Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

'Don't scrap 2021 census' say MPs

MPs say it is too soon to start talking about scrapping the census, which was last conducted in 2011

The 2021 census should not be scrapped, as alternative methods for collecting information about the country's population would not provide a proper replacement, MPs have said.

The Government has indicated that the 2011 census could have been the last, ending the system of data collection carried out every 10 years since 1801 with only one interruption due to the Second World War in 1941.

The cross-party Public Administration Select Committee acknowledged that the census needed to change but "much more work needs to be done" before it can be retired.

If the 2021 census goes ahead in England and Wales, the majority of people will be required to fill out a form on the internet instead of the traditional paper survey, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said.

In 2011, when the last census took place, 16% of respondents chose to respond online.

The MPs said: "The days of the traditional, paper-based census in Britain and elsewhere are numbered.

"The Government should 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."

The committee called for the ONS to do more to make the best use of the data which the Government already collects through bodies including the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department of Health.

But following the concerns raised about the care.data NHS records-sharing programme, the MPs said lessons needed to be learned about managing people's information.

"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 report said.

Committee chairman Bernard Jenkin said: "The Government has previously indicated that the ten-yearly census should be axed, but we believe that it is too soon to decide whether or not to scrap the census.

"We think there should still be a census in 2021. The Government should make far greater use of the data it already holds in order to improve population estimates.

"We urge the Government to address public concerns about data sharing and to learn the lessons from the flawed rollout of the 'care.data' programme, so that the best use can be made of the information already collected and held by the Government. The Government's objective of 'better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper' depends upon it."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We recognise the value of the census but Francis Maude has long said that it is outdated in its current form and could be more effectively and more cheaply delivered.

"No decisions have been made yet however about its future but we agree with the committee's conclusion that the census needs to change. We will respond in due course to the Public Administration Select Committee's report."

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