The 200-year-old 10-yearly national census seems set to escape abolition following new proposals by the national statistician to carry out an online survey backed with access to government administrative records.
The Cabinet Office, stung by the £500m cost of the 2011 census, had proposed that the exercise be abandoned, with a regular snapshot of administrative records enabling the UK to meet its international obligations to carry out a head-count.
A consultation paper published last December proposed two options:
A census once a decade, on the lines of 2011, but with almost all questionnaires completed online. In 2011 only 16% of households completed the questionnaire online.
A census based on matching data held in existing administrative systems, backed up with annual compulsory surveys.
Jil Matheson, the national statistician, pointed out that that countries rely on administrative register censuses operate formal population registers. Without such a resource, any such exercise in the UK would be prone to double-counting.
The estimated cost of a full household census in 2021 is £1bn. The Office for National Statistics says an online census backed with administrative data could be done for £625m. The on-line census and public information will be backed by a survey of 4% of the population to double-check the findings. For those chosen, taking part in the survey will be compulsory.
In a response to the consultation, Matheson recommended increased use of government data. She said the Office for National Statistics already makes limited use of the administrative data to which it has access, and would like to do more in order to improve the quality and frequency of statistics between decennial censuses.