Traditional British reserve about matters financial and sexual will be tested by a list of questions aimed at giving civil servants and others a comprehensive picture of the nation's citizens. For the first time, homosexual couples who live together will be able to identify themselves as partners.
In what the Government says is an attempt to identify the poorest in society, the Census White Paper suggests that unprecedented questions on income are also likely to be included. A census rehearsal to be staged next month asks respondents to place themselves in one of six annual income bands, ranging from under pounds 3,500 to more than pounds 25,000.
If the public responds well to the pilot scheme, the question will be part of the full survey in two years' time, pending approval from ministers.
A new section on religion will back up the 1991 Census's question on ethnic background, bringing England and Wales into line with Northern Ireland. The 32 million forms due to go out in 2001 will offer a choice of "Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Islam/Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, none or other".
To allow a more detailed picture of ethnic make-up, categories will be greatly expanded to include "Irish", "Mixed", "Asian British" and "Black British". Asian people will be able to specify if they are Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani.
The maximum penalty for failure to complete a census form is pounds 1,000 and all householders are legally required to fill it in honestly.
A spokesman for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) stressed that although names and addresses were required, they would be locked up for 100 years in accordance with census rules. "The Census is extremely confidential and privacy is paramount. The names will not be revealed, we want to make that very clear."
Martin Walker, of gay rights group Stonewall, welcomed the inclusion of same-sex information as a step forward for society. "We have been fighting for years for homosexual relationships to be recognised because we are fed up when forms just offer the choice of marriage or heterosexual couples," he said.
Other new questions include one on general health and long-term illness, qualifications, hours a week spent working and means of travel to work. Respondents will also be asked to say whether they provide unpaid help for a friend or relative with a long-term health problem.
"We are not about placing undue burdens on the public, but there is a definite need for more detailed information for central and local government, the health service, businesses and the professions," the ONS spokesman said.
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