The public deserves a say on local issues after the pandemic, and the 2021 Census will help deliver it
The Census this March will help those in public office to make informed choices on behalf of their communities
As elected MPs, it is our duty to maintain a comprehensive understanding of the communities we represent. And for many of our constituents, they will have spent more time in their local communities this year than ever before. People have, where possible, worked from home, exercised in local parks, delivered essential supplies to the vulnerable and been encouraged to support local business. So more than ever, individuals deserve to have their say on local issues as we build back better.
That’s why I recently confirmed that council, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections will go ahead as planned in England and Wales on 6 May. Democracy should not be cancelled because of Covid-19.
But there is another important civic event happening before then, which will help those in public office to make informed choices on behalf of their communities – the 2021 Census.
In recent weeks the public will have started seeing or hearing adverts letting them know that the Census 2021 questionnaire will be conducted on 21 March in England and Wales. The Census is an unparalleled source of information on how the UK population lives and works. It provides a detailed picture of the nation that will ensure national and local decisions on investment in crucial public services, healthcare, homes and schools are based on the best information possible.
Completing the Census is the civic duty and legal obligation of us all
After a year of living with Covid-19, this exercise will be essential to our long-term understanding of the impacts it has had on people’s health, social and economic circumstances. But looking beyond the pandemic, this Census will also include some crucial new questions to enrich our understanding of people and shed light on the needs of different groups and communities.
For the first time there is a question on whether you have served in the armed forces, which will help us better understand the veteran population and to tailor services accordingly.
Census 2021 will also be ‘digital first’ and we imagine that over three-quarters of people will complete it on their laptops, PCs, tablets or phones. The ONS recognises that not everyone can or will want to participate this way. Therefore, the paper Census questionnaires, familiar to all who have completed it before, are still available and there will be lots of targeted help at hand to ensure everyone can be counted.
Census plans have often had to anticipate and respond to events; for example, 20 years ago the Census was delivered effectively during the foot and mouth crisis. Other countries have been able to carry out their Census activities during the pandemic, including, for example, the USA. The ONS has learnt valuable lessons from these experiences.
I firmly believe that holding the Census this year is vital and the independent Office for National Statistics (ONS) has provided every confidence that it can be delivered safely. There will also be new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to reflect a 21st Century society, although nobody will be required to tell us this information if they do not want to.
The ONS has been recruiting around 40,000 temporary staff to help deliver the Census safely. Most of these are field officers, whose role is to encourage anyone who has not filled in their questionnaire to take part and provide assistance. This will require knocking on the doors of some households, but the field officers will operate in line with government guidance, in the same way as a postal or food delivery visit - remaining outside, easily identifiable, supplied with PPE and always socially distanced.
Completing the Census is the civic duty and legal obligation of us all. Without it, we would lack accurate data about our nation and how it has changed over the past ten years - on education, religion, ethnicity, working life and health. I hope we will all recognise the value it will bring for our future and encourage our constituents to participate.
Chloe Smith is Conservative MP for Norwich North and minister for the constitution and devolution