The national census for England and Wales will take place on 21 March 2021. The census is conducted every ten years and collects valuable and detailed information about every household. The data is used to shape policy, allocate resources, plan public services and monitor equality. For the first time, this will be a digital-first census, with targeted support and activities to maximise participation across all communities.
In this seminar, speakers from the Office for National Statistics gave an overview of the plans for the 2021 census, including its operation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and significant changes since 2011. Discussion also focused on public engagement, data accessibility of census outputs and information on the future of a decennial census in the digital age. A research expert from the House of Commons Library reflected on the value of census data for parliamentary scrutiny and provision of research services, and how the needs of Parliament for social data are evolving.
This event was held in collaboration with the ONS.
Lord Lipsey chaired the panel. Speakers included:
- Cassie Barton, Library Clerk, Social and General Statistics Sections, House of Commons Library
- Iain Bell, Deputy National Statistician for Population and Public Policy, Office for National Statistics (ONS)
- Nicola Tyson-Payne – Interim Director of Transformation, Population and Public Policy, Office for National Statistics (ONS)
- Penny Young, House of Commons Librarian and Director General Information Services
Lord Lipsey welcomed attendees to the meeting and began by highlighting the importance of census data to parliamentary work by MPs and Peers and their staff and to other work carried out by parliamentary staff.
Iain Bell and Nicola Tyson-Payne
Iain gave an overview of the national census, highlighting its unique value in giving a richly detailed dataset about the population, our society and economy, once every ten years. He also described some of the operational aspects of delivering the census in the context of the pandemic. Nicola summarised the programme of activities in place to support the public’s engagement with the census and highlighted some of the specific activities that are underway to engage at the community level.
Sequence of event for census 2021
Households will be sent a letter with a unique access code so that they can go online and answer the questionnaire. In some areas, such as those with poorer broadband coverage, paper questionnaires will be sent instead. People can also request a paper questionnaire if they prefer. For households that do not respond online, follow up visits to support their participation will be carried out by census field staff.
There is a target of an 80% data coverage for each Local Authority (LA) area. As the data collection begins, ONS will monitor response rates and the feedback coming from communities. This will help to direct support so that the 80% target data coverage for each LA is met.
In terms of outputs, ONS expects that the first tranche of data and results will be available within a year. This is likely to be data giving a high-level overview.
Contingencies for running a census during the pandemic
Moving onto a summary of the operational aspects of managing the census this year, Iain outlined the contingencies put in place to respond to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic itself has highlighted the need for high quality information at both national and local levels, and the demand for good data about different groups in society. For example, data on ethnic groups collected in the 2011 census has been invaluable for research, such as analyses of COVID-19 mortality. However, we know that much has changed in the last ten years and high-quality data collected at the local level is needed.
The safety of the public and staff involved in census field work is paramount. This year sees a digital first approach for the census, with ONS aiming for 75% of responses to be made online. This digital approach is a key factor in making census 2021 as safe as possible in the context of the pandemic. Field staff will not enter homes, will use PPE, and will respect social distancing and other government guidelines in their interactions with the public. Similarly, in communal residential settings, notably care homes, established procedures will be followed to keep everyone safe and secure.
Building partnerships and public engagement with the census
Nicola summarised the work to promote the census to engage all communities and to facilitate high response rates. On activities to promote the census, some that would have ordinarily taken place in physical venues, such as engagement events for the public, have moved online. A series of engagement events are planned with a range of community groups and charities.
Local Authorities (LAs) are key partners with whom the ONS has been working closely, producing print and online resources that LAs can use for engagement with their local communities. There has been some focus on messaging about the census to reassure people about steps that will be taken to safeguard data security and sharing.
ONS has also developed partnerships with organisations from sporting bodies to the private sector to facilitate communication of accurate information about the census and how people can engage. Some of this work is targeted to reach people who are less likely to be online, for example by having resources available in high street pharmacies.
Resources are also available for schools, with materials for primary and secondary schools, that can be used in the classroom or online.
A specially focussed campaign is targeted to students to explain why the census is important for them.
Nicola outlined the range of support that is being offered to encourage participation in the census. There is online support, such as webchats. There will also be a call centre, and people will have the option to complete the census on the telephone; capacity for this service has been increased for this census.
Material will be available in 48 languages.
Public engagement is being carried out at both national and local level to communicate the importance of the census. A range of engagement resources are available some of which have been designed to target particular groups. ONS is using print and online media to engage with the public.
A team of 300 staff is working to build community relationships, to engage with local community leaders and trusted figures, and to mobilise knowledge and participation.
ONS has been working hard to build the capacity and capability to manage the census 2021 operation. The national media campaign will begin on 12 February. This time, some of the media advertisement will move to locations where people are more likely to see them. Households will first hear about the census through media and will also receive a postcard at the end of February, as a helpful reminder that the census is coming.
Penny was not able to join the meeting but shared the following comments.
For the House of Commons, individual MPs will always remain concerned about how the census reflects experiences of their own constituents, or groups with a particular interest. So for example, lots of questions or issues raised in Parliament have focused on ONS decisions on what categories to include in the ethnic group question; the implications of the new gender identity question in terms of answering the question on sex; and whether the measures taken by ONS will be enough to avoid underestimating populations, such as the Roma community.
For Parliament, there is real value from the census in terms of data accessibility and how easy it is to analyse, as well as the questions and level of detail. So we welcome the focus on this, for example in the way that ONS has said it will be providing a tool that gives great flexibility in building geographies and specification of variables. This will be a huge step forward. From the perspective of supporting parliamentary scrutiny, having data available as soon as possible is important.
As the UK Parliament, we will always find ourselves frustrated by harmonisation issues – we welcome the commitment of the four nations to harmonise wherever possible, but it inevitably creates challenges. There will be a particular question about the impact of the decision of Scotland to delay its census to 2022.
We will inevitably have some concerns about how use of administrative data to provide additional richness over time works in practice. On this point, much will depend on the capability and capacity in government departments to collect and share data.
Cassie explained how the House of Commons Library provides research services for MPs and their staff and explained her own specialism in population demographics, housing, and the census and census policy.
Cassie outlined that census data is used by library researchers to add depth to briefings, and is a good evidence resource, especially for work on demographic groups that are not otherwise well documented, for example the Gypsy and Traveller community.
The geographic aspect of the census data is particularly useful, since it provides data at a level of detail that is particularly relevant to MPs, who have a real need to understand the constituency and the people they are representing. MPs may ask for data within a specific geographic area, for example. The Commons Library provides some of this data on its constituency data dashboards already, a set of topic-based pages that can bring up a range of statistics on certain topics. Census data underpins some of these data dashboards. The Library is keen to be able to expand the data on these dashboards and as the 2021 census will be asking extra questions, we will have the ability to offer more data, such as the size of the LGBT community, or the number of Armed Forces veterans in an area, for example.
The House of Commons Library is also interested in and uses administrative data at all other geographical levels. For example, research work on crime and policing would draw on data about police force areas. At the most detailed level, data at street level can also be useful, if seeking to characterise data in a small part of a LA area, for example.
Cassie also explained that the Library also uses census data for its own analyses and has done work to develop locally recognisable names for Middle Layer Super Output Areas (MLSOAs). MLSOAs are small geographic areas used for census data outputs (they vary in size but have around 8,000 people). The Commons Library has come up with names that are more meaningful for a parliamentary audience. For example, Southwark 014 is called Kennington East. This type of analysis is also useful to those outside Parliament; academics and government agencies are using them.
Data giving a UK wide picture is also very important. The issue of harmonisation is an important one, with census data collected separately in 3 groups: England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. It can be challenging when there are differences in data, because of differences in census questions, for example. Consistent data outputs are useful for parliamentarians, when thinking about policy outcomes across the UK, for example.
The delay to the Scotland census to 2022 will mean the data will be out of sync with England and Wales. It would be useful to have some guidance from ONS about how data between the censuses can be put together.
The accessibility is also important for parliamentary researchers, having more flexible access to data would be helpful. This includes the ability for MPs’ researchers to be able to use the data themselves where they can. If there are better tools to enable them to do that, that would be great.
Future of the census
A programme of work is underway about the future of the census, such as how data sets could provide a more frequent, timely and granular picture instead of running a decennial census. The sources of this data would be from existing government data sets and other digital resources and surveys. A recommendation will be made by the ONS in 2023 about whether the census will run in its current form or in another form.
Capturing meaningful and accurate data
Attendees discussed the extent to which the census can record meaningful data about people. On the examples of recording national identity, ethnic and religious background, the census will offer users the option of easy-to-use pre-set categories, but recognises that this might not cover every way people might wish to identify themselves. For some questions there will be the option to enable people to respond in a different way – this is an advantage of the online census approach.
One aspect of the census is to understand what any data gaps might be, and how these might reflect a lack of understanding about some communities or other characteristics. There is planned work in the ONS to make estimates about groups that do not respond to the census or are underrepresented. In May, work will begin on a census coverage survey, whereby research takes place to find out which households have not responded. There are other administrative data sets that can also be used to address any gaps in the information that is collected.
In discussing how some communities might find engaging with the census more difficult for a range of reasons, it was agreed that the role of community engagement is key. A great deal of outreach work is underway to support people to engage with the census.
Work with partners includes wide ranging dissemination of information about the census in partnership with other organisations such as companies that provide smart speaker devices and functions. For example, users can receive high quality, accurate information from their smart speaker to questions about the census such as “How can I complete the census? What is the census?”
There is lots of ongoing work to engage vulnerable communities, for example homeless people. ONS is working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to facilitate the participation of homeless people. This includes working with homeless shelters and other types of communal establishments. The provision of support for the homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that this group of people is better documented, and this is likely to be a benefit for their engagement with the census.
The census will collect data on languages spoken in the UK. For reporting the extent to which some languages are spoken in the UK, subsequent analysis will be undertaken using statistical methods to make estimates, for example, of the number of Welsh speakers in the UK. This could be used to feed into policymaking around targets set by the Welsh Government for increasing the number of people who speak Welsh.
On accessibility and language, there will be census materials translated into 48 languages. There are also census community advisers who speak other languages working with communities. People with specific language skills will be working with the communities where those languages are used.
Successful engagement is an important outcome for data users who want to draw on the most comprehensive data possible.
Local Authorities (LAs) are key partners for ONS, such as in developing meaningful engagement with local communities. There are a range of resources available to LAs to help them work with their communities on understanding the census and signposting the public to trusted information and sources of support. LAs are also vital partners in reaching out to groups within communities for whom engaging with the census may be more difficult.
Data privacy, security and sharing
Participants discussed public attitudes to data privacy and sharing and the potential for misinformation to impact on public engagement with the census. Concerns around scams were also discussed. ONS will send households a letter with a unique code to log on to the site to answer the questionnaire. Any emails that claim to be from ONS about the census are fraudulent. There is some important public engagement messaging around data security, and actions have been taken to counter misinformation on social media.
Census data will be safe and secure, and individual data will not be shared with other government agencies. Where data sharing does take place, such as for research purposes, a range of safeguarding processes are in place, such as data anonymisation.
An aspect of running separate censuses in the UK is that there can be some differences in the data collected. This can be a challenge for research users who may be seeking well harmonised data that can be directly compared across the four nations. This can sometimes mean that comparisons can be made only at broader levels rather than at more detailed levels. The extent to which any divergence in data collection across the UK will increase in the future is an area of interest for policy makers and researchers.
ONS runs the census in England and Wales, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency carries it out in Northern Ireland and National Records Scotland in Scotland. While England, Wales and Northern Ireland share some common infrastructure and processes, Scotland’s operational approach is based on a different infrastructure. The census in Scotland has been postponed until 2022 due to ongoing disruptions to their preparations for the census caused by the pandemic. Once all four nations have completed their data collection, they will work together on data consistency and harmonisation. The fact that the censuses will collect data at different time points is already a consideration for researchers who will seek to use the data in a comparative way.
Making census data accessible
Data access will be managed according to government standards and released free of charge under the Open Government Licence. There is a programme of work underway to enable users to access census data themselves through specially designed programmes called APIs, which will also meet government standards.
The ONS aims to make a range of products available and to tailor them to meet users’ needs. This will enable users to produce their own outputs using census data, for example information relating to geographic areas or communities. Some community groups have been involved in discussions about data collection relating to their interests, such as the Cornish community.
Sharing census results
MPs are particularly interested in having better data about former Armed Forces personnel in their constituencies. The timing of this part of the data release from the 2021 census has not yet been announced. ONS anticipates publishing high level data from the census within about twelve months.
Resources for parliamentarians
Resource packs for parliamentarians will be distributed in February, with some information tailored to constituencies. A wide range of other resources are available to parliamentarians from ONS and these can be downloaded from the ONS website on census.gov.uk. Parliamentarians and their staff can also contact POST@parliament.uk to request the email address of the parliamentary unit at ONS for help.