Data from GP patient registers could be one of a range of databases used to provide a ‘rolling’ register of the population in place of the census, according to an independent think-tank.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) has published a report, Local Counts: the future of the census which argues that £500m of money could be wasted on the next census.

The think-tank claims that the information gathered will be out of date by the time it is published, will be insufficiently detailed and could underestimate the number of people living in Britain. It says the 2001 census undercounted the population by 900,000, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Instead it is proposing that the government follow the example of other EU countries such as the Netherlands which have moved to a reliance on administrative databases to provide a continually updated ‘rolling’ register.

The NLGN says that public organisations already collect data and information on citizens through a large number of streams and that these can be supplemented by targeted surveys to profile the population and its needs. This new approach, it is argues, should be introduced as soon as possible.

Among the databases that it lists as potential existing sources of information are GP patient registers, NHS walk-in centres and the National Programme for IT.

It adds: “If local authorities were the gatekeepers for population data, information
would remain closer to the citizen and encrypted at the local level, fear of
the Big Brother state could be minimised. Responsibilities would then rest
on the Statistics Authority and the Information Commissioner to retain their
neutrality and ensure that there was no abuse, whilst obligations would rest
on local authorities to ensure probity. “

The network argues that such an approach would save at least £250 million, which could be better spent by giving each top-tier council £1 million for targeted engagement and communication with vulnerable and disengaged sections of the community

NLGN Director Chris Leslie said the census was no-longer gathering the right sort of data for modern public services.

He added:” We are left in a situation where not only does central government not know where it should distribute grant, but local councils do not have the information or flexibility to work out where best to spend money to tackle worklessness and crime, or to gauge where future demand will be for care homes and schools.

“It is time for the Government to scrap this outdated method. NLGN’s proposal would make the most of the incredible amount of data already collected, drive joined-up services across government and save significant sums of money over the long term”.

The NLGN wants the government to set up a review to look at how a new system based on existing administrative database sources could be introduced by 2011. It also wants the government to establish a new duty on local authorities, their partners and central government to work together to share data to form the basis of population information.

Local Counts: the future of the census