England and Wales will go ahead with the planned 2021 census next week whilst Scotland has postponed it until March 2022, citing the logistical difficulties of the pandemic.
The National Records of Scotland, responsible for collecting the data, initially made a statement citing the ongoing pandemic, and that “the census is a major logistical operation and the twelve months running up to a census are vital in planning and testing the effectiveness and security of systems and processes.”
Paul Lowe, Chief Executive of the National Records of Scotland said that “this is the right decision for Scotland which will allow us to undertake a high quality and safe census in 2022”.
It marks the first time the census has been postponed since 1941, in the midst of the Second World War.
However, Scotland’s postponement of the census means that its population data will be behind that of England and Wales, whose census is administered by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), and Northern Ireland, for whom the census is handled by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
This population data will then be used to determine central and local government funding for different departments and regions.
Consequently Scotland’s population, which is believed to have grown by approximately 200,000 since the last census in 2011, may be relatively underfunded in areas such as transport, education and healthcare, based on budgets set according to the last census.
This year’s census will be the first to be completed overwhelmingly online, with people encouraged to complete the census virtually and paper applications supplied only if necessary, whilst socially distanced in-person doorstep visits will be a last resort.
Failure to complete the census could result in a fine of up to £1000.
The ONS, who have planned for this ‘digital-first’ census since a 2014 report encouraged moving to an online model of data collection, say on their website that “our main concern is the safety of the public and our staff. We want everyone to be safely counted during the census”, reiterating that their operational plans “are always in line with the latest government safety guidelines.”
The report also explored the alternatives of holding a census once every 10 years, highlighting how information can quickly become outdated, and that organising a nationwide census can become unwantedly expensive.
The House of Commons has already pledged to review the administrative successes and shortcomings of this year’s census before evaluating whether this census would be the last.
A broader public information campaign about the census and its ramifications was also encouraged.
The census was first established in Britain and Ireland in 1801 to make the government better informed on its electorate and base policies around it.
It came to later be known as a way of calculating potential military strength in the Napoleonic Wars, and for examining the scope of the British Empire.
Census reports are made publicly available 100 years after collation, meaning that the 1921 census (which showed the demographic impact of the Spanish flu pandemic) will be made available in January next year.
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