Census Explained

The census began as a basic headcount without names, partly to determine how many men were able to fight wars.

A census is a count of the inhabitants of a country. In England and Wales, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) undertakes the census for the government; in Scotland the General Register Office for Scotland undertakes the census and in Northern Ireland the census is carried out by the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency. This means that although the three offices mentioned cover the same basic areas, there are differences between them such as the way questions are worded (which can affect the answers to those questions, albeit slightly).

The The UK Statistics Authority was created on 1 April 2008, the result of new laws under The Statistics and Registration Act that brought about significant changes to way government regulates and generates official statistics. It transfers powers away from ministers to become a non-ministerial body but which is directly accountable to Parliament.

The UK Statistics Authority is an independent body funded from general taxation.

This independence puts a safe space between it from central government, which is important for safeguarding the objectivity and quality of its work.

The UK Statistics Authority has two main functions:

  1. To oversee its executive office, the Office for National Statistics.
  2. To closely monitor and assess all official statistics produced in the UK.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority. It is larger than this description suggests and employs 2,500 staff, who are supported by a over a thousand field workers, teams who go ‘out there’ to collect vital statistical information for social surveys.

Evolution Of The Census

The census began as a basic headcount, partly to determine the number of men who were able to fight wars. This count was then conducted every ten years from 1801 onwards (except in 1941 because of the war), but it was not until 1841 that the names of persons began to be included – the first national file of personal information. From 1851, more personal information began to be added.

Because of such information, members of the public cannot access actual census returns (see a copy of the returned forms) until 100 years has passed, although the collated results can be seen in publications located in public libraries and on the internet. Importantly, the ONS works for Parliament and not for the current government, and therefore operates at an arms length from the government – this provides for its independence from government.

The 1991 census in England and Wales, and in Scotland, asked clearer questions regarding ethnicity to provide the first opportunity to accurately measure the size and characteristics of ethnic minority populations in Great Britain. In 2001, four further ethnic categories were added to the question. But the 2001 census also included a question on religion which (with the exception of Northern Ireland) had not until been included within a British census. The combination of distinct ethnic and religious categories has allowed for ‘cross cutting’ analysis never available before. For example, it is now possible to determine with considerable accuracy: how many Indian Christian men or Black African Muslim women aged 25-39 are unemployed yet have degrees? – such specific detail was not possible before the 2001 census. The most complete report in this area is "Focus on Ethnicity and Religion" (2006 Edition) by the ONS.

© Crown Copyright. Source data has been derived from ONS Census 2001, unless otherwise stated.