A Partnership Population Patterns Series brief.

ILC-UK, supported by the specialist insurance company, Partnership Assurance Group plc, has begun to undertake a series of events to explore the relationship between our changing demography and public policy.

We started the series by exploring how proposals to change the way we undertake our Census may impact on our ability to understand our future society.

The Census was first carried out in 1801 - when the official population of Great Britain was revealed for the first time at 9 million.  But current plans may mean significant changes to the future collection of data. In September 2013, the ONS initiated a three month consultation on the future of the national Census.

The ONS has proposed two options for reform. Either continuing with a Census each decade, but conducted primarily online; or using annual but smaller surveys in conjunction with existing government administrative data. The motivation is partly cost. However, the ONS has also stressed that any decision needs to be based not on cost, but on how to get the best and most timely information given technological advances.
Census findings are a tool to help governments allocate spending and plan ahead. The smaller annual survey would identify demographic and social trends more quickly but would be less detailed and comprehensive.

The Census has uncovered social phenomena that would otherwise have remained hidden – slum housing, fertility rates and transport among them. For example, the 1971 Census revealed how many people were living without hot running water. These findings can have a marked impact on policy. Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at Oxford University, said “If you want to highlight the inequalities in a society there is no better way than to ask everybody how many bedrooms they have and how many people live in their house.”

The case for replacing the traditional Census with an annual alternative is based on a number of tenets, one of which is cost. The 2011 Census cost £480m; in 2021, the cost is expected to be £800m if the same, paper-based system were used. Replacing the Census would also allow for more timely data for planners and decision makers and could potentially avoid statistical surprises such as the unexpectedly big population growth uncovered by the 2011 Census.

Responding to the ONS Beyond 2011 consultation on the future of the Census, ILC-UK has urged the Government not to scrap the decennial census. But alongside support for a predominantly online Census, ILC-UK’s response supports a greater use of administrative data. It also calls for a debate on how other “big data” can help us better understand our society. The ILC-UK response to the ONS Beyond 2011 consultation is available here.

The report of the first #populationpatterns seminar is available below.

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