Select Committee on Treasury First Report

The need for a Census


5. A fundamental question concerning the Census is why one is necessary. ONS told us that "the Census is not only the central core of the system of population and labour force statistics on the UK, but it is also central to statistics on health, environment, education, housing, ethnicity, family and communities. It underpins the population projections and estimates for later years that are vital for Government and business planning and are widely used within both the public and private sectors."[7] Mr Cook said that "the Census is the one data collection we have which embraces the whole population, which tells us about each community, whether we define it by region, by age, by ethnicity. It is the key benchmark around which we are able to create other communities such as families, people in localities. There is no other source of information which gives us the opportunity to derive accurately communities which we cannot measure directly. ..."[8]

6. As society has become more complex, and demand for information has become greater, the number of questions on the form has increased. For example, the 2001 Census Form included 41 questions in England and 42 in Wales (where a supplementary question on Welsh language was included), 11 more than in the 1991 Census.[9] ONS told us that in modern times, a primary objective has been to balance the needs of data users against the form-filling burden on members of the public, while ensuring each Census delivers maximum value for money.[10] ONS are evaluating the case for conducting a mid-term Census in England and Wales in 2006.[11]

7. Other evidence we received stressed the importance of the Census. The Demographics User Group, representing 14 large commercial users of Census and other Government data, considered the cost of the Census to be "very modest in comparison with the magnitude of the financial decisions (by both public services and commercial companies) which are based on its counts, and the case for holding the next Census in 2006, rather than 2011, should be assessed without delay."[12] The Market Research Society told us that "the importance of the Census to market researchers is fundamental - much of their work, in terms of population surveys in this country, is underpinned by the Census."[13]

Cost and benefits

8. We sought information from ONS on the justification for the Census in cost-benefit terms. ONS subsequently provided a note describing the importance of the Census. The nearest this comes to quantifying the benefits of the Census is the statement that "the public sector, in particular, needs the information [from the Census] to form and evaluate policy, to distribute resources effectively (around £20 billion to local authorities and £25 billion to health authorities annually), to plan and target services and to monitor the effectiveness and efficiency of these services using measures such as performance indicators. On this basis alone the Census costs less than one twentieth of one per cent of the total amount allocated over a ten year period on the evidence it provides."[14]

9. Similarly, ONS provided little information to justify the interval between each Census. The note merely states that "there is a large amount of public sector activity that is allocated to regions or smaller areas, the amount of which is benchmarked against the Census and later population estimates. We know that the allocation of resource grants becomes progressively less exact in the intercensal period. Confidence in the resource allocation process would progressively diminish in line with the age of the data if censuses were not conducted periodically, to refresh our knowledge about the population and its structure, and provide an up to date base for continuing to estimate change."[15]

10. ONS were unable to supply us with robust evidence to justify expenditure of over £250 million on the Census. We recommend that a rigorous cost-benefit analysis should be carried out of the 2001 Census and published in time to inform the need for, and timing of, any future Census. We consider that any future Census should also be justified in cost-benefit terms.

11. We also recommend that ONS publish estimated income to be received from all sources for the use of 2001 Census data. We recommend that their charging policy be published and regularly reviewed.


12. We explored what alternatives there are to undertaking a full Census. Mr Cook told us that without the Census there would still be measures that count the population in some way. There are very good birth and death records in the UK and important information is becoming available through the computerisation of administrative records in public agencies such as the Department of Work and Pensions. Analysis of the beneficiary population provides almost 100 per cent of people in the youngest ages and a very good measure of the population in the older ages, but it misses out the population in the middle. Mr Cook also told us that the ability to measure population change accurately is limited by the difficulty in measuring migration flows, which accounted for some 70 per cent of the net population change in Britain over the last four years.[16]

13. Some Nordic countries have ceased having censuses because of their ability to integrate information from a variety of powerful public registers holding information on matters such as tax and family benefits. Some countries undertake a simple count of the population and others enhance this by asking samples of households to complete a fuller form. ONS is investigating the practice in France and Israel of a rolling census covering 10 per cent of the population each year.[17] Mr Cook told us that "the shift in access to administrative data in the UK is moving us more and more to a Nordic country type model where we can look at the balance of what we collect in the Census and what we get from other sources. That has been very much part of the ONS policy and the question is: do we have a 2011 Census?"[18]

14. The Statistics Commission told us that before any firm decision is made about another Census in 2006 or 2011 there should be a rigorous assessment of need which should take into account the way that new technology has changed the situation since the Census was invented in the 19th Century.[19] Sir John Kingman, Chairman of the Statistics Commission, commented that "We live in an age of information technology and we are talking about information so it should not be assumed that the pencil and paper methods which were all the 19th Century had available are the right things to do in the 21st Century. There is a lot of information in the computers that exist already. By 2011 there will be a great deal more. It may be that the right thing to do is to develop the present sort of Census or it may be that a much simpler Census which simply gives you a framework of who there is and where they are would be the basis for an analysis drawing in all the administrative data that had been collected in other ways, or it may be that there is some quite radically different way of handling the problem that we had not really thought of. These are issues that should be on the agenda of debate and they should be on the agenda of debate before Parliament arrives at a firm conclusion about what should happen in 2011"[20]

15. We consider that in evaluating the benefits of any future Census all alternatives should be considered, including doing without a Census altogether and reverting to a simple headcount. Any evaluation will also need to take account of the likely acceptability to the general public of drawing on other data sources, such as tax and benefit records, for Census purposes. The Committee would wish to be informed of the results of these evaluations, which will need to be completed before a decision is taken on whether to hold a mid-term Census in 2006.

7   Ev 1, para 2 Back

8   Q5 Back

9   Ev 54 Back

10   Ev 1, para 7 Back

11   Ev 9, para 92  Back

12   Ev 49, part 4  Back

13   Ev 57, part 1 Back

14   Ev 55 Back

15   Ibid Back

16   Qq6-7 Back

17   Qq8, 12, 15 Back

18   Q16 Back

19   Q144 Back

20   Q146 Back

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Prepared 6 March 2002