Failing to Complete the Census Return

Whether I’m writing biographies or just tracing my own family history, censuses have always played a major role in my research. It was through the 1891 and 1901 censuses that I discovered that my Irish great grandmother was not the respectable farmer’s wife I had always been told - but a single parent living in derelict property with three illegitimate children! The census told me who else was living in the house, how old they were, what their occupations were (her 13 year old daughter was a machine cleaner in the cotton mill), and where they were all born. It’s a gift for a historian.

So I approached the current 2011 census return in a positive frame of mind. It didn’t last long. My problems started with the questions on ethnicity and marital status. The ethnic origins page asks you to discriminate between being white British (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and white Irish, and white gypsy (I was very tempted to be creative here!). Then there are multiple categories of other ethnic groups - all of them having some kind of colour - and I found myself feeling quite squeamish about it. There’s no way of reflecting the reality of ethnic diversity here - no questions about parental origins that might have told interesting stories. The tick boxes also seem to conflict with the ‘national identity’ section, where you’re asked to specify what kind of Briton you think you are. Very confusing for someone whose national identity is probably British but whose ethnic origins are Irish/Italian/Scottish.

Then I turned to the page that asks you for your marital status. There are categories for Never Married/ Married/Separated/Divorced/Widowed and the five categories for being/not being/have been/ in same sex partnerships; but absolutely nothing to indicate that you’re living in a heterosexual partnership. As there are huge numbers of people doing just that, the results of the Census are going to give an incomplete picture.

In the end I found the form impossible to fill in. We have lodgers in the granny flat, who look after the Mill for us when we’re away. One of them is currently in India and the other has gone off to stay with his Aunty at an unknown (to me) location, though the census asks you to give the info even if they are not there on the night.  There's no way I could possibly know any of it.  Even if they had been here, I could not have asked them for the very personal information the census demanded of them because they probably wouldn’t have wanted to tell me any of it.

So my census return is a total lie and I will probably be arrested and fined for not filling it in properly. It doesn’t give the truth about who usually lives here and it doesn’t tell the truth about me - my marital status or my ethnic origins. What is the point?

The whole justification for spending the millions that it costs are that it’s supposed to give a picture of Britain which the government can use to plan for the future. But most of the information asked for is irrelevant for that purpose and the rest of it - my age, income, status, etc can all be found from other sources - electoral rolls,, Inland Revenue, and other public records. And, as the form is filled in by Oneself (they used to be filled in by a Responsible Person appointed by the government) there’s no way of checking whether any of the info is correct. It seems to me a great waste of money and a terrible lost opportunity for a snapshot of a moment in time in history.


  1. Kathleen I sympathise as I suffer from extreme form-phobia myself - if none of the offered answers suit how can I be truthful? I have tried to learn to be sensible and 'give them what they want' - but even that is often a wild guess. The first time I encountered questions about race, I was living in Malaysia and was deeply affronted. Here in exile land, everybody is treated differently in a bizarre hierarchy of colour, religion and nationality: I went to make an appointment for a bone density scan this morning to find the referral form also required skin colour!

    In my former professional life the census provided extremely useful information on journey to work and mode of travel and never asked about racial background.

  2. Your phobia of forms and their complete inability to be in any way sensible and transparent - is shared by many. It's even worse when the form is as dreadful as the one you had to put up with - hopefully when the NZ census finally comes round our lot will do better.

  3. I have had a fair bit of respect for the Oz census until recently.
    But the ABS just 'reduced' homelessness by half simply by using a different estimate.
    At the same time the number of people using my service has gone up 105% in the past 18 months.

  4. Thank you for the sympathy over 'formphobia'. I think it has its roots in feeling that your privacy has been invaded. And the 'one form fit all' format is always going to get the hackles up!
    Like you Al, I am suspicious that the Qs are skewed to produce the results they want. There's a government stealth campaign at the moment against co-habiting heterosexuals and the omission of a tick box for them is significant I think. They're about to introduce different (more beneficial) taxation for married couples - at the moment we're all taxed the same as individuals. No pressure?

  5. K
    I too have used the historical censuses (censae?) and found them illuminating, inspiring and informative. And to a possible degree truthful as the census was confirmed by the government's 'responsible person'. Who is to know what is out down today is true or real?

    These ungainly documents are an ugly celebration of number-ridden impersonality of modern society where only quantifiable facts are deemed worhtwhile - what nonsense ...

  6. I totally agree WEndy. Lovely to see you for lunch the other day!

  7. I can't recall having problems with the New Zealand census, but we have a fairly conventional household Mum Dad and whatever adult children are finding it cheaper to live at home at the time. Although last time we did have an American visitor. She got to fill out her own form though, we didn't have to ask her for any particularly private information for the household form.
    We were supposed to have a census on March 8th but they cancelled it, so many Christchurch people were scattered around the country that the information would have been useless for planning purposes. So presumably we wait another five years for the next one.


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