Merlene Emerson writes… Countdown to the Census

As at the time of blogging this, there are only 32 days to Census Day on 27 March 2011. On that day every household will be required to complete and return a census survey (on pain of a fine of up to £1000 and a criminal record) with information on every member living at that address including any overnight visitors!

The first census conducted in March 1801 revealed a total population for England and Wales of just under 9 million. By 2001, the population in England and Wales had grown to over 52 million (58 million in the UK). Every ten years the census provides a benchmark. It not only counts the population but tells us about the percentage of young and old, what jobs people do, the type of housing we live in, our ethnicity and religion.

So why is it important that we should have an accurate head count of people living in Britain? These statistics will be relied upon by a myriad of organisations and government departments in resourcing and planning for future services. The building of schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure as well as support services. The current public sector cuts may not be as painful had local authorities been properly funded based on more accurate figures of their local population.

Some of the questions in the Census have inevitably changed over the decades. We no longer record people as ‘insane’ or ‘idiots’ (curiously). And for the first time, there will be a new category under ethnicity of “Arabs and others”. The previous innovation in 2001 was the “Chinese and others” category. Despite protestations from different quarters, Chinese will now be subsumed under the general category of “Asians”.

Also for the first time, 44 community advisors have been employed to assist with outreach to the different minority communities in Great Britain. Speaking to one of the Community advisors at the launch of the big purple bus in Tower Hamlets yesterday, I was pleased to hear of his strategy to engage businesses and students to help with the survey.

However I believe they will still need to get the following messages out loud and clear to the public to ensure maximum returns of surveys:

  1. The Census survey is compulsory for all residents including those who are students or visitors, as long as they have been living here for the last 3 months or intend to stay in the UK for at least 3 months.
  2. The Census results will be confidential and the Office of National Statistics will not divulge individuals’ details to the public nor pass them on to Border Immigration.
  3. And, perhaps more controversially, that community centres, places of worship and charitable organisations should be allowed to assist their users and beneficiaries in completing the Census and offer their addresses as safe havens.

It is estimated that as many as many as 3 million were not counted at the last Census. There has also been speculation that the Census in 2011, at an estimated cost of £482 million, may be the last of its kind. In future, data could be gathered from records held by the Post Office, local government and credit checking agencies which are thought to be more effective and economic.

Finally there’s a helpline (with 56 different languages) available from 4 March (0300 0201 101 ) or online help at

Merlene Emerson is a candidate for London Assembly 2012.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Duffield 22nd Feb '11 - 7:27pm

    “On that day every household will be required to complete and return a census survey (on pain of a fine of up to £1000 and a criminal record) with information on every member living at that address including any overnight visitors!”

    It may only take place every 10 years, but the Census remains completely and utterly illiberal. Shame!

  • The question on religion is particularly illiberal. The state has no business trying to discover what its citizens do or do not believe, and that will be my answer to that question. I am also very uneasy about people having to define their ethnicity: I am a human, then a European, then various fragments of Greek, Irish, Scottish and English. I won’t be answering that question either.

  • “The current public sector cuts may not be as painful had local authorities been properly funded based on more accurate figures of their local population.”

    So it doesn’ allow accurate figures to be produced but lets do it anyway! 🙂

  • If this was done under Labour you woulde be kicking up a stink ,snooping into our lives was meant to stop
    Andrew Edinburgh

  • Norfolk Boy 22nd Feb '11 - 9:14pm

    Surely it’s blindingly obvious that we won’t get any accurate data from this as only people who should be here will fill the form in (and not even all of those will do it).

    You can always mess with their heads anyway and do things like tick two boxes for religion and ethnicity, be a jedi, or even make your own religion up etc.

  • As an economic historian I am hugely grateful for the 1801 census (and the better quality 1841 census), but I do wonder whether it is worth £500m. Should it really cost £20 per household? No wonder we are thinking of abolishing it!

  • According to the website the religion question is the only question that you don’t legally have to answer.

    From the FAQ “what questions will I have to answer” section:
    “You must answer all the questions. Only the religion question is voluntary.”

    But apart from that the census in general is still very illiberal.

  • The census is being run by an American arms company, Lockheed Martin which has close links to the US Government. Do you REALLY want to fill it in?

  • Norfolk Boy – an anarchist response to a question the state has no right to ask is better than nothing, but it is not as good as pointing out that the state is being presumptuous.
    Andrew in Edinburgh – the questions in this census, like the last one, were planned by Labour.
    Tim Leunig – I quite agree that past censuses provide invaluable data, and I think it would be a great loss to future historians if this were to be the last census. My PhD. was based on census data which I cannot conceive would have been available from other sources.

  • I thought you were meant to be reversing the database state!

  • Jonathan Hunt 22nd Feb '11 - 11:45pm

    Much of the detail garnered by the census will be of little use for perhaps 50, or even 100 years. We have a duty to future historians to provide the same basic fodder that today’s historians and ancestor-chasers rely on.

    Given the inability of many local authorities to plan enough schools, both primary and, more surprisingly, secondary, one can question its validity as assisting the planning of public services.

    But when it comes to the detailed information about the ethnicity of citizens, it should come into its own. The last set of census statistics showed many of us, especially in inner-city areas, just how much the non-white population had grown.

    If the figures are collected properly, they are likely to show an even greater rise in ethnic minority numbers. I speak as someone who was a young census enumerator in 1971, dedicated and conscientious about checking every last piece of space fo human occupation in a very posh square in Knightsbridge.

    I found a duke’s daughter failing to declare three lodgers, and other would-be body concealers. (Incidentally, the census fee in 1971 paid for a week’s package holiday in Ibezia).

    But there many be many more immigration illegals much more desperate not to be listed than aristos unwilling to be found out by the Revenue. And that is where the integrity of enumerators becomes important. On most serious population projections, I as a white Anglo-saxon should become an ethnic minority on 29 March. But will I?

  • It’s just a shame that this data will not be used to decide boundaries for constituencies. But then the under registration in cities wouldn’t help the Tories would it??

  • A pointless exercise. All that matters is who is registered to vote, everyone else doesn’t count. Wait that is the coalition policy now isn’t it?

  • Chris Riley 23rd Feb '11 - 9:00am

    These comments are making me weep. I thought the Lib Dems were supposed to be an intelligent, evidence-led party.

    I’m a social researcher. There are whole areas of policy, most notably for the Lib Dems, on HE, that require this data in order to get the evidence we need to improve policy.

    One specific area is university tuition fees, a field I appreciate is not exactly a popular topic of discussion. The blunt problem is that we don’t know how much graduates earn over a lifetime, an issue that led to BIS producing a funding model to support the new policy that is broken, and which dogs any informed discussion of the correct level of tuition fees.

    The reason is that the LFS and ASHE don’t automatically ask about education levels and we don’t automatically know who has degrees or when they got them. The Student Loan data doesn’t go back far enough and is incomplete because for obvious reasons, people stop paying. HMRC doesn’t ask if you have a degree or not. They just ask for your cash. So how on earth are we to improve the HE funding model? Any thoughtful Lib Dem should be aware that for the party to have a future, the new tuition fees absolutely *have* to work, and the census is the only vehicle to get the evidence necessary in the medium term.

    The census data is hugely useful for holding Government to account on a whole range of social issues. Fine if you don’t want Government held to account (this Government *and* the previous Government), but I bloody well do. Far from being “illiberal”, it’s a massive accumulation of information about the state of the nation and it’s full of safeguards to stop those in charge from messing with it. It speaks truth to power.

    Forget about the minor inconvenience it causes you as an individual. Start thinking about what you’d want to do with all that data and how it could be used to bring people to account.

    All of that evidence. Liberals and democrats don’t want to stop evidence being collected. They want as much of it as possible.

  • Chris Riley 23rd Feb '11 - 9:25am

    I might also add I am *hugely* suspicious of the motives of people wishing to meddle with the census.

    Who benefits from muddying the pool of evidence?

    If I were embarking on a programme of massive social and economic change that I suspected might be to the detriment of a lot of people in society, it would be awfully convenient for me if nobody could prove that my actions had caused harm.

  • @tonyhill: “The question on religion is particularly illiberal. The state has no business trying to discover what its citizens do or do not believe, and that will be my answer to that question.” While I’m tempted to agree, the problem is that these data *are* used. The figures help determine what groups get funded, what groups are listened to, and perhaps even which religious figures, shockingly, get reserved places in the House of Lords. “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so” –

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