The 2001 census was meant to be the most accurate picture ever of Britain's population. Then it found that there were nearly 1m fewer of us than expected.by Graham Bowley / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Shortly after graduating from university I went to work at the treasury, where one of my jobs was collecting the latest economic numbers from the central statistical office, or office for national statistics (ONS) as it is now known. Every few weeks I would descend into the bowels of Whitehall where statisticians described the dips and squiggles of the trade gap, or some other data series. Occasionally there was a discreet splutter, and a statistician admitted that the figures I was given last month were slightly inaccurate and had now been revised. We quickly moved on. I never doubted the numbers. My job was to return to the treasury and work out a line for the chancellor (then Norman Lamont) to use in his defence – “We are still in recession but so is half of Europe” – when the figures were released to the press a few days later.
Four or five years on, when I was working at the Financial Times, I had to report on the same economic statistics. The statisticians that dealt with the media were a slightly more outgoing lot than the pure number-crunchers (they would show up at the FT’s Christmas party and get drunk). Once, one hot summer, they said the reason inflation had picked up slightly was because pigs had gone off sex so bacon prices were climbing. They had a twinkle in their eyes. But we reporters wrote it down and got front-page stories. We didn’t doubt what we were told. Why should we? These were Whitehall statisticians.
I hadn’t really thought a lot about these scenes in recent years, until events at the ONS over the past few months brought them back to me. Since last autumn, when the ONS published the long-awaited findings of its 2001 census, it has faced a steady barrage of complaints that it has got its numbers wrong.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the census to the ONS. It is a count of everyone who lives in the UK. It takes place once every decade, involves years of preparation, and in 2001 cost ?255m. Its value lies in counting every person more or less at the same time. It asks the same questions in every street in every city, north, south, east and west, so its findings can be compared everywhere. In the swirling existential murk of our modern lives, it is a once in a decade stab at working out who we are.