Could our storecards replace the census? Plans unveiled to use data from shops, banks and estate agents

Daily Mail | October 19, 2011
By Steve Doughty

The historic national census is set to be abolished and replaced by information on everybody in the country gathered from banks, stores and estate agents.

The census – first carried out more than 200 years ago amid fears that the number of people in the country was multiplying too fast – has become expensive, inaccurate and slow, the Office for National Statistics admitted.

Instead, it proposed building a picture of the population and how people live through computer records, including databases built up by private sector organisations.

That means that in future information people hand over to banks, to retail chains through their storecards, to energy companies or to mobile phone firms could be bought by the state and used by Whitehall departments, councils and quangos.

The ONS gave its first official admission that the census is likely to go in a consultation paper on its future plans for counting the population called ‘Beyond 2011’.

The title suggests that the census carried out at a cost of £500 million earlier this year will be the last.

It said: ‘All of the signs are that the 2011 census operation has been highly successful but the census is becoming increasingly costly, and changes in society are making it more challenging to carry out.

‘A more mobile population, and the increasingly complex ways in which people live, make the process of census-taking more difficult, and the concept of a snapshot every 10 years less relevant.’

The paper added: ‘At the same time, improvements in technology and the growth of computerised records about people and services, both in the public and private sectors, seem to suggest a possible alternative approach.’

The Daily Mail revealed earlier this year that ONS officials had approached representatives of large private sector companies to test the possibility of getting their customer databases.

One organisation that took part in talks, the Demographic User Group, has members including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, the Co-op, Boots, the lottery operator Camelot, power giant E-ON, phone company Orange and, in the financial sector, Barclays and Nationwide.

All the companies have extensive records on customers, their families, where they live, what they buy, and even the way they use transport through petrol sales records.

Estate agencies have extensive computerised records of housing and rail and bus companies and airlines have customer ticketing records.

Private sector material could be combined with the vast databases produced in the public sector, including those of Revenue and Customs, Department of Work and Pension benefits records, NHS and GP rolls, the Valuation Office Agency which records details of homes for council tax valuation, and local councils.

These could provide material on ethnicity, migration and education that could be hard to deduce from private sector records.

The plan for the state to use information given both to public sector agencies and private firms for other purposes is certain to prove highly controversial.

It appears to clash with data protection rules, which may need sweeping reforms if the ONS is to cash in on private databases.

The consultation paper said that assessments of a new census system would take into account ‘public burden and public acceptability’.

Describing computer databases as ‘administrative data’, it added: ‘Although administrative data may be used extensively in future, any data held will be securely stored and tightly controlled so that only results for non-disclosive geographical areas are ever made available.’

The first national census was taken in 1801, at a time when politicians and intellectuals feared the population was growing too fast and that a revolution similar to the French upheaval could be inevitable.

It put the population of Britain and Ireland at just over 16 million.

Since then censuses have been held every 10 years, except in the wartime year of 1941.

The death knell for the national census sounded in 2001, when officials tried to give a precise count of the population but missed out a million people.

Population figures had to be manipulated for years afterwards to make up for the errors.

The ONS made its embarrassment worse when it tried to use the excuse that many young people were away on holiday in Ibiza on the day the census was taken. In fact enumerators were hampered by a badly-designed system for returning forms and the reluctance of large numbers of recent immigrants to take part.

This year’s census forms had 918 tick box options over 32 pages, demand details on everything from ethnic identity to how you travel to work and what kind of central heating you have, and booklets to help non-English or Welsh speakers understand them have been produced in 56 languages.

But more information still can be gleaned from storecards. Tesco cards alone are used by 15 million people.