The census is vital for shaping policy that will determine the country’s future and for ensuring that decision-makers have access to the right information to plan and deliver the services used by us all. The census underpins local and national decisions on provision of education, housing and healthcare; informs fair distribution of funding to local areas; and provides accurate national and local information on the diversity of the population allowing public bodies to know whether they are meeting their multiple duties and to take action where necessary. It is essential to ensure our population estimates are as accurate as possible – without which both economic and public policy “per head of the population” rates cannot be accurately calculated.

The public have given census information for over 200 years. It is vital that the census sheds light on long term trends, whilst also reflecting the society in which we live today. It would not be sensible if our data still captured the occupation of lamp-lighting and didn’t now include social media analyst. With the role of the census being to collect information on the social condition, then we need to move and reflect the society we live in, often collecting new information which previous generations would not have imagined.

As we reflect on how best to capture changes in society for 2021, we need to work with all interested parties to reach a common view on the information (or topics) that should be captured in the 2021 Census. The framework to help us reach this view is our assessment criteria of user need for the data, public acceptability of the topics and questions, space constraints and legal duties. ONS then make recommendations to Government who will then publish a White Paper and lay down regulations in Parliament that enable the census to happen.

In order to make recommendations to Government we carried out a topic consultation in 2015 and published our response in May 2016. The topic response also set out areas for further research. We have subsequently published research on several of these and I now want to update users on some of the issues and set out how we will finalise the recommendations.

The main areas where the 2016 topic reports identified further work was required were:

  1. Qualifications and labour market questions to improve quality and ease of response;
  2. Whether and how to meet the need for information on:
    a. Armed Forces Community;
    b. Volunteering;
    c. Sexual orientation
  3. Whether and how to collect information on gender identity in addition to information to be collected on sex;

  4. What separate tick boxes to include in the ethnicity question.

On one of these areas – the Armed Forces Community – we have now concluded our work and I want to inform users of our recommendation. There is a clear need for information on the Armed Forces Community in particular for central and local government to fulfill their commitments under the Armed Forces Covenant ensuring that those who are serving or have served and their families, are treated fairly. Services and support need to be delivered across a number of areas such as health, housing, qualifications and employment (e.g. back to work programmes and career advice). In 2016 we did not have clear evidence on how best to meet that need. After further research we have concluded that the administrative data available through the Ministry of Defence provides some of the data required but not all and that this should be supplemented by a census question. We have developed a question which we have tested successfully. We are therefore now intending to recommend inclusion of this topic in the 2021 Census.

For the avoidance of doubt, we have never suggested that people would not be able to report themselves as male or female. We have and will continue to collect this vital information.

For the other outstanding work, we either need to undertake further research or engage further with stakeholders to assess both user need and commonality of views within different communities. In order to support this further research and engagement we plan to update interested parties at the next ONS Population and Public Policy (PPP) Forum on 13 December 2017.

At the Forum, we will provide the latest research findings on the topics where we are still gathering information, and will give an opportunity for those with an interest in topics to share their views. ONS will listen with interest to the range of views and try to help facilitate reaching a common agreement on the way forward for each area. This will ensure that we have the most rounded information for our assessment against our published criteria.

Taking account of research to date and the input from the PPP Forum will help us finalise our overall assessment and will inform the 2021 Census White Paper, which is currently planned for Spring 2018.

The agreement of the questions is not the only area of activity to ensure successful delivery of the 2021 Census. The ambitions for the census were set out in 2014: a predominantly online census in 2021 supplemented by the further use of administrative and survey data to provide the population statistics which England and Wales require and to offer a springboard to the future.

In order to achieve this there are two major other strands of census:

  1. To deliver a predominantly online census in 2021, including support to those who need it. Earlier this year we carried out a successful census test.
  2. To develop an Administrative Data Census based on data already held by Government – see our latest updates

Ian Cope

2021 Census Director for England and Wales