2021 UK Census: Everything you need to know

2021 UK census: everything you need to know

By Briony Pickford

Do I have to fill out the census? How do I know they won’t share my data? What is going on with the gender question?

The 2021 UK census letter has either already dropped through your letterbox or is on route to you at this very moment. So far, it’s been shrouded in controversy on Twitter so if you’ve been struggling to keep up, here is everything you need to know about the UK 2021 census.

What is the census and why have one?

A census is a simple survey designed to gather information on the UK public. It is created and run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) every ten years and each household is expected to complete one. Yes, filling it out is enforced by law and not doing so could risk you being fined up to £1000.

The official purpose of the census is to gather socio-demographic statistics which will inform the government’s decisions on matters related to public services like healthcare, education, housing and how to allocate funding. In layman’s terms, the census tells the Government how much money each of these services need in each village, town or city.

Why do we do this every ten years? The answer is simple: knowledge equals power and, according to the Census, providing it “is your chance to help make sure you and your community get the services you need for the next 10 years and beyond.” Just switch services for money and you’ve got the idea. 

Who uses the Census?

Fancy census data is used by a myriad of organisations and groups. Job centres can offer language training in areas which need it by using the census to identify areas with a high number of newly arrived residents, for example.

The Electoral Commision (EC) uses the census to increase the number of voters in the UK. According to the ONS, younger adults, home renters or people from minority ethnic groups are less likely to be registered to vote. The census enables the EC to tackle this by running voter registration campaigns and focusing their efforts on areas with highly concentrated population of these groups.

Another use is by the Mental Health Foundation, who use the census to determine who is more at risk of mental health and ensure they have support. Other examples include The Church of England, London Fire Service, BBC, the NHS and more.

These uses are mostly positive but data gathering is known to be a controversial topic, so some people may be hesitant to give away so much personal information.

Can the data retrieved by the census be shared?

Let us relieve a common fear, ONS will not publish any personal data you enter into the census. Your information will only be used to create large-scale data (i.e., how many people in the UK adhere to a certain religion).

All of the information which you provide is confidential and protected by both GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018. The only moment this individual information will become available to the rest of the world is in 2122 when the 100-year closure rule has passed.

There are varying schools of thought on when this 100-year embargo on people’s personal information was brought in but, according to Parliament sources, the rule was officially established in 1966 by Lord Chancellor Gardiner. Regardless of when the rule was made, the only people who could read your individual answers will be your ever-so-curious descendants.

Speaking of, the 1921 census will be released next year. History addicts are anticipating this release like Harry Potter fans did Deathly Hallows. Given that the information documents the post influenza pandemic, many will be comparing those people’s lives with our own.

What if I am not out of the closet?

Now, we’ve dealt with data sharing but of course each household is expected to fill out the survey together. So, what do you do if you are not out of the closet? Take a deep breath, we come bearing good news. Thankfully ONS have provided for this by including an option to ‘request an individual access code’.

You can request this code here and you can receive it by text message or post. The rest of your household will not be informed that you have requested an individual access code and all your individual answers will take priority over any information submitted in your household census. This means that if your flatmate puts you down as straight and you put yourself down as lesbian, you will be recorded as a lesbian not straight.

What do I put for the gender question?

Now let us tackle the most confusing part of the census: the gender question.

The advice for answering this is to put down the sex registered on your official documents, such as your birth certificate or Gender Recognition Certificate.

This means that many people will not be answering this question with an answer that depicts how they actually live their lives. Not to mention that a gender recognition certificate costs a steep £140, creating a paywall against transgender identification.

The census can be a very positive force, gathering data on oppressed groups so that more can be provided to them. Without valid data this will not be possible for trans people who are currently sitting in a sort of legal ‘grey area’, often living as a different gender from their birth records.

This is a considerable faux pas because, if the census data on transgender people is accurate, then local public bodies would be able to address their needs, secure their rights and improve their access to health services properly. Furthermore, inaccurate reporting could potentially reduce funding of public services for transgender people.

Mermaids, a charity that offers support for teenagers and children with Gender Identity issues, has updated their website with the Government’s advice and added the following: ‘You should not feel pressured to give an answer that you know to be false.’

What are voluntary questions?

These are questions that you don’t have to legally answer, and you won’t be fined if you don’t tick a box. This year’s census has two new voluntary questions: sexual orientation and gender identity.

ONS describes these questions as a step forward in the history of census data, stating that this is the first time gender identity has appeared in the census.

Giovanna Gilleri – a PhD researcher in International Human Rights Law – disagrees, stating that although ONS are attempting to bring visibility to trans people, they are failing: “The 2021 census will most likely disinform decision-makers, due to its overemphasis on sex as the primary component of one’s (legal) identity, and the confusion on the relation between sex and gender identity.” Gilleri proposes that a mandatory question on gender identity would have been more successful in meeting ONS’s goal.

As the census is something that changes every ten years and is evidently something the Government does not always get right, it will likely be done differently next time. The census is not just for policy makers, we can all access the statistical data when it is published and judge whether new policies are well informed.

The census will enable us to keep tabs on the government’s policies and assess whether they are tackling inequalities in the areas that really need it or not.