Select Committee on Treasury First Report


FIRST REPORT


The Treasury Committee has agreed to the following Report:

THE 2001 CENSUS IN ENGLAND AND WALES


SUMMARY

Censuses were held in all parts of the United Kingdom on 29 April 2001 at an estimated cost of £254 million. Forms were delivered to approximately 30 million households in England and Wales in the three weeks leading up to Census Day on Sunday 29 April. For the first time, the public were asked to post them back, and only households that did not mail forms back were visited again by enumerators.

The Census provides vital information for Government and business planning that is widely used in the public and private sectors, but robust evidence to justify the expenditure involved in undertaking the Census was not available. We recommend that any future Census should be justified in cost-benefit terms. Moreover, before such a decision is taken, an evaluation should be undertaken of all alternatives to a full Census, such as relying on administrative records, conducting a rolling Census, reverting to a simple headcount, or doing without a Census altogether.

Consultation on the 2001 Census started in 1995 and proposals for the Census were tested extensively, including a Census rehearsal in 1999 covering nearly 150,000 households throughout the United Kingdom. It is clear that a question on income would have been found useful by many users of Census data and we recommend, in the light of the response rate for the voluntary question on religion included for the first time in England and Wales, that further consideration should be given to the inclusion of such a question in any future Census.

The preparations for the Census did not identify a number of matters that arose in practice. There were concerns in Wales over how Welsh identity was to be recorded on the Census form, and difficulties were encountered by people with sight problems who wanted to take part in the Census independently. There were also difficulties with the return of Census forms by post and the Census helpline was overwhelmed for a time by the number of calls received which, over the three months it was operational, totalled some 2.6 million. These matters should be reviewed before any future Census and we have made a number of detailed proposals on this in our report.

The first results from the 2001 Census will not be available until August 2002 and the main results will not be available until the first half of 2003, when the Census data on which local authority spending assessments are based will be 12 years old. We recommend a review of the trade-off in cost benefit terms of the Census results being available earlier for users and public resource planning against the additional cost of doing so. This work should take account of the requirements of all data users, and not just the resource allocation round for local government, which seems at present to be the primary determinant of the timetable.

Introduction

1. The Treasury Committee established a Sub-committee in July 2001 to scrutinise the work of the various bodies for which Treasury Ministers are accountable. The Sub-committee announced, in October 2001, that its first inquiry would be into the 2001 Census in England and Wales. We heard oral evidence from Mr Len Cook, the Registrar General for England and Wales and National Statistician, from the Statistics Commission, and from the Royal National Institute for the Blind. We also received a number of written submissions, most of which we have published with this volume. We are grateful for all the evidence we have received, written and oral.

2. The law[1] requires every household to complete and return a Census form. The 2001 Census was the twentieth in a series carried out every 10 years in Great Britain since 1801, except in 1941.[2] Censuses were held in all parts of the United Kingdom on 29 April 2001. Following devolution, responsibility for approving the specific arrangements for the 2001 Censuses in Scotland and Northern Ireland fell to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly respectively. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the department responsible for the Census in England and Wales.[3] The ONS is an Executive Agency and a Department of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

3. The total budget for the 2001 Census in the UK over the 13 year period 1993-2006 is some £254 million, of which around £207 million relates to England and Wales. The largest elements of these costs are to pay for the delivery and collection of the forms and for the processing of the data.[4] Forms were delivered to households in the three weeks leading up to Census Day on Sunday 29 April. For the first time, the public were asked to post them back, and only households that did not mail forms back were visited again by enumerators.[5]

4. The first outputs from the Census are not due to be published until August 2002.[6] We have therefore focussed this inquiry on the adequacy of the preparatory work and consultation undertaken prior to the Census; the conduct of the Census; and the utility of the planned outputs for prospective users, with a view to identifying lessons for any future Census.


1   The Census Act 1920 Back

2   White paper, The 2001 Census of Population, Cm 4253, March 1999 para 1 Back

3   Ev 1, Ev 3, Ev 4, paras 1, 27, 35, 36 Back

4   Ev 2, paras 12, 13 Back

5   Ev 1, para 4 Back

6   Ev 1, para 5 Back


 
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Prepared 6 March 2002