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Who’s Counting? Why Britain Wants to Drop the Census

5 minute read
Adam White / London

The national census is like a giant group photo, showing us everything we might want to know about a country’s population: who they are, what they do, where they live and how they live. The answers it provides are vital to historians, economists and academics — and to the running of a nation. So with Francis Maude, British Cabinet Office Minister and the man in charge of the census, revealing recently that the 2011 census will be the U.K.’s last, the soon-to-be uncounted might well ask, How will we know who we are?

Speaking to London’s Daily Telegraph, Maude said that, in a decision likely to be ratified this week, the U.K. is getting rid of the 200-year-old head count because it’s expensive, incomplete and out of date before it’s even published. During its 10-year cycle, the U.K.’s 2011 census will have cost the taxpayer $730 million — twice as much as it did in 2001. In a country struggling with a $235 billion deficit, the census might be seen as a luxury. But, some say, it’s an essential one.

(See 10 things to do in London.)

In the U.K., census numbers direct public funding to local authorities: the population of a district directly impacts on how much money it gets to spend on the minutiae of life — trash collection, libraries, road repairs and so on. Census population numbers and densities influence immigration policy. They also determine where schools, hospitals and houses are built. Details about ethnicity and age allow the National Health Service to target specific types of health care to at-risk areas. And census figures are reported to Eurostat, the European statistics agency, which feeds numbers into Europe-wide funding and policy. In other words, the census rules how societies are shaped.

All this policy will be much harder to make if the census is stopped, say observers. “The census sits as an unobtrusive anchor to the data systems of the national state,” says Margo J. Anderson, professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and a census historian. “When you change that profoundly, it has reverberations which the people in charge are probably not aware of.”

Census-taking is an imperfect art at the best of times. The U.K.’s 1991 census is widely regarded as so inaccurate that statisticians ignore it completely, and the 2001 census took flak for undercounting. The U.K.’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has for years been steadily working toward an alternative in the form of the Beyond 2011 project. The ONS and the government won’t commit to any specific plan just yet, but talking to the Daily Telegraph, Maude suggested that the government might move toward a population count every five years, one that’s much cheaper since it would be based on administrative data already available: post-office address lists, credit-card-checking registries and so on.

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But the U.K. doesn’t need “an unsatisfactory stitched-together patchwork of information,” says David Coleman, professor of demographics at Oxford University, calling Maude’s proposed method a “ludicrous fudge.” Glen O’Hara, a historian at Oxford Brookes University, agrees: “These sources are not likely to be any substitute. They are mostly characterized by a near comical set of gaps, omissions, conflicts of interest and data-protection issues.”

These data-protection issues could well prove a sticking point. The U.K.’s center-right government might be reluctant to throw its support behind the Beyond 2011 project, especially as one of the first acts of the new coalition was to scrap the previous Labour government’s ID-card scheme. The plan, reviled because of data-protection and personal-freedom concerns, was linked to an incomplete population database known as the National Identity Register — itself now scrapped, having hardly been used. A reliable register of addresses — costing $15 million — has been put together for the 2011 census. But licensing and data-sharing restrictions block the register from further use.

What the country needs, says Coleman, is a purpose-built, regularly updating population register like those that operate in countries such as Denmark and Finland. Based on information like changes of address and birth and death notifications, population registers can be easily integrated into other databases and don’t rely on the decade-long guesswork of the census. “Some of the most aggressively democratic and liberal countries in Europe have got population registers and [have] not fallen into fascist dictatorships,” he argues.

But the arguments given in the U.K. for dropping the census are not — yet — about personal freedoms. The British government is simply pushing the census cut as part of its austerity measures. The ONS has yet to price out the options of either a potentially less complete and less accurate data set resulting from combining existing databases or a fully fledged alternative system. “It is too early to say how much an alternative system would cost,” an ONS spokesman tells TIME. “Given the known budgetary pressures, there will need to be a clear emphasis on how best to collect the necessary data about the population at the minimum cost.”

A 2003 ONS paper looking into the creation of a central system that would link together a wide variety of government statistics and databases — offering a reliable and up-to-date alternative to the aging census — estimates it would take 10 years to get up and running. And with a statistical fog looming, there’s no way of telling where the people of Britain might be by then — or how many of them will be around.

See TIME’s look at where America lives.

Watch 10 Questions with U.S. Census Director Robert Groves.

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