Saturday, July 10, 2010

Do we really need the census?

This news is interesting on a number of levels:
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said the Census, which takes place every 10 years, was an expensive and inaccurate way of measuring the number of people in Britain.

Instead, the Government is examining different and cheaper ways to count the population more regularly, using existing public and private databases, including credit reference agencies.
As far as I'm aware Westminster only has authority to organise the census in England and Wales, but if it is cancelled there I can't imagine it surviving much longer after that in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Calculating the total population, in the modern IT age, is a relatively simple exercise and doesn't require the total population signing a piece of paper to confirm they exist. Ascertaining the breakdown of socio-economic factors is more tricky and that kind of data could prove useful in terms of directing public services towards the areas of greater need. However, there are more exact ways that can measured (eg number of unemployed signing on, number of school kids qualifying for free meals).

But the most controversial aspect of the census, ie the calculating of the ethnic/religious/national identity breakdown of the population, why is that necessary in the first place, what function (other than rousing the ire of Daily Mail readers and the excitement of the ethno-nat number crunchers) does it perform?
Would we really be that worse off as a society if we didn't possess that exact information?


Anonymous said...

Are there any other countries that have switched from a census to using a number of surveys?

Alwyn ap Huw said...

As a means of collecting data (even of ethnic/religious/national identity breakdown) the census is very much dated and inefficient. Some of the data isn't correlated and released until five years or more after the census date, by which time it is out of date. Because of this, few policy makers rely on the census for demographic information – they already use the alternatives that Mr Maude suggests
So Mr Maude is correct, but there might be problems with cancelling the census that he hasn't considered.
I am 95% certain that Conducting a national census in years ending 0 or 1 is an obligation of membership of some international bodies such as the UN. If this is correct then it would be difficult for England & Wales to unilaterally stop holding a decennial census.

O'Neill said...


Not as far as I am aware, both the US and China use the census method.

Alwyn ap Huw,

Thats something I hadnt considered. Couple of relevant links:

Anonymous said...

O'Neill, cheers. I was thinking of the USA in particular after reading about how it has been going this year.

Alwyn ap Huw that is interesting about the international obligation to hold a census, I did not know that.

I find this debate particularly interesting because I have found the 1901/1911 Censuses of Ireland so interesting

O'Neill said...

I found that interesting as well, family history forgotten (or they'd hoped forgotten;))