A population census takes place in the UK every ten years, and preparations for the 2021 census are underway. This briefing paper explains the proposals for the census in England and Wales.

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Background to the census

The census is administered by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in England and Wales. It seeks to collect demographic information from all households and communal establishments. The 2021 census will be the first to be carried out primarily online.

Census data provides a level of detail that isn’t possible from other government surveys – information is available about small population groups, and for small geographic areas. Census data contributes to policy decisions, including local government funding allocations, and provides a benchmark for other official statistics.

A White Paper published in December 2018 (Help shape our future: the 2021 Census of population and housing in England and Wales) sets out the ONS’ recommendations for what the census should contain and how it should operate.

Census legislation

The Census Act 1920 allows the government to carry out a census. In October 2019, the government passed the Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Act 2019 which adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of topics that the census can ask about, and to ensure that there is no penalty for respondents who don’t answer these questions.

It is not necessary to use primary legislation to add new questions to the census, but doing so allows the government to specify that the questions are voluntary.

Parliament must also approve two pieces of secondary legislation before a census can take place. The Census (England and Wales) Order 2020 was laid in draft before Parliament on 2nd March 2020. It specifies the content and date of the census. It will be followed by Census Regulations setting out further operational details.

Census legislation is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and separate censuses are administered by their respective governments. There is agreement between the statistical offices of the UK nations that census statistics should be harmonised where possible.

How will the census work?

The 2021 census will mark the first time that the census is conducted primarily online. The ONS’ target is to have 75% of census returns completed online, with the remainder completed on traditional paper forms. Most households will receive a unique code in the post which will allow them to complete their census returns online.

The ONS will put provisions in place to support households that may have difficulty accessing an online census. Households in some areas will receive a paper form to start with, and any household will be able to receive a paper form on request. The ONS also plans to provide in-person support sessions in some locations (e.g. in public libraries).

What will the census ask about?

The ONS proposes asking three new questions in the 2021 census, covering:

  • Veteran status: whether the respondent has ever served in the UK Armed Forces.
  • Sexual orientation: whether the respondent identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual. This question will be voluntary and only asked of respondents aged 16 and over.
  • Gender identity: whether the respondent’s gender is different from the sex they were registered as at birth. This question will also be voluntary and limited to respondents aged 16 and over.

Almost all of the topics asked about in 2011 will appear again in 2021, although the way in which some questions are asked will change. The ethnicity question will include a new tick-box for people of Roma ethnicity, alongside the existing ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ tick-box.

The ONS considered other changes to the ethnic group question, including the introduction of a ‘Sikh’ tick-box, but following research and consultation decided not to recommend implementing these changes.

The ONS has said that it will make better use of administrative data to enhance the findings of the 2021 census. The White Paper discusses the potential for census data to be linked with data the government already holds on income and property size and type.

Outputs from the census

The ONS aims to publish an initial set of census reports one year after it has taken place, and to make all outputs available within two years. The White Paper outlines the ONS’ plans to develop a flexible online dissemination system that will let users construct their own data outputs.

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-8531
  • Author: Cassie Barton
  • Topics: Demography

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