Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 9 of Session 2002-03, dated 26 March 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today expressed concern that low response rates for some boroughs had caused the Census results to be questioned. He also said that time wasted chasing forms already returned had cost the taxpayer an extra £11 million. 

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 9th Report of this Session, which examined how well the Office for National Statistics (the Department) had managed the outsourcing of the 2001 Census, the problems with field staff pay, the outcome of the use of post for Census returns ("post back"), and the accuracy of the population figures.

The Committee found that outsourcing helped the Department to introduce some important innovations to deliver the 2001 Census. The post back allowed the Department to reduce the number of temporary field staff employed on the Census by some 33% compared with 1991. The introduction of electronic form scanning and coding meant that all information submitted on Census returns was recorded.

In appointing procurement advisers for the Census, the Department failed to follow its own procedures by initially engaging and extending the appointment of the consultants without competition and by entering into a contract that did not meet its own standard terms and conditions. The Department paid £485,000 in fees before the irregularities came to light.

The Department encountered a number of problems in its outsourcing of the contract for field staff pay. The competition was limited and the Department did not sufficiently assess whether it was procuring the payroll service it needed. The Department did not assess the ability of field staff to complete payroll input forms, did not react to warnings about potential problems in the operation of the payroll system, and did not let the contract in time to allow testing as part of the Census dress rehearsal in April 1999. As a result of these failings the Census payroll ran into serious difficulties; payments to 23,000 field staff (30%) were significantly delayed and 2,800 were overpaid by some £500,000.

The Department was not adequately prepared to take advantage of the higher than expected rate of return by post of Census forms (88% compared with the 70% expected). As a result, the decision to keep the staff in the field during May contributed to some £11.3 million being spent which could have been avoided. When managing complex field operations, Departments should ensure they receive the necessary information to adjust the project to changes in circumstances.

The estimated response rate of 98% implies that the Department may not have obtained responses from some one million people and, in some areas, response rates were much lower than that achieved nationally. The response rate in ten Inner London boroughs was below 80%, which has led to some local authorities to question the results for their areas. A key aspect of the 2001 Census was to target field staff at the hard to count areas and the Department should examine why it nevertheless failed to bring the response rates in these areas anywhere near to the national response rate.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Accurate data from the 2001 Census are essential if taxpayers' money is to be targeted where it should be. It is worrying therefore that the response rates achieved for some areas, including Inner London boroughs, have been so low that the accuracy of the results is being questioned. Changes in approach for the 2001 Census, particularly the return of completed returns by post, have allowed more data to be recorded than before whilst employing fewer field staff. But wasted time in pursuit of forms that had already been returned cost the taxpayer over £11 million."

This Report can be accessed via the internet from around 11.30 am on the day of publication.