Census legislation for England and Wales

The legislation to hold the census in England and Wales on Sunday 21 March 2021 is now in place.

Census Act 1920

The legislative process necessary to carry out a census in England and Wales is governed by the Census Act 1920, as amended by the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.

This allows the UK Statistics Authority to carry out a census once Parliament has approved the necessary secondary legislation, which sets out how the census will be run. The secondary legislation (a Census Order and Census Regulations) specifies the date of the census, the questions to be included and the methods of response -- as set out on this page.

The Census Act 1920 makes it compulsory for everyone in England and Wales to take part in the census in accordance with the Order and Regulations. The Act makes answering the questions mandatory. The Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Act 2019 amended the Census Act to enable new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to be voluntary in future censuses; the Census Act had previously been amended to make questions on religion voluntary.

Census Order

The Census (England and Wales) Order 2020, which sets the date of the census, was made (became law) at the Privy Council meeting on 20 May 2020. This followed debates in both Houses of Parliament in May.

The Census Order is used to direct that a census is carried out. The order specifies:

  • the date the census will take place
  • the question topics to be included
  • the people who need to fill in the census questionnaires
  • the people to be included on the census questionnaires

Census Regulations

The Census Regulations came into force on 23 June 2020 in England and 26 June 2020 in Wales, having been laid before the UK Parliament and the Welsh Parliament respectively. They set out the comprehensive arrangements that will be made to carry out the census. These include:

  • how the census will take place
  • the delivery and response options for the census questionnaires
  • the duties of census employees
  • confidentiality requirements for handling the forms containing personal information
  • a facsimile of the paper questionnaires and a description of the online questionnaires

The Census Regulations are available to view online:

White Paper and Impact Assessments

White Paper: Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales

In December 2018, the White Paper outlining the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’) recommendations for Census 2021 was published on GOV.UK.

White Papers are policy documents produced by the government. They set out recommendations for future legislation and inform Parliament and the public about those recommendations.

An English language version of the White Paper (PDF, 886KB) and a Welsh language version of the White Paper (PDF, 1,027KB) are available.

Equality Impact Assessments

We published an Equality Impact Assessment (PDF, 676.7KB) for the 2021 Census alongside the December 2018 White Paper. This was updated with a new assessment published alongside the laying of the Census Order.

Data Protection Impact Assessment

We are committed to ensuring that privacy and confidentiality is upheld for the 2021 Census. We have published a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) (PDF, 728.8KB). A DPIA has been undertaken to help us identify and minimise the data protection risks for the 2021 Census. The published version has been shortened so as not to include any detail that may present any security or data protection risks.

The conduct of censuses across the UK

National Records of Scotland (NRS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) conduct the census in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. The respective devolved administrations and legislatures are responsible for census legislation.

The original statement of agreement between the National Statistician and the Registrars General for Scotland and Northern Ireland was published in October 2015, outlining the principles that the three census offices would work on together to ensure the 2021 censuses are successful in:

  • providing high-quality population and housing statistics for the UK
  • meeting the needs of data users
  • reflecting UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Eurostat and other international requirements

Following the announcement that Scotland’s Census will now take place in 2022, an updated statement of agreement concerning the censuses to be conducted throughout the UK in 2021 and 2022 was published in January 2021.

The census offices consult regularly with users, keep this agreement under constant review and publish updates on progress.

A November 2020 update on progress is available. Any future updates will be made against the updated statement of agreement.

A November 2019 update on progress is available.

A November 2016 update on progress (PDF, 321KB) is available.

Census legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland

The NRS and NISRA conduct the census in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. The respective devolved administrations and legislatures are responsible for census legislation.

The Census Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 and the Census Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 are now in place and set Census Day in Northern Ireland as Sunday 21 March 2021.

You can find out more about the design of the census and what we have done to develop the questions for 2021, as well as the latest news and updates on progress towards census 2021.