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Ticked Off

Census to include Traveller tick box for first time in history

The next census, in March 2011, will be of great historical importance for Traveller communities in England and Wales. For the first time, the census questionnaire will allow people to mark their ethnic identity as a Gypsy or Traveller.

About the census

The census - a count of households and people – has taken place every ten years since 1801 (apart from 1941, when it didn’t happen because of the war).

One of the reasons it is carried out is to help public sector organisations understand what support and services people need. The results are used, for example, to help plan school places, housing, health facilities, public transport and emergency services.

When the next census takes place on Sunday 27 March 2011, every household will get a questionnaire asking for straightforward information about the people who live there.

Taking part in the census is compulsory: the few who fail to take part could be fined up to £1,000.

Traveller inclusion

The inclusion of a new tick box for people who want to record their identity as ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ has come after requests from Travellers and support groups.

While many would say this inclusion is long overdue, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which organises the census, points out that space for new categories on the questionnaire is strictly limited. Of the 20 or so groups which were considered for separate recognition in the 2011 census, only Travellers and Arabs were added to the list.

Those who called for the inclusion of Travellers strongly believe that identifying people in this way is vital for the needs and problems facing the community to be properly understood and addressed.

According to Eileen Lowther, an Irish Traveller from Leeds: “The only way we can argue for better services is to make sure they can see and hear us. The best way to do that is to tick the Gypsy/Traveller box in the census in March 2011.”

Mrs Lowther continues: “We carried out our own small ‘census’ of 1,071 Travellers in Leeds and found out that our life expectancy, on average, is only 50 years. It was a bad shock but at least now the local health people are giving us the attention we weren’t getting before.”

The Office for National Statistics agrees. Helen Bray at ONS explains: “The census is used for planning. It’s hard to plan services for Gypsies and Travellers - like schools, accommodation and support - if no-one knows how many people belong to this community. When we asked all of the organisations that use census data which groups they needed more information about, Gypsies and Travellers came near the top of the list. We really need Travellers to fill in their census questionnaires.”


Naturally, some people may feel worried about providing personal information to the ONS. But information that could identify individuals will not be released for a great many years to come. Only the overall numbers to show the needs in particular areas or communities are passed to other government bodies.

Helen Bray says: “We promise to keep your personal information safe and confidential and we have systems and processes in place to make sure that we keep that promise.”

Support available

People can complete the census questionnaire in paper form, or online via For those living on Traveller sites, questionnaires will be hand-delivered and collected.

A telephone helpline and other support are available for people who may need help or have language, literacy or other difficulties.

Historical record

The team organising the census strongly hopes that Gypsies and Travellers will not only complete the census for their families, but be proud to tick the box that marks their ethnic identity.

This will mean the number of Gypsies and Travellers will be fully recognised for the first time, so the government can plan fair services for the community.

Ticking the Gypsy/Traveller box will also mean that future generations will be able to use census information - not only to look at their own family backgrounds, but to see a clear historical record of Gypsies and Travellers in England and Wales.

For more information, people can visit


This year's GRTHM Magazine features more on the 2011 census and the reasons why Gypsies, Roma and Travellers should stand up and be counted.

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2009 GRTHM Magazine

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