Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 157)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

SIR JOHN KINGMAN AND MS GILL EASTABROOK

  140. To what extent do you feel that the ONS's customers, for instance the Monetary Policy Committee, regard the level of uncertainty as a major problem and, indeed, the way in which it is expressed at the moment?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am sure if you are interested in pursuing that question you will ask the members of the Monetary Policy Committee. I have attended a briefing of the Monetary Policy Committee and I was very impressed, if I may say so without sounding patronising, with the professional nature of that particular audience and the way the information was presented to it. You would expect it to be a highly sophisticated user of statistics, and I believe that it is. My worry is more with some of the less well-informed users who might expect the figures to be absolutely precise and therefore be very suspicious of any revision.

  141. Moving to a different topic, you mention in the Annual Report in relation to your work on the NHS Cancer Plan that there was uncertainty, now resolved, about access to key material. What was the difficulty and have there been any other problems regarding access to information?
  (Ms Eastabrook) It is the issue Sir John referred to right at the very beginning about receiving confidential data. There was a document which would have helped to bring this project forward which the Department of Health did not feel they could share with us other than on a confidential basis. It was a working document which fed into a number of other documents that were published a few months later and we were able to take the work forward after a few months' delay on the basis of that.

  142. With the exception of this specific problem about confidentiality, would it be fair to say that you are getting full co-operation from all the producers of National Statistics or is it rather uneven?
  (Ms Eastabrook) It is difficult to answer that without referring back to the resources issue and priorities.

  143. Let me rephrase the question. Do you feel that the producers of National Statistics are fully motivated to give you the information that you want, albeit perhaps constrained by resource issues?
  (Ms Eastabrook) I certainly do not think they are trying to hide or keep back information. All the indications are that it is a matter of priority. I think that is fair, John?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, it is.

  Dr Palmer: They are willing to give you the information but sometimes they have got things that they think are even more urgent.

Chairman

  144. Sir John, in the final ten minutes I want to turn directly, if I may, to the Census and thank you very much indeed for your note on the Census. You do refer at the end to some of the key issues emerging, and to one of them as being the overall costs and benefits of the Census. Have you come to any initial conclusion on that? How is that emerging from your point of view?
  (Sir John Kingman) Our initial conclusion is that this is a very important issue that must be very widely discussed before any firm decision is made about another Census, about what happens in 2011, about a mid-term possibility in 2006. It should not be assumed that we just go on doing what we have always done. There must be a rigorous assessment which must take into account the way that new technology has changed the situation since the Census was invented in the 19th Century. We believe that the ONS are carrying out studies of the way the Census operated which will answer some of these questions—not all of them, which is why we have already commissioned work on one particular aspect ourselves, but we shall look in a very careful way at their methodology to make sure that all the issues have been covered and that the best possible advice has been taken on all the aspects of it. It is a vitally important question but not one that you can just decide from prejudice. It has to be a rigorous analysis.

  145. So the question of whether there should in fact be a Census in 2011 you regard as an open question?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes.

Mr Plaskitt

  146. Can we explore why that is. Is it because you suspect the information already exists in other forms and therefore has to be collated from that, or that there is a radically different sort of way we can get information that the Government does not otherwise have?
  (Sir John Kingman) We live in an age of information technology and we are talking about information so it should not be assumed that the pencil and paper methods which were all the 19th Century had available are the right things to do in the 21st Century. There is a lot of information in the computers that exists already. By 2011 there will be a great deal more. It may be that the right thing to do is to develop the present sort of Census or it may be that a much simpler Census which simply gives you a framework of who there is and where they are would be the basis for an analysis drawing in all the administrative data that had been collected in other ways, or it may be that there is some quite radically different way of handling the problem that we had not really thought of. These are issues that should be on the agenda of debate and they should be on the agenda of debate before Parliament arrives at a firm conclusion about what should happen in 2011.

  147. So you are encouraging us to address the question as to whether this should even remain a pencil and paper exercise, are you?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think you should start at a very fundamental level. I do not think it is sensible just to try to tinker with the existing arrangements. The fundamental question should be asked, even if the conclusion is that in 2011 we have something that looks pretty much like 2001. It would be wrong for that decision to be taken without all the alternatives being studied.

  148. In the run-up to this latest Census, and admittedly you had not been in office very long during that run-up, were you formally consulted by the ONS on any aspect of the Census that has just taken place?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, by the time we were set up the decisions had already been made. The legislation was through Parliament and a great deal of the preparatory work had already been done. That is why we can only have a retrospective role about this Census. However, we would expect to be consulted between now and 2011 and to give independent advice to Ministers and to Parliament.

  149. Will you be interested to know what particular complaints were made about this Census and the conduct of it? Will that inform your thinking about what should happen to the next one?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes of course.

  150. Will you be supplied with all that information by the Census Office?
  (Sir John Kingman) I am sure we will, yes, in a statistical form probably. We have had quite a lot of people writing to us already directly.

  151. What issues have they raised with you?
  (Sir John Kingman) We had a very large number of letters about the Welsh tick box issue, some in English and some in Welsh and we had all the Welsh ones translated because we do not have any Welsh-speaking Commissioners. So we have taken those seriously. We have not had a lot directly about other aspects of the Census.

  152. You took quite an early decision to review the Census. You say in your Annual Report on page 17, those were the words you used "early decision to undertake a review", so the review was comprehensive by the sound of it, but it was prompted by the Welsh question?
  (Sir John Kingman) No, I think it was a very easy decision to take. The Census is one of the most important aspects of National Statistics and it would be have been very odd if the Statistics Commission had not taken it very seriously.

  153. How much time will you be giving yourself to conclude your own review about the Census?
  (Sir John Kingman) The particular exercise that we are undertaking at the moment will be completed within the next few months, but our major review of the Census will take a lot of time over the next few years. The reviews being carried out by ONS are in stages and we shall want to comment on each stage of their work. Obviously the agenda will move from learning the lessons of the last Census through to questions about the nature and the design of the next Census.[4]

  154. Are you consulting during the process of this deliberation?
  (Sir John Kingman) Consulting?

  155. Are you consulting with other groups?
  (Sir John Kingman) Yes, of course, it will be part of our normal relationship with stakeholders of all sorts.

  Mr Plaskitt: Thank you.

Chairman

  156. Will there come a point then when you will draw your advice together and say publicly what you think should happen with the next Census or is this continuous work?
  (Sir John Kingman) I think there is going to be a continuous dialogue between ONS, Government, users, stakeholders of all sorts, and I assume this Committee.

  157. Indeed. We have been looking at the operation of the Census and we may well report on it but I was wondering whether you will report on it and whether this will be in your Annual Report?
  (Sir John Kingman) I do not think you should regard there as being one moment when we will come out with a definitive report, it will be a continuous process and we shall give our advice as we think it will be useful or as we are asked for it.

  Chairman: Good. Sir John and Ms Eastabrook, thank you very much for coming today.





4   Note by witness: Subsequently, at its meeting on 22 November, the Statistics Commission discussed wider issues relating to the Census including points arising from the chairman's appearance before the Treasury Sub-committee on the previous day and the concerns expressed to the chief executive at a recent Royal Statistical Society meeting and elsewhere, about recent changes to plans for dissemination of small area data in the light of new rules about disclosure. The Commission agreed that the existing review plans should be supplemented by commissioning an early study to pull together the various issues identified to date, and to do some "blue skies" thinking about wider issues. Back


 
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