1 Introduction |
Early Census activity in England
1. The ominous title of the Domesday Book often seems
to obscure the fact that it was a simple census activity. The
website of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) describes
the Domesday book of 1086 as the "first thorough survey of
The Domesday Book paints a very detailed picture
of life in Norman England. So in these terms it can be thought
of as our first census. But unlike the modern census, it did not
provide an accurate count of the people living in England then.
Also unlike the modern census, Domesday's purpose was to establish
the ownership of assets, so that owners could be taxed on these
Thus the first recognisable census in England provides
some insight into what was important in that society: the King
wished to know what tax revenues might be raised from the populace.
Arguably, every subsequent census has revealed what the government
of the day thought it important to know at that time.
2. The incentive for the modern census was not money
but the fear of overpopulation. This fear was fuelled by the publication
in 1798 of Thomas Malthus's Essay on the principle of population,
which suggested that population growth would soon outstrip supplies
of food and other resources. Concerned at this alarmist view of
the future, people began to see the need for a census.
Parliament passed the Census Act in 1800 and the first official
census of England and Wales was held on 10 March 1801. Since then
there has been a census every ten years except for 1941, during
the Second World War.
3. There have been constant changes to the questions
asked in the census with more and more detail required to provide
for a population that is probably subject to greater and faster
change than ever before.
4. There is also a hugely different social science
context where academics, charities and commercial organisations
are all collecting and using social data to better serve their
communities and customers. Digital recording of that information
also increases the potential to share, compare and broaden the
formal and informal data available about the population of the
5. 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
6. Subsequently, in May 2010 Sir Michael Scholar,
Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to the Minister for
the Cabinet Office:
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
The Beyond 2011 Programme was formally established
in April 2011 to consider the alternatives to running a census
in 2021. The ONS says: "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 report its findings in 2014.
7. We decided to undertake a short inquiry to examine
the potential impact of the ending of the census on social science
research; we anticipate that our recommendations will feed into
the ONS Beyond 2011 consultation. We announced our inquiry
on 9 November 2011 and issued a call for evidence based on the
following terms of reference:
· How do social scientists use Census data?
· What impact will the ending of the Census
have on social science research?
· What alternatives to the Census would
provide population and socio-demographic data of equivalent or
· What other existing sources of population
and socio-demographic data could be improved upon?
8. We received 41 submissions in response to our
call. We also held three evidence sessions during which we took
oral evidence from four panels of witnesses:
i. On 7 December 2011 we took evidence from:
Professor David Blane, Deputy Director, ESRC International Centre
for Life Course Studies, Professor Heather Joshi, President, Society
for Lifecourse and Longitudinal Studies, and Professor Leslie
Mayhew, City University.
ii. On 14 December 2011 we took evidence from
two panels. First: Professor Tim Allen, Local Government Association,
Aleks Collingwood, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Professor David
Martin, Royal Statistical Society, and Professor Philip Rees,
Royal Geographical Society; followed by Adrian Alsop, Director
of Research and International Strategy, Economic and Social Research
Council, Jeremy Neathey, Deputy Director of Policy, Economic and
Social Research Council, Glen Watson, Census Director, Office
for National Statistics, and Peter Benton, Deputy Director, Office
for National Statistics.
iii. On 18 January 2012 we took evidence from
the joint Heads of the Government Social Research service: Jenny
Dibden, Department for Work and Pensions and Richard Bartholomew,
Department for Education.
9. We would like to thank those who responded to
our call for evidence, especially those who provided oral evidence.
We are grateful to John Pullinger, Librarian of the House of Commons,
for his helpful insight and commentary.
10. The census as an operation is not the subject
of our inquiry. The Public Administration Select Committee scrutinises
both the Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics
Authority and is expected to publish its own findings on the operation
of the census. Issues relating to the conduct of the census, the
questions asked in the census and the value of that data to the
UK Government are core to the remit of that Committee. Our interest
is in the conduct of social science and the potential impact of
significant changes to, or indeed a discontinuation of, the census.
11. Our report begins by looking at the use of social
data across society. We then consider the value of the census
to those who use social data and some of the limitations of that
source. Finally, we consider the alternative sources of data and
what it would be important to preserve if there was never to be
1 "Early census taking in England and Wales",
Office for National Statistics, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/census-history/early-census-taking-in-England-and-Wales/index.html Back
"The modern census", Office for National Statistics,
Granularity is used to indicate how small a particular social
group might be represented within the data. Looking at Constituencies
is a useful level of geographic granularity but does not show
nuances. Granularity at a postcode level is a much finer geographic
granularity. There are many ways to group people and as the groupings
get more detailed then it is referred to as the granularity becoming
Treasury Select Committee , Eleventh Report of Session 2007-08,
Counting the population, HC 183 Back
Quoted in "Background to Beyond 2011", Office for
National Statistics, 1 December 2011 www.ons.gov.uk/ons/about-ons/what-we-do/programmes---projects/beyond-2011/background-to-beyond-2011/index.html Back