Kiss and tell: The 2011 census wants to know your sleeping partner

Survey already criticised for level of intrusion, with more questions than ever about citizens' domestic arrangements
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Here is some sound advice for anyone having an illicit love affair: if you do not want to be found out, do not arrange to sleep together on the night of March 27-28 2011.

That is the night when the Government is going to count the British population, creating a precise, comprehensive record of who was sleeping where, how old they were, what ethnic background they came from, and what kind of central heating kept them warm that night. The 2011 census is already being called a "snoopers' charter". It is certainly going to give everyone an incentive not to lay their head to rest in the wrong house, at least for that one night.

The Conservatives complained yesterday that the 32-page questionnaire is too long, too expensive, and likely to undermine public support for the exercise, especially since anyone who does not fill in the form risks a £1,000 fine. They will be sent out by post but it will be possible to fill them in online.

Census forms have grown longer and more complex with each new census, and next year's will set a new record for the level of detail it demands. Householders will be required for the first time to give the sex and date of birth of any visitor staying that night.

This will also be the first census with a question about same-sex civil partnerships. The question about a person's marital status has expanded from four possibilities – married, separated, divorced, or widowed – to eight. Householders will also be asked to state how many bedrooms are in their home, information that could affect the size of council tax bills, and whether its central heating is gas, electric, oil or solid fuel. Another new question is about second homes. Anyone who stays at a different address for more than 30 days a years will be required to specify the address. For MPs, that information is now public knowledge; others might wonder why the state needs to know.

There are new questions aimed at learning more about immigrants, ethnic minorities, and those with little command of English. There is a long question about ethnic grouping, another asks whether he or she holds a British passport. Those not born in the UK will be asked when they arrived here. Those here for less than six months will be asked how long they intend to stay. And anyone filling in the form whose first language is not English will be asked to categorise their command of English, from "very well" to "not at all".

"An increasingly invasive census will erode public support, cost more and result in a less accurate survey," the Tory shadow Cabinet Office minister Nick Hurd said yesterday. "Just because the Government has the legal powers to ask these questions does not give the state the licence to ask anything they want. These bedroom snoopers are yet another sign of how the Labour Government has no respect for the privacy of law-abiding citizens."

The Cabinet Office minister Angela Smith said: "The questions have been devised to produce reliable and accurate data. The Office for National Statistics has carried out extensive consultations and testing to ensure that the questions are justified."

The way we lived: How the census has evolved

*1801-1831 The first census, on 10 March 1801, was collected by parish, there were no household details.

*1841-1901 The census of 1841 was the first to record the full name, sex, age (rounded down to the nearest five, if aged over 15) and occupation of each person living in a household.

In 1851, questions were added about the relationship of each individual to the head of the house.

*1911-1931 In 1911, census saw the introduction of a question about the fertility of marriage – prompted by the concern about falling birth rates – and a distinction between occupation and industry. This innovation not only produced more accurate results, but allowed new theories about social class to develop. In 1921, people were asked about their education and their means of how they travel to work.

*1951-2001 War meant that no census was taken in 1941, but peacetime prompted another expansion. In 1951 questions regarding place of work, educational standards, and household amenities were introduced. Examples include questions about educational qualifications (1961); how many cars each household owns (1981); and an assessment of an individual's health (2001).