John was one of three experts brought before MPs to be quizzed by the committee about the future of the census, an issue which was recently consulted on by the Office for National Statistics.
The ONS has proposed two potential approaches for taking the census in the future: a census once a decade, similar to that conducted in 2011 but primarily online; or a census using existing government data and compulsory annual surveys.
At the inquiry, John Pullinger was joined by Professor Jane Falkingham (director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change) and Professor Chris Skinner (professor of statistics at the London School of Economics who the RSS recommended to carry out an independent review of the Census’s methodology).
At the start of the session a key topic covered by MPs was the cost of the census, and whether it provided value in shaping services and making investment decisions. The issue of the availability of an address file, which has been advocated by the RSS, was also debated. It was made clear that the ONS needs access to a properly open address register since it needs to create a new address file every time it conducts a census, which John Pullinger recollected that it costed around £12m.
Other issues the Committee went on to discuss were the reliability of the census, the accuracy of its data and a number of problems with past census data.
PASC chair Bernard Jenkin MP asked whether the current ONS consultation on the future of the Census was a binary choice. John Pullinger said that the ONS needed to make more progress regarding the administrative data option. All three witnesses suggested that it would be good to conduct the next census using the current method (albeit conducted primarily online) alongside administrative data, so that the ONS would be able to make more direct comparisons between the two methods.
The RSS has already concluded in its response to the ONS consultation on the future of the census that it would be too risky not to continue with a ten-yearly census, while stressing that the work on an alternative approach should continue in earnest, in parallel with preparations for a census in 2021. At yesterday's inquiry session, John Pullinger reiterated the Society's view that it would be ‘reckless’ to discontinue the current census without a well-tested alternative.
The panel concurred that although it is getting more difficult to conduct the census and that response rates to the survey are decreasing, the 2011 census was actually very successful compared with previous years. John Pullinger suggested that the current ONS consultation understates the current benefits of census data.
In the session that followed, a number of users of census statistics were questioned by the committee. A key conclusion from the second session was that while more frequent data offered by administrative data would be welcome, ONS shouldn't rush to use administrative data before it has been established to be good enough.
Both sessions are available to view online; the morning session is available here.