UK Census will fail if too many people refuse to fill in the forms, says Straight Statistics

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In an article that cites the letter from RSS vice president Jill Leyland to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Straight Statistics has suggested that concerns about the confidentiality of personal information could undermine the census.
 
“If too many people refuse to fill in the forms … the census will fail,” comments Straight Statistics’ Nigel Hawkes.
 
Leyland’s letter to ONS Director General Stephen Penneck sought an explanation of how the ONS would handle requests for census information from the police or the security services. She drew attention to a clause in the 2007 Statistics and Registration Service Act that has the potential to “oblige the ONS under certain circumstances to hand over individual data for non-statistical purposes to the police or security services.”
 
Hawkes’ article highlights the international trend to abandon long-form census data gathering as privacy campaigners grow ever-more vocal. “But by sticking to a mandatory long-form census while other nations are abandoning it, the UK is out on a limb,” it says.
 
While in opposition, MP Francis Maude questioned the intrusion on personal privacy posed by the census. However, as the minister now responsible, Maude has given approval the census process.
 
In a parallel development, four former senior civil servants in Canada have written to PM Stephen Harper seeking changes to the country’s Statistics Act. The group, which includes former chief statistician and RSS honorary fellow Ivan Fellegi, want legal safeguards to ensure that changes to the census are controlled by Statistics Canada rather than the government.
 
Earlier this year, the Canadian government abolished the long-form census and replaced it with a voluntary survey. In the debacle that followed chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned, saying the data provided by the survey would not be of comparable quality to that gathered by mandatory census.
 

Honour for editor of RSS NEWS

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Frank Duckworth, honorary editor of RSS NEWS, has received the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Frank and his colleague Tony Lewis received the award for services to cricket, being inventors of the Duckworth/Lewis method for resetting targets in rain interrupted one-day cricket matches.
 
Tony and Frank’s collaboration on the method began following Frank’s presentation of a mathematical formula for target adjustment made in 1992 at the RSS international conference in Sheffield. The method was first used in 1997 and over the next two years spread to all cricketing nations. The game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, adopted it as their official method in 1999 and it has been in worldwide use ever since. To date the Duckworth/Lewis method has been used in over 1200 matches.
 
The citations also refer to their services to mathematics and statistics, notably Frank’s voluntary work for the Society. He became honorary editor of RSS NEWS in April 1993, soon after taking early retirement from the nuclear power industry where he had worked as a research statistician. In 2004 he was awarded the Chambers medal for services to the Society. In 2005 he was the Society’s Schools (Guy) Lecturer and in 2006 he received the C Oswald George prize for the best article that year in Teaching Statistics, this constituting a write-up of his Guy Lecture.
 
His joint paper on the cricket method with Tony Lewis, published in the Journal of the Operational Research Society, received the Goodeve medal of that Society for the best paper of 1998.
 
Interviewed on the BBC Today programme when the Honours list was announced on Saturday 12 June, Frank was asked for his reaction to receiving the honour. He said: “It’s helped to demonstrate that mathematics and statistics isn’t just a nasty subject you have to learn at school … it’s a subject that’s very useful in a wide range of applications, and particularly in sport in this instance.”
 
A TV documentary on the history of one-day cricket, which features interviews with Frank and Tony at Errol Street, has been made for Sky Sports and is due to be broadcast later this summer.
 

Leyland asserts value of official statistics

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In the wake of reports that the government is considering sourcing some data that is traditionally collected in the census from third party agencies, RSS vice president Jill Leyland has made a strong defence of official statistics in general, and the census in particular.
 
Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on 14 July (item starts at 2hr 47m) Leyland said “you cannot make sensible decisions without good information and official statistics … the census is absolutely vital”.
 
She explained that the census is “the most accurate and comprehensive population count”. Describing its value as a benchmark for other surveys she commented “this is something that a lot of people don’t understand; you need something to calibrate your sample surveys against.”
 
When presenter Justin Webb suggested that the government had said that census information was often dated and that there were more accurate sources of information available elsewhere, Leyland responded “no, you couldn’t get them more accurately from other means….. It may well be that in the future we can do things better but at the moment we can’t.”
 
She acknowledged that there had been some problems with official statistics and the census in particular but said “by and large they are the best source of information we have on the economy and indeed about what’s going on in a lot of society as well”.
 

Policy priorities of UK Statistics Authority set out in letters to the major UK political parties

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The policy priorities of the UK Statistics Authority have been set out in a letter (available from the Authority’s web site) to the leaders of the UK’s major political parties.
 
The letter sets out that: “The Statistics Authority believes that building confidence in the trustworthiness of official statistics should be at the heart of the programme of action which the new House of Commons will – we assume – want to put in place, in order to restore trust in Parliament and Government.”
 
It adds that in the Authority’s view, “progress has been made” but “more needs to be done”, identifying this as:
 
  • the arrangements for ensuring the independence and impartiality of statisticians in all Government Departments (not just in the Office for National Statistics) need to be further strengthened and entrenched;
  • more use needs to be made of the Statistics Authority, for example in decisions, during this time of great financial austerity, about the allocation of statistical resources, so as to ensure both that Government has the necessary statistical evidence to guide policy-making and that the public have the information needed to judge the performance of Government; and
  • in order to attack the widespread belief that official statistics are manipulated by Ministers and their advisors before their publication, the Statistics Authority should be asked to determine the pre-release access arrangements for all official statistics.
 

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