Census Problems? Count On It.

Every ten years an extraordinary mathematical exercise is conducted in this country. Each one of us is obliged to complete a detailed census form. We have to say who we are and what we are and where we are on one single night. You can be heavily fined or sent to prison if you don't complete the census. It is important.

It costs a fortune to conduct, thousands of special enumerators are employed to visit every household and check the forms. And it is meant to give the Government all the facts it needs to plans for the future.

There is nothing new about censuses – governments have been doing them since Jesus was born. And you'd think we'd have got them right by now.

Not over here, folks. The last census was held two years ago. It cost 350 million dollars to organise and involved the most high tech computers ever used. But – it seems – they got it wrong. And they are going to have to start all over.

Now, this isn't like a little presidential recount in Florida. This is big time. Just up the road is an area of London called Westminster. According to the figures from the 2001 census, the population of Westminster has dropped by 60,000. That's a whole lot of bodies to lose. It would have needed a dose of bubonic plague to get rid of 60,000 people in Westminster – and it doesn't take a number-crunching genius to realise it.

The problem is that the people who did the census, the proudly named Office of National Statistics, won't admit their mistake. They wiped out another 45,000 people in the northern city of Manchester, 12.000 people disappeared down south by the sea in Brighton, and in Middlesborough, up in the North East, 10,000 more have gone missing. So who cares? Well we care. Because the more people live in an area, the more money comes from the Government to pay for roads and hospitals and schools. But if the population drops - so does the cash.

That's why the process is about to start again, because the expert mathematicians – the best in the world they said at the time - simply couldn't count.

By Ed Boyle