Over the next year, ILC-UK, supported by the specialist insurance company, Partnership Assurance Group plc, plans 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.
The debate will feed now into an ILC-UK response to the Census consultation.
Throughout this debate and resulting policy brief we explored:
■How important is the Census to policy makers and industry (including the financial services industry)?
■Might the loss of some very local data make identifying exclusion more difficult?
■Might other datasets prove to be better than the Census in helping us understand our population and how it is changing?
■Are there any unintended consequences of scrapping the Census in its current form?
■How can we ensure that reforms to the Census do not risk our understanding of demographic change and ageing?