1. Introduction

This workshop was to further understand their information needs for the armed forces community in England and Wales.

The purpose of the workshop was to:

  1. confirm our understanding of user needs for statistics on the armed forces

  2. gather information on what information is already available on the armed forces

  3. share our plans to meet the information need through linkage of the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) veterans database to the 2011 Census and testing a question to potentially be included the 2021 Census

A summary of the workshop sessions is given below, followed by next steps to be taken.

Slides from the workshop are available on request.

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2. User requirements for statistics on the armed forces

Many responses to the topic consultation requested data on the armed forces to enable them to meet their commitments under the Armed Forces Covenant. Other responses referred more generally to the need for information to support service delivery in education, healthcare and housing for this community.

The responses used several terms for the population of interest referring to the "armed forces community" and "veterans", as well as dependents of both groups.

To develop products to meet data needs, ONS and MoD needed a deeper understanding of the need for data and the population of interest.

Participants attending the workshop were asked to discuss in groups their data needs and the impact and benefits that such data could have. They were asked to consider what information they needed for their role, how they would use the data and what the outcome would be as a result.

Examples of user requirements

Statisticians at the MoD need information to make sure the department meets its obligations under the Armed Forces Covenant. This includes the appropriate provision of services for those in need. For example, information on career and/or employment outcomes of ex-armed forces personnel following discharge.

Policy makers at local authorities have statutory responsibilities to provide housing for the armed forces community for up to 5 years after they've left the armed forces. Information about the numbers, location and characteristics of this group are essential to inform planning and prioritisation of housing.

Directors of public health need information about the likely health needs of this community which can also differ from those of the wider population. This could be, for example, to commission counselling for ex-armed forces personnel and their families, who may be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The Royal British Legion and other armed forces charities need local area data to help reach members of this community. The information could be used to target services more effectively at those who may not receive statutory support, including outreach services. They can also use the data to invest resources in locations where there is most geographical need, for example in the construction of care homes or advice centres.

Conclusion of requirements

Users need to know the numbers and location of persons who are serving, or who have served, for the UK armed forces. This is so they can commission and deliver appropriate services to meet the needs of this community and monitor the effectiveness of these.

Specifically they need information on:

  • those who are, or were, regulars or reservists, in any role, to ensure that the commitments of the Armed Forces Covenant are met

  • the dependents of those persons who are serving, or who have served, to provide education and health services as outlined in the Armed Forces Covenant

  • persons who left the armed forces and are of working age so that their health and employment outcomes can be reviewed

For those who are no longer serving, it was agreed that the MoD definition would be adopted. Therefore, anyone who has served for a day in the UK armed forces, in any role, will be included as a veteran.

Users need the information mostly at local authority level but also at some lower geographies to target policies appropriately, for example reducing social isolation of older veterans.

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3. Information that is already available

Following on from the discussion on information needs, the conversation turned to information that was already available in the public domain from the Annual Population Survey (APS).

MoD has commissioned ONS to include 3 questions on the survey since 2014 to identify those who are serving, or have served, in the UK armed forces.

The questions differentiate between those who are (were) regulars or reserves and for which armed forces they are (were) employed in. Where applicable, it also asks for the year they left the services.

Initial data estimates the number of ex-service personnel in England, Wales and Scotland at around 2.6 million. This data produces good quality aggregate estimates to regional and county level.

Data from the APS has allowed the MoD to compare health, employment, educational qualifications and housing outcomes of service personnel to the non-service population. This includes, for example, smoking behaviour and its potential consequence on long-term health outcomes.

Potential differences between both working age (16 to 64) and retirement age (65 and over years) service personnel can be observed.

The MoD is seeking additional funding for 2 further years of data collection. This will enable them to aggregate the data over 5 years and perform analysis by small geographic areas.

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4. Work plans to meet information needs

The Annual Population Survey (APS) meets information needs for numbers of personnel and their location to regional and county level.

However, at present, it doesn't meet the requirement for data below local authority level. ONS and MoD are therefore exploring the potential to link administrative records held by MoD (the veterans database) and the 2011 Census.

4.1 Linkage of the veterans database with the 2011 Census

The strategy for UK Statistics – "Better Statistics, Better Decisions" – is that official statistics should be at the forefront of using new technology and identifying and exploiting new methods and data sources at ONS and across government. This includes the increased use of administrative data.

Administrative data is data collected for the purposes of registration, transaction and record keeping, usually during the delivery of a service. Government departments are the main purveyors of large administrative databases, including welfare, tax, health and educational record systems.

The MoD has a Defence Veterans Database of all 2.2 million individuals who have left the armed forces since the 1970s. MoD and ONS are exploring the possibility of linking this to the 2011 Census. The benefit of this approach is that the analyses of the linked data would be available earlier than those from the 2021 Census.

The linked data could be used to assess the quality of the data in MoD veterans database and identify households including veterans of working age. The richness of census data would then allow analysis of the location of these households and their demographic characteristics in 2011 for geographic areas at local authority level and below. Such data could be used as evidence for service provision.

The linkage data will also allow an assessment of the extent to which older veterans who are past working age would be covered. This is currently the largest group of veterans and identification of them is also necessary within the requirements of the Armed Forces Covenant.

In addition to pursuing this data linkage project, ONS are testing a question for inclusion on the 2021 Census should the results of the linkage not provide the quality of information required.

4.2 Testing a question for inclusion on the 2021 Census

There are several challenges involved in designing a question that will provide the good quality data users need.

To be effective, questions need to be easily understood so they accurately capture the concepts to be measured.

Also, completing the census questionnaire must not put undue burden on the respondents (there were more than 40 questions in 2011). Some respondents will complete the answers on behalf of several members of the household.

The census is a self-completion questionnaire with online guidance on how to complete the questions and a helpline is available. Otherwise it's left to respondents to decide their answers themselves.

In deciding which questions to include on the census, ONS has to consider whether a question asked of more than 56 million people can result in good quality data. This is because people may have different understandings of what having served in the armed forces could mean.

Next steps

ONS's research timetable is determined by the legislative framework which governs the census. Preparation for the Census White Paper in 2018 is the first key milestone in the legislative process. It provides the opportunity for informed public and Parliamentary debate before further legislative arrangements are taken forward.

To make a recommendation for the White Paper, ONS will be:

  • further defining and clarifying user need

  • assessing user need against alternative sources (for example APS and administrative sources)

  • considering additional evidence from question testing and development for 2021 Census

ONS plans to keep stakeholders, including all participants who attended the November 2016 workshop, informed by sharing findings from research and testing. Depending on whether a question on the armed forces community is recommended for inclusion in the 2021 Census, further testing and development of the question and the administrative context will be undertaken.

Following the workshop, ONS will also follow up with individual organisations on specific issues, particularly where opportunities for collaboration have been identified.

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5. Annex A: Workshop participants

Workshop participants were primarily identified through responses to the public 2021 Census topic consultation, which anyone could take part in and subsequent correspondence with ONS and the MoD.

Name Organisation
Abigail Gallop, Senior Advisor on Community Local Government Association
Alan Gardiner Hull City Council
Amy Wilson National Records of Scotland (NRS)
Andy Pike Royal British Legion (RBL)
Ann Blake Office for National Statistics (ONS)
Ben Humberstone Office for National Statistics (ONS)
Dave Rutter Department for Health
David Marshall Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA)
Dr Kate Harrison Ministry of Defence (MoD)
Gareth Payne Wolverhampton City Council
Garnett Compton Office for National Statistics (ONS)
Gemma Quarendon Hampshire County Council
Group Captain Mark Heffron, Deputy Head of Welfare Support Ministry of Defence (MoD)
Helena Hird Office for National Statistics (ONS)
Hugh Kerr Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA)
Jon Wroth-Smith Office for National Statistics (ONS)
Marie Haythornthwaite Office for National Statistics (ONS)
Matthew Seward Royal British Legion (RBL)
Rose Lafferty Office for National Statistics (ONS)
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