Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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MPs caution against abandoning the Census, until Government addresses long-standing failures around data-sharing

The Census should not be abandoned before officials address long-standing barriers to the sharing of data for statistical and research purposes, MPs say today.

The recommendation is in a report from the cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published today about the UK’s evidence base.

In June 2023, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) launched a consultation on its proposals to transform the UK's population and migration statistics. The proposals said that "a serious question can be asked about the role the census plays in our statistical system" and recommended that statisticians in future "primarily use administrative data like tax, benefit and border data, complemented by survey data and a wider range of data sources."

These proposals followed an ambition defined by Government in 2014 that "censuses after 2021 will be conducted using other sources of data."

However, the Committee’s inquiry heard that “concerns remain about whether data will be available at the granularity required on topics such as ethnicity, and whether data on topics such sexual orientation will be available at all.”

Despite having a statistical system that is highly regarded internationally, the Committee finds that broader opportunities to benefit from joined-up data are being missed because of long-standing issues with cross-departmental data-sharing.

The report states that “it is clear that the volume and variety of data generated within the UK has exploded in scale over recent years”, while noting “the UK has failed to bring its disparate datasets together to enrich its public evidence base. Instead, data withers in silos across countless government bodies.”

The Committee argues “it is time for Government to do what it promised to do seven years ago, and to join up the UK's evidence base.”

The Committee’s report also finds that there are significant data gaps so that the UK lacks suitable evidence on, for example, the performance of its different health services, and issues such as school absenteeism. It recommends that the UK establish a framework for identifying and prioritising demands for data, one which is rooted in the understanding that evidence is for all, rather than for the government of the day.

MPs highlight concerns that good evidence is not yet being used effectively in decision-making across government, and find that government communications too frequently exhibit a disregard for evidence, which makes it harder for government to build trust in our democracy and support for policies of the day, as well as hampering citizens’ ability to scrutinise the work of ministers and officials.

In order to enhance transparency, the report recommends that going forward, government should routinely publish the evidence and data underpinning their major policy announcements.

The inquiry took evidence around issues of privacy and the ethics involved in the collection and use of data. MPs emphasise that the public must be involved in making decisions about how the UK chooses to use personal data in the development of its public evidence base.

PACAC’s report also discusses the poor comparability of data across the UK. The Committee finds that there are many areas in which it is impossible to compare the experiences of those living in each of the four nations of the UK. MPs urge the government to finalise and publish its plans to improve the comparability of UK-wide data without delay.

Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Dame Jackie Doyle-Price, said:

“In recent years, we have seen a proliferation in the quantity and variety of data available to us and, as the committee’s inquiry has heard, this provides great opportunities for all of us. 

“However, government has yet to harness these opportunities. Data remains locked in departmental silos and there are also concerns over significant data gaps. 

“A key area of our inquiry has been delving into the future of the Census, and our report recommends that we should proceed with caution when it comes to replacing the Census, until we are certain that officials have resolved issues around data-sharing.”

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