Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 5

Memorandum by the Demographics User Group

  The Demographics User Group represents fourteen large commercial users of Census and other government data. Its membership comprises: Abbey National, Bank of Scotland, Bradford & Bingley, Halifax, Marks & Spencer, Marks & Spencer Financial Services, Nationwide, One 2 One, Royal Bank of Scotland, Saga Group, Sainsbury, Tesco, Whitbread and Yell.

  DUG welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee under the four headings:

1.  THE ADEQUACY OF THE PREPARATORY WORK AND CONSULTATION UNDERTAKEN PRIOR TO THE CENSUS

  The Office for National Statistics is to be congratulated in the efforts that they have made to maximise the value of the Census to users. As with previous Censuses, there were strong contacts with established users in central and local government and the universities. For 2001, successful efforts were also made to increase the involvement of commercial users of the Census.

  Our only serious regret was that, despite the wishes of all the major user groups, the ONS appeared to have decided at the outset not to ask a question on Income.

2.  THE CONDUCT OF THE CENSUS

  The major fear of users is always that any press campaign against the Census might cause widespread refusal to respond, resulting in inadequate statistics. Thankfully this did not occur, although we did feel that the ONS might have taken a more proactive stance in explaining the benefits to the press during the key Census week.

  We were also nervous that the new procedure for forms to be posted back, rather than collected, might lead to reduced response. These fears have proven to be unfounded, and we understand that response is c.98 per cent, as in 1991.

  Anecdotal evidence raises some doubts about the completeness and quality of responses—the usual Quality Survey should have been held after the Census.

  However, for most commercial organisations which use the Census to support business decisions, such defects are vastly outweighed by the value of the data that has been collected.

 3.  THE UTILITY OF THE PLANNED OUTPUTS FOR PROSPECTIVE USERS

  Several innovations will be of great value to all users:

Table 1

OUTPUTS—THE MAJOR ISSUES FOR USERS
Issue DUG's view
100 per cent Coding and
Classifications
The move away from 10 per cent sampling is a great improvement for many users who analyse statistics for small areas.

The approximation to Social Grade is very welcome.
GeographyAnother major advance, enabling postcoded customer data to be related to small Census areas, and digital boundaries and background map data to be available from the ONS
Access and
Dissemination
Free dissemination of statistics promises to be a truly revolutionary advance, and will greatly increase use of the data.

This will be reinforced by inclusion of the Census within the wider framework of Neighbourhood Statistics, and the sharing of the common Output Area geography.
Statistical Outputs—
specification
ONS's effort put into consultation has been appreciated (although it would have been less time consuming to ask users of 1991 statistics their views, rather than invent new tables in a back room and then seek comment).

However, one serious concern that has emerged in the last few weeks is that ONS's recent preoccupation with Disclosure Control might be inventing theoretical problems that have never arisen in decades of practical experience. Excessive Disclosure Control measures could seriously reduce the value of Census data, particularly for small areas.

One particular instance is the apparent reluctance to produce statistics aggregated to postal sector level, which was done with no adverse consequences in 1991.

It is significant that the Scottish Census Office are planning to continue tried and tested approaches used in previous censuses.


  News of the ONS's performance in processing the data and delivering statistics is currently awaited. The speed of delivery appears to be slower than in other countries, but it must be recognised that any processing errors and re-issues (as happened in 1991) cause huge disruption for users.

4.  LESSONS FOR THE NEXT CENSUS

  One particular lesson to learn for the next Census is that the coverage of empty property/second homes/visitors in 2001 seems to have been erratic.

  More significantly, the cost of the Census is very modest in comparison with the magnitude of the financial decisions (by both public services and commercial companies) which are based on its counts, and the case for holding the next Census in 2006, rather than 2011, should be assessed without delay.

9 November 2001


 
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