The big question: How many of us will really miss the census?

The 2011 roll call of Great Britain cost £500m. Its supporters claim the information it gathered was invaluable and plans to abandon the process could cause untold damage

Such is the rigour of the census that even Queen Victoria was required to add her name – listing her occupation as “the Queen”. But after more than 200 years the decennial stocktake of the nation is undergoing a radical overhaul and concern is growing at the impact any changes will have on swathes of policy-making.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) will this month begin a three-month public consultation, including a roadshow to gather the views of interested parties from local government number-crunchers to genealogists, on moves to replace the current census model with a cheaper alternative.

Prior to the last nationwide survey to fill in Britain’s demographic blanks in 2011 the Government announced its desire to scrap the census, which two years ago cost nearly £500m and employed 35,000 people to go door-to-door collecting forms for the mammoth data collection exercise.

The ONS has said that it wants to change the current model and outlined its two “front-running options” – an internet-based “modernised census”  or a rolling annual survey of four per cent of the population supplemented by “administrative data” such as education or health records.

But the scrapping of two centuries of data-gathering, which has provided a resource capable of finding both obscure forebears and tailoring public policy on subjects from tackling youth disenfranchisement to take up of cycling, has provoked fears that Britain will lose a vital early warning system for social change.

Statistical experts argue that the vast amount of data gathered by the census provides a gold standard which highlights shortcomings in other public records, including the politically-vexed question of just how many people there are in Britain.

Professor Danny Dorling, of Oxford University, a leading expert on social geography, said: “We should be under no illusions that what is proposed is anything other than the abandoning of the census and that has wide-ranging implications for the way large amounts of policy is decided.

“The census is a benchmark. The 2011 census found there were 500,000 people living here that we didn’t know existed. Similarly, without the census we would not have known that mortality rates for men rose in parts of Glasgow but not elsewhere.

“It is extremely valuable and without it we will not be able to tell whether we are pulling together or dividing as a society. We will not be able to plan for the future.”

Britain differs from many countries, including Denmark and Germany, by still having a once-in-a-decade census to record information from the occupation of every Briton to religion, ethnicity and whether homes have central heating. Scandinavian nations benefit from connected banks of administrative data while others such as Germany can use data from compulsory identity cards. Canada has recently scrapped its census in favour of a voluntary online survey. Supporters of a slimmed-down UK census, including the right-leaning Policy Exchange think-tank, argue that the use of more rapidly updated records such as council tax data would be more efficient and cheaper than the current unwieldy structure.

But opponents claim the census is responsible for highlighting a raft of discrepancies to be addressed by public policy, including the tracking of mortality rates and indicators of housing inequality across Britain’s cities.

The ONS, which will report to the Government next year on its conclusions about the best methods of producing “census-type” data, insisted it had closed off no options for reform, including its two frontrunners. A spokesman said: “There are clear pros and cons to these two approaches in terms of quality, frequency and the nature of outputs and they bring different risks.”

Indeed, there are indications that the department is itself reluctant to be saying farewell to the paper-based door-to-door system that has logged the details of figures from Beatrix Potter to Edward Elgar and Prince Albert, who notwithstanding his wife’s constitutional role, described himself in the 1851 census as “head of family”.

In a document outlining the benefits of the 2011 census, the ONS said: “The business case clearly demonstrated to the Government the unique value of the census, and that the benefits of having the information far outweigh the costs of its collection.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence