2 How the census is used currently |
Social science in central government
12. We have consistently argued for evidence-based
policy, and social science has an obvious role to play in providing
evidence to plan future government spending. It is important that
evidence from the social science services be properly considered
when Ministers are making spending decisions. Richard Bartholomew,
Joint Head of the Government Social Research service, gave an
example where social science had played a role in recent decisions
made by Government:
For example, the pupil premium in my Department
is certainly influenced by the concern about social mobility and
improving the chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds
through a specific set of interventions. Clearly, you need a number
of interventions with different age groups for the purposes of
social mobility, but it is crucial in terms of the arguments as
to why one should invest both in early years and the pupil premium.
13. A cross-departmental social science resource
is provided by the Government Economic Service (GES) and the Government
Social Research service (GSR), which are responsible for giving
evidence-based advice to support the rationale, objectives, appraisal,
monitoring, evaluation and feedback to support effective policy
making and delivery.
The Government Economic and Social Research Team provides professional
support and leadership for social researchers and economists across
all government departments.
14. Jenny Dibden from the Department for Work and
Pensions explained to us that a Heads of Analysis group, on which
sit all the heads of profession and the Government Chief Scientific
Advisor, currently ensures strategic co-ordination of social science
throughout central government.
Richard Bartholomew of the Department for Education highlighted
the need for social science to be integrated into each department's
needs "if we are to have an influence in making sure the
evidence is available to make informed policy decisions".
We were told that within departments, all the various heads of
professions, departmental directors of analysis and chief scientific
advisers worked together. Jenny Dibden concluded: "That
collective working and focus on issues within but also across
Departments means we have a serious amount of input in deciding
what the agenda is and securing it".
15. The provision of social science advice is distinct
from how Government receives other forms of scientific advice.
Almost every Government department has a Chief Scientific Advisor
and these are grouped together under Professor Sir John Beddington,
the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor. There was a Government
Chief Social Scientist but the holder retired in 2010 and his
functions were split between the two civil servants already mentioned,
Richard Bartholomew from the Department for Education and Jenny Dibden
from the Department for Work and Pensions.
16. In 2011, the Science and Technology Committee
of the House of Lords made two recommendations about leadership
on social science in the Government:
We recommend therefore that, at the earliest
opportunity, the Government appoint a Chief Social Scientist (CSS)
who reports to the GCSA and is an independent expert in social
science research to ensure the provision of robust and independent
social scientific advice.
We further recommend that the Government consider
whether existing mechanisms for the provision of social scientific
advice, in particular advice on behavioural science, are fit for
purpose. This should include consideration of how departmental
CSAs and social scientists within departments can best work together
to provide up to date social scientific advice to support evidence-based
behaviour change interventions.
The Government's response to that committee said:
"The Government will therefore give careful consideration
to the idea of appointing a Chief Social Scientist, which will
involve weighing up the potential benefits against any potential
this inquiry we have found it difficult to establish who is responsible
for taking a broader view of social science and its use in government.
There is no obvious direct Ministerial responsibility for social
science and therefore no 'customer' to decide where the benefits
of the census, or changes to it, might lie or what might constitute
best value for government as a whole.
17. We are content
that the structure of social science research in Government is
organised in an effective manner to provide the information required
by Ministers in planning departmental spending. We are, however,
not convinced about the ability of social scientist advisors to
influence Ministers when departmental considerations conflict
with those of Government as a whole.
18. We recommend
that the Government give a senior Minister direct responsibility
for social science who would take a cross-Government view in Ministerial
discussions, respond to Parliamentary questions and reports from
Select Committees. We consider this essential, especially in the
event that greater departmental co-operation is required to source
data in the event of the census being discontinued.
Use of census by public bodies
19. The UK supports social science research through
the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The ESRC told
us that it had invested extensively in a programme to support
data access services, expert support and training, research and
development to underpin social science research using UK census
data. It argued: "This investment indicates the widespread
and enduring importance of the census datasets as a key source
for understanding British population and society. At present,
over 20,000 registered users in UK Higher and Further Education
take advantage of these services".
20. The ESRC provided us with information on the
top ten surveys (including the census) used by social scientists;
those surveys asterisked are collected by the ESRC, otherwise
the data is collected by the ONS or other government departments:
1. Census data
2. Labour Force Survey
3. Health Survey
4. British Household Panel Survey*
5. British Social Attitudes Survey*
6. 1970 British Cohort Study*
7. General Household Survey
8. British Crime Survey
9. National Child Development Study*
10. Workplace Employee Relations Survey*
21. The ESRC also funds the National Data Strategy,
which is intended to identify major gaps or weaknesses in the
current range of data resources, not only in terms of the limitations
that lack of appropriate data may place on areas for possible
research, but also in relation to technical problems about data
access and data security and ethical issues surrounding the collection,
curation, preservation and/or reuse of particular types of data.
The ESRC's second such strategy document covers the period 2009-2012,
and a major part of it concerns making better use of the data
that is already collected. It
was surprising that we did not hear more about this strategy in
our oral or written evidence as it would seem central to the long
term provision of data for social science, especially if the census
is to be discontinued.
22. Professor Philip Rees of the Royal Geographical
Society emphasised the importance of census data in government
The census has a vital role in many of the resource
allocation formulae that central Government Departments use. For
instance, in allocating the NHS budget, the Department of Health
has to have reliable information on the number of patients and
the potential number of patients in futurethe number in
[Primary Care Trusts] currently and in future, and in clinical
commissioning groups, and perhaps even individual practices or
individual patients. It needs that sort of flow of very accurate
information, and if you don't have it, you misallocate large chunks
of Government spending.
23. Uses for census data include:
funding formulae used to allocate central government
resources to other organisations such as the devolved administrations
(via the Barnett formula), local authorities and health bodies.
policy development and planning by central, local
and regional government, in areas including housing, transport,
employment and health.
democratic engagement: the Boundary Commission
takes account of population change to reshape constituency boundaries.
MEP representation is calculated using population figures based
on the census.
24. Glen Watson, Office for National Statistics director
for the 2011 census for England and Wales, pointed out that the
ONS had recently carried out a cost benefit analysis of the census
in respect of the money spent and the money saved by use of the
The estimated economic value of conducting the
census far exceeded that £480 million [cost]. The business
case prepared for the Government and considered by the Treasury
in an earlier spending review estimated that the economic value
of the census to the UK was probably in excess of £1 billion.
We did not try to map every single case and every single use of
census data that has been made, because the number was starting
to get so large; we thought that we had probably gone far enough.
Use of the census by industry
25. Much of our core infrastructure is now dependent
on private investment for maintenance and development. Indeed
a key rationale for privatisation was that private companies would
be more able than Government to finance investments in necessary
infrastructure. We had anticipated that the census would be a
useful source of information upon which the future needs of water,
energy and telecommunications infrastructure might be based. We
had therefore anticipated that there would be concerns about the
potential loss of this data source on the part of, for example,
water and energy companies. However, despite central trade associations
being made aware of the inquiry, none submitted evidence to us.
26. There are many large commercial datasets, for
example the information from store loyalty cards. However, we
were told it was doubtful whether the data would be valuable outside
the context in which it was collected:
Tesco rely on their data for marketing and they
are a very successful company. Presumably, it is very data-driven,
and, presumably, they do get something right for their purposes,
but the words "for their purposes" are quite important.
[...] The question is not whether they are very good data sets
[...] but they would not substitute for basic demographic data
consistently and transparently collected to a standard somewhere
by the public sector, or triggered and managed by the public sector.
27. We were surprised that our call for evidence
received no response from any industrial or commercial organisations
that might be expected to show an interest in population statistics
for business-planning purposes.
presumably consider their investment decisions against projections
made on the basis of local authority structural plans. However,
as we note below, local authorities depend, at least in part,
on the national census to test the validity of their own projections.
We recommend that the Government investigate the potential for
sharing anonymised social data collected by utilities.
7 Q 141 Back
Q 119 Back
Q 103 Back
Q 109 Back
Q 103 [Jenny Dibden] Back
House of Lords, Behaviour Change, Second Report of the
Science and Technology Committee, Session 2010-12, HL Paper 179,
paras 4.23-4.24 Back
Cabinet Office, Government Response to the Science and Technology
Select Committee Report on Behaviour Change, 15 September
Ev 37 Back
"UK Strategy for Data Resources for Social and Economic Research",
UK Data Forum, 2011
Q 48 Back
House of Commons Library Standard Note, Preparations for the
2011 Census, 9 March 2010
Q 72 Back
Q 65 [Professor Allen] Back