Page last updated at 18:47 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Census to ask about citizenship

People in central London
The UK's population is currently measured using the census

People are to be asked questions about their citizenship, national identity and mastery of English for the first time as part of the national census.

Ministers have said they plan to hold the next 10-yearly survey of the British population on 27 March 2011.

In an effort to get more comprehensive information on immigration, people will also be asked when they entered the UK and their intended length of stay.

Most forms will be posted while people will be able to fill them out online.

Reliable information

The UK Statistics Authority, which is responsible for the census for the first time, believes this will improve response levels after criticism of how the 2001 survey was carried out.

Critics claim the census is no longer up to the job of providing reliable data on which to base important public spending decisions.

Publishing proposed details of the 2011 census for England and Wales - the final form of which must be approved by MPs - ministers said the UK continued to rely on the census for information to "underpin national and local decision making".

Income levels
E-mail address
Sexual identity
Immigration status
Number of current jobs
Pets owned

The list of intended new questions reflects an increased focus on obtaining accurate information about residency plans and population movements at a time when the government is keen to show that it has control over immigration.

For the first time, people will be asked to state their citizenship, national identity and the date when they first entered the UK.

Respondents will also be asked what their "main" language is and whether they speak English very well, well, not well or not at all.

Other changes will require people to say whether they are in a civil partnership and to give details of second residences if they have any.

Instead of past questions about the number of bathrooms in their homes, people will be asked about their type of central heating.

In the past, the Conservatives have expressed concerns about the prevalence of "increasingly intrusive questions".

The Statistics Authority said the questions were chosen subject to key criteria: such as whether they addressed issues of major national importance, could the information be obtained elsewhere and were they likely to adversely affect the number of people replying.

It also stressed that "stringent procedures" would be in place to ensure the information gathered remained confidential.

More than 95% of forms will be posted out but the remaining 5% will be hand-delivered.

Getting access

This was necessary, officials said, because a combination of changing working patterns, the growing number of migrants, an increase in gated housing developments and a "less compliant society" meant that it was "increasingly difficult" to contact households.

Every household is legally obliged to give details of who is living in their house on the day of the survey.

Those refusing to take part face being prosecuted or fined.

More than 30,000 staff will conduct the survey, which will cost an estimated 482m.

Earlier this year, a think tank called for the census to be scrapped, saying it was too costly to administer and was effectively obsolete the moment it was published.

The New Local Government Network said the last census had miscalculated the population of towns such as Slough, which indicated the number of people living there was decreasing at a time of significant immigration.

Councils have long argued they are not getting enough funding because official population estimates are wrong.

Instead, the think tank is proposing a "local head count" of the population based on GP surgeries, school places, electoral registers and tax records.

In May, MPs on the Treasury select committee said the 2011 census should be the last in its current form.

The census has been conducted every 10 years since 1801 with the exception of 1941.

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