Too soon to scrap the Census - Public Administration Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1. The census is the most extensive source of demographic and social statistics available in the UK today and is at the heart of the British statistical system. The census provides vital information on the number and characteristics of people and households in the country that is relied upon by Government, Parliament, local authorities, the health service, the education sector, the academic community, business and the public. Regular censuses have taken place every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 during the Second World War. The latest census was carried out in March 2011.

2. Criticisms of the census have long existed, with concerns in recent decades about whether the perceived quality, accessibility and speed of delivery of resulting data has kept up with expectations. Professor David Coleman from Oxford University, in written evidence to the Treasury Select Committee in 2008, wrote "the UK has not had a satisfactory census since 1981".[1] The Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, reported in an article entitled "National Census to be axed after 200 years", said that "there are ways, I believe, of doing this which will provide better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper" and that census data was "out of date almost before it has been done."[2]

3. The purpose of our short study was to look at the value and benefits of the 2011 census, and consider the options for collecting population data in the future, including those set out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in their consultation on the future of the census, part of their "Beyond 2011" programme of work.[3]The ONS is responsible for the census in England and Wales but similar exercises are carried out independently in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

4. The National Statistician recently published her recommendation about the future of the census: that there should be an online census in 2021, with increased use of administrative data and surveys. Our study, including an evidence session, aimed to inform the current debate about the census. We hope that the ONS will consider our Report as they continue their work on improving population statistics. We held one oral evidence session where we heard from: Professor Jane Falkingham at the University of Southampton; Professor Chris Skinner at the London School of Economics; Professor Les Mayhew from City University; John Pullinger, the President of the Royal Statistical Society; Juliet Whitworth from the Local Government Association; Sarah Henry from Manchester City Council; Piers Elias from Tees Valley Unlimited, who advises several local authorities in the North East; and Keith Dugmore of the Demographics User Group. We did not call for written evidence in advance of the session, given that the ONS's consultation on the future of the census had only just closed in December 2013, although some of the witnesses have submitted written evidence after the oral evidence session, which has been published on our website.We have also not sought the comments of Ministers at this stage.They can now consider this report alongside the conclusions of the National Statistician.

5. This study forms part of our wider programme of work on statistics and their use in Government. A full description of these studies is set out on our website at We are grateful to our Specialist Adviser, Simon Briscoe, for his help with this inquiry and to Dr Diana Tlupova, a secondee to us from the National Audit Office, for her support to this inquiry.

1   Treasury Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2007-08, HC183-I, Ev191 Back

2   National census to be axed after 200 years, Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2010  Back

3   Office for National Statistics, Beyond 2011 programme Back

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Prepared 17 April 2014