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Beyond 2011 Frequently Asked Questions

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Programme Related Questions

What is the Beyond 2011 Programme and why is it needed?

Every 10 years, for more than 200 years, every household in England and Wales has been required to respond to the census. The 2011 Census successfully provided population statistics that will be used for the next decade by planners, policy makers and researchers across the public and private sectors.

Our population is changing rapidly, and the need to understand these changes will continue. Improvements in technology and in government data sources also offer new opportunities. The Beyond 2011 programme has assessed the different possible approaches to producing population and housing statistics in future.

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What options have you consulted on?

Our research resulted in two possible approaches to taking the census in future:

  • once a decade, like that conducted in 2011, but primarily online.

  • using existing government data and compulsory annual surveys.

Both methods would provide annual statistics about the size of the population, nationally and for local authorities. A census using existing data and surveys would provide statistics about the characteristics of the population every year, while an online census would provide more detailed statistics once a decade.

We put these options out to public consultation in September 2013.

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Why did you do this consultation?

The two approaches on which we have consulted bring different advantages and disadvantages, and it was clear that users’ views on these would differ. It is important that ONS’s recommendation is founded on good evidence, so the consultation asked for views on what really matters. The public consultation ran for 12 weeks - 23 September to 13 December 2013.

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How many responses did you get?

We had more than 700 submissions totalling almost 1,500 pages of detailed comments and analysis. These came from sectors such as central government, local authorities, public bodies, commercial organisations, charities, health trusts, academia, genealogists and private individuals. These included 270 responses from organisations, with the remainder from private individuals.

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What did they tell you?

While respondents’ views varied, there were some consistent key messages. In particular:

  • there was continuing demand from government, local authorities, public bodies, business, the voluntary sector and individual citizens for detailed information about small areas and small populations offered by the decennial census, whether online or paper-based;

  • there was a strong concern that the proposed use of an annual survey of 4 per cent of households (to support the use of existing administrative data) would not meet these needs, nor deliver the required small area and small population statistics offered by the decennial census;

  • the more frequent statistics that could be provided between censuses by the use of administrative data and annual surveys would be welcomed, but not at the expense of the detailed statistics;

  • whilst the methods using administrative data and surveys show considerable potential, there was concern that these were not yet mature enough to replace the decennial census; and

  • many respondents proposed a hybrid approach, making the best of both approaches, with an online census in 2021 enhanced by administrative data and household surveys.

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So what are you recommending to government?

The National Statistician’s recommendation for the future provision of population statistics and the next census is:

  • An online census of all households and communal establishments in England and Wales in 2021 as a modern successor to the traditional, paper-based ten-yearly census. ONS recognises that special care would need to be taken to support those who are unable to complete the census online.

  • Increased use of administrative data and surveys in order to enhance the statistics from the 2021 Census and improve annual statistics between censuses.

This would make the best use of all available data to provide the population statistics which England and Wales require and offer a springboard to the greater use of administrative data and annual surveys in the future.

Further research will be carried out over the coming months and years to determine the most appropriate blend of methods and data sources.

However, it is clear that the future development of the administrative data use approach depends on public consent as expressed through Parliament.  Data sharing legislation would be required to maximise the benefits of this approach.

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Will the new combined approach be of the same quality?

An online census in 2021 will provide quality that is comparable to the 2011 Census results. Using administrative data has the potential to further enhance these census results.

This is why many of the data users we consulted proposed having a blend of these two approaches for 2021.

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What do other countries do?

Census approaches using administrative data are becoming more common. Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Israel and Germany have moved to systems based primarily on administrative data.

Other countries, such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, continue to use more traditional census approaches.

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What happens next?

It is for the UK Government and Parliament to decide whether the 2021 Census for England and Wales should go ahead, and in what form.

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What about people who can’t fill out a census form online?

Internet access, via computers, tablets and mobile devices, is increasing all the time. More than 80 per cent of households in the UK say they use the internet daily already.

While it is difficult to guess what levels of internet access will be in another seven years’ time, we recognise there will be people who will need help in responding to the 2021 Census. 

We will make sure that everyone who asks for help in completing a census online will get it in the future, just as they have in the past.

As with previous censuses there will be a team of field staff to help. We will be working on the details once the Government and Parliament have made their decision about our recommendation, and letting people know in good time about help available to them.

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What do you mean by ‘administrative data’?

This is data that people have already provided to government, for example in the course of accessing public services. Some of this data could be re-used by ONS to produce statistics about the population.

ONS has been using administrative data for many years. For example, annual births and deaths statistics are used, as well as NHS patient registrations, to roll forward the population estimates between censuses.

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What administrative data are you investigating?

Sources currently being researched include those held by the Department of Health, the Department of Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Education and the Higher Education Statistics Agency.  A full list of the data we are currently using in our research can be found in Annex C of our publication: ‘Beyond 2011: Safeguarding Data for Research: Our Policy', July 2013.

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What about preserving my privacy?

ONS has an excellent track record of keeping people’s data safe and secure. 

Our interest is in the production of population statistics, and in the picture of society that gives us. We are not concerned with details of individual people.

The Statistics and Registration Service Act makes it a criminal offence for anyone to disclose personal information unlawfully, punishable by up to two years in prison.

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Will you be sharing my data with other organisations?

We will not release personal data to anyone else. We fully recognise the need to ensure privacy and confidentiality when using data - as we have always done with the census. This is one of our top priorities.

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What legislation do you need?

Existing primary legislation allows a census to take place, but does not require a census.

As with the 2011 Census, an online census in 2021 would require Parliament to agree specific secondary legislation, setting out the census date and the questions to be asked for example.

A Census method based on administrative data and surveys would require Parliament to agree new primary legislation, to enable easier data access for ONS and to make it a legal requirement for households to respond to any new surveys. 

However, to maximise the benefits of the National Statistician’s recommended approach data-sharing legislation would be required.  It is for Government and Parliament to decide whether or not this is appropriate.

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What about people who want to investigate their family history or family tree?

If there is a 2021 Census conducted mainly online, all census responses will be archived for future generations.

In the 2011 Census we turned every online response into the same format as the paper questionnaire, which we then imaged and archived. We would do the same for the 2021 Census, and will do further research to see how new technology develops.

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What is happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Scotland and Northern Ireland are carrying out their own reviews, and we will work together with the Devolved Administrations to continue providing population statistics across the UK in line with European Union and international requirements for statistical outputs.

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