The census – £480 million wasted?

This year’s census is stirring up plenty of debate over whether it’s an idea that has had its time. Having listened to the arguments, I’m joining those who think the whole operation has had its day.

Thirty years ago, I was one of the census administrators. I had a patch of homes where I was responsible for dropping off the forms, and then collecting them a few days later. I had to check they had in large part been filled in, and warn those who refused to oblige, that they were laying themselves open for prosecution. I still remember the big blue plastic folders that we were issued with to carry the forms with; and the welcome cheque at the end.

But back then, there was no internet, few companies or public bodies stored information on computer systems, and so the whole exercise seemed to have a value. Today, it is easy to find out how many bedrooms and bathrooms there are in pretty much every house, doing a search of estate agents’ details on the internet. Or by using Google Earth. Databases within the NHS and Department of Education will tell us how many kids there are of what ages, so new schools can be planned.

And that makes the eye-watering cost of the census, at £480 million, an expensive waste of time.

I listened to a census official on the radio arguing in its defence, that it represented a cost of just 90p per person, per year; and that the information was useful for 10 years. He then had to admit that the information was only a snapshot, and not a very accurate one. According to his counterpart, several thousand respondents to the last census listed their religion as Jeddae.

We’re increasingly fed up with being asked for information about ourselves, from all manner of organisations interested in collecting it. And we have a Data Protection organisation that is supposed to hold such repositories to account. Surely there must be a logical, safe way to pull together all this information without relying on asking reluctant householders to fill in another form?

So, let’s get rid of the census and save £480 million – that would buy a few new schools. And even without the 2021 census, I’m sure they will still work out how to make a fresh series of “Who do you think you are” in decades to come.


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