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On 21 March those of us living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will do something incredibly important – we’ll fill in the 2021 Census. Covid-19 means that this edition is likely to paint a distorted picture of life across the nations. While this may be interesting for historical curiosity, it will likely skew a number of important administrative decisions. That’s why, now that a roadmap out of Covid-19 restrictions has been set, the Government should delay the Census.
The last 12 months have seen an incredible change in the way that people live their lives. Almost half of us have worked from home, travel has been very much restricted and evidence suggests population has fallen as immigrants have gone back home.
We should expect this to be a short-term pattern. Those working from home will start commuting again, students will return back to their campuses and it would be surprising if at least some of the immigrants who went back home don’t return again once job opportunities re-emerge. The problem the Census will have, which is run once every 10 years, is that it will have no way of distinguishing this.
This matters for two main reasons. The first is that data from the Census will be used to inform funding decisions for many years to come. For example, local authority funding is largely calculated using population figures, which are informed by the Census. Manchester City Council estimated that an undercount in the 2001 Census (done in ‘normal’ times) of 30,000 people would have reduced funding by £100 million over the decade if it hadn’t been corrected. If students aren’t at their term addresses, city workers have moved to the countryside temporarily or migrant workers have made a short term move home, all this will skew the figures. It will also give a very distorted picture of commuting and demand for schools, for example, which will affect decisions on investment.
The second reason is that this may be the last Census. There has been much discussion about scrapping it in favour of using administrative data such as GP records and driving licenses. The better use of administrative data, which may be able to give more timely data than the census, is very much welcome. But it will need a solid benchmark to work off. The 21 March snapshot may not provide this.
Scotland has already delayed its Census until 2022, a call made last July. This call to delay the Census in the other nations comes very late in the day. But the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of restrictions gives a much clearer idea of when life without restrictions may return, so giving clearer options as to when to delay the census to.
There are three main options that the Government could take:
Covid-19 has meant that we all have had to make rapid and radical adjustments in the last 12 months. We have no doubt that ONS is doing its utmost to make Census 2021 as useful as possible, but there are a number of things that even the very best census design can’t address. And so the Census should make similar adjustments if we are to get full value from running what is a very valuable exercise.
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