Census forms have landed on doormats across the nation - and the information we provide will help to shape the future of where we live.
It’s a massive project that’s been years in the planning. Around 40,000 people are being employed by the Office of National Statistics and around 600 are based at its headquarters in Titchfield, near Fareham.
But what do we really know about this questionnaire that delves into our lives. Is it an invasion of privacy, or a sensible way of finding out more about us to help with planning?
Well, the census is probably one of the most important questionnaires you will ever fill out - and failure to complete it could result in a £1,000 fine.
It helps the government to make key decisions about how much money local authorities will get to spend. Around £1 trillion will be given out by central government over the next decade to local authorities and NHS Primary Care Trusts using information derived from the census.
Census director Glen Watson says it is vital in terms of getting a clear idea of the country’s population.
‘It’s an opportunity to get a snapshot of the nation and provides a very detailed picture of the characteristics of the population.
‘As society changes and things move on, we adapt the questions. It always reflects the changes in society and if you look back to 100 years ago, the census was very different.’
He adds: ‘If you think about what happens on a typical day for a typical person in this country, they get up in the morning and turn the taps on. Someone has had to decide how to do that and where to put the pipes.
‘If you take the kids to school somebody has had to plan the roads for how to get you there - and you have to plan how many school places to have.
‘It’s based on knowledge about the local workforce. We look at which areas are growing and which areas are shrinking. Even when you pop out to get a sandwich at lunchtime, the census is used to decide where to put new stores, how many parking spaces there are and what to put on the shelves.
‘If you visit someone in a care home or a hospital somebody has had to plan that – how many care homes and hospitals there are.’
The official date for the census is March 27. Any households who do not complete and return questionnaires to the ONS by April 6 will probably get a visit from a representative.
Around 30,000 people employed by the ONS are field workers who are sent out doorknocking people who have failed to fill out and return their forms.
They will try to persuade them to change their mind. But if people still don’t complete the census, then the ultimate sanction is a fine..
Cases would be heard in a magistrates’ court. The amount of the fine under the Criminal Justice Act is at the discretion of the magistrates - with a current maximum of £1,000.
Glen explains: ‘There has been some comment about the cost of the census, but there are things people can do to make it cheaper, by doing it online and doing it before April 6. While we have employed people, the hours we keep them on for will still vary.’
He adds: ‘Filling out the census is required by law. There is a punishment, but that’s the last thing we want to do. We don’t want to fine anybody. It’s time-consuming.
‘But if we don’t have some sort of punishment, I don’t believe the census would provide the quality statistics we need.
‘We put a lot of effort into telling people why it’s important. It’s all about getting the message out.
‘There will be some people who just refuse and don’t want to do it and we are prepared to take legal action against those people.’
To put the importance of the census into perspective, Glen says: ‘This is about your family, your future and your neighbourhood. This affects how much money your area will get from the government.
‘The information gathered will be used for the next 10 years. Have a go – fill in the form. You will probably find it easier than you think. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to fill in, once every 10 years.’
The information will be scanned, coded and classified in various stages over the next year or so. Results will finally be available in July, 2012.
‘It’s a massive project,’ says Glen.
‘There is a lot of information there and we’ve been working on this for the past seven years.’
Despite many people fearing that filling in a census form is an invasion of their privacy, Glen is quick to reassure the general public that their information is kept safe.
‘I’m not interested in information about an individual,’ he says.
‘I’m interested in what happens when you put it all together. We don’t share it.
‘It’s not about what Joe Bloggs living at number 2 High Street does. We keep that data secure for 100 years. It’s confidential information. We treat the data incredibly carefully to make sure that it’s not shared with others. It’s part of our professional code. It’s serious stuff.’
To fill in the census online, visit census.gov.uk and enter the reference number on the front of your questionnaire.
Deciding what questions to include on the census is a long process and the list has changed many times over the years.
The Office of National Statistics published a white paper in 2008 with suggested questions and methods about how the 2011 census would be carried out.
The government then looked through the questions and had the final say on which ones were included.
‘We need questions that are going to be acceptable to people,’ explains census director Glen Watson.
‘There is a heck of a lot of planning and logistical preparation.’
To help the ONS decide what questions to ask, a number of test surveys or ‘major rehearsals’ were carried out in various locations around the country to decide on the appropriate questions to ask.
Places such as East London and Birmingham were tested, as both places are very ethnically diverse.
Other areas such as Petersfield, were sent random test questionnaires throughout the planning process.
Some questions were removed, for example one about access to a bath or shower as it’s assumed that most households have these facilities.
However, a section about civil partnerships has been added under the marital status section, as civil partnerships have become legal since the last census took place.
And another question about language was added in too, as some people do not consider English to be their chosen language.
But one of the issues that affected most people was that of their national identity .
The ONS discovered that many people, especially ethnic minorities, want to be able to express themselves and not forget their roots.
‘It’s useful for us to be able to express their identity in whatever way they want to because they feel comfortable doing that,’ says Glen.
‘Its about making the census better, but it’s also about providing extra information.
‘The questions have been tried out by hundreds of thousands of people and the vast majority think they are fine. We need questions that are going to be acceptable to people.’