Census must learn from NHS data debacle, say MPs
Any attempt to incorporate government held data into future censuses will face public concern over about privacy, MPs have warned ministers who are poised to decide the future of the 200-year-old national headcount.
Earlier this month the national statistician recommended a low-cost census for 2021, with online returns backed up with data from administrative systems.
However the House of Commons Public Administration Committee has said that it is too early to abandon the traditional household survey - especially given mounting alarm over data security. In a report "Too soon to scrap the census" published before the Easter recess, it says recent concern about the NHS care.data programme "demonstrates the risks in attempting to share data if the process is not clearly explained and people are not consulted".
To avoid repeating the debacle, the Cabinet Office and the Office for National Statistics "must make every effort to publicise the benefits of greater sharing of administrative data within government and to the wider world, in order to realise the considerable benefits of using administrative data for policy-making, policy understanding and efficiency, and of course for the production of population statistics".
However the MPs do not oppose the use of administrative data as part of a "hybrid" census. "The government has a wealth of detailed administrative data which is currently unexploited and which could provide a rich seam of information to improve the nation's knowledge of its population and boost the quality of public services. Data from administrative sources can be richer, broader, cheaper and timelier than the equivalent from a traditional census; it can be made available far more frequently than every 10 years."
The MPs point out that the 2011 census was already a hybrid in that it used administrative records - a specially created address database - to improve the household survey. "The use of an address register in 2011 was a very good example of using administrative records to enhance the accuracy of population statistics."
The committee recommends that the Office for National Statistics set out what data it used in 2011, the impact it had on the resulting estimates, the lessons learnt from this experience and how such additional sources can be used more widely and effectively.