we have managed to do better than we did in 1991, but the scale of additional response understanding we will get when we have done the coverage survey will be such that saying to you anything below the national level would be to fool you. Whether that is being the best enemy of good or not I do not have a number in front of me I can give you.
  (Mr Cook) In small areas we have two lots of response rates: one is the response rate from our Census coverage survey in relatively broader small areas; secondly in each of the Census areas we have the difference between the national average and what we actually achieve. What that number means is subject to some interpretation. What we can certainly do is tell you what we believe happened in the ten worst areas, if that would help you.

  92. That would be helpful. Will we all know at the end of the whole operation?
  (Mr Pullinger) Yes.

  93. What the rate was for each area?
  (Mr Pullinger) Absolutely; yes. At the end of this we shall publish a general report on all aspects of the Census including issues such as the questions we had on the helpline. Those reviews are in train and there will be a very comprehensive quality report which will enable people to understand how much of this has been estimated rather than counted.

  94. Could you very briefly just describe the main problems you had with the Post Office?
  (Mr Cook) Fundamentally the Post Office, although it had a very major role in the Census, refused to give us a contract, which I discover is not unusual for the Post Office. So there was no way we could get a guarantee of performance out of it. What happened was that whilst we received the forms from the Post Office in aggregate in a reasonably effective manner, the variability of performance around the country was far greater than was anticipated and it created huge problems for us locally in terms of the differing impact of that poor response on the ability of area managers to plan when the enumerators would go back into households. We had the difficulty in some areas of people training people to receive forms which were sitting for two more weeks in the Post Office. We had people going back to households where forms had been returned. In the areas where the Post Office was a problem to us it was quite a significant problem. I would say the Post Office problems were the largest difficulties that we faced in the conduct of the Census. It was mainly the resilience of our local managers that allowed them to keep on top of what were huge variations in performance provided to them which should not have happened.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.





 
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