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Research highlights groups less likely to complete census


A study carried out across England and Wales two weeks before the 2021 census date has revealed that men, young people and those living in rented accommodation are less likely to fill it in.

Researchers at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) gathered data from a survey of 991 people about their intention to complete the census.

Census 2021

Their findings showed that only 85% of those surveyed said they would take part and that age has the biggest impact on people’s decision, with 73% of people aged 18-25 saying they would complete the census, compared to 98% for those above 60.

The survey also indicated that women are 7% more likely than men, while renters stated a lower intention (76%) compared to homeowners (88%).

Professor Edward Cartwright, Director of the Institute for Applied Economics and Social Value (IAESV) at DMU, said: “We asked respondents whether they had heard about the census and whether they intended to complete the census.

“There are various mechanisms in place to encourage and enforce compliance and so many of those who said they did not intend to complete the census will ultimately fill it in. Even so, our research identifies groups that are less likely to engage with the census and so may ultimately end up being under or miss-represented.”

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Run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the census is a survey that happens every 10 years and gives the government a picture of all the people and households in England and Wales.

The public’s answers to the census questions help organisations make decisions on planning and funding public services in local areas, including transport, education and healthcare.

Completing the census is a legal requirement and anyone who chooses not to do it may be prosecuted and face fines of up to £1,000.

“If certain groups are under-represented in the census then this can lead to policy being misaligned with the needs of the local community,” continued Professor Cartwright. “For instance, it is a big concern that those in rented accommodation showed a particular reluctance to engage with the survey.” 

Other key findings from the study show that:

  • Intention to complete the census is strongly related to income, with 73% of those with an annual income below £10,000 saying they would take part compared to 90% of those with income in excess of £60,000.
  • Graduates are marginally more willing to state an intention to complete the census than those who did not go to university (87% vs. 81%).
  • Married people state a higher willingness to complete the survey than those who are single (94% vs. 81%).

The study also highlighted that people who have a lack of trust (in particular, a lack of trust in scientists) are less inclined to want to complete the census.

“Scientists and a trust in scientists appear crucial,” said Professor Cartwright. “This could reflect a direct channel of causality whereby those who trust in scientists appreciate the importance of the census for informing policy. Or it could be that those who trust scientists are more generally willing to engage with a government data collection exercise.

“Our results point to a need for the government to build trust around science across the population. The other important takeaway from our results is that missing observations in the census data do not occur at random.

“Certain groups are more likely to be under-represented, and it is vital to fully take account of this when collating and interpreting the census data.”

Posted on Wednesday 14th April 2021

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