Could the 2011 census be the last of its kind?

27 November 2013

Article written by Martin Jennings, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

The Hollerith census tabulator. Image from Flickr by Erik Pitti. Licensed under the Creative Commons

The census has been a feature of our lives since 1801, the last census cost the taxpayer £482m.  With a rapidly changing society, technological advances and improved data sources, there are emerging alternatives to the traditional blanket census household survey.

Is there a need for a census?

Census data is used for service planning, policy making, monitoring, resource allocation, commercial planning, and academic and social research.

Improvements in technology and in government data sources offer opportunities to either modernise the existing census process, or to develop an alternative census method that reuses existing data already held within government.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), who are responsible for the census for England and Wales, is currently reviewing user needs and considering possible census approaches for the future as part of its Beyond 2011 project.

Consultation options for 2021?

Following exploratory work, two approaches are being consulted upon to take the census in future:

  • A census once a decade, like that conducted in 2011, but primarily online.
  • A census using existing government administrative data and compulsory annual surveys.

Both methods would provide annual estimated statistics about the size of the population, nationally and for local authorities as is the case at present. However a census using existing government data and surveys would provide more statistics about the characteristics of the population every year, while an on-line census would provide more detailed statistics once a decade. For example, whilst a full census provides data on Welsh language proficiency down to very small geographical areas (such as lower super output areas of around 1,500 people) every 10 years, the administrative data option would provide a more frequent estimate but would not be broken down accurately to such small areas. In certain cases this could impact on the availability of constituency level information.  Therefore, each option has its own strengths and weaknesses.

How will decisions be assessed and what will this cost?

The options will be considered against: cost; statistical quality; social and economic benefit; public acceptability; and risk.

An online census once a decade is estimated to cost around £625m per decade (in 2013 prices). This works out at around £1.10 per person per year.

A census based on administrative data and large annual compulsory surveys is estimated to cost around £460m per decade (in 2013 prices). This works out at around £0.80 per person per year.

What legislation is needed?

Existing primary legislation allows a census to take place, but does not require a census.

As with the 2011 Census, an online census in 2021 would require the UK Parliament to agree specific secondary legislation, setting out the census date and the questions to be asked for example.  Existing census legislation gives the National Assembly for Wales a formal role in the approval process for census.

A Census method based on administrative data and surveys would require Parliament to agree new primary legislation, to enable easier data access for ONS and to make it a legal requirement for households to respond to any new annual surveys.

How to get involved?

The public consultation runs until 13th December 2013 and will be used to inform the UK Parliament’s decision on which option to pursue.

The Welsh Government is very interested in the views of Welsh users about the different approaches and any relevant consultation responses will be forwarded to the Welsh Government.

Fill in the online questionnaire by 13 December 2013.

For more details see Beyond 2011.

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