The Census currently provides the base for many of the population and socio-demographic statistics in England and Wales, providing comparable information from the national to the local level on a range of topics, and acting as a benchmark for many other statistics.
Nonetheless the Census is becoming increasingly costly and changes in society are making it more challenging to carry out. A more mobile population and the increasingly complex ways in which people live make the process of taking a Census more difficult – and the concept of a snapshot every 10 years less relevant.
At the same time improvements in technology and the growth of computerised records about people and services (referred to here as ‘administrative sources’) both in the public and private sectors would seem to suggest an alternative approach. A system that makes use of these administrative sources to collate information already held about the population has the potential to provide a more cost-effective way to provide more frequent statistics, with reduced public burden.
The Treasury Select Committee report ‘Counting the Population’ in May 2008 recommended that:
“the Statistics Authority set strategic objectives to ensure that the data gathered throughout the UK can be used to produce annual population statistics that are of a quality that will enable the 2011 Census to be the last census in the UK where the population is counted through the collection of census forms.”
Subsequent to this, in May 2010 Sir Michael Scholar, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the Minister for the Cabinet Office to say that:
“As a Board we have been concerned about the increasing costs and difficulties of traditional Census-taking. We have therefore already instructed the ONS to work urgently on the alternatives, with the intention that the 2011 Census will be the last of its kind.”
The Beyond 2011 Programme was formally established in April 2011 to take a fresh look at the alternatives to running a Census in 2021. Close collaboration is in place with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that the obligation to produce consistent UK statistics is met.
Beyond 2011 will undertake an extensive programme of consultation and research and report its findings in 2014. Its recommendations will be informed not only by the statistical viability of the potential solutions, but also by a full understanding of user requirements, public burden, costs and public acceptability. The outcomes will have implications for all population-based statistics in England and Wales and potentially, in the longer term, for the statistical system as a whole.