Nigel Hawkes: The real cost of a compromised census will be inaccurate data

Behind the Numbers

Share
Related Topics

With less than a year to go to the 2011 Census, is Francis Maude about to change the rules? In opposition he was strongly critical of the Census, describing it as burdensome, intrusive and poor value for money.

Now he's in charge, as Minister for the Cabinet Office. He's also central to the programme of Government cuts that the coalition has promised. So demographers and statisticians are worried that he may make good on his promise to "scale back" the Census even at this late stage.

Censuses date back to 1801 and one has been held every decade since, with the exception of 1941. It's the only time that everybody in the country is counted, and it's a huge exercise. The 2011 Census will cost a whopping £482m, more than double the 2001 version (£207m) and the questionnaire dropping through everybody's door will be 32 pages long. Mr Maude is not alone in thinking that persuading everybody to complete it will be a tough task.

"How can the cost of half a billion pounds be justified at this time of fiscal crisis?" Mr Maude asked in the House of Commons in January. "In 2001, 10 per cent of the data was not even counted; it was imputed. Is this not a thoroughly wasteful and inaccurate exercise?"

He went on: "Should not a responsible Government be scaling the census back? Is not the answer a less intrusive, much cheaper census that offends the public less, increases compliance and therefore yields much more accurate information?" He made most of the same points in a pre-election meeting organised by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in February.

So, if he doesn't make any changes when he's now in a position to, he's going to have to eat a lot of words. He's already had a warning from the Demographics User Group, a private-sector body that represents heavy-hitters such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Nationwide and Alliance Boots, saying that they regard the Census as of "fundamental importance" when making decisions about opening new stores, the products to be stocked, and the customers to be targeted.

A late decision to cut the number of questions would disrupt existing plans and contracts, save little money – or even add to the cost – and result in reduced and inconsistent information between England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, says Keith Dugmore, director of the group. The RSS is also understood to have added its voice, warning that any lack of enthusiasm at this stage is likely to damage the response rate.

It is not clear that much could be saved, anyway. The contracts were let long ago, including £150m to Lockheed Martin UK, for printing, data capture and processing, and £25m to Capita for training 35,000 temporary workers. The questionnaires are already printed, even though Census day is not until 27 March 2011 – a move which Mr Maude included in his list of Labour's "scorched earth" policies.

There are some serious risks that the Census will miss its targets. People are less and less willing to complete forms and an incomplete count means that areas such as London, which was undercounted in 2001, get less than their fair share of government funding. In future, probably before the 2021 Census is due, alternative methods of counting the population may be in place.

In that case, 2011 will have been the last-ever national Census. The risk is that Government indifference will implicitly give people the nod that they needn't bother with it, and then the money really will have been wasted.

Nigel Hawkes is Director of Straight Statistics; www.straightstatistics.org

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee