12 February 2020 08:43

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The 2021 census could be the last one ever to be carried out, the UK's national statistician has revealed. Prof Sir Ian Diamond said he was examining cheaper alternatives to the 10-yearly compulsory questionnaire delivered to every UK household. The census, which has been conducted for almost 200 years, provides valuable population information to help councils and the government plan services. But Sir Ian said he was "hopeful" data from other sources could replace it. "The census is frankly as good as it is possible to get," he said.


Although the roots of census-taking in Britain can be traced back to the Domesday Book in 1086, it was not until 1801 that an official census was conducted, when the population of England, Scotland and Wales was recorded to be nine million. However, statisticians regard the 1841 census, when each head of the household was required to fill in a form on behalf of everyone living at the address on a particular day, as the first modern census. The method has stood the test of time - with more questions about the characteristics of each household member added over the years - but costs have ballooned. The Office for National Statistics, which has responsibility for the census in England and Wales, said an estimated £906m would be spent next time - nearly double the figure for 2011. The censuses for Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are conducted at the same time, are administered separately.

Sir Ian acknowledged that costs had been rising, though he pointed out that a drive to get most people to complete next year's census online would allow resources to be targeted at those who were less likely to respond. The former University of Aberdeen vice-chancellor said his officials would undertake research, alongside the census, to find out if accurate information could be obtained via other means, such as the Ordnance Survey, GP lists, council tax records and driving licence details. He said such "administrative data" - combined with regular, large-scale population surveys - could provide "better and more granular" information in a "cheaper" and "more timely" way, though he said no decisions had been taken. "We'd only move away from [the census] if we can replicate that richness of data," he said, adding that the government would have the final say after the census results and research had been evaluated, in 2023. In a 2018 white paper, the government said its "ambition" was that "other sources of data" would be used after 2021, though it did not explicitly say that the census itself should be scrapped. The 2021 census could be the last one ever carried out, with the UK's national statistician reported to be looking at ways to replace it. The Guardian said on Wednesday that Professor Sir Ian Diamond wants to explore whether he could collect the data recorded in the census from a range of other sources. These could include GP registrations, council tax records and driving licences, which could also be supplemented by information gathered by surveys. As society changes, so does the census. Questions about car ownership were added in 1971 and central heating in 1991. 2011 saw civil partnerships questions added and 2021 will ask if you're an armed forces veteran. Find out more about the census here pic.twitter.com/NL85GqYuKm — Census 2021 – England & Wales (@Census2021) January 18, 2020 Sir Ian, who took up the role in October last year, said: "I will only make a recommendation to change the way we do things if we can replicate the richness of the census data. "It would have to be equally rich but more timely, cheaper and more effective. "We will only change if we can do something better. "We are looking at the things we only get from the census and whether it is possible to get them from other sources." How has it changed since then? Using 180 million census records, find out interesting facts about the history of your area. Visit @UKDataService pic.twitter.com/y86f6EPkK6 — Census 2021 – England & Wales (@Census2021) January 13, 2020 The census, which has been carried out every 10 years for almost two centuries, provides valuable population information to help councils and governments plan services. Sir Ian said the cost of next year's census would be close to £1 billion – almost double the price tag for the one in 2011 – even though most people will be expected to fill in their forms online, the Guardian reported. Demographers consider the census to be the "gold standard" of population records, since it provides a once-a-decade snapshot of age, class, gender, housing tenure and educational attainment. Sir Ian said he would look at the evidence and give an opinion by 2023, but it would be for the Government to decide whether the 2031 census should go ahead.