More than three-quarters of people completed census online

National statistician reveals ONS exceeded target for first digital exercise

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By Sam Trendall

27 Jul 2021

More than three quarters of responses to this year’s census were completed online – exceeding the target set by the Office for National Statistics. 

National statistician Sir Ian Diamond said that “the response to Census 2021 has exceeded all expectations”, with initial data indicating that 97% of households have responded. This year marked the first time respondents have been encouraged to fill in the census digitally and in excess of 75% did so – ahead of the target set by the ONS.

“Final response rates will be calculated after following the processing of data from the census and the Census Coverage Survey, and may therefore differ from the return rate,” Diamond said.

The national statistician said that, while digital means of response had been encouraged, the ONS had “made sure that those who preferred to use a paper questionnaire were able to do so”. 

About one in ten households “where the take-up of the online option was likely to be relatively low”, were sent a paper questionnaire, as well as an online access code, as was sent to the other 90% of houses.

“Similarly, while most reminder letters sent to households that had not yet completed the census included the online access code, some households were sent paper questionnaires as part of the reminder and follow-up process,” Diamond said. “Paper questionnaires and online access codes were also available on request via our freephone contact centre or the census 2021 website.”

More details on census response trends will be published in the autumn, he added. 

The national statistician, who was responding to a written parliamentary question posed by Conservative peer Lord Lucas, said that “the ONS is currently undertaking the non-compliance process” for this year’s census, “including gathering evidence to be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, where appropriate”. 

“The main objective of this work is to persuade the few people who refuse to complete a questionnaire to do so,” he said. “As such, people can avoid the risk of a fine for non-completion at any stage by completing the census.”

Failure to complete the census can be prosecuted punished with a fine of up £1,000, plus court costs.

Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.

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