Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
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.
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
(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 questionsnot 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.
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
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
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
(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
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.
154. Are you consulting during the process of
(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.
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
(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