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Census (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]


These notes refer to the Census (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]
as brought from the House of Lords on 28th March 2000 [Bill 100]

Census (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]




1. These explanatory notes relate to the Census (Amendment) Bill [H.L.] as brought from the House of Lords on 28th March 2000. They have been provided by the Office for National Statistics, with the consent of Jonathan Sayeed, the member in charge of the Bill, in order to assist the reader of the Bill and to help inform debate on it. They do not form part of the Bill and have not been endorsed by Parliament.


The 2001 Census

2. The Government has decided that a Census of Population should be taken throughout the UK in 2001. A White Paper (Cm 4253) was published on 4th March 1999 setting out the Government's proposals for the Census including the topics that should be covered.

3. Central government, local and health authorities, commercial business and the professions need reliable information on the number and characteristics of people and households if they are to conduct many of their activities effectively.

4. The Government, in particular, needs this kind of information to form policy, to plan services for specific groups of people and to distribute resources effectively to local and health authorities to enable them to direct resources to where they are needed.

5. The information must be authoritative, accurate and comparable for all parts of the country. Only a census can provide the information on a uniform basis both about the country as a whole and about individual small areas and sub-groups of the population.

Consultation with users

6. Throughout 1997, the Office for National Statistics conducted a consultation exercise among the census user community to ascertain the business cases for a range of topics that were being considered for inclusion in the 2001 Census. In summary, the criteria for accepting these topics were:

  • that there was a clearly demonstrated need;

  • that users' requirements could not adequately be met by information from other sources;

  • that they should be shown, in tests, to have had no significantly adverse effect on the Census as a whole, particularly the level of public response; and

  • that practicable questions could be devised to collect data which is sufficiently accurate to meet users' requirements.

7. The topics proposed for the Census in the White Paper were those that had been shown to be most needed by central and local government, the health service, academics, businesses and professional organisations. In each case, no other comparable and accessible source of the information is available in combination with other items in the Census. Consideration had been given to the public acceptability of topics and to whether or not questions could be asked in a way that elicits reliable answers. The cost of processing the answers to questions was also assessed in relation to the usefulness of the results. Finally, the overall length and layout of the Census form has been considered so that the burden on the public might be kept to an acceptable level within the overall objective of achieving optimum value from the Census.

The requirement for information on religion

8. The Government proposed in the White Paper that a question on religion should be included in the 2001 Census in England and Wales. The topic would be new to the census in England and Wales, and responses to the question would help provide information which would supplement the output from the ethnic group question by identifying ethnic minority sub-groups, particularly those originating from the Indian sub-continent. In turn, this will provide baseline figures against which the Government can monitor possible racial disadvantage and social exclusion within particular minority groups.

9. The Bill extends only to England and Wales. The census is a devolved matter in Scotland where a corresponding piece of legislation - the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill has already been passed by the Scottish Parliament. There is separate census legislation covering Northern Ireland that already provides for a question on religion there.

10. The proposed question is:

         What is your religion?

         Tick one box only

  • None

  • Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)

  • Buddhist

  • Hindu

  • Jewish

  • Muslim

  • Sikh

  • Any other religion, please write in below


In Wales the words "Church in Wales" will be substituted for the words "Church of England" within the Christian category.

11. The proposal to include such a question in the Census has the endorsement of a wide range of faith organisations, and in particular has the support of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Inner Cities Religious Council, and the Home Secretary's Race Relations forum.

Technical issues.

12. All census questions are tested to establish:

  • that respondents understand them;

  • that they are publicly acceptable;

  • that the quality of the response is sufficiently high for reliable information to be obtained; and

  • that they do not have an adverse effect on response rates to the Census as a whole.

The proposed question on religion was included in the Census Rehearsal in April 1999 and satisfied these tests.

European Convention on Human Rights

13. Legal opinion taken by the Office for National Statistics is that the inclusion of a question on religion in the Census in England and Wales is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus meets the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Existing legislation

14. The primary legislation that provides for the taking of a Census in England and Wales (and in Scotland) is the Census Act 1920. Under the provisions of Section 1(1) of this Act an Order in Council may prescribe:

  • the date on which the census is to be taken; and

  • the persons by whom and with respect to whom the census returns are to be made; and

  • the particulars to be stated in the returns.

15. The Schedule to the Census Act 1920 authorises the inclusion, in the Censuses for England and Wales (and for Scotland), of the following topics in respect of which particulars may be required:

  • Names, sex, age;

  • Occupation, profession, trade or employment;

  • Nationality, birthplace, race, language;

  • Place of abode and character of dwelling; and

  • Condition as to marriage, relation to head of family, issue born in marriage.

16. The inclusion in the Census of questions on other topics which are:

  • Any other matters with respect to which it is desirable to obtain statistical information with a view to ascertaining the social or civil condition of the population,

is also permitted under a further paragraph of the Schedule to the Act.

The need for legislation

17. An Order in Council under the terms of the Act and providing for certain specified particulars to be included in the census returns in England and Wales (S.I. 2000/744) was made on 15th March 2000. An amendment to the Act is required to enable religion to be specified as a particular in a subsequent Order in Council.


18. The Bill consists of two short clauses.

Clause 1

19. Subsection (1) adds 'Religion' to those topics that are specified in the Schedule to the Census Act as being matters in respect of which particulars may be required to be given in the Census.

20. Subsection (2), which inserts a new subsection (1A) into section 8 of the Census Act, provides that no person shall be liable to a penalty under subsection (1) of section 8 for refusing or neglecting to state any particulars in respect of religion. Subsection (2) was introduced as an amendment by the sponsor of the Bill in the House of Lords in response to points raised in debate.

Clause 2

21. This clause extends the amendment to the Census Act to England and Wales only. The Census in Scotland is a devolved matter (see paragraph 9 above). There is separate census legislation in Northern Ireland, which already provides for a question on religion.


22. The inclusion of a question about religion in the forthcoming Census is not expected to lead to an increase in printing or distribution costs. The only additional costs that may arise will be those relating to the processing of data. These additional costs cannot be estimated precisely but are likely to be in the region of £100,000 for the 2001 Census. These costs are expected to be contained within the existing allocation. Asking a question about religion in censuses after the 2001 Census may lead to a small increase in the total costs of those censuses.


23. None.


24. The Bill amends an existing statutory regime without imposing any additional costs on business, charities or voluntary bodies.


25. The Bill will be brought into force on Royal Assent.

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Prepared: 29 March 2000