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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 00:50 GMT
Days numbered for census?
Pages from the 1901 census, featuring WG Grace
There was huge interest in the 1901 census online
Computer technology could put an end to 200 years of compiling a detailed census every decade, says the head of a statistics watchdog.

Sir John Kingman, chairman of the Statistics Commission is reported to be questioning whether there will be a census in 2011.

There is a real question about whether there should be a census in 10 years' time

Sir John Kingman
Statistics watchdog
He believes the increasing amount of data stored on computers may mean only a much simpler census is needed.

Interest in census results was underlined by the huge demand for the online version of the 1901 census for England and Wales, which had to be taken off the web because the site kept crashing.

Last year's census cost about 255m and its organisation involved 70,000 people.

Debate needed

Sir John is reported as telling the Times newspaper: "I think there is a real question about whether there should be a census in 10 years' time.

"I'm not prepared to answer it, but the question must be asked and debated vigorously."

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin was listed as a "music hall artiste" in 1901
The census has been running since the 19th century and it is the changes in technology since then which the watchdog believes raise questions for the future.

"We live in an age of information technology and we are talking about information, so it should not be assumed that the pencil and paper methods which were all the 19th century had available, are the right things to do in the 21st century," said Sir John.

By 2011 computers would store even more information about the UK's residents and that could be combined with much more basic census of who lived where, he suggested.

Sir John said all the alternatives for change should be considered and it would not be sensible merely to tinker with the existing system.

Last year's census, which came 200 years after the first modern census for England and Wales, included a record 41 questions.

First major results

The Office for National Statistics says 98% of the expected number of households returned their forms.

That figure is similar to the response rate in 1991, despite census workers last summer having to chase about a fifth of the forms sent out.

The first major results are due to be published in August, with the rest expected between December this year and summer 2003.

No date has yet been set for the return of the 1901 census website which had to be taken offline because so many people were trying to access it.

Engineers are trying to address the problem and in the meantime it can be see at the Public Record Office in Kew, London, as well as the London-based Family Record Centre and 150 libraries and service centres across England and Wales.

See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK
Census website goes offline
04 Jan 02 | UK
Tracing your lineage online
03 Jan 02 | UK
Census website still jammed
06 Dec 01 | England
No 'English' on the census form
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