UK may eliminate national census

A census records file

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: The U.S. census is over and done with at least for the next 10 years. In Britain, it might just be over. The government there is mulling whether to completely scrap its national census, which has taken place virtually every decade since 1801. But it costs $700 million to conduct, and as the country is counting its pennies, there may be cheaper ways of counting the population.

Joining us from London is Marketplace's Stephen Beard. Hello Stephen.

Stephen Beard: Hello, Tess.

Vigeland: Is this really just about money or is there some other reason for the government wanting to scrap it?

Beard: Money is a big part of the argument, but there are doubt about the value of this exercise as a way of measuring the population and allocating public funds. You may remember the last census here in 2001 was famous for a joke. Four hundred thousand people listed their religion on the form as "Jedi."

But even some serious statisticians like professor Les Mayhew of the Cass Business School have doubts about the usefulness of the census.

Les Mayhew: It's increasingly inaccurate. The huge difficulties in collecting the data. People don't fill in the forms, or answer their doors and it takes about two years before the results are published.

Vigeland: Well, that does seem to pose some issues. But Stephen, is the census mandatory there as it is in the U.S.?

Beard: Yes, very much so. I mean officially, there's a fine of $1,500 if you don't fill in the form. Nevertheless, three million people didn't complete the census last time around. By the way, only 100 of those were prosecuted.

Vigeland: Three million people didn't do that? Now, what percentage of the population is that?

Beard: It's about 5 percent.

Vigeland: Five percent. Well, that's pretty good by American standards actually. British government doesn't think it's good enough?

Beard: Well, the government thinks it can get the information much more cheaply and more accurately from other sources by trolling through public databases, like voter registration records, tax records, immigration records and so on. This, says the government would certainly be more up-to-date that the census information that takes two years to process and then isn't updated until the next census.

Vigeland: Does the census have any supporters?

Beard: Yes, genealogists rather like it for tracing the family tree, it's quite useful having all this information in one place. And there are some academics that say they prefer the census too.

Sean Rickard of the Cranfield School of Management says he definitely doesn't like the alternative.

Sean Rickard: We would prefer to feel out a census openly and honestly once every 10 years rather than have government poring into our bank accounts, into our health records, into our school records or whatever to try and make sense of it.

Beard: Actually some of the fiercest opposition to the next census comes from civil libertarians. They complain that its 32 pages long and full of prying questions like, who spent the night in your house on such and such a date. One group, Big Brother Watch, is urging members to fill in names like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck so it will be interesting to see how many people are prosecuted after this next census, which the government says will probably be the last one.

Vigeland: Well, I do need to point out that both Mickey and Donald are Americans so... Marketplace's Stephen Beard joins us from London. Thank you so much.

Beard: OK, Tess.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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