Sadiq Khan and cross-party body London Councils have asked the UK’s National Statistician for additional government funding to ensure that the 2021 Census fully captures the capital’s complex population data later this year.
In a joint letter to Sir Ian Diamond, whose job includes heading the Government Statistical Service, the Mayor and London Councils chair Georgia Gould point out the particular challenges of gathering accurate Census data in London, including “language and cultural barriers, internal migration and churn, high levels of homelessness and concentrations of buildings that are difficult to access.”
The Census is a national government survey conducted in all of England and Wales every ten years, which gathers information about people and households in order to inform how public services are designed and funded. It captures data for a particular day, Census Day, which this year is 21 March. Khan and Gould say in their letter that “one in ten London residents were missed by the Census count” in 2011, the last one to take place.
“It is often the groups with the lowest response rates who are those most in need of local authority support,” Khan and Gould write. “Published census figures include the best estimates of all population groups, but low response rates make it more difficult to accurately measure our most vulnerable residents.”
They stress that these issues “will be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic” because “the usual word-of-mouth communications routes will not be available and public advertising will be less effective as people stay indoors.” They add that the Census “won’t be a high priority for voluntary sector groups and public bodies that would normally support the completion process” because the pandemic is devouring so much of their time.
Last month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) underlined the importance of running the Census this year after 12 months of living with Covid-19, saying it “will be essential to our long-term understanding of the health, social and economic impacts on the people and households of England and Wales” and “shed light on the needs of different groups and communities, and the inequalities people are experiencing, ensuring the big decisions facing the country following the pandemic and EU exit are based on the best information possible”.
A “field operation” is planned as usual beginning after Census Day, with Census staff knocking on doors to help and encourage people to complete the form. But this year’s Census is described by the ONS as a “digital-first” operation, with people encouraged to respond online, prompting Khan and Gould to raise concerns about the “digital divide”, between households that are well equipped with online technology and many in “the most deprived communities” that are not. They ask that the data collection period be extended so that “face to face” collection of written forms can be increased as the pandemic eases.
The letter from Khan and Gould also raises the question of uncertainty about the current size of London’s population, with different analyses making differing estimates, including one that London’s population might have actually fallen substantially in the past year following more than 30 years of rapid growth.
The letter says it is “difficult to quantify” to what extent people have moved out of London or fewer people than usual have arrived, and notes that “it may only be a short term or temporary impact”, creating a risk of “a mismatch between the size and characteristics of London’s population as recorded in the Census compared with the situation under ‘normal’ circumstances”.
Khan and Gould ask Sir Ian that the ONS “exercise caution” accordingly when analysing London’s Census findings, making use of all other available population data to arrive at accurate estimates so that London’s population figures “are not understated and that future funding allocations are fair”.
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