MPs have warned that a decision to discontinue the census would have a negative impact on the Government's social science analysis, as well as social science research in the UK, and that alternative systems for collecting population data may not prove to be any cheaper.
Andrew Miller, Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said:
"Ministers must think hard before they take the decision to scrap the census.
The Census has provided the UK with one of the richest collections of population data in the world.
It is incredibly valuable to social researchers, charities and the public sector and a move to cancel the census on financial grounds may prove to be a costly mistake."
The report raises concerns that social science could suffer if the census was discontinued without serious consideration as to how this data would be replaced. Census data has permitted the development of the richest longitudinal research studies in the world. It also allows comparisons to be made of different areas in the country more accurately. A variety of organisations told the inquiry that they depend on the availability of census data as they could not afford to finance any equivalent studies.
The Committee heard that surveys and existing administrative data can be used effectively, but it was not convinced that this would be a cheaper option over a ten year census cycle. The MPs also have concerns that this would not easily scale to a nationwide coverage. The report states that although surveys and administrative data may be a credible alternative to the census for the purposes of local government, it would not be able to replicate one of the key strengths of the census - its ability to provide a snapshot of the whole nation at one time.
Although local and frequent surveys would have the potential advantage of providing more up-to-date information, the Committee was not persuaded that they could provide an adequate substitute for census data unless they were designed and implemented to a high standard. There would need to be a serious consideration of how administrative data could be brought to a national standard to allow it to be more easily used as a replacement for census data. The report recommends that the Office for National Statistics (ONS), if they decide to discontinue the census, should consider how administrative data might be collected over a sustained period.
The MPs also call on the Government to give a senior Minister direct responsibility for social science who would take a cross-Government view in Ministerial discussions, respond to Parliamentary questions and reports from Select Committees. The MPs believe this is essential, especially in the event that greater departmental co-operation is required to source data in the event of the census being discontinued.
The ONS launched a Beyond 2011 Programme in 2011 to consider the alternatives to running a census in 2021. The Committee's report and recommendations will feed in to the ONS Beyond 2011 consultation, which will report its findings in 2014.