A person who completes an online census form on the day of the census. (PA)
Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography, Oxford University.
Many people may be unsure about the 2021 census in England, Wales and Northern Ireland because it comes at a time of pandemic when many aspects of our lives are anything but normal. As a result of these concerns, the census in Scotland was effectively delayed by a year.
Rather, the census seemed to be a failure. The 2001 census took place in the midst of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, for fear that enumerators would spread the disease between farms.
Since most people will complete the 2021 census online, the spread of disease is less of a concern this year. But there is another criticism of censuses: they never provide more than a snapshot of the population at a given time, regardless of unusual or temporary household circumstances.
It is feared that the 2021 census will give a particularly distorted picture of a country changed by the pandemic. It will affect young people who are temporarily staying with their parents, thousands of Europeans who were planning to leave the country but are temporarily stranded in Britain because of the blockade rules, and millions of workers who are on leave and are considered to be working despite the real possibility that they will soon lose their jobs.
Yet there is much to be said for the census today precisely because so much has changed. The 2021 census will not only capture a unique period in our history; it is also the best way to show which areas and populations have been recently disadvantaged by the pandemic, so that government resources and services can be directed where they are most needed.
Why a census?
Family (from left) Mia, 9, Julia (mother) and Jack, 6, complete an online census form on census day in Hornchurch, Essex. (PA)
Without the decennial census in the UK, local authorities would know little about the composition of the population they currently serve. Officials don’t know which neighborhoods are falling behind, which homes are vacant, and which families are living in cramped and unsafe conditions.
These census data provide the basis for an equitable distribution of public finances and reveal which areas, or even zip codes, are most in need of assistance. In addition, the census saves taxpayers money: Even a rough estimate of the cost of a census shows that a decennial census saves £500 million a year in administrative costs.
Previous censuses have helped improve the lives of people across the country. When Britain adopted a policy of austerity in the 1950s, a census was again conducted between 1961 and 1971 to support the urgent public investment at the time.
Censuses also reveal hidden inequalities. The last census in 2001 asked which floor of an apartment building families lived on. This study found that the majority of children who lived above the fifth floor in England were not white. This fact became much more important after the Grenfell tragedy in 2017.
Digital information board in Birkenhead, Wirral, showing the day of the census. (PA)
The 2021 census is not an ambitious census. The number of rooms (excluding bedrooms) in a house is no longer fixed, as it had been since 1911 (when the questions on deafness, blindness, insanity or feeble-mindedness were deleted). This means we no longer know how overcrowded the worst decile of the population in England and Wales is compared to the best decile – which had five times as many rooms per person in 2011.
Only one new question will be asked in the 2021 census: Has anyone ever served in the British Army. This may be useful in understanding the links between former employees and homeless people. The only other change is that sexual orientation and gender identity have been placed in additional categories.
Nevertheless, this census will provide much needed clarity in a society on the brink of a pandemic. The uncertainty about the number of people actually living in Britain – let alone where exactly they live – is greater this year than it has been in decades. It is assumed that more than a million people left the country in 2020 when they normally wouldn’t, but we don’t know how many actually left, or if they left for good. This has serious implications for the distribution of resources between the regions.
More importantly, the 2021 census will provide a clearer picture of the inequalities that have emerged since the pandemic began. The isolation of older people, the distress in former industrial estates and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities are best illustrated and discussed in the context of this census.
In February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic began, an article was published suggesting that the 2021 census could be the last. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous: Now more than ever, we need a census that tells us the most basic facts about our society. Maybe the pandemic will make us see the value of the census.
I’d say we go one step further with a new census in 2026 that adequately reflects the damage of the pandemic and shows how fair the UK’s recovery will be in half a decade. The pandemic has forced people to register online, usually every five years, which is much more realistic and less expensive. Perhaps we should even start asking about household income in our censuses, as we do in the United States, to further enrich our data on inequality in the country.
Official statistics, such as the census, are not just for governments, but for all of us. Crucially, census data helps us assess government performance. As the UK recovers better from the pandemic, we can use the 2021 census to see if new policies will do anything to address inequality in the areas most in need of support.
■ Click here to read the original article in The Conversation.
MORE: When will the results of the 2021 census be released?
MORE: A warning against census takers posing as officials and demanding fines
How do you fix a subway newspaper?
The Metro newspaper is waiting for you every morning of the week, or you can download our app to get all your favourite news, articles, puzzles … and an exclusive evening edition!
Download the Metro Newspapers app for free from the App Store and Google Play.