I'm a journalist, so I guess it's my job to find authoritative sources. But the news that the National Census may be scrapped has upset me not just professionally, but personally. I have edited several books on local history, crammed with fascinating research by ordinary people who have relied on census records to help them make sense of the past.
Census records are like a time machine. It is incredibly empowering for an individual to have hard evidence of great-grandfather's journey from South Wales to South Yorkshire, or proof that a certain farm had been in the family for generations. I have seen grown men reduced to tears when they learn that their great-uncle was killed in the pit, or their
grandmother was sent away to work in service. The Census, as well as official records of births, deaths and marriages, gives shape to the family stories we all grow up with.
Without it, as anyone who has ever attempted to research their family tree will tell you, we are floundering in the dark, searching through idiosyncratic parish registers or relying on hearsay. There has been a Census every 10 years since 1801, except in 1941, during the Second World War. Census returns provide professional and amateur historians with vital information about addresses, household sizes and migratory patterns.
Remember the rush to the keyboards when the 1911 Census was made public a year or so ago?
Tracing my own family, I'd already found my great-great-great grandfather, Richard Batty, through Census returns when I happened to chance upon his listing in a Pigot's Trade Directory for 1835, running the White Hart pub in Austerfield near Doncaster. I was delighted to find him in there. But it struck me that this Directory is the 19th-century equivalent of the credit record checks and Post Office Records which might replace, not enhance the official Census. If that is all we will have to go on, then we will be less-informed than our ancestors 200 years ago. That can't be right.
It is true that there are plenty of other sources of information, and none of them, the Census included, are without their errors and omissions. But the Census gives us a benchmark to measure everything else against.
I'm sure that the new Government has little sympathy with any of this. Scrapping it is all about saving money, of course. The next Census, in 2011, will cost 482m to carry out and process. In the new austerity, we can't get sentimental, unless David Cameron wants us to all pull together in the spirit of Dunkirk, of course.
Compared to schools and hospitals, the Census is an easy target. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister in charge of overseeing its demise, argues that accurate information
on household size, incomes and marital status can be easily gained from other sources.
Has anybody thought for a moment about how much it will cost to collate all this random information together? Whatever you replace the Census with is not going to come free. But quite apart from the financial implications, the Census is a vital record, not just for fact-hungry journalists, but for anybody who has any interest whatsoever in exploring the past and planning for the future.
Don't forget, it's not just stats freaks and family history obsessives like me who find it fascinating. Anyone who is planning education, health care and the allocation of public money needs a reliable source of information to base their decisions on. Critics of the census say that it invades privacy and infringes human rights. But frankly, if you want to live in a democracy, and benefit from all that it offers, the trade-off is supplying a few vital facts and figures about your household every decade. Put in context, it's not much to part with, is it? They also say that the statistics are out of date before policy-makers have a chance to do anything with them. But isn't that true of any source of information?
I wonder how the Government is going to get round the European Union law which requires them to carry out a regular population
count. But I guess like so many
other things in their manifesto, they will just put their heads down and over-ride it.
I can't help but be cynical, and agree with Geoffrey Robertson QC, a constitutional law barrister, who argues: "Future historians will be less able to interpret Britain as a result of this decision – maybe that is the reason for it."
And the problem is, once the system for collating and interpreting Census data has been dismantled, it will be incredibly difficult – and expensive – for a future government to put it back together again. Surely Francis Maude and his colleagues should think again, and realise that if you mess with history, you pay the price in the end.