On 2 July, the Atlee Suite in Portcullis House was packed with over 160 parliamentarians, their staff and invited guests for the latest getstats in Parliament event, ‘MPs: what do you know about your constituency?’.
The event was introduced by RSS President, John Pullinger, who noted that this was the eighth event under the getstats in parliament banner, in partnership with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics and the House of Commons Library. He also thanked the Alliance for Useful Evidence for their partnership on this event.
The event was chaired by BBC Home Editor, Mark Easton, a getstats Campaign board member and twice winner of the Society’s awards for statistical excellence in journalism. Panellists were: Bernard Jenkin MP, Professor Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield and Aleks Collingwood, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Ross Young of the UK Statistics Authority and Richard Cracknell of the House of Commons Library gave short presentations on the statistics available to MPs and their teams. Ross outlined the conclusions of the Authority’s monitoring brief, Statistics for parliamentary constituencies, published in 2012. The brief had concluded that government departments and other producers of official statistics should produce them, where resources allowed, on a constituency basis. He reminded the audience that the Statistics and Registration Service Act set out the objective of producing official statistics that “serve the public good”. He explained that there are around 70 different geographies used in UK statistical production. Progress had been made on the recommendations set out in the Authority’s brief. There was more engagement between producers and the House of Commons Library on a routine basis, a statistical compendium involving interactive mapping was being actively considered, and a Data Catalogue covering all official statistics was being produced. He concluded by noting that there were still barriers to progress, including resource constraints, disclosure control and source limitations.
Richard Cracknell opened by saying that it had been pleasing that the Statistics Authority had said that constituencies were a relevant geography on which statistical data might be published. He reminded parliamentarians and their staff that there were constituency profiles on the parliamentary intranet covering data from, among others, the Census, on employment, on wages and benefits and about businesses. He further highlighted two documents which were available on the Library’s public facing site: Sources of statistics – data for parliamentary constituency areas and Census 2011 Constituency results – England and Wales. He used examples from panel member Bernard Jenkin MP’s constituency of Harwich and North Essex. He also highlighted how revealing Census data could be with the example of responses relating to religion. This showed, for example, that in England and Wales, the Brighton, Pavilion constituency had the highest percentage saying that they had no religion (48.4%), followed by the Rhondda at 45.7%. The constituency with the greatest number stating a Christian religion was Knowsley at 82%.
Opening the panel discussion, Mark Easton asked Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration select committee, if he felt that MPs were well served for constituency data. Mr Jenkin replied that he felt that they were extraordinarily fortunate, saying that MPs were ‘spoiled’ in that they could simply ring the House of Commons Library to get the figures they needed. However, he did note that a particular barrier to using statistics came from the differences in presentation and format of the Treasury’s ‘Red Books’, which made year on year comparison very difficult.
Mark Easton asked panel member, Aleks Collingwood, who leads statistics and quantitative work for Joseph Rowntree Foundation, what ‘less obvious’ sources of data there were, ‘where the bones are buried’ as he put it. She identified the Department for Education In your area web pages and other government department sources including the benefits data available on a constituency basis available through the Department for Work and Pensions. For labour market data she highlighted the NOMIS web pages.
Professor Danny Dorling said that data broken down by constituency were his favourite data, and that it was his experience that data by constituency revealed things ‘hidden’ if presented by local authority. Constituency data was where you could get closest to ‘people’s real lives’. He illustrated this by pointing out that large authorities often have both very affluent and very poor areas within them; at authority level this is hidden in the average, but revealed when looking at constituency and lower levels.
Discussion turned to the future of the Census. Bernard Jenkin said that there was nothing like the Census as it provided the basis for cross-checking data gained from samples and surveys. He gave the example of the London borough of Newham, which had been found to have 68,000 more residents than previously thought. Cancelling the Census would ‘blank ourselves’, he said. He noted the particular issues in using the International Passenger Survey to try to get migration data at a local authority level. Commenting on proposals for the future format of the Census, Danny Dorling warned that the future may have a Census in name, but lacking the ‘nitty gritty’ of data that are available from the Census in its current form.
From the floor, Kelvin Hopkins MP, a member of the Public Administration select committee, voiced his support for maintaining the Census and called for more work on providing international comparisons.
Lord Howe, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking as a patron of the UK Metric Association, made an appeal for metrication in statistical production.
When asked what help and advice was available to ‘non-mathematical’ researchers, Aleks Collingwood highlighted the growing use of interactive visualisations such as those used by the Office for National Statistics to present data from Censuses.
Bernard Jenkin said that anyone with a ‘hunger for the truth’ would soon become fascinated by the data available to them. The move to open up data collected and produced by government to the public was generally welcomed by the panel. Mark Easton noted, though that ‘the hard bit is making sense of it all’. Danny Dorling noted that the USA was leading in this area, having legislated to ensure official data was available free of charge. Bernard Jenkin voiced support for data being open A revolution is afoot in opening up official data for public use, said Bernard Jenkin MP, emphasising their use in holding public officials to account.
Concluding the event, Mark Easton, commented on the great wealth of data available to parliamentarians and their staff, and his hope that the seminar left them feeling encouraged to explore it.