Academics warn census in pandemic risks distorting government grants

Holding the UK census in the middle of a pandemic risks distorting the geographic allocation of government grants to local authorities for years, researchers and policymakers warned on Monday.

With the Office for National Statistics saying there was “still time” for households to fill in census forms or go online to complete the questions, experts expressed concern that the results would reflect the pandemic and should not be used in normal times.

Census data is used extensively, including for government “levelling up” programmes to tackle social inequalities, to calculate health and social care budgets and for local authority planning for transport, schools and other services.

Danny Dorling, professor of geography at Oxford university, said: “Enforced homeworking has a huge effect on the statistics being collected because ‘place of work’ is not being collected for people working from home — nor how they normally travel to work.”

Temporary uncertainties caused by the pandemic include unusually large numbers of migrant workers returning abroad, fewer graduates coming to live and work in London, and more families moving out of London or shifting to second homes.

In a joint letter sent last month to ministers and officials, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, and Georgia Gould, the chair of London Councils, a lobby group for the capital’s local authorities, warned of a “mismatch between the size and characteristics of London’s population as recorded in the census compared with the situation under ‘normal’ circumstances”.

They cautioned that population estimates based on the census directly or indirectly influenced about £6.5bn in grant funding received by the capital’s government, and expressed concern over “digital exclusion” during lockdown, the extra stresses of the census on public sector employees and pandemic-related distractions for community groups that would normally support the census.

Paul Swinney, director for policy and research at the Centre for Cities think-tank, said: “Covid-19 means that this edition is likely to paint a distorted picture of life across the nations.” He cited how through undercounting of an estimated 30,000 residents in the 2001 census, Manchester had initially lost out on £100m in government funding over a decade.

He called for an additional census in 2026, and ways to integrate and adjust census data with other official information sources, including from HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions.

At a time of growing discussion over abandoning the census every decade to replace it with more frequent use of alternative administrative data sets, he said there was a particular danger if the 2021 census became the final baseline against which future statistical adjustments would be made.

But the ONS countered that there was no knowledge yet on the post-coronavirus situation, so it was too early to say the figures would be wrong or of little use.

“We don’t know what the new normal will look like but the results from Census 2021 will provide a new baseline of the population moving forwards,” the ONS said.

“Census 2021 will provide a snapshot of society. It will highlight areas of deprivation, it will show the ethnic make-up of the country, it will provide information on our living arrangements, health, education and the jobs we do and the data from it will help inform policy at a local and national level for years to come. It will also provide us with important insights into the impact of the pandemic on our society.”

“We are confident of delivering a high-quality census which will meet all user needs,” it added.

One of the areas of most concern was over travel-to-work information, that would be distorted by working from home requirements that were in place on March 21, census day. These were used in the Budget as an important input into the government’s levelling-up fund, which allocated money to many Conservative areas despite having lower levels of deprivation.

Tony Champion, emeritus professor of population geography at Newcastle University, said “the data on travel to work could be something of a disaster” since encouraging people to report if they were currently working from home would provide no insights of their future plans. 

The ONS acknowledged this was a problem and said it had started work on identifying alternative sources of data that would help to identify travel to work patterns after the pandemic.