Too soon to scrap the Census - Public Administration Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

How advanced are the systems for exploiting administrative data for population statistics?

1.  The Office for National Statistics has not provided detailed information about what data, other than a head count, could be harvested from the various administrative sources. We recommend that the Office for National Statistics lists all the public and quasi-public sources that could be tapped for data, the data that could be forthcoming from them and the administrative, technical and legal barriers to the use of, and ultimately linking of, that data. (Paragraph 21)

A hybrid approach?

2.  The use of an address register in 2011 was a very good example of using administrative records to enhance the accuracy of population statistics. Other administrative data was also apparently used. We recommend the Office for National Statistics sets out what data it used in 2011, the impact it had on the resulting estimates, the lessons learnt from this experience and how such additional sources can be used more widely and effectively. (Paragraph 26)

3.  Population estimates are of fundamental importance to the statistical system, policy makers and society more widely, but the days of the traditional, ten-yearly, paper-based census are numbered. The Government has a wealth of detailed administrative data which is currently unexploited and which could provide a rich seam of information to improve the nation's knowledge of its population and boost the quality of public services. Data from administrative sources can be richer, broader, cheaper and timelier than the equivalent from a traditional census; it can be made available far more frequently than every ten years. The National Statistician has recently recommended that there should be a census in 2021, albeit conducted where possible online, and that there should be greater use of administrative data and surveys. It is too soon to decide whether to scrap the census. We believe that it is right to have a census in 2021; as insufficient effort has been made in recent years, the alternative options for the collection of population statistics have not been adequately tested and plans are not sufficiently advanced to provide a proper replacement, given the importance of the resulting data. (Paragraph 27)

4.  However, in order to get the most use out of the information already held by the Government, for the purposes of high quality and granular population statistics, and before we can be sure that there can be, eventually, a full and proper replacement for the traditional census, much more work must be done. We are concerned that the work on the future of the census has been done in isolation. (Paragraph 28)

5.  We recommend that the Office for National Statistics, under strong leadership from the board of the UK Statistics Authority, 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. The Office for National Statistics should explain how the outputs will be different if administrative data were to be used in place of much of the census, explaining clearly the advantages and disadvantages. (Paragraph 29)

6.  Public concerns about data sharing must be addressed and must not be a barrier to making the most of the information already collected and held by the Government. The Minister's objective of "better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper" depends upon this. (Paragraph 33)

7.  The Cabinet Office and the Office for National Statistics must make every effort to publicise the benefits of greater sharing of administrative data within Government and to the wider world, in order to realise the considerable benefits of using administrative data for policy-making, policy understanding and efficiency, and of course for the production of population statistics. The Government should use the lessons learnt from the problems with the "" rollout to embark upon a public information campaign about the future of the census in order to raise understanding of the benefits of sharing administrative data, give information about the safeguards which will be in place to protect people's personal information and privacy, in order to smooth the way for its greater use. (Paragraph 34)

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Prepared 17 April 2014