The UK Statistics Authority announced on 27 March 2014 that it had recommended to the United Kingdom Government that the next census in England and Wales should take place in 2021, a decade after the previous census in March 2011.[1] The National Records of Scotland (NRS) also reported on the same date that it was proposing to the Scottish Government that a census in Scotland should also take place in 2021.[2] A further detailed plan was published by NRS on 27 September 2018.[3] In October 2014 the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), which is responsible for the census in Northern Ireland, published its proposals to conduct a census in 2021.[4] These announcements followed on from a series of co-ordinated research projects known collectively as the Beyond 2011 Programme.

The UK Statistics Authority, which coordinates the United Kingdom census, has proposed that the 2021 census should be conducted predominantly online and be supplemented by the use of administrative and survey data. Legislation will be required by the Westminster government and devolved administrations.[1]


After the 2011 census both the UK coalition government and previous Labour Government expressed concerns about the rising costs of the decennial census. There were also concerns about the value of continuing with the traditional approach adopted for the 2011 census. This included whether collection methods were still fit for purpose in a rapidly changing society and whether census outputs, based on a survey conducted every ten years, would continue to meet the increasingly demanding needs of public and private sector users. Emerging technological developments were seen as providing alternative and improved data gathering opportunities. These concerns and opportunities led the UK Government to question if a supplementary or wholly alternative approach to the traditional 10-yearly census was required; more frequent, possibly annual, small-scale surveys could be employed instead.[5]

In 2011, The Beyond 2011 Programme was established to look at alternatives to the traditional census approach. The UK Statistics Authority coordinated the project which was also undertaken by its counterparts in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland.[1]

In 2014, the UK Statistics Authority announced the recommendation from the Beyond 2011 Programme that there should be a decennial-style 2021 census in England and Wales, which in contrast with earlier censuses, would be conducted predominantly through online completion of census forms, supplemented by the further use of administrative and survey data. Existing census gathering methods would be used only as an alternative, where online methods are not feasible.[6] A parallel announcement for Scotland's 2021 census was made by the National Records for Scotland.[7] The ONS Director, Population and Demography Statistics was reported as saying that an estimated 60–65% of household returns would be completed online.[8]

In April 2014, the British House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded in its report Too soon to scrap the Census, that the 2021 census should go ahead. It has reservations over the lack of investigation into the options for using administrative data and encouraged the UK Government to reassure the public about privacy concerns.[9]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office welcomed the recommendations for a predominantly online 2021 census for England and Wales supplemented by the use of governmental and other administrative data in a letter to the National Statistician in July 2014. He made clear that the Government saw the dual-running decennial national census with administrative data gathering option as a transitional approach and asked the National Statistician to ensure sufficient research is undertaken both prior to and after the 2021 census to find and validate alternative methods to replace the traditional national census and intermediate surveying approach.[10]


Under the Census Act 1920, it is for the United Kingdom Government and Parliament to determine the arrangements for census-taking in England and Wales. Parallel legislative procedures will be required in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will be late 2015 at the earliest before regulations are made. Subject to this legislation being passed the census will be conducted on the same day in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure coherence and consistency.[1]

In Scotland, the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2019 makes provisions for voluntary questions about transgender status and sexual orientation to be asked.[11]

UK census coordinationEdit

The UK Statistics Authority has the responsibility for coordinating the census arrangements across the United Kingdom through the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which is also responsible for the census in England and Wales. The National Records of Scotland (NRS) is responsible for the census in Scotland[12] and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), undertakes the census in Northern Ireland.[1]

UK 2021 census researchEdit

The 2011 UK census was the first decennial census in the United Kingdom to include the option of completing the census documentation online. Across the UK between 15–19% of census forms were submitted online.[4][13] UK Statistics Authority has proposed that the 2021 census should be conducted predominantly online (with support provided for those unable to complete the census online), supplemented by the use of administrative and survey data and improve annual statistics between censuses.[1] For the census in 2021 the proposed target for online completion has been set to at least 65%.[14]

Research has been under way since 2011 to design a new census methodology which maximises the success of an online approach. For example, NIRSA has published a report reviewing the 2011 census and other online-orientated censuses abroad and identified the importance of such things as; pre-census publicity, the use of a unique internet code or ePin and, a coordinated promotion and follow up process during the census completion period.[4]

Research commissioned by the Beyond 2011 programme identified there were risks associated with over reliance on administrative data drawn from governmental department sources due to process changes, such as benefits and welfare payments and the necessity to include full access to statistical data as part as proposed legislation affecting administrative programmes. Issues identified also included the accuracy of administrative data sets for geographical areas below that of local authorities, problems associated with estimation and the use of address registers. ONS on behalf of the UK Statistics Authority has taken on board the recommendations of the Skinner Report into methodology work and has proposed three research strands to determine the 'optimum blend' of online census, administrative data and surveying methods for the 2021 census and indeed subsequent censuses.[15]

The UK Statistics Authority has commissioned research strands as part of a Census transformation programme which will report by 2017 relate to:- the 2021 census operation, the shape of population statistics in 2021 and, the shape of population statistics post 2021 in the lead up to 2031.[16]

Census work programmeEdit

A work programme running until 2024, comprising eight phases, has been developed by ONS.[17]

  1. Research (ends March 2015)
  2. Design and prototyping (ends December 2016)
  3. Testing (2017)
  4. Development (2018)
  5. Rehearsal (January 2019 – June 2020)
  6. Collection operations (July 2020 – December 2021)
  7. Analysis, output and dissemination (2022–23)
  8. Evaluation / future planning (2023–24)

Alongside this programme trials of statistics generation using administrative data are planned starting from the autumn of 2015 and running through to 2021 with the aim of ranging across the breadth, detail and accuracy of census outputs.


  1. ^ a b c d e f The census and future provision of population statistics in England and Wales: Recommendation from the National Statistician and Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority 27 March 2013, Accessed 23 April 2014
  2. ^ Scotland's Census 2021, Accessed 4 October 2018
  3. ^ Plans for Scotland's Census 2021, September 2018, Accessed 4 October 2018
  4. ^ a b c The Future Provision of Census of Population Information for Northern Ireland NISRA, Accessed 30 December 2014
  5. ^ Background to Beyond 2011 Office for National Statistics website, Retrieved 30 April 2014
  6. ^ The census and future provision of population statistics in England and Wales UK Statistics Authority published 27 March 2014, Accessed 1 April 2014
  7. ^ "Plans for a Census in Scotland in 2021 National Records for Scotland Press Release 27 March 2014". Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2014.
  8. ^ Report from ‘Counting the population: the 2021 Census and beyond’ event 1 May 2014, Accessed 7 May 2014
  9. ^ Too soon to scrap the Census – UK Parliament Public Administration Committee Report Published 9 April 2014, Accessed 1 May 2014
  10. ^ Beyond 2011 Research Conference 2014: Summary of proceedings – August 2014, Accessed, 31 August 2014
  11. ^ "Holyrood backs new census questions on transgender identity". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 October 2019.
  12. ^ About Us, National Records of Scotland[1], Accessed 4 October 2018
  13. ^ 2011 Census: Percentage of individual returns via paper and internet questionnaires in England, Accessed 30 December 2014
  14. ^ Beyond 2011 Research Conference 2014: Summary of proceedings ONS, Accessed 30 December 2014
  15. ^ Beyond 2011: Independent Review of Methodology ONS, Accessed 30 December 2014
  16. ^ FAQ Census Transformation Programme, Accessed 25 January 2015
  17. ^ Planning for 2021 – slides 15/17 – ONS Powerpoint Presentation November 2014, Accessed 30 December 2014