Expensive census ‘may be scrapped’

The census of every household in England and Wales – held every 10 years – may be scrapped, according to the government’s newly appointed national statistician, Sir Ian Diamond.

It is likely to be replaced with a system of more regular updates, relying on cheaper methods to assess demographic trends.

Next year’s census could be the last in a series that date back to 1801, when the government decided it needed to know how many men were available to fight in the Napoleonic wars.

Sir Ian said he wanted to explore whether he could get the data from other sources, such as GP registrations, council tax records and driving licences, information that would be supplemented by that gathered through surveys. But he would have to be sure it could “replicate the richness of the census data”, he said.

“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.”

Ministers are known to consider the census to be outdated and expensive. Sir Ian said the cost of next year’s census would be almost £1bn – almost twice the 2011 one.

Over the years, the census has reflected changes to the economy and society. Self-employment was first recorded in 1901, while the advent of the consumer society meant a question on household amenities was included in 1951.

Households are legally obliged to complete census forms. But the coverage tends to be as low as 80% in some areas. Young men living in inner-city areas tend to be the most under-recorded group.