MPs reach consensus against abolition of census

The planned ending of the UK’s national census will harm social science research in both government and the academy, MPs have warned.

September 21, 2012

The Commons Science and Technology Committee examined whether the information gathered in the once-a-decade census – whose 2011 iteration is expected to be its last – could be obtained by other means.

It concluded that although many other smaller social science surveys and administrative data overlapped with the census, they were generally dependent on it for calibration. The committee was also unconvinced that they would easily scale up or offer a similarly rich data source for less money than the census.

“Census data provides a snapshot of the whole country at a moment in time which is invaluable to historians and to detect trends in the recent past; it also allows comparisons to be made of different areas in the country more accurately,” the MPs’ report, The Census and Social Science, says.

“The census also provides a means to recruit to longitudinal studies which, we are convinced, are the envy of social scientists in other countries. A wide variety of organisations and local historians told us that they depend on the availability of census data as they could not afford to finance any equivalent studies.”

The MPs also expressed concern about the lack of a minister with direct responsibility for social science, who could take a cross-governmental view on whether data provision was adequate.

The committee’s chair, Andrew Miller, said: “Ministers must think hard before they take the decision to scrap the census. 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 will feed into the Office of National Statistics inquiry into the alternatives to running a census in 2021, which will report its findings in 2014.

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