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July 11, 2010

Sense about the Census

There are breezy reports today in the Sunday Telegraph and the FT's Westminster blog that Francis Maude is planning to scrap the census after the one in 2011 (which is going ahead). The Sunday Telegraph is preoccupied by the ending of a 200 year old decision. The FT hasn't twigged that it takes years to organise a census and foolishly mocks the government for thinking it will still be around in 2020 to cancel the 2021 census. Neither seems to have really considered that budgetary savings from cancelling the 2021 census will start much sooner as staff are laid off or, most importantly, the real consequences of this move by the Cabinet Office minister.

The Census underpins a wide range of policy decisions made by public bodies both at the national and local level. To quote from the Census website: "The census costs some £255 million for the UK as a whole, but the information it provides enables billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to be targeted where it is needed most."

The census also underpins a huge amount of social research. It is the most detailed snapshot we have for looking at British society. I would guess that hundreds, possibly thousands of research projects depend on each census.

Put simply, without the census, we will know a lot less about ouselves in the UK. The press reports suggest Maude thinks he can substitute other data for the census. But even if this is possible for some of the crude Whitehall purposes, such as dividing up funding between local authorities, it won't provide a data set that can be used for the many other purposes for which the census is used.

Without the census we seem certain to end up making worse decisions in the years to come. And to quote just one example, putting a new hospital in the wrong place is a very expensive mistake to make.

The reports say the matter is going to the Cabinet this week. But even British geographers don't seem to know anything about it. And despite the urgency, there is no comment yet from the Royal Statistical Society or the Royal Society, despite this being one of the biggest statistical - that is to say scientific - exercises undertaken by the government and a standard bearer for the cause of evidence-based policymaking, which another minister, David Willetts, said the government was comitted to on Friday.

I would be very grateful for comments from statisticians and geographers clarifying whether it is practical to substitute other data for the census, what the impact of its ceasing would be, and what you are doing to ensure a proper reasoned discussion of this proposal.

Update 1 (thanks to Kieron Flanagan)

Replacing census with rolling data collection was actually proposed by NLGN in 2008: http://bit.ly/9Rdw67

Canada census changes: http://bit.ly/aQE3wS

Update 2 The geographer John Mendel has made some FOI requests to the Cabinet Office for information about this. See http://twitter.com/JonMendel.


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In 2003 the Office for National Statistics undertook a strategic review of whether or not census data could be collected by any other way. The answer was a definitive no as all other government data sources do not have the same quality or are able to link together to provide even basic data let alone the detailed data for small geographies. Unfortunately nothing much has changed and it is estimated that it will take many years and cost as much if not more than a traditional census to get a reliable system based on seperate existing administrative databases into a position to take over. Scandinavian countries have mangaed this but it took them 20 - 30 years.

Dear Anon, this is really helpful. Could you email me at wocb @ researchresearch.com so that we can discuss further? Many thanks in advance. W.

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