census 2021

Census to go online for the first time after rise in internet coverage

Unlike previous surveys, the 2021 census will predominantly be completed online, thanks to a rise in internet coverage across the UK.

Figures show 96% of UK households as having internet access as of 2020, up from 77% when the last census was carried out in 2011.

However the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which conducts the census in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has confirmed that it only expects around 75% of forms to be completed digitally.

UK Internet Access 2011-2020. Source: ONS. Graphics by Ryan Prosser

Residents will soon receive a pack prompting them to fill out the questionnaire from March 21 on the official census website, with Scotland waiting until next year to count its population due to coronavirus restrictions.

Participation is obligatory by law, and non-compliers can expect a fine of up to £1000 for failing to return a survey by the end of the month.

The decennial call for information was last held in March 2011, when approximately 25.4 million paper questionnaires were delivered to homes nationwide.

The 2011 census was the first that could be completed over the internet, but only 16.4% of people chose to respond electronically. 

The ONS attributed this figure to its lack of online marketing and relative ease of completing paper forms that were already sent to each household.

Internet take-up was unsurprisingly highest in London with up to 29% choosing to complete the online census form, but lowest in Wales, with the vast majority of online respondents aged between 17 to 45.

But up to two million homes nationwide are still estimated to be without connectivity.

Those who wish to complete a paper form instead will be able to request one free of charge by phone, with further information on the pack that will be sent to households at the beginning of March.

Next month’s census will also see around another 700,000 people accounted for in Greater London since the last one.

The capital’s population topped nine million for the first time in 2020, up from 8.2 million in 2011, but according to accountancy firm PWC this figure could fall by up to 300,000 in 2021, partly due to the home working boom fuelled by the pandemic.

In south west London, all boroughs recorded population increases from 2011 except for Kensington and Chelsea.

Population figures in South West London by borough. Source: ONS. Graphics by Ryan Prosser

The online census form will also feature at least three new questions. 

Respondents will now be asked whether they have served in the armed forces in order to comply with the armed forces covenant.

In addition there will be some optional questions for over 16s on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Census engagement manager Newton Fernandes said the new questions enable certain services such as health and transport to be better tailored to today’s diverse population.

He said: “We have had several consultations on these questions. They are to understand better the LGBTQ population and gender distribution in order to guide services for years to come.”

He stressed the importance of the census in shaping public spending across the country.

He said: “Everyone benefits from the census. It informs decisions nationally and locally, on vital issues which cost millions of pounds which we invest in emergency services, ambulances, mental health care, schools for our children, pharmacies, the number of buses and trains. 

“We urge everyone and invite all residents to come forward and take part in this national project which will be of huge significance to all of us for many many years to come.”

Main photo credit: PaulSh.

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