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Census 2011
Could 2011 see the last-ever census?
Extracted from an article in the Daily Mail newspaper on Wednesday 2nd March 2011 by Steve Doughty, Social Affairs Correspondent.
The national census could be abolished – and information gathered through supermarket store cards instead.

A ten-yearly head-count due on March 27th will demand details on everything from ethnic identity to your central heating. But officials are looking at ways to replace the expensive and controversial count before 2021.

They believe tapping into data already held on store cards such as Tesco Clubcards and by phone and energy companies, banks and even the National Lottery could help provide can alternative.

The idea has been raised in Meetings with representatives of private sector firms by the Office for National Statistics, which is responsible for carrying out each count.

It said plans involve looking at ‘alternative’ sources of information ‘including commercial companies’. This year’s census will employ 35,000 and cost the taxpayer £500million.

Officials are keen to avoid a repeat of problems encountered in the 2001 census, which missed a million people and led to years of confusion over population figures.

However, the ONS fears the 2011 count could be jeopardised if the public knows of its doubts over the future of the census.

A paper presented by its statisticians last year warned that if the public find out too soon it will have ‘an adverse effect on the success of the 2011 census’ and the exercise must be kept quiet to ‘minimise the risk’.

There is already disquiet over the intrusive nature of the latest count.

It requires a new state database of every address in the country and ‘tracking’ operation to ensure that every home fills in a form. The forms have 918 tick-box options over 32 pages.

But all the data sought – and more – are available on private sector databases.

Store cards contain information on addresses, family members, what they spend and where. Some 15million individuals and families have personal and spending details recorded through Tesco Clubcards alone.

Credit cards have similar information, and energy companies and phone companies have wide-ranging details of family homes and habits.

Privacy watchdogs are critical of attempts to replace the census with private-sector data. Daniel Hamilton, of Big Brother Watch said ‘Not content with asking intrusive questions about your religious views and the type of central heating you have, the Government now wants to snoop on your store cards’.

‘Retailers must hold true to the promise they have given their customers not to pass their information to third parties’.

The possibility of tapping into private-sector databases is understood to have been raised in talks with the Demographics User Group, headed by a statistician which links to the ONS and major firms.

Members include Tesco, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, the Co-op, Boots, lottery operator Camelot, power firm E.ON, Orange, Barclays and Nationwide.

No one from the DUG was available for comment yesterday.

The ONS said ‘At the moment there is no alternative to the traditional census count. A successful census in 2011 is essential to meet the needs across a wide range of users. The decision to change this approach for the future must therefore be subject to careful consideration. Beyond 2011 [which is running the ONS scheme to replace the census] is evaluating the option of using data already held and is working closely with Government departments and external experts including commercial companies.

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