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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Census poised for shake-up
Computer surveys and tax records could be used in the next Census as part of a major rethink of how government produces the population profile.

The chairman of the committee of MPs who demanded the government justify the expense of the 2001 count says the rethink signals the end of the Census in its traditional form.

In the wake of those MPs' criticism of the 254m bill for last year's Census in England and Wales, the government says it will consider whether the survey is needed at all.

All options are being considered after problems recruiting and using the army of people who carried out last year's count.

Shake-up plans

In its response to a report from the Treasury select committee, the government accepts it should look at doing without a census completely and revert to a simple headcount.

"The next Census is likely to be some mix of administrative records, a household survey and perhaps a national count," it says.

Tax and benefit records, as well as information from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, could be used.

Michael Fallon, Conservative MP
Michael Fallon says traditions could come to an end
The general household survey is continually updated but only takes data from about 60,000 households, compared with the 30 million surveyed for last year's census.

Census surveys are currently carried out every 10 years, although the government will soon decide whether a mid-term census will be conducted in 2006.

A spokesman for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) told BBC News Online there was always a review after each census.

Computer concerns

"Things move along, every 10 years there is more new technology about," he said.

But using computers raised questions about keeping information confidential.

There are also concerns about how many people a computer survey could reach and whether it could skew the results.

An army of 70,000 people was needed to deliver the census forms last year.

The 1901 census, including WG Grace's entry
The 1901 census was the last to be published in full
With more people now living in flats secured with entry phone systems, the ONS say that delivery job is becoming harder and they need to look at possible alternatives.

The MPs' report in March also criticised the ONS for "seriously underestimating" the number of calls its census helpline would need to take.

The government argues that the helpline was quickly improved so it could cope with the demand.

The MPs also pushed for the Welsh Assembly to have a role in agreeing the next census form after complaints last year that there was no box for those of "Welsh identity" to tick.

The government agrees with that suggestion, saying the form had been agreed by Parliament before such demands emerged.

Regional identity

"Developing this interest in measuring national identity is most significant in devolved countries," it says.

"But it is also present to a lesser extent in England, and within England, for example amongst the more distinct communities such as the Cornish."

The government is also looking again at whether people should be asked about their income on any future census forms.

But it stresses that previous tests suggest such questions could mean less people return their census forms.

Conservative Michael Fallon, who chaired the sub-committee of MPs that produced the March report, described the government response as "surprisingly positive".

Delays problems

Mr Fallon told BBC News Online: "It could be the end of the census in its traditional form.

"They have not said that yet but there are at least considering it."

The former minister highlighted the delays current methods caused in producing results as a key reason for change.

Census 2001 was completed last spring but the first results are not available until this August.

Mr Fallon said the figures would not be able to be used to decide how much money goes to different areas until 2004.

That meant next year's public spending would be based on figures 12 years out of date.

"If you are a fast growing county, like Cambridgeshire, or an area hit by deprivation of the loss of key industries, this is awfully slow to catch up," added the MP.

The Public Records Office is continuing its efforts to put the 1901 census back online after the system crashed earlier this year.

No date for its republication on the internet has yet been set, however.

See also:

06 Mar 02 | UK Politics
26 Feb 02 | England
19 Feb 02 | UK Politics
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