UK Census 2021, Covid-19 and possible implications

Recent censuses have been coordinated between the nations of the UK, including so that they take place on the same day. Until the coronavirus pandemic, this was expected to be true for the next UK census, which was scheduled to happen in March 2021. However, on 17 July 2020, the Scottish Government announced that the Scottish census will now take place in 2022.

This In Focus article summarises the recent Scottish Government’s announcement and its possible implications. It then examines the background to the next census, including the legislative framework, preparations for the 2021 survey and policy developments. The article marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Census Act 1920.

Delay in Scottish census

The census is a devolved matter in Scotland and Northern Ireland (for further details on the legislative framework, see below).

On 17 July 2020, the Scottish Government stated, in response to a question, that the Scottish census would be delayed until March 2022 because of the disruption caused by coronavirus. In particular, it said that the virus had had a significant impact on “public engagement, testing, procurement and operational priorities”. This led to concern that the survey response rate would not meet the threshold “necessary for the production of high quality outputs”.

There has been no indication that the censuses for England and Wales, and for Northern Ireland, will be similarly delayed. Previously, the bodies responsible for carrying out the census in each country had said, in a joint statement, that they intended to conduct the surveys on the same date and also harmonise other aspects of them. This, they argued, would ensure “consistent, coherent and accessible statistics for the UK, individual countries and geographic areas”. One commentator suggested that there would be “implications for UK-wide data consistency” if the censuses happened on different dates.

Census Act 1920

Modern censuses in England and Wales are still governed by the Census Act 1920, which received royal assent on 16 August 1920. Prior to this Act, primary legislation was needed to hold each new census. The Act instead allowed a census to be held by passing secondary legislation.

The Census Act 1920 applies directly in England and Wales, although separate regulations are required to be laid in the Welsh Assembly. In Scotland, the 1920 Act applies separately, and the Scottish Government needs to make the relevant orders for each census. In Northern Ireland, the relevant legislation is the Census Act (Northern Ireland) 1969.

Is completing the census compulsory?

Under the Act, it is an offence not to comply with the census, for example by not filling it in, or by providing false information. The maximum penalty is defined as level 3 on the standard scale (currently, £1,000).

However, since the original Act was passed it has been amended to allow exemptions to the penalty for certain questions, in effect making them voluntary. The first exemption was for the question relating to religion, when it was added in the 2001 census. For the 2021 census, new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity have also been made exempt.

What questions may be asked?

The set of questions asked in the census continues to evolve. The original Act states that no questions may be asked “other than particulars with respect to such matters as are mentioned in the schedule to this Act”. In the original Act, the schedule set out the following subjects on which questions could be asked:

  1. Names, sex, age.
  2. Occupation, profession, trade or employment.
  3. Nationality, birthplace, race, language.
  4. Place of abode and character of dwelling.
  5. Condition as to marriage, relation to head of family, issue born in marriage.
  6. Any other matters with respect to which it is desirable to obtain statistical information with a view to ascertaining the social or civil condition of the population.

To include new questions on the census, they must either fall under one of these categories, or Parliament must pass primary legislation amending the schedule. The general power in point 6 is wide. Nevertheless, the Government may still choose to legislate when introducing a new topic. For example, it did so in 2019 for questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, saying that this was “in the interests of clarity, accessibility and legal certainty”.

The following additions have been made to the schedule since original enactment:

  • Religion (in 2000, for the 2001 census);
  • Sexual orientation and (in England and Wales) gender identity, or (in Scotland) transgender status and history (in 2019, for the forthcoming 2021 census); and
  • Civil partnership status, alongside marriage (following the passing of the Civil Partnership Act 2004).

2021 census

The Government engaged in a consultation, including via a white paper, prior to the 2021 census. The consultation covered areas such as:

  • topics to be covered;
  • the exact wording of questions; and
  • practical arrangements, including how the results would be processed.

Following the consultation, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) proposed that three new topic areas should be covered: sexual orientation, gender identity and past service in the armed forces. It rejected various other suggestions, for instance on income, volunteering, mental health and pet ownership. It also proposed removing and amending some of the questions from the 2011 census.

The ONS also considered the need for additional categories in response to existing questions. For example, it reviewed a further 55 options for the respondent’s ethnic group. The ONS said that it “conducted a prioritisation evaluation against published criteria to consider the strength of the case for inclusion for the requests received”. Following this process, it recommended adding Roma as a tick-box option, and enhancing the ‘search-as-you-type’ free text response field to recognise, for example, the terms Somali, Sikh and Jewish.

In the debates on the order in council for the 2021 census in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties welcomed the changes being made to the questionnaire. Other proposals raised included adding Cornish as a national identity, and Sikh as an ethnicity. The Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, Lord True, said that respondents could identify in these or other ways using the “write-in” boxes for these questions.

Lord True also stated that the 2021 census aims to be “the most inclusive ever”, and that, for the first time, it will be conducted “predominantly online”, although paper versions would also be available.

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Image by PaulSh on Flickr.