Ministers are to risk a major row over immigration by scrapping the ten-yearly National Census after more than 200 years.
An announcement axing the survey is expected this month, together with moves to find cheaper ways of counting the population.
But the Government faces accusations of trying to hide the truth about immigration.
The future of the census has been in question since the disastrous 2001 survey led to bureaucratic chaos and a final population figure at least a million short of the reality.
The Office for National Statistics has been exploring replacements based on ‘administrative data’, which could include NHS and tax and benefit records and the electoral roll.
However, officials also want to use the vast databases run by private sector organisations to supplement publicly-held information.
The ONS has canvassed the idea of tapping into information held by internet search engines such as Google and the databases of corporations such as Tesco and the energy supply giants.
The results of the consultation will be made public later this month. Sir Andrew Green of the Migrationwatch UK think-tank warned that the proposals ‘need to be examined very closely’.
‘There must be no question of burying the truth about the scale of immigration,’ he said.
Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield University, called the idea ‘stupid’.
In an article for the journal Radical Statistics, he said the 2011 census had confounded analysts who believed that the ONS had been over-estimating the population because it has been better at counting immigrants than emigrants.
‘The 2011 census told us that the opposite had in fact occurred,’ said Professor Dorling. ‘ONS had been under-estimating the population and there were far more people living in the UK than they thought.’
‘The 2011 census showed us that the population of the UK was rising, still slowly, but faster than the ONS had thought, and faster than almost anywhere else in Europe.
‘Without knowing that fact we could not speculate in a sensible way as to why that might be happening.’
The 2011 census showed that there were 56.1million people in England and Wales, 3.7million up in a decade, and half a million more than official estimates.
The ONS acknowledged that almost all the half-million were eastern European immigrants who were not detected by regular Government surveys.
The first census was taken in 1801 amid fears that a rising population would bring starvation and revolution. It has been held every ten years since–apart from 1941–but has become a costly exercise. The 2011 headcount cost £500 million.
Professor Dorling said that a reason for scrapping the census could be to stop embarrassing social studies, such as those finding that the poor are becoming increasingly less healthy than the well off.
‘One of the reasons you might choose not to have a census is if you wanted the kinds of studies that relied on census data not to be undertaken,’ he said.
He said it was wrong to replace the census with inadequate surveys, saying ‘the politically devious way to cut something is to cut it, but claim that it is continuing.’