Too soon to scrap the Census - Public Administration Committee Contents


Summary

At the start of this Parliament, the Minister for the Cabinet Office indicated the ten-yearly census should be axed and the 2011 census should be the last. The census needs to change, but it is too soon to decide whether or not to scrap the census. Population estimates are of fundamental importance to the statistical system, policy makers and society more widely. The days of the traditional, paper-basedcensusin Britain and elsewhereare numbered. The Governmentshould make better use of its wealth of detailed administrative data which is currently unexploited and which could provide information to improve the nation's knowledge of its population. The National Statistician has recently recommended that there should be a traditional census in 2021, albeit conducted primarily online, but that there should be at the same time greater use of administrative data and surveys. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP expressed strong doubts about keeping the traditional census, but the Government would be wrong to cancel the 2021 census. The alternative options for the collection of population statistics are not sufficiently advanced to provide a proper replacement. Most of the respondents to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) consultation and our short inquiry agreed that the decennial census should be kept, and we agree. Witnesses emphasised, among other things, the great financial benefits to business provided by census data and these have been quantified. However, the increasing cost and deficiencies of a traditional census must be recognised. The Government must get the highest quality and most granular population statistics out of the information it already holds before we can be sure that there can be, eventually, a full and proper replacement for the traditional census. For this to be delivered will require much more work to be done. We are concerned that the ONS's work on the future of the census has to date been limited and conducted in isolation. We recommend that the ONS now scope and set out a more ambitious vision for the creative and full use of administrative data to provide rich and valuable population statistics, which could potentially be more accurate and up-to-date than the census, and cover new topics. We also recommend that the Government now embark upon a public information campaign to communicate the benefits of increased data sharing for statistical purposes, and the safeguards which will be in place to protect people's personal information and privacy. The Minister's objective of "better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper" depends upon this. However, these new methods of counting people could be additional to the census, not instead of it.



 
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Prepared 17 April 2014