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Background to the census

The next census in England and Wales will take place on 21 March 2021, and will be administered by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The census 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 and provides a benchmark for other official statistics.

What will the census ask about?

There will be 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, heterosexual or some other sexual orientation. 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 has said that it will make better use of administrative data to enhance the findings of the 2021 census. It plans to use administrative data on the number of rooms in each home, instead of asking a question about this topic.

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).

Covid-19 and the census

The Covid-19 outbreak poses operational challenges for preparing and carrying out a census. The Scottish Government announced in July 2020 that it would delay Scotland’s census until March 2022 for this reason. A census will still take place in March 2021 in England and Wales, as it will in Northern Ireland.

The ONS has cited cost and the fact that the census would need to be delayed for a full year as reasons for its decision not to delay the census. The ONS has published an operational planning response that sets out how it plans to address the impact of the pandemic on its census operations. For example, it plans to shift more of its community engagement activity online.

For most questions, census respondents will be asked to give informaiton about their situation as it is on census day. Covid-19 restrictions are likely to affect how people respond on topics including working hours and travel to work. The ONS acknowledges that census data on travel to work will not be suitable for future transport and infrastructure planning, and intends to look at other ways of meeting this data need.

Census legislation

All of the necessary legislation for a census to take place in England and Wales has now come into force.

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.

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.

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.


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