2021 Census – FAQs for councillors


Following our member briefing on the 2021 Census in January this list of 20 FAQs provides important information for councillors to support their residents through the Census process.


The Census is not just a headcount, it is vital in making informed policy decisions by providing accurate information on local demographics, housing, employment and need. The information it collects helps with decisions on the planning and funding of council run services in local areas, along with where schools, doctors’ surgeries and emergency services are needed most.

Accurate population figures and detailed information about need are important in determining the funding of key public services, as well as for the voluntary and community sector and businesses. Following a decade of funding cuts and the ongoing financial impact of Covid-19, London boroughs will be financially stretched for the next few years. It is vital that accurate numbers are collected

Important dates in the Census process

  • 23 February 2021 - ONS send census awareness postcards to all addresses
  • 23 February 2021 - Online questionnaire goes live and can be completed.
  • 01 March 2021 - Census Support Centres start operation
  • 21 March 2021 - Census day
  • 25 March – 19 April 2021 – up to three reminder letters sent
  • 2 April - Census coverage survey of 1% of households undertaken to assess consistency in how people completed their census return.

Key links

Frequently Asked Questions for Councillors

  • Tell people when the census is happening - 21 March 2021
  • Explain why the census is important and safe to answer (see our previous briefing)
  • Signpost people to free local internet access, so they can fill in the census online
  • Direct people who need help getting online to Census Support Centres (ask your Local Authority Census Engagement Manager (CEM) for details)
  • Arrange help for people in your community whose first language is not English
  • Direct people to the help in different languages and accessible formats that Office for National Statistics (ONS) will be making available
  • Support local census completion activities (ask your CEM for details).

The outputs from the 2021 Census will be release from March 2022 to March 2023 on the ONS website in standard tables and through an online system to create bespoke tables.

ONS will go ahead with the Census on March 21st 2021 and have a contingency plan to ensure that everyone can provide their information safely and securely. Full details are outlined in their operational plan.

The information collected on the questionnaires is used to help government and local authorities plan the services and resources people need, such as transport, housing, healthcare and education. In London, Census data affects council funding for these important services by as much as £1,430 per person. That is why it is so important that everyone takes part.

In 2020/21, prior to Covid-19, London boroughs received almost £13 billion in general and specific grants to fund local services (including the Dedicated Schools Grant which funds education services). London’s estimated population is now just over 9 million, meaning for every undercounted person, up to £1,430 could be lost in funding.

One person from each household should fill out the form and include on it everyone at home on 21 March 2021 including newborn babies and visitors staying overnight. The form allows you to indicate if a person is a visitor or a resident. Residents can complete separate forms if they do not want others in their household to see their responses.

The ONS hopes to have 75% of census returns completed online, with the remainder using paper forms. Most households will receive a unique code in the post which will allow them to complete their census returns online but can request a paper form instead. You can save your answers as you go and return to complete the online form later if needs be.

The ONS will help support households having difficulty accessing an online census with local in-person support at census completion events.

The form should take about 30 minutes for a family of four to fill out. However, for a single person household it should only take about 15 minutes.

Questionnaires or letters will reach households in early March 2021 ready for completion before, on, or as soon as possible after census day (21 March 2021). Households can request a paper questionnaire via the census online help or telephone helpline if they cannot fill out the form online, or prefer not to, for contact details see section 14.

Yes, if they can anticipate who will be in the house on that date.

The religion question, and new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity are voluntary. All other questions need to be answered. Answers to these questions will help organisations combat inequalities and show where services are needed. Copies of the paper questionnaires are already on the ONS website, so you can see what questions they will ask.

The census asks about ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, religion and national identity. Residents decide how they would like to answer each question, so answer it in the way that you feel best represents them.

All local councils in England and Wales rely on census population statistics to identify the needs of their community and help make sure they get enough government funding to serve it. The amount of funding allocated is directly related to how many people live in the area and their circumstances which is why everyone needs to take part.

Personal census information is never shared with any other government department, local council or other organisation. The ONS is independent from government, so census information cannot be used to influence benefit claims, a residency application, immigration status or your taxes. The information collected is kept confidential by ONS and protected by law. Personal census information is kept confidential for 100 years and has a 200-year track record of never sharing it. It is a criminal offence to disclose information and all census staff and contractors sign a census confidentiality undertaking.

Yes, providing consent is given by the resident who will need to supply the relevant information.

Providing consent is given, anyone can help a householder complete their questionnaire. Help to complete the questionnaire will be available locally and from ONS via their website and social media. This includes:

  • Online help
  • Census contact options https://census.gov.uk/contact-us/
  • Census telephone helpline 0800 141 2021 from 01 March 2021
  • Language helpline 0
  • Text Relay (for people with hearing impairment) (018001) 0800 141 2021
  • Ask your Local Authority Census Engagement Manager about local completion events and Census Support Centres where people can get personal help to complete forms.

People in shared households can choose to complete a household questionnaire together or each person can fill out an individual form on paper or online.

The form can be completed online https://census.gov.uk, or by getting a paper continuation form from the census helpline 0800 141 2021.

If the form is lost the census online help https://census.gov.uk or helpline 0800 141 2021 can post a new form, or a new access code can be posted or sent direct to your mobile phone.

Households that have not made a return will initially be contacted by post then by a census collector who will offer help and can take away the completed form. Refusal to complete the form could lead to prosecution and a hefty fine of up to £1,000.

The information produced by the census is used to allocate nearly £58 billion of funding in England annually. The census happens once every ten years and will cost around £800m. That’s about £1.35 per person per year for the ten-year period between each census. This is less than half of the cost per person compared with the US census of approximately £3.45 per person.

2021 Census to cost £800million https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8531/CBP-8531.pdf England and Wales mid-year estimate of population (2019) 59,439,840 people equates to £13.50 per person over 10 years.

US 2020 Census cost $15.6 billion for 331 million people Equals $47 per person (£3.45pppa) https://www.gao.gov/highrisk/2020_decennial_census/why_did_study#t=1